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Is Criticism of Israel Always Antisemitic?

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

No. Of course not. Many Jews today, both in and out of Israel, are extremely and outspokenly critical of Israel, particularly the Netanyahu government. There are good reasons for such criticism, which most informed Jews will acknowledge. And yet Jews are often accused of dismissing any criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

Why is this a recurring issue, especially now? Israel’s critics have become increasingly vocal, and their language has become more extreme, often crossing the line into antisemitism. Accusing Jews of abusing the antisemitism charge has become an effective way of blunting criticism of antisemitism even when it does exist. Here is just one example, from Sabeeha Rehman, a gifted and increasingly popular Muslim writer:

There is also a perception that the term “antisemitism” is being weaponized to censure and silence. Antisemitism is a terrible sentiment and deserves to be denounced, but if it is applied to any criticism of Israel it will dilute its potency. (1)

This notion that Jews are using antisemitism to silence criticism of Israel is a red herring. I have not heard any Jews say that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. As mentioned, Jews themselves often voice harsh criticism of Israel’s government and its policies. What we do see today is a resurgence of real antisemitism around the world and especially here in the United States, often resulting in violence. Thus to accuse Jews of “weaponizing” antisemitism at such a dangerous time is inflammatory.

Not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, but much of it definitely is. Holding Israel to a double standard not expected of any other country is antisemitic. Indifference to the victims of Palestinian terrorism is antisemitic. (Rape is a heinous crime, unless you were a Jewish woman on October 7.) Taking out one’s hatred of Israel on Jews who don’t even live there is antisemitic. The charge that Jews cry antisemitism in order to stifle criticism of Israel is a subtle attempt to stifle Jewish identification of antisemitism even when it is real. The charge, often heard without qualification, has come to mark the shift from “not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic” - an obvious truth - to an implied “no criticism of Israel is antisemitic,” a lie giving those who harbor antisemitic sentiments cover to say whatever they want no matter how far it stretches and distorts the truth.

Example 1: Black Lives Matter

The fact that anti-Israel sentiment often morphs into antisemitism is undeniable. Let’s look at two examples. The first is Black Lives Matter, not the legitimate concern for Black lives but the movement going by that name. BLM chapters act independently, but a number of them have ventured into the politics of the Middle East. They, like many on the left, make the tragic mistake of conflating the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with the Black struggle for civil rights. The histories and dynamics of these situations are very different, and one wonders how much Israel’s most virulent critics really know about Israel’s history and what led up to the intractable conflict we are now facing.

Here is a statement by a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, Mark Lamont Hill:

This generation of activists say “No, let’s defund. No, no, let’s abolish. Let’s imagine new possibilities,” and one of the new possibilities that they’ve imagined, um, is a world where, that is anti-imperialist.... They don’t want to just nation build, but they want to world make. And so Black Lives Matter very explicitly is talking about the dismantling of, um, of the Zionist project, dismantling of a settler-colonial project and very explicitly embracing BDS on those grounds. (2)

Calling Israel a “settler-colonial project” is an antisemitic and racist slur. It falsifies history, portraying Jews as colonialist invaders kicking “indigenous” Palestinians off their land. The truth is Jews had always been living in the territory that became the State of Israel, even before the Arab conquests, and Jews have been living there ever since. Jews who migrated later did so legally, as did many Palestinians who also came from outside. Palestinians are no more “indigenous” to the land than are Jews. The statement also ignores the fact that half of Israel’s population comprises Jews who were kicked out of Arab countries and had nowhere else to go. It would be absurd to call them “white settler colonialists.”

In addition to calling Jews “settler-colonialists” Hill also called for Palestine to be “free from the river to the sea,” meaning all the territory now making up the State of Israel. This is a de facto call for genocide, which is what the destruction of Israel would entail. In fact, the Arabic version of “Palestine will be free” translates as “Palestine will be Arab.” All of this language is antisemitic, since it denies Jews the right to self-determination, leaving Jews at the mercy of a hostile Arab population steeped in hatred of Jews (just read the textbooks they use to teach their children), who might well wish to continue the project Hamas started on October 7. “From the river to the sea” is a prescription for bloodbath.

Hill is not alone. BLM chapters in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington all issued statements endorsing the atrocities Hamas committed on October 7. Only two days after the Hamas attack, weeks before the Israeli invasion, the organization BLM Grassroots defended Hamas’s attack on civilians as “self-defense” and stated: “As a radical Black organization grounded in abolitionist ideals, we see clear parallels between Black and Palestinian people.”(3)

Again we see the conflation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with the Black struggle for civil rights. The juxtaposition of these two unrelated and very different conflicts is in fact antisemitic. Why? Because it casts the Jew in the stereotyped role of the white slave master or colonial oppressor. It ignores the many decades of Palestinian anti-Jewish violence, the repeated Palestinian refusals of two-state proposals, and the Palestinian response of massive violence to two such offers in 1947 and 2000. It also ignores the fact that Israel is not just confronting Palestinians but the combined forces of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis, bent on Israel’s destruction. The confusion of the Black and Palestinian causes turns the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into a ridiculous caricature and functions as a potent source of hatred of Jews.

Paraglider with Palestinian flag

The Chicago BLM chapter expressed this hatred powerfully in its tweet of an image of a Hamas-style paraglider sporting a Palestinian flag, with the legend “That is all that is it!” as if this exceedingly complex conflict could be reduced to a blatantly antisemitic cartoon. Some of the October 7 terrorists descended on the Jewish communities in paragliders, and the posted image glorifies this attack against innocent noncombatants, including mass murder, gang rape, sexual mutilation and public humiliation of women, and burning families alive. BLM defends all of this as legitimate “resistance.” The moral degeneration of the Black Lives Matter movement is a betrayal of the very valid concerns that gave rise to it: the unfair treatment of Black people on many levels of our society. It is a tragedy for both Black people and for Jews.

Example 2: Pro-Palestinian Campus Protests

Another mass attempt to legitimize antisemitism can be found in the increasingly aggressive and widespread campus pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Their participants also claim that their demonstrations against Israel are not antisemitic. This is patently untrue. One flashpoint attracting national attention is Columbia University.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrator holds threatening sign

At Columbia pro-Palestinian demonstrators have not reserved their vitriol exclusively for Israel but have verbally assaulted and threatened Jewish students.(4) In addition to the ubiquitous and ever popular “river to the sea” chant, demonstrators taunted Jewish students with shouts of “Go back to Poland!” “We don’t want no Zionists here!” “Burn Tel Aviv!” and “The 7th of October is going to be every day for you!” One protestor wearing a mask (like many of the demonstrators, either trying to look like terrorists, or just out of sheer cowardice) displayed a sign with an arrow pointing at Jewish counter-demonstrators and reading “Al-Qasam’s Next Target.”(5) What did the Jewish demonstrators do to deserve that? They were just singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. Al-Qassam is the military wing of Hamas, the same people who are holding the hostages. The demonstrators are siding with the kidnappers and hostage takers, putting their antisemitism clearly in focus. The lack of safety experienced by Jewish students has reached the point of Columbia’s having to provide remote learning options for the remainder of the semester. This dangerous atmosphere for Jewish students is by no means unique to Columbia, but has spread to several other campuses.(6)

These examples show how easy it is for not just criticism but hatred of Israel to progress to antisemitism, affecting Jews whether inside Israel or out. I have yet to find any organized Jewish presence declaring that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, and as noted earlier there is widespread criticism of Israel within the Jewish community itself. At the same time we are experiencing an undeniable resurgence of antisemitism, including lectures to Jews about what constitutes antisemitism. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the charge that Jews use antisemitism to delegitimize criticism of Israel is really an attempt to silence Jewish criticism of antisemitism in general. As we have seen, much criticism of Israel really is antisemitic, but it has become very difficult for Jews to say that without being accused of trying to censor their opponents. The false charge that Jews are abusing antisemitism has become an effective cover for expressing antisemitic sentiment while trying to deny it. Accusing Jews of abusing antisemitism has become a way of making antisemitism acceptable once again.

Recently two visibly Jewish Yale students wandered close to a Palestinian encampment. One of them, Netanel Crispe, reported, “I was yelled at, harassed, pushed and shoved numerous times. Every time I tried to take a step someone confronted me inches from my face, telling me not to move.” The other one, Sahar Tartak, states that a demonstrator jammed a Palestinian flag into her left eye, putting her in the hospital. Fortunately there was no permanent injury.(7) The Yale administration took no meaningful action. Tartak reports, however, that one major Yale administrator actually did respond, “with a message of support and empathy... for antisemitic demonstrators who call for Jewish genocide.” The administrator’s message expresses “hugs and support” for the demonstrators at Beinecke Plaza where the incident occurred.(8) As Stephens puts it,

The sad fact of campus life today is that speech and behavior that would be considered scandalous if aimed at other minorities are treated as understandable or even commendable when directed at Jews. The calling card of antisemitism has always been the double standard. How would the Yale administration have reacted if Crispe and Tartak had been Black students who said they were taunted, harassed and assaulted (whatever the ostensible political motive) by a mob of their white peers?

The calling card of antisemitism has always been the double standard. This is what separates criticism of Israel that is legitimate from criticism of Israel that is antisemitic. It is legitimate to disagree with policies of the Israeli government. It is legitimate to criticize the government itself, which in my opinion is too far right for Israel’s own good and led by a Prime Minister who is self-serving and corrupt. Honest, objective, fair-minded criticism of Israel is legitimate, especially when not accompanied by hate-filled screams and deafening drumbeats.

But it is not legitimate to accuse Israel of “genocide” for fighting for its life not just against Hamas but against Iran and Hezbollah, while ignoring what the Chinese are doing to the Uyghurs, the Russians to the Ukrainians, and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the Kurds in Kurdistan. It is not legitimate to idealize the Palestinian cause, disregarding its truly genocidal agenda as Hamas explicitly states it and tries to carry it out, nor is it legitimate to ignore decades of anti-civilian terrorism when criticizing Israel’s efforts to prevent it. It is not legitimate to condemn Israel for “war crimes” while ignoring Palestinian rocket fire into Israeli population centers that has lasted for years and still continues, in addition to all the other violent acts against Israeli civilians culminating with October 7. It is not legitimate to go after Jews either verbally or physically just because you don’t like Israel, when what you really don’t like is Jews. And above all, it is not legitimate to call for Israel’s destruction - which is exactly what anti-Zionism stands for.

One more thing that must be mentioned is the hypocrisy of professed sympathy for the people of Gaza coupled with the absence of any demand by these campus protestors for the release of the hostages taken by Hamas, many of whom have been abused in captivity. The psychological warfare Hamas is waging against the hostage families is a crime against humanity; yet these self-styled humanitarians not only give Hamas a pass but praise it for its “resistance.”

Their sympathy for Hamas and refusal to condemn it undercut the demonstrators’ claim to the moral high ground. Curiously, Jewish presence among the demonstrators is sometimes invoked to justify this sympathy. One often hears that this movement can’t be antisemitic because some of its supporters are Jewish. This makes as much sense as saying that organized groups of Black people for Trump mean there is no racism in him or the Republican Party. There is also widespread ignorance of the conflict’s history among many of the campus demonstrators, many not even knowing which “river” and which “sea” in the infamous slogan, or not knowing that Hamas is a brutal terrorist organization that governs Gaza and not a civil rights protest group. These demonstrations really do look like loud angry mobs supporting an outfit that stands for the mass murder of Jews, the participants assaulting Jews verbally and sometimes even physically. And yet they seem so convinced of the purity of their idealism, so pleased to find a cause that can make them feel important. Ironically, in doing so they are helping to enable mass murderers and sadists whose goal is not peace but to enlarge the conflict, to “globalize the intifada.”

So is anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism? Absolutely. Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have the right to determine their fate in a state of their own. Anti-Zionism says that of all the peoples of the world, only Jews lack this right. Anti-Zionism singles out the only Jewish state on earth to attack not only its policies but its very existence. Anti-Zionism would take Israel’s seven million Jews and displace them or throw them to the mercy of an Arab populace that has shown over and over again just how it would treat them. The antisemitism of the campus demonstration movement is obvious by how often, despite its carefully crafted rhetoric, it spills over into attacks on Jews, including verbal and physical abuse sometimes resulting in serious injury, and preventing Jews from moving freely on their own college campuses. Denying the antisemitism in anti-Zionism is hypocrisy of the worst order.

And finally, it is not legitimate for non-Jews to lecture Jews on what antisemitism is and accuse Jews of “weaponizing” it - especially when antisemitism in this country has become so strident and so overt. Jews know when they are the target of antisemitism, and should be allowed to say so.

Both Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian campus protest movement ironically are performing a service, by exposing antisemitism for what it is. But are we listening for the real message?


(1) American Jewish University, “The Study of Allyship and Antisemitism: Jewish-Muslim Relations,” YouTube video, accessed April 24, 2024.

(2) Ian Haworth, “Marc Lamont Hill says that Black Lives Matter ‘Explicitly’ Looking to ‘Dismantle’ Israel and 'Embrace' BDS Movement ,” Middle East Forum, February 15, 2021.

(3) Black Lives Matter Grassroots, “Black Lives Matter Grassroots Statement in Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” Black Lives Matter Grassroots, no date.

(4) Rebecca Massel, “Rabbi Advises Jewish Students to ‘Return Home As Soon As Possible’ Following Reports of ‘Extreme Antisemitism’ on and Around Campus,” Columbia Spectator, April 21, 2024.

(5) Jonathan Chait, “Why Anti-Israel Protesters Won’t Stop Harassing Jews,” New York Magazine, April 22, 2024.

(6) Matt Egan, Chris Boyette, and Shimon Prokupecz, “Columbia University Main Campus Classes Will Be Hybrid Until Semester Ends; NYU Students, Faculty Arrested During Protests,” CNN, April 22, 2024.

(7) Bret Stephens, “To Be (Visibly) Jewish in the Ivy League,” New York Times, April 23, 2024.

(8) Sahar Tartak, “A Major Yale Administrator (The Head of Pauli Murray College) Emails Students with a Message of Support and Empathy... for Antisemitic Demonstrators Who Call for Jewish Genocide,” Twitter, April 22, 2024.

April 2024