Anti-Racism Mustn't be Exploited to Foment Anti-Semitism | Opinion

Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest and most lethal forms of hate. It remains especially versatile, and is able to emerge from unexpected quarters.

Over the course of centuries, Jews have alternately been hated as being too rich and too poor, too strong and too weak, too religious and too secular, too conservative and too liberal, too alike and too different.

Since Roman conquerors forced most into exile nearly two millennia ago, Jews have also been hated for being dispersed. And since 1948, they have been hated for the revival of their small ancestral homeland: Israel.

In Europe, my grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, heard cries of "Jews, back to Palestine" only to rear grandchildren who endure calls of "Jews, out of Palestine."

Adding insult to injury, Israel and its friends have been tarred by some as inherently racist themselves.

At the United Nations—where Arab and allied countries hold an automatic majority—Israel is routinely condemned more than all other 192 member states combined. UN bias reached its peak 45 years ago with Resolution 3379. On November 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly singled out only Zionism—Jews' movement for independence—as "racist."

Chaim Herzog, Israel's UN ambassador and later president, tore up the resolution and decried the "ignorance" that enabled it. At the time, he said:

You dare talk of racism when I can point with pride to the Arab ministers who have served in my government; to the Arab deputy speaker of my Parliament; to Arab officers and men serving of their own volition in our defense, border and police forces, frequently commanding Jewish troops; to the hundreds of thousands of Arabs from all over the Middle East crowding the cities of Israel every year; to the thousands of Arabs from all over the Middle East coming for medical treatment to Israel; to the peaceful coexistence which has developed; to the fact that Arabic is an official language in Israel on a par with Hebrew; to the fact that it is as natural for an Arab to serve in public office in Israel as it is incongruous to think of a Jew serving in any public office in any Arab country, indeed being admitted to many of them. Is that racism? It is not. That is Zionism.

United Nations building
A man passes by the UN headquarters in New York on September 18, 2020. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

In a rarity, the UN revoked the Zionism-is-racism resolution in 1991—leading to new breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli relations. But its odious legacy has persisted. Ten years later, a UN anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, implied that only one country—Israel—is racist, and the gathering produced scenes of outright anti-Semitism that shocked even UN officials. More recently, some political activists have sought to exploit the Black Lives Matter movement by having it stigmatize the world's only Jewish state—the Middle East's sole democracy—as comparable to South Africa during apartheid.

Yet Jews have been at the very forefront of the struggle for Black civil rights. Israelis come in all colors. And it is not by chance that anti-Semitism and racism are perennially interwoven.

Palestinians and Israelis are divided over security and land—not racial ideology or difference.

At a time of alarming polarization, facts are as essential as ever. Accuracy matters. While simplistic narratives can make for punchier slogans than complex realities can, claims based on fiction do nothing to make our world better or more just. Smear tactics can be tempting, but we must resist such temptations when they distort rather than illuminate.

False accusations of "Zionist" racism—along with attempts to preempt pushback by asserting that Jews dismiss all reproach as anti-Semitic—undermine the very cause of fighting bigotry. And there are few causes more urgent.

Anti-Jewish gaslighting is wrong. Demonizing or delegitimizing Israelis is as indefensible as it would be to target a diverse population of any other nationality.

Zionists are women and men, left-wing and right-wing, Jews and Christians, people of Middle Eastern background and all other backgrounds. What they hold in common is simply the belief that Israel has a right to exist, be safe and have equality. The overwhelming majority of the global community is—in a word—Zionist.

There is nothing more discriminatory about Israel's Jewish identity and symbols than the Christian or Muslim identity and symbols of dozens of countries worldwide.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews." Those purporting to combat prejudice must never tolerate it themselves.

David J. Michaels is director of U.N. and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.