The campaign to smear anyone who criticizes Israel’s policies as being anti-Semitic is a powerful deterrent that has allowed the Israeli government to continue its discriminatory policies against the Palestinians. The idea that criticizing a government is a heinous moral crime that rises to the level of anti-Semitism is absurd, but it has long been one of Israel’s greatest weapons in forcing its American supporters to close their eyes to its wide range of injustices and rule of law violations that enable it to unjustly oppress a civilian population.
Pro-Palestinian activists have waged a campaign to confront the illogical assertions of the extremist pro-Israel movement, but they have so far been largely unsuccessful in correcting the moral injustice of this specious argument. It has gotten so bad that Nobel Peace Prize-winning global human rights organization Amnesty International was last week denounced as anti-Semitic not just by extremist Israeli leaders, but by many American politicians.
While the “criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic” movement has succeeded in encouraging blind loyalty from its supporters, including many in the US Congress, it has also blurred the line between real anti-Semitism — the hatred of Jews — and the legitimate right of individuals to criticize, challenge and hold governments accountable, including the one in Israel.
Instead of being a moral judgment, anti-Semitism has been turned into a political weapon. In the long term, that will backfire and cause great harm to the Jewish people. This concerns many Jews, including Jessie Sander, who filed a lawsuit after she was fired as a teacher at a New York synagogue last summer because she criticized Israel in a personal blog co-authored with another Jewish woman. They wrote that they believed Israel and the Jewish people to be far better than what the Israeli government had become.
I spoke with one of Sander’s attorneys for a story on the lawsuit and he explained that their intent was not only to win her job back with backpay and compensation to alleviate the suffering she has been put through, but also to correct the falsehood that criticism of Israel’s government is anti-Semitic.
In her blog, Sander criticized Zionism and Israeli government policies. This upset her employers at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, even though the post did not criticize Judaism or other people because they were Jews. When asked about the blog, Sander assured the synagogue that her personal views would not be part of her teachings. One of the synagogue’s associate rabbis even expressed sympathy with what she wrote. Days later, however, she was called into a Zoom meeting and fired by the same rabbi and the synagogue’s executive director.
Some might see this lawsuit as merely an employment grievance. But it is not. A court ruling could affirm what activists for justice and human rights have been saying for years: That unjust Israeli government policies must be challenged not just for the sake of the international rule of law and human rights, but for the sake of the Jewish people themselves.
The irony is that this lawsuit is a greater threat to the pernicious lie that criticism of Israeli government policies is a form of anti-Semitism than the hundreds of protests that have been made by activists. Those protests have put the issue in the court of political opinion, which is dominated by Israel’s massive public relations propaganda and in which even an honorable institution like Amnesty International has had its name dragged through the mud.
The genius of the Sander lawsuit is that it lifts the issue out of the murky waters of the never-ending Arab-Israel political brawl and sharply defines it as a moral imperative. The attorney I spoke to, Robert Herbst, explained that the lawsuit has significant merit because New York is one of the few US states that has a law “which prohibits an employer from firing an employee because of a legal recreational activity performed without compensation, off the premises of the employer, and without reference to the employer’s property.”
Sander’s case has attracted the support of more than 80 prominent Jewish leaders and rabbis, from New York to California, as well as individuals who insist there is a difference between anti-Semitism and criticizing the political policies and actions of a government.
What needs to happen, though, is for more organizations and activists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to stand up and speak out. The right to criticize governments is fundamental to democracy. Not every country embraces democracy, but those nations that claim to support it can play a significant role in separating fact from fiction. The UN should also offer its support to the lawsuit. So should the many foreign governments that believe in achieving justice and peace through nonviolence and truth. And the members of Congress who claim to support Israel should recognize the important principles that are the foundation of Sander’s lawsuit and support it too.
If I were a leading official at Amnesty International, I would showcase this lawsuit as the quintessential argument against one of the most vicious libels of all time: That just because I disagree with Israel’s policies, I am somehow anti-Semitic. Only an apartheid state would make that kind of argument. A democratic state would allow itself to be held to a high standard of accountability as the representative of its citizens and accept criticism as an inalienable right.
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