Israel’s Wrongdoings Cannot Be an Excuse for Antisemitism

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By Cindy Yang

When I heard that Ilhan Omar not only won her August primary but achieved a crushing victory over her well-funded opponent, I was mildly surprised. Her position as a trailblazer for women of color in Congress cannot be overstated, but Omar is extremely divisive. She has claimed that Israel has hypnotized the world and that politicians are bought out to support Israel, some even holding a dual allegiance to both the U.S. and Israel. These are some of the oldest antisemitic canards in the book, and Democrats almost always claim not to tolerate bigotry in the party. Her victory becomes even more baffling when one looks at the wing of the party that supports her, as the progressive wing takes pride in the fact that they hold their candidates to high standards in regards to their records and personal beliefs. However, Omar managed to escape serious controversy, because she used Israel as a veil for her antisemitism.

It would be hard to find a foreign country more reviled by modern leftists than Israel, and in many ways for good reason. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has led the country into a new era of aggressive annexation of the West Bank, and the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) while carrying out these annexations have been unacceptable. When the IDF is bulldozing homes and killing Palestinian civilians, there is no way to defend the annexations. Opposing Israel’s annexations and disregard for human rights is not an inherently antisemitic position; in fact, it is a position that I believe more people should hold. Nonetheless, that opposition’s discourse enters antisemitic territory far too frequently.

First of all, it is important to separate Zionism, the belief that Jews ought to have national sovereignty, from the belief that Israel is infallible. I am a Zionist in the sense that I believe that Israel should exist. Jews have historically faced persecution across the globe, and it would be naive to say that antisemitism is only a problem from past eras. Hate crimes against Jews are at a record high in America, and antisemitic sentiments from both the right and left wings remain present in international politics. Leaving millions of Jews stateless by dissolving the state of Israel would be deeply irresponsible, and it would likely cause more harm than good. Israel exists to be a place where Jews are protected and Jewish culture can flourish. Claiming that the existence of Israel is intertwined with the oppression of Palestine disregards what Israel means to many people. Israel was the first place where many Jews could feel like they were valued and protected, and its existence is a testament to Jewish endurance. Claiming that Jews are supporting the murder of Palestinians when they advocate for Israel’s existence implies that a Jewish state inherently involves murder and oppression. This is extremely antisemitic as it claims that Jews as a people will always oppress others, which is not at all true.

Furthermore, anti-Zionists will often offer a revisionist history of Israel to delegitimize the connection Jews have to the land. Though Jews were exiled from the land many years ago, Israel continued to play a significant role in Jewish traditions, prayer, and cultures. Zionists did not simply drop a pin on a map and decide the Jews should settle there. Rather, this is an area with deep cultural and ancestral ties to the Jewish diaspora, and denying that fact to paint Jews as colonists who stole the land from the Palestinian people is extremely antisemitic. The fact of the matter is that both Israel and Palestine have a legitimate claim to the land that cannot be erased.

Most egregiously, Israel is held to a far higher standard than many of its international counterparts. Let’s be clear: Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people are unacceptable and morally repugnant. The Israeli government has torn apart families, destroyed homes, and inflicted unimaginable suffering on the people of Palestine. Nonetheless, it is important to ask whether the sovereignty of other countries is called into question any time they do something reprehensible. China has put Uighurs in concentration camps, Myanmar has engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people, and Saudi Arabia has committed countless war crimes against Yemen. There are no prominent movements to dissolve these states, and you would never see a sitting U.S. Representative claim that people who pursue a less harsh approach toward these countries hold a dual allegiance. Israel should not have to be perfect or even good to retain its sovereignty, and the Israeli people should not be denied safety because of the actions of their government. Making Israeli sovereignty conditional on its actions means that the safety of Jews in the region gets decided by other people. Robbing Jews of their right to self-determination because of the Israeli government is wildly antisemitic, especially when this discussion does not take place regarding any of the aforementioned nations.

At the end of the day, a country is made up of its people, not its leaders. For the past few years, I have spent every day being disgusted by the actions of my government. Each day comes with a new atrocity or violation of human rights, and I know that we move further and further away from the right side of history with each passing moment. Despite all of this, I have never lost faith in the American people or stopped believing that the American ideals of liberty and equality are obtainable and worth pursuing. America makes its largest mistakes when we fail to live up to what America should be, and the same applies to Israel. Israel has the potential to be a beacon of light for the rest of the world, but it is currently squandering all of its promise. This is a problem with leadership, not the people of Israel, and definitely not the larger Jewish community.

The way some people talk about Israel is firmly rooted in delusion and antisemitism. Anti-Zionists flood posts about antisemitic hate crimes in America with comments reading “Free Palestine.” I learn about the Holocaust at desks vandalized with swastikas in a school named after a noted antisemite, but then get lectured about why antisemitism is no longer a problem and how Israel does not have a valid purpose. People block out Jewish voices from progressive spaces and accuse us of supporting the murder of Palestinian children for believing in Israel’s right to exist. Prime Minister Netanyahu has done terrible things, but we should talk about Israel the same way we talk about any other country that is going down the wrong path. The oppression of Palestine cannot serve as a lightning rod for antisemitism, and we need to be far more vigilant in reining in the discourse when it crosses that line.

I am not upset because Ilhan Omar made antisemitic comments. I am upset because the left has continued to support her in spite of these comments. Omar is paraded around loudly and proudly by the progressive wing of the party, and any criticism of her is seen as right-wing fodder. The vast majority of American Jews identify as Democrats, and it feels like a slap in the face when the party does not nip its own prejudices in the bud. Democrats are quick to criticize Republicans who are proudly bigoted, but when we face dogwhistles toward Jews in our own party, we remain silent. I am extremely proud to be a Democrat, but it saddens me deeply when I see hypocrisy and genuine bigotry go unchecked in the party. We need to be better at looking at ourselves and our own problems, and also be willing to call out a political ally for their problematic views. If we truly want to be the party of the moral high ground, then we need to make it clear that there is no room for hate in any capacity.