Brian Klug - Robert Wistrich

When Is Opposition to Israel and Its Policies Anti-Semitic?

What kind of role does anti-Semitism play in the Middle East Conflict? At what point does opposition to Israel turn into anti-Semitism? These issues are discussed by Brian Klug, British philosopher and journalist, and Robert Wistrich, director of the International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem

Dear Robert,

Brian Klug
Brian Klug

​​Last night I saw a one-man performance based on "If This is a Man", Primo Levi's haunting account of his experience of Auschwitz. It was like listening to a ghost from the "house of the dead" (his words). Today, writing this letter, I am filled with melancholy. When the State of Israel came into existence, rising out of the ashes of the Shoah, hope was in the air.

The new state offered survivors a haven. Furthermore, Zionism held out a promise for Jews everywhere: normalization and "an end to anti-Semitism" (Theodor Herzl). Yet, far from ending it, Israel is now the focus of what some people call a new anti-Semitism. In my view, anti-Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. But there is lack of clarity about how and when anti-Semitism enters the picture. This leaves many people of goodwill confused. They are often uncertain whether they are being anti-Semitic when they criticize Israel or oppose its policies or question Zionism. How have we reached this point?

A major cause of confusion, as I see it, is that there are three different levels of hostility, and in practice they overlap. At one level, Israel's policies and actions provoke anger at the Israeli state as well as the Jewish people. I am thinking, in particular, of preferential treatment for Jewish citizens, the oppressive occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the expansion of Jewish settlements.

More profoundly, the hope of normalization was delusive. For Zionism was crucially ambiguous. On the one hand, it saw itself as a national movement for self-determination on behalf of a persecuted people. On the other hand, it was seen in the region as part of a European push into the Arab and Muslim heartland.

Seen from one side, Zionism meant liberation from Europe. Seen from the other side, the Jews who came as settlers were Europeans by any other name. In other words, Israel is resented as an interloper and an outpost of the West, at odds with the rest of the region. Viewing Israel this way is, to say the least, simplistic. But this attitude is not anti-Semitic; it is anti-Western.

The third level of hostility is anti-Jewish prejudice, some of it intense. We should not under-estimate this. But when does opposition to Israel cross the line into anti-Semitism? Perhaps we can explore this vexed question in our next round of letters.


Brian Klug

Brian Klug is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet's Hall, Oxford University, and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Saint Xavier University, Chicago. He is Associate Editor of the journal Patterns of Prejudice, published by Routledge in association with the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton and is a founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights (UK). In November 2004 Klug gave an expert testimony at the Hearing on Anti-Semitism at the German Bundestag.

Dear Brian,

Robert Wistrich (photo: private)
Robert Wistrich

​​I think we can agree that not all criticism of Israeli government policies and behaviour expresses anti-Jewish hostility. But where to draw the line? My own litmus-test would be to see whether the "critic" of Zionism wishes to dismantle the Jewish State, without issuing a similar call for the disappearance of all other states in the Middle East and beyond. I would also check whether our critic engages in the systematic defamation or demonization of Israel.

Does he or she rely on classic anti-Semitic stereotypes in so doing: for example, by dredging up the alleged Jewish/Zionist "conspiracy" to dominate the world, or by evoking Jewish/Israeli "warmongers" who supposedly run American foreign policy; or through referring to an all-powerful "Jewish Lobby" that prevents justice in the Middle East. If the "anti-Zionist" critic holds Jews to be responsible for the chaos and troubles that currently afflict the world, he is surely an antisemite. If he criminalizes Israeli behaviour, by gratuitously branding it as "Nazi" or intrinsically "racist", then we are talking anti-Semitism. No doubt there are other criteria that will emerge in the course of our exchange.

Let me, however, question an important assumption in your letter which troubles me. Is Israel really an "interloper" or outpost of the West in the Middle East? You admit this is simplistic without saying why. This is what I believe. Jews returning to the Land of Israel are not like European settlers to other continents. They are an aboriginal people returning to their historic homeland and source of national identity.

The spiritual and physical connection of Jews with Zion has been continuous, preceding by centuries the emergence of Muslim conquerors from the Arabian deserts. Not only that, but over half the Israeli population is not "European" at all. It was uprooted from the Arab Middle East by exclusivist pan-Arabism, Islamic fanaticism, and the pressures of decolonization.

Yet sixty years ago, there were more than a million Jews in Arab lands. Their exodus says it all. Israel integrated them, providing a haven, pride, dignity and freedom as it did for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, were left to rot in UN refugee camps by their Arab brethren, fed with revanchist delusions about their inalienable "right of return" to Israel. If the Middle East tragedy is to be resolved, it is these camps – the seedbed of terrorism and an entire culture of hatred – which have to be dismantled and not the thriving Jewish state.


Robert Wistrich

Professor Robert S. Wistrich is Neuberger professor of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. His most recent books include Demonizing the Other: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Xenophobia (Amsterdam: Taylor & Francis, 1999) and Hitler and the Holocaust (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

Dear Robert,

Let me explain why I said it is "simplistic" to regard Israel as an "interloper" or "an outpost of the West" in the Middle East. My point was that this view of Israel is one-sided: it is how the Jewish state has looked through Arab eyes. Equally, the view that Jews are "an aboriginal people returning to their historic homeland" is one-sided: this is a Jewish point of view. (More precisely, it is one version of the Zionist point of view.) In other words, both sides tend to oversimplify. Unless both sides grasp that there is this 'clash of perceptions', attitudes will never change fundamentally.

Both sides also give partisan accounts. You say that the exodus of Jews from Arab lands "says it all", and you excoriate the Arab states for the plight of the Palestinians. But there is an alternative narrative that blames Israel or Zionism on both counts. I can imagine someone from
'the other side' agreeing that the Jewish exodus "says it all" – but meaning the opposite of what you mean.

In short, both sides play the 'blame game'. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. Where there is a conflict of interests between nations, each party is entitled to advocate their own cause. But someone can be an advocate without being a racist or anti-Semite.

Which brings us back to the question: When is opposition to Israel or its government anti-Semitic? You suggest several ways of 'drawing the line'. Certainly, critics often single Israel out unfairly, or defame the state, or criminalize it, and so on. All of which undoubtedly is biased. But is it necessarily anti-Semitic? No, it is not. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragic and bitter struggle. The issues are complex, passions inflamed, and the suffering in both populations is great. In such circumstances, there is bias on both sides.

Then when is this bias anti-Semitic? I agree with what you say about "classic anti-semitic stereotypes" and I would sum it up this way. Seen through the eyes of an anti-semite, Jews are essentially alien, powerful, cohesive, cunning, parasitic, and so on. Opposition to Israel or its government is anti-Semitic when it employs some variation or other of this fantasy – just as criticism of Arabs is racist when it is based on the stock figure of the Arab as cunning, lying and degenerate, or as a hateful terrorist who attaches no value to human life.

Now, what can be done to take bigotry – specifically anti-Semitism – out of the Middle East debate? Perhaps this can be the theme of our final round of letters.


Brian Klug

Dear Brian,

The history of anti-Semitism teaches us, in my view, that there is a continuum of prejudice leading from social discrimination against Jews to ghettoization and the more violent forms of antagonism culminating in the Holocaust. Thus we should be careful not to treat the systematic vilification of the State of Israel too indulgently as mere bias. Such a radical negation often presents Zionism as a corrupting or "alien" influence in the Middle East; as a racist, fascist or even "Nazified" ideology. In most cases, such anti-Zionism builds, therefore, on a pejorative view of Judaism, Jewry and Jewish collective existence.

Whatever its source, it is unmistakably influenced by the anti-Semitic categories of thought you mentioned – which see the Jews as cruel, duplicitous, and conspiratorial by nature. Islamist movements from Hamas and Hizbollah to Al-Qaida all view the Palestine issue through the prism of such anti-Semitic conspiratorial theories in which "Crusaders" and "Zionists" deliberately seek to conquer, enslave and humiliate Muslims.

The Jihadist world-view involves eradicating Israel as part of the global battle between Islam and "unbelief"; there can be no peace with the Jews, only war and Jihad. No wonder such anti-Zionism draws on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, suitably Islamicized for the holy war against the Jews. This category of anti-Zionist anti-Semitism has unfortunately infected many Palestinians – and some of their supporters in the West.

It feeds off the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict to which you allude but it is also nourished by the pervasive cult of hatred and martyrdom in the Muslim world. Anti-Semitism, I would suggest to you, has become the opium of the Arab masses and hence it will be difficult to roll back. It is, after all, so convenient for Arab rulers to channel the discontent and rage of their own populations against Israel, America and the Jews.

Moreover, in the absence of free debate in the Arab world, of a reformation within Islam and the empowerment of women, militant Islam will continue to fill the political void. Still, there are some things that can be done. Current levels of anti-Jewish incitement in the PA and Arab States must be reduced; Europe should take a more active stand against Muslim anti-Semitism, in the Middle East and on its own soil. Israel, too, could show more sensitivity to the Palestinian grievances – difficult though this is in the middle of the current disengagement from the Gaza strip.


Robert Wistrich

Dear Robert,

The history of conflict teaches us, in my view, something fundamental about the subject of our debate. When two peoples are at odds with each other, both sides tend to develop a hostile mindset, vilifying the other and exonerating themselves. And while both draw on negative stereotypes of the other, neither side recognizes its own bigotry.

But you write as if only one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the Arab side – has a hostile mindset. I share your concern about a world-view that involves eradicating Israel as part of a global battle between Islam and the infidel. And I am appalled by groups that draw on classical anti-Semitism. But what about the world-view on the other side: the one that sees the Intifada as part of a global war against the Jews? Or racist and Islamophobic images of Palestinians?

Furthermore, you generalize about entire populations. You refer to a "pervasive cult of hatred and martyrdom in the Muslim world" and you say that anti-Semitism has become "the opium of the Arab masses". You also depict "militant Islam" as if it were an inherently anti-Semitic force that "will continue to fill the political void". These phrases conjure up an Arab and Muslim world seething with anti-Jewish bigotry.

The truth of the matter, I suggest, is different. On the one hand, fanaticism and bigotry exist on both sides. On the other hand, the vast majority of ordinary Jews and Muslims are more interested in getting on with their lives than with becoming either martyrs or heroes in a religious or national war.

Yes, there has been "a continuum of prejudice" against Jews in the history of anti-Semitism. But this is a European, not Middle Eastern, history. Because of prejudice, Jews in Europe were perceived as a sinister, powerful group. In reality, most Jews (like my own ancestors) were marginalized and persecuted.

Zionism saw itself precisely as a political movement to empower the powerless. And it succeeded: Israel today is a major power in the region. When people react against the Jewish state because of the way it exercises its power, especially in the Occupied Territories, or because of its ties to the mighty United States: this is not prejudice. It is not anti-Semitism. And if we say it is when it isn't, we devalue the word, undermine our own credibility, and alienate people of goodwill.

To the latter we should say: "Treat Israel like any other state, and Zionism like any other political movement. Criticize or oppose them on moral, political or religious grounds. But remember anti-Semitism: avoid evoking, however inadvertently, the negative stereotype of the Jew." To the Muslim and Arab worlds we might add: "Every time you draw on anti-Semitism, you fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – by reinforcing the anger and fear that many Jews, inside and outside Israel, understandably feel."

However, unless we speak out even-handedly against the bigotry that exists on both sides - not only anti-Semitism but also Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism - our voice will not be heard.


Brian Klug

Dear Brian,

As I write these lines, Britain's Association of University Teachers (AUT) has formally decided to boycott a number of Israeli universities.* They have taken no similar action against human rights violations elsewhere in the world; there is, for example, no boycott of Russian academics for the Chechen atrocities, of China for its occupation of Tibet, of Saudi Arabian universities for gender apartheid or Palestinian campuses for glorifying jihadi terrorism.

Only Israel's pluralist universities are singled out for discriminatory treatment. By your criteria, such double standards and hypocrisy are merely an expression of bias – which (according to you) exists on both sides. I disagree. Any decision to boycott Israel is inexplicable without taking anti-Semitism into account. Your position, far from being "objective," radically underestimates the cumulative effects of the liberal-left delegitimisation of Zionism. What we have seen in recent years is indeed a new form of anti-Semitism operating under a humanist façade which (falsely) pillories Israel and Jews as being inherently "racist."

Not only that, but your response also ignores the undeniable mainstream character of Muslim Jew-hatred in the Middle East and the degree to which it has already poisoned the debate in Europe. Contrary to what you imply, anti-Jewish hatred is no longer primarily driven by classical European, Christian or racist motives.

It is Islamists who set the tone with their demonization of America, Israel and the Jews, while the media, the academic, artistic, religious and political elites in the European Union meekly follow suit. Hence, your call for a joint struggle against "Islamophobia" and anti-Semitism seems strangely out of touch with reality. Moreover, denying the specificity of diverse forms of bigotry does no service to the anti-racist cause; it also ignores the fact that Muslim Arabs are the main perpetrators of anti-Jewish attacks in the EU today.

What is also missing in your letter is any serious reckoning with the implications of the fixation on Israel as the prime cause of violence and terrorism in the world – an obsession uncannily reminiscent of the fantasies underlying classical anti-Semitism. The contemporary Islamist and leftist mind-set holds Israel responsible for Arab backwardness and decadence, just as Europe traditionally projected the guilt for its own unresolved crises on the Jewish "other."

Let me conclude with the following thought. I do not believe that the "normalization" of Israel or the Jewish people is either possible or even desirable. Such "solutions" to anti-Semitism have already been tried and failed. However, once the Arab world understands that ignorance and lack of freedom, not Israel, is its main enemy, then peace will indeed be possible.


Robert Wistrich


© 2005

The letter-debate was initiated by Monika Jung-Mounib.

* The boycott of the Association of University Teachers has meanwhile been discontinued. (ed. remark)

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