Western democracies are undergoing a massive political shift in their understanding of “antisemitism.” This will impact generations of future citizens. The changes leave much of the future political landscape unpredictable.
For the last 50 years, one thing nobody wanted to be called was “antisemitic.” The term separates “anti-Jewish prejudice” or “anti-Jewish racism” apart from other kinds of prejudice and racism.
Part of this was because of the Holocaust. This massive atrocity has been cast as uniquely Jewish despite other groups dying in concentration camps and despite the overwhelming death toll of World War II in general.
Because of everyone’s overwhelming fear of being called antisemitic, the modern state of Israel has managed to enforce a silence in Western states. Though many Jews disagree with Israel’s conduct and most Israel supporters are arguably Christian Zionists, there has long been a fear of saying anything negative about Israel lest people accuse you (as will often happen) of hating Jews in general.
Israel’s conflict has dragged many people into a discussion they’d rather skip
A little over 100 days ago, the terrorist attack against civilians in Israel changed the landscape greatly. The world sympathized greatly with Israel for about 48 hours, and then a steady stream of hate-filled and ethnocentric propaganda erupted in pro-Israel circles, followed by an unhinged and disproportionate killing campaign that exposes a genocidal or ethnic-cleansing agenda far predating the attacks of October 7. People who have normally avoided criticizing Israel at all costs now find themselves in a position where they have to address the United States’ entanglement with Israel, and there is no way to be honest without including criticism of the modern Israeli state.
The two USA political parties have decided to double-down on a “see no evil” position and refuse to take exception to anything Israel does. Votes in Congress went by enormous margins to affirm the U.S. support both diplomatic and financial for Israel. When Congress stalled, President Biden went around Congress and signed special orders allowing the USA to provide lethal weaponry to Israel and bomb sites in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen with USA planes as backup for Israel. The votes then stretched into domestic affairs and clashed with constitutional rights to free speech. In a series of votes Congress declared that opposition to Zionism was antisemitism and that colleges should move to penalize antisemitic speech (which includes, apparently, criticism of Zionism). One resolution passed in Congress naming a private citizen — Claudine Gay, president of Harvard — and demanding she vacate her job because Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) did not like the way Gay responded to a series of trick questions that would not have been allowed in a real court with due process.
To sacrifice constitutional freedoms, precious resources and possibly American military lives, it is fair to ask if Israel’s cause is really worth it. From Tucker Carlson to Cornel West, many pundits say no.
And now it is okay to say no.
Pro-Israel spokespeople point to the horrors they suffered on October 7 as a mic drop, to end debate. Such trump cards until now have never been broadly challenged. But anybody who says Israel has done nothing wrong ever is simply not being objective or has no universal standard of morality. As one small example, it was not militarily necessary to parade Palestinian captives stripped down to their underwear in public. The lack of discipline that resulted in this display being filmed and distributed on X provides a good litmus test. Are you able to see that and say that was wrong, regardless of whether you support or oppose Israel in the war? If you fear that criticizing ritualized sadism and humiliation might look like antisemitism, then you may be unfairly assuming that there is something Jewish about clearly cruel and immoral conduct.
The criticism is necessarily profound and existential. Modern Israel cannot continue with its policy of maintaining a “Jewish state” with a safeguarded Jewish majority without finding some way to rid occupied territories of five million Palestinians. Given Israel’s strenuous reaction to being accused of genocide by South Africa and 50 other nations at the Hague, Israel wants not to be admonished. Their wish list goes like this:
First, Israel wants to have one Jewish state that speaks for Jews everywhere in the world, and they want it to be in the Holy Land. Israel insists that the state must be Jewish and that Jewish people anywhere in the world, even if they are citizens of other states, must be entitled to settle there.
Second, Israel wants the honor of being called a Western democracy, but it does not want the non-Jewish population to inch higher than around 20%, because this would jeopardize Jewish voters’ commanding leadership in the government. Israeli officials have said that democratic rights do not include any enfranchisement that would imperil a large Jewish majority.
Third, Israel does not want to share the land it currently occupies but wants Israeli residents to feel safe from harm. In fact they want nobody who thinks that the current arrangement is wrong to be within striking distance of Israelis, lest their anger lead to an attack.
Fourth, Israel does not want to be accused of genocide, settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, or ethnonationalism even though the only way to have points 1–3 above is to engage in some combination of these now reviled political systems associated with the more tragic eras of Western civilization.
Fifth, the most dangerous trope used against Jews is the concept of “dual loyalty,” which refers to the stereotype that Jewish people are never fully loyal to the nation-state in which they live (unless they live in Israel) because their greatest allegiance is to the global Jewish community. The view that Jews are subversive or undermining led to a long list of expulsions, pogroms, and ghettoization that would take too long to list here. Israel does not want any of its dual citizens to be characterized as subverting other nations to help Israel.
Sixth, nevertheless Israel insists that people must treat its history since the Balfour Declaration (1917) as beyond reproach. This means that people must accept that Israel used influence over foreign powers such as England, France, and the United Nations, to gain control of land in deals to which a large number of Arab residents never consented. The resulting and seemingly endless cycle of violence is cited by Israel as evidence that the Palestinians do not want peace. In the logic of contracts, this cycle also proves that the Palestinians never agreed to the current arrangement. This is the equivalent of being brought to court by someone who claims you agreed to pay a debt. If you started paying the debt and then stopped that would prove your guilt whereas if you never made any payments it shows you never agreed in the first place. Nothing the Palestinian majority has ever done indicates that they wanted a Jewish state to be founded to which they would be denied full citizenship. If the founding in 1947–8 was illegitimate then unfortunately people cannot always back up the saying “Israel has a right to exist” because saying that negates other people’s rights.
Despite widespread efforts to cast any criticism of Israel as “pro-Hamas,” there are in fact many ways to acknowledge that the October 7 terrorist attack was an atrocity while also concluding that there is no realistic way for these six Israeli expectations to be met simultaneously.
As people are able to criticize Israel openly for the first time, we will see fallout and friction. Pro-Israel advocates feel betrayed while critics feel resentful for being stifled so long. Forcing citizens to say that Israel is entirely in the right seems worse than forcing citizens with traditional values to say a man can give birth. It never ends well if you force people to say things they do not believe.
The sudden shift in discourse will probably force us to retire many terms. “Judeo-Christian” thought does not really exist. Zionist thinking is not Christian at all, which contributes to our current impasse. Israel wants to position itself as a part of the West but the West sprang from Christianity’s universalist concept of human value. Zionism is not based in the universal value of human life, but rather in the preciousness of Jewish life against constant external threats. Hence it makes sense to Israelis when they say that 30 Jewish children are worth more than 3,000 Palestinian children. Many Westerners cannot reconcile their consciences to such talk, especially after 80 years of grieving the fruit of Nazi eugenics.
Christianity has an entirely different approach to human life since the New Testament emphasizes that every tribe, language, and nation could be in covenant with God and be saved from eternal death; this concept is irreconcilable with Jews’ claim to be the chosen people. The American and French Revolutions, however rooted in the Enlightenment, continued this universalism with the basic notion of universal human rights.It is now almost impossible in Western thought to justify a “Jewish state” that applies different standards of right and wrong to Jews and non-Jews. The exceptionalism and refusal of moral equivalency in Israel stems from the idea of being a chosen people which is why so much footage surfaces of Israeli officials describing Palestinians as unredeemable animals, barbarians, and savages, whose children can be killed without any fault falling upon Israel.
The notion that “the right to exist” means the right to have a Jewish state with a mandatory limit on the percentage of non-Jewish voters cannot persist unless the West wishes to dismantle its model of liberal democracy for a Judaic philosophy that only applies to Jews. Innumerable people, like the Cajuns, Puerto Ricans, Basques, Kurds, Picards, Bedouins, Scots, Welsh, Catalonians, and so many more do not have a nation-state with a powerful military enforcing their ethnic majority. History has shown that migrations are too messy and such dreams always turn to ethnic cleansing and genocide. See the Balkans as a case study.
Increasingly defenses of Israel require that Israel be entitled to indulgences other states do not have.
The United States annexed land from Mexico and eventually made residents on those lands citizens. This can be contrasted against Israel’s continuing control of land whose inhabitants the Israelis refuse to enfranchise. The United States fought a Civil War and endured a painful Reconstruction period during which the two sides who had sought to kill each other had to learn to live with each other. Black Americans have to continue living in a country populated largely by people whose ancestors once justified enslaving them. All of this contrasts starkly against Israelis’ conviction that they could never survive in a one-state solution with equal rights for Palestinians in the occupied territories.
A death toll of 1,200 is tragic, of course, but it is dwarfed not only by how many Palestinians Israel has killed in the months since–it is also eclipsed by death tolls of conflicts that other countries have had to overcome without engaging in retribution against massive numbers of their enemies’ children. Six hundred thousand Americans died in the Civil War but no sizable camp of people would have rationalized the knowing murder of mass numbers of children on the opposing side.
The honeymoon is over
The firing of Claudine Gay brought out the changes to our country’s sense of acceptable speech. It will continue to feel like a bumpy ride as “antisemitism” loses its terrifying mystery and becomes just another political term thrown around in arguments for lack of a real position. My prediction is that Israel will have to lose its favored nation status and Americans will have to hold on to their foundational principles of free speech and equality before the law. I never felt at liberty to say so, but I never felt supportive of the modern state of Israel and it will be good for America for people like me to speak honestly. Jewish people who see Israel as “their” issue will have to adapt to life without the insulation that the fear of antisemitism once gave them.