On the Gray Area: Antisemitism and the Lexicon of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Last November, 122 Palestinian and Arab intellectuals issued a “Declaration on Antisemitism”. At its core are two assertions: that antisemitism must be recognized and fought; and that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic in itself. These two assertions are already contained in the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition. Yet, this statement was written against the IHRA definition. Why is this? Amos Morris-Reich (in Israel) and Danny Trom (in Europe) review together the statement of the 122 Palestinian and Arab intellectuals to discuss the gray area that they believe it contains.


Protest against Israel's Gaza Blockade and attack on flotilla - Melbourne 5 June 2010 - Wikipedia Commons
Protest against Israel’s Gaza Blockade and attack on flotilla – Melbourne 5 June 2010 – Wikipedia Commons

A statement on antisemitism by 122 distinguished Palestinian and Arab intellectuals, published simultaneously in five languages, is unquestionably a notable event[1]. The designation intellectual, born with the Dreyfus Affair, is reserved for those who are able to ask for justice not primarily for themselves or their own group but for others and for all, which distinguishes them from committed activists in the narrower sense of the term. Given that, intellectual appears to be the right way to qualify this group of signatories. The conclusion of their statement attests to this: in principle, it claims, the struggle for the legitimate rights of Palestinians and the fight against antisemitism must go hand in hand.

Why is this statement being made now? We assume that the question of antisemitism, so central to modern politics, would be of interest to every intellectual and, moreover, that the antisemitism that has entered anti-Zionist rhetoric is increasingly revealing itself as being harmful to the Palestinian cause. Some criticism of the State of Israel is clearly devoid of antisemitic rhetoric, while other such criticism is replete with that rhetoric. But there is also a large gray area in between. The extent of this gray area is due to the very nature of modern antisemitism as it emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century in Europe. Its xenophobic, racist expression clearly placed it at the extreme right of the political spectrum. But it should be remembered that it also took the form of an emancipatory, anti-capitalist social movement, from the standpoint of which Jews were oppressors and exploiters from whom the people had to free themselves. This might explain why the sympathy of the progressive left today for the Palestinian cause and for the criticism of the State of Israel sometimes continues even when that cause, as legitimate as it may be, and that criticism, as just as it might be, come loaded with antisemitic tropes or heavily freighted terms. And because part of the progressive left fails to recognize this side of the history of antisemitism, it also fails to see how certain criticisms of Zionism or Israel interface with it and therefore denies the problem. This gray area is, thus, in critical need of being clarified, from within the left, based on a serious and sustained intellectual dialogue. The express intention of this paper is to begin that dialogue.

The core of the statement is made up of two claims: that antisemitism must be recognized and combatted; and that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic per se. The context of the statement is not only the IHRA’s definition and examples indicating that some criticism of Israel is tainted by antisemitism, but the broader struggle over our liberal political-historical lexicon and the boundaries of criticism in Europe, America, Britain, Israel, and Palestine. The attempt to combat antisemitism through legal definitions is, in our eyes, a somewhat futile undertaking. We believe the boundaries to be much more related to the toleration by respective societies of the expression of various forms and degrees of ambivalence towards Jews. Our concern here, then, is not the definition (or the interpretation of the examples), nor the statement’s opposition to it. We are, instead, interested in the historical-political lexicon itself, as it applies to the gray area in which support for the Palestinian cause overlaps with antisemitically tainted language. Precisely because we find the existence of the statement valuable, and its aims admirable, we feel it necessary to comment on some of the phrasing that, to our understanding, weakens the statement, because rather than clarify the gray area, it contributes to its opacity.  The statement could have acknowledged more ambivalence in the situation itself and featured less ambiguity that thwarts its own attempt. For this reason, we want to address some of the terms used in the statement that are full of ambivalence toward Jews and Jewish history as well as ambiguity about the line dividing legitimate criticism of Israel from criticism that is tainted by antisemitism. For in addressing the gray area, it is imperative not only to acknowledge that it exists but, at least in our eyes, also to strive more decisively for disambiguation.

The critique of instrumentalization is central to the statement: it claims that Israel is instrumentalizing antisemitism against the Palestinian cause and that that instrumentalization harms both just causes by emptying antisemitism of its meaning and undermining the national rights of the Palestinians. Instrumentalization is a more complex notion than this, however, because, closely related to mobilization, it is sometimes the authentic expression of investment and interest in accomplishing a purpose or an end. An example of this might be mobilizing international law in the context of the fight against antisemitism or for the Palestinian right of self-determination. Such instrumentalization should be differentiated from its use in bad faith, where ideas or values are mobilized in order to discredit a political opponent, for example. We do not say that the line separating the two is always clear or easily determinable, but the two are not the same. The current government of Israel instrumentalizes antisemitism in both of these ways. When Israel mobilizes the discussion of antisemitism in order to fight Holocaust denial, this is an authentic expression of its will to fight antisemitism. When Israel paints all criticism of Israel as antisemitically tainted and mobilizes the fight against antisemitism to discredit its Palestinian political opponents, it is employing the fight against antisemitism in bad faith.

On the Palestinian side and among its supporters, both forms of instrumentalization are also present. The mobilization of public opinion against Israel and Israeli policies on the basis of universal values of justice is an example of instrumentalization as an authentic expression of investment and interest. The equation of Zionism with racism by the United Nations and antisemitic content in Palestinian textbooks are examples of bad faith instrumentalization. They undermine a political opponent (Israel) but, in the process, also weaken the Palestinian cause and empty the fight against racism from its meaning.

In fact, in order to avoid the ambiguities that impinge on the struggle for recognition and support of the enlightened public, all of the symmetries and asymmetries between the two causes—both the fight against antisemitism and the Palestinian cause—have to be addressed. We do not believe that the statement succeeds in this. Let us, then, take a closer look at some of its key terms.

Points 1 and 6 of the statement emphasize that the struggles against all forms of xenophobia are legitimate and undivided, quickly establishing an equivalence between antisemitism and Islamophobia. But while one could claim that both involve the stigmatization of minorities by majorities, there are important asymmetries. For one thing, the apparent symmetry ignores the fact that two major sources of contemporary antisemitic ideology in Europe (not to speak of the Arab and Muslim world) are Islamism and postcolonial militancy. Thus, paradoxically, in Europe, we find members of a group that is itself discriminated against, targeting Jews. At the same time, while the statement emphasizes the majority status of Jews in Israel, it completely fails to address their minority status everywhere else. Someone who attacks a minority is a persecutor but acting against an oppressive majority can sometimes be conceived as a form of resistance. And the postcolonial and Islamist discourses in Europe often treat Jews as a kind of “dominant minority,” holding and exerting power, taking advantage of their status as victim to pursue their particularistic agenda, influencing the media, or controlling the banks. In Europe, and specifically in France, for instance, it is therefore seen as courageous to rebel against both Jews in Israel and Jews outside of Israel. Here it is hard not to see that support of the Palestinian cause and the sometimes antisemitically tainted language of the Islamist and/or postcolonial discourses sometimes coalesce.

But do the two have to coalesce? No. So how, then, can we distinguish between them? The best way might be by striving to disambiguate the two. And in the case of the statement we are looking at here, a major source of the ambiguity is related to the BDS movement. Now the statement rightly reminds us that BDS is running a worldwide nonviolent campaign (points 3, 4, and 5). But anyone living in Europe or the United States knows that some of the supporters of the BDS do sometimes indict Jews in general. This is not unrelated to a strategic ambiguity in the BDS movement with regard to Zionism as an expression of Jewish nationalism or, in a very general sense, Jewish collective self-determination. Importantly, the BDS and the statement on the IHRA definition tie into a much longer and broader discourse on this subject, a subject which is particularly complex and sensitive with respect to the gray area we have discussed.

Opposition to Jewish self-determination has seen various expressions, based on quite different views and opposing intentions, ranging from the support of integration of Jews into Western national states (i.e. insisting that Jews should be differentiated only as a religious group); through the ultra-orthodox Jewish opposition to Jewish political sovereignty based on Jewish traditional law (Jewish sovereignty must await the coming of the Messiah); to the claim, which many Jews and Israelis perceive as outright antisemitism, that the Jewish people is an artificial invention (and hence Zionism is inauthentic and Israel illegitimate). Is it a prerequisite that all Jews support Zionism in order for Zionism to be considered a legitimate expression of Jewish nationalism? Is this case different for Jews than for Palestinians or any other people? Since the Holocaust, most Jews around the world have accepted and supported the existence of Israel, which does not, however, mean that they refrain from criticism of its policies, including and especially its policies with regard to Palestinians.

Closely related to the gray area with regard to the Jews’ right to self-determination is the question of the historical and geographical boundaries of Israel’s occupation, about which the statement is also strategically ambiguous, i.e., it is unclear whether the reference is to 1947–1949 or to 1967. There is a deep political irony in the statement’s strategic choice of ambiguity on this point: it exactly mirrors Israel’s right-wing government’s attempt to characterize all criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and that mirroring reveals some of the inversions between left and right involved in the current situation. From opposite ends, therefore, both of them instrumentalize ambiguity in order to undermine the distinction between 1947–1949 and 1967. We do not think that distinguishing clearly between the two events diminishes the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians in 1948. Nor do we believe that a Palestinian and Arab intellectual stance based on universal human values and rights would express any less commitment to the Palestinian cause if it acknowledged the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab and Muslim states between 1947 and 1951. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Most problematic in terms of the historical-political lexicon, in our eyes, because it is introduced by way of implication alone, is the usage, in point 2 of the statement, of the term natives for Palestinians, a usage that feeds into the gray area in attitudes towards Israel in that it applies a highly politicized version of postcolonial ideology against Israel and, with one quick but silent stroke, impugns all Israeli Jews. If the Palestinians are the natives, then who are the Jews? This vocabulary insinuates two perceptions of Jews: an old perception as “strangers,” irrespective of where or how long they reside in a place; and a new one as “invaders”: settler colonialists, the long arm of European imperialism and colonialism, bringing to bear all of the latter’s racism and will to dominate and exploit the “natives.” If the deployment of the language of indigeneity is not merely intended as an instrument of discreditation, then some disambiguation is required: Israel, like other states resulting from territorial partition, is a postcolonial state; not all Palestinians were originally natives of Palestine; some Jews were originally natives of Palestine; etc. Otherwise, this version of postcolonial language is not only erroneous but fuels antisemitism in Europe – suggesting that wherever they are, Israel or France, Jews do not truly belong — and undermines any possibility of local compromise.

Jewish history is full of ambivalences, contradictions, and hesitations. But not all of them are the same. And in order to forge a clearer path through the gray area that, because of the antisemitism it entails, is harming the Palestinian cause, we think one has to both acknowledge more thoroughly the ambivalence in our social and political situation and address it with less ambiguity. Given that the express intention of the statement is to separate criticism of Israel from antisemitism, certain key terms that are intimately connected with historical and current ambivalence and animosity towards Jews could and should have been avoided or their use clarified. This would have allowed many more Jewish (both Israeli and not) and other readers to identify with the statement unreservedly.

There is a clear tendency, especially on the left, to demand less of the weaker camp and assume that it is unable to enter into a demanding dialogue on an equal footing. In our opinion, this does not show support but the expression of a patronizing attitude. While ambiguities can contribute to either veiling or sharpening oppositions, it is the difficult vocation of the intellectual to take the ambivalences on both sides into account, all the more so when a shared historical- political lexicon with which to address the conflict is so sorely needed. And yet, although the statement fails to clarify all of the complexity of what is here at stake, we nonetheless commend its signatories for taking seriously a subject that is urgent and significant for Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, for other Jews and Palestinians, and for everyone who is concerned about the subject.

Amos Morris-Reich and Danny Trom


Amos Morris-Reich is a history professor and the director of the Peter Roth Center for Antisemitism and Racism (one of only two such academic centers in Israel) at Tel Aviv University. His latest books include Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876–1980 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016) and Photography and Jewish History: Five Twentieth-Century Cases (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, in print).

Danny Trom is a social scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Paris’s School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS). His latest books are Perseverance of the Jewish Fact. A Political Theory of Survival (Paris: EHESS/Gallimard, Seuil, 2018) and France without the Jews: Emancipation, Extermination, Expulsion (Paris: Puf, 2018).


1 The English version in The Guardian

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