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Celebrating Israeli Independence and Combating Modern Antisemitism

avatar by Mark Goldfeder

Opinion

A man waves an Israeli flag as he protests against the Israeli government as parliament resumes discussions to finalise legislation restricting demonstrations during the nation-wide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in Ein Hemed, near Jerusalem September 29, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

As we celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, it is worth reflecting on the connection between the Jewish people and their state; why anti-Zionism can sometimes function as a thinly veiled form of antisemitism; and why the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism provides an excellent tool to demarcate the difference between political discussion and discriminatory hatred.

Zionism is the movement for the re-establishment — and today, for the development and protection — of a Jewish nation in its ancestral homeland. Zionism is not just a political movement; for the vast majority of Jewish people across time and space, Zionism is and always has been an integral part of their Jewish, often their religious, identities. Zionism and Judaism are indelibly intertwined, for the better, and sadly (when bad actors are involved,) also for the worse.

As the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”tl noted, antisemitism often looks at Jews as a collective — the idea being that while individual Jews might be tolerable, Jews as a separate collective identity should not be allowed to exist with the same rights as other groups. That is why the majority of antisemitism in any given era tends to focus on the primary form of collective Jewish identity at that point in history.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were for the most part a religious community, and so they were hated for their religion. As many Jews became secularized in the 19th and 20th centuries, the primary unifying collective identity of the Jewish people was their ethnicity, and so the hatred mutated to focus on race. Today, when the primary collective embodiment of Jewish people on the world stage is the people of Israel in their national homeland, Jews around the world are hated and held accountable for “their” state. It is a new focus, but not a new form, of antisemitism.

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Sometimes the “new” antisemitism is easy to spot. All too often when people are complaining about Israel, it is obvious that their “anti-Zionist” rhetoric is really merely code for “anti-Jewish.”

This happens, for example, when people use classic antisemitic images and stereotypes to discuss Israel, the “collective Jew among the nations,” as a proxy for how antisemites historically would talk about Jewish individuals. It can include accusations of Jewish conspiracies, blood libels, and the portrayal of Jews (usually caricatures of religious Jews) as demonic and evil.

Of course, Israel is not perfect, and it is absolutely fine to criticize the country and her leaders. But when “criticism” of Israel is done in a discriminatory manner, i.e., when the world’s only Jewish state is singled out for disparate treatment, not for what it does but simply for what it is, that is antisemitism.

At other times, the antisemitism involved in anti-Zionism might not be as obvious to a casual observer. That is exactly why there needs to be an objective definition of the phenomena, and that is also why antisemites do not like the IHRA definition — because it takes away their freedom to push past that line and feign ignorance.

As the IHRA definition explains, denying world history to claim that the Jews are not indigenous to Israel; denying (only) the Jewish people their right to self-determination; calling for the elimination of the world’s only Jewish state; and implicitly or explicitly advocating for the ethnic cleansing of the region, and/or the genocidal extermination of the millions of Jewish people who live there, are all common examples of contemporary manifestations of antisemitism — even without a plainly obvious resort to classic tropes.

Per the European Commission’s Practical Handbook for the IHRA definition, “Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination and a national homeland is antisemitic because it denies the religious and historic ties of Jews to the land of Israel.”

That is a particularly important lesson for everyone, Jewish people included, to remember as we once again celebrate Israel’s independence.

Israel’s legitimacy is not rooted in the beneficence of others; the Jewish people’s rightful claims to the land predate the United Nations, and precede the horrors of the Holocaust. While we joyfully celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as the day that the world recognized those claims, no one gave Israel to the Jews, and no one has the right to take her away.

Israel’s modern re-birthday is an important time to celebrate her overwhelming accomplishments. As the only democracy in the Middle East that protects the rights of all peoples and all religions, Israel has a tremendous amount for the world to learn about the dignity of difference, the power of coexistence, and the strength that comes from tolerance. But coming as it does directly on the heels of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for all those heroes who have fallen to defend the country, it is also an important time to reaffirm the unequivocal truth — that Israelis have the right to be a sovereign people in their own land and to sustain an existence that is free from the threats of violence, force, or coercion.

Last year marked an unprecedented stride forward in terms of the greater Arab world’s recognition of this axiomatic principle. The signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain celebrated the normalization of relations between Israel and those countries, complete with treaties of cooperation, plans for collaboration, and the genuine hope for true peace. May this be the year in which that hope is fulfilled, and Israel’s unapologetic need for guaranteed national security, alongside her undeterred optimism for an everlasting peace with all her neighbors, are both finally fully realized.

Rabbi Dr. Mark Goldfeder Esq. is a publishing Contributor at the MirYam Institute. He is also the director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center. Mark has served as the founding Editor of the Cambridge University Press Series on Law and Judaism, is a Trustee of the Center for Israel Education, and as an adviser to the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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