The state of Israel marks its 65th birthday this week amid intense antagonism -- from an international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, to politically motivated hacker attacks on Israeli websites. Friends of Israel warn of a rise of anti-Semitism cloaked in Israel-bashing, while critics charge that legitimate dissent is being smeared as anti-Semitic.
Claims of bigotry can indeed stifle frank discussion. But it is also true that the attacks on Israel are exceptionally biased -- a bias all the more disturbing given the history of hatred of the Jews and the recurrence of old anti-Semitic concepts and images in modern anti-Israel rhetoric.
There is, to be sure, a legitimate debate -- one going on within Israel itself -- about the country's policies and human rights record. The suffering on the Palestinian side is real and wrenching, though sympathizers tend to overlook the extent to which both Arab regimes and Palestinian leaders are responsible for it. But whatever wrongs the Israeli state and military may have committed, there is a blatant discrepancy in the indignation directed at Israel and at far worse offenders around the world.
While Russia faced tough criticism over its mass slaughter of civilians during two recent wars in Chechnya (where a brutally repressive pro-Kremlin regime is now in place), there was no attempt to turn that nation into a global pariah. Self-righteous hackers do not target China for its brutal occupation of Tibet, or Iran for its suppression of dissent and its executions of gays. Human rights groups that lambaste the Israeli armed forces for reportedly using civilians as shields often disregard the systematic use of such tactics by Hamas militants.
Is the demonization of Israel rooted in anti-Semitism? Not necessarily. Pro-Palestinian bias stems largely from the left-wing instinct to side with Third World people seen as oppressed by pro-Western states. But that doesn't negate bigotry. "Old-fashioned" anti-Semitism, too, often involved motives other than simple hostility toward Jews (including anti-capitalism, since the Jews were seen as linked to finance).
Critics of the new anti-Semitism have sometimes used the term too broadly, citing such examples as an Israeli leader being called a warmonger. But critiques of Israel and Zionism have also become a vehicle for noxious and unmistakable hate.
Examples abound. Posters at a pro-Palestinian rally at San Francisco State University in 2002 recalled the old "blood libel," with images of blood-spattered cans labeled, "Palestinian children's meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites." Just last year at my alma mater, Rutgers University, a left-wing campus publication mocked a pro-Israel Jewish columnist for the school's main student daily by running a parody column under his byline that praised "all the good things Hitler did."
A 2011 book called "The Wandering Who?" by Israeli-born British musician and self-proclaimed "self-hating Jew" Gilad Atzmon asserts that Israel is "far worse than Nazi Germany" and recycles every anti-Jewish cliche, even suggesting that historical hatred toward Jews was the Jews' own fault. While some anti-Zionist leftists denounced the book, it received a disturbing amount of praise, including a blurb from University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of the controversial book "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." A major British newspaper, The Guardian, carried Atzmon's book in its online bookshop before pulling it in response to criticism.
The controversy prompted New York commentator Ben Cohen to conclude that for large segments of the media and the academy, "So long as the target is Israel, or Zionism . . . anything goes."
This kind of rhetoric is not legitimate debate, any more than defacing the website of an Israeli foundation for children with cancer on Holocaust Remembrance Day, as was done last week, is legitimate protest. If critics of Israeli policies object to being smeared as anti-Semites, they should do more to purge anti-Semitism from their ranks.