ADL’s latest effort to use antisemitism in defense of apartheid

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  January 20, 2023

The ADL’s latest report subverts the fight against antisemitism towards support for Israeli crimes.

The Anti-Defamation League is at it again. 

The group has long made it a priority to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, but in recent years, it has become almost an obsession with ADL and its leader, Jonathan Greenblatt. The latest example is their new report, “Antisemitic Attitudes in America: Topline Findings,” which reports on some very disturbing trends of rising antisemitism, but, instead of sticking to this very serious issue, inserts legitimate or perfectly understandable criticisms of Israeli actions to subvert the fight against antisemitism into support for Israeli crimes.

The prime example of this is their list of antisemitic tropes. They list many valid examples, such as “Jews have too much control and influence on Wall Street” and “Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want.” That’s cut and dried antisemitism. But near the top of their list, they include “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America.”

Without a doubt, the concept of Jewish disloyalty to the country of their citizenship is a well-worn but still virulent piece of antisemitism. But the disingenuity in this question, particularly in the wake of the 2022 midterms, is blatant and appalling. 

The obvious question that must be asked of the ADL, and for which they have no answer, is what they expect people to think when confronted with the actions of the pro-Israel lobby. It’s one thing to look at parts of that lobby, such as Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an avowedly Christian group whose evangelical members lean heavily to the right and can, therefore be expected to support not only Donald Trump but also actions like the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol. But it’s quite another when AIPAC, a group which, however it may identify itself, is visibly Jewish, tells its members publicly in a letter,

“We have friends who are pro-choice and pro-life, those who are liberal on immigration and those who want to tighten our borders — and yes, those who disagree strongly on issues surrounding the 2020 presidential election. These disagreements are not minor. They are, in many respects, critical to the future of America. But they do not determine the fate of America’s enduring commitment to the State of Israel.”

That letter wasn’t hastily written. It was sent in March 2022, by which time the far-right nature of the insurrection, with its attendant white nationalism, bigotry, and, yes, antisemitism, had been laid bare. AIPAC had plenty of time to consider their position, and they made no secret of what that position was: if a candidate tried to overturn a free and fair election, that is, to stage a coup against the United States, we will not hesitate to support them as long as their stance on Israel agrees with ours. 

The message from AIPAC was not ambiguous. The interests of the United States, and even the concerns and values of the overwhelming majority of American Jews are of no importance to them. While many of us who have worked to counter AIPAC for years might have known this already, it is quite a different matter for them to state such a thing publicly and shamelessly. AIPAC’s cynicism is so great that they didn’t even care that they were reinforcing, in an unprecedented way, one of the most dangerous antisemitic myths. 

If a large and influential group of Jews—even if that group is as unrepresentative of the Jewish community at large as AIPAC demonstrably is—proudly tells the American public that their loyalty to the United States is so vastly outweighed by their loyalty to Israel that they will support candidates who were involved in an attempt to overturn the U.S. government in a right-wing coup, why would we expect people to doubt them? Indeed, the 39% of Americans that ADL estimates take AIPAC at its word is a surprisingly low figure. It tells us that more than 60% of Americans know better than to think that most Jews are as hateful and selfish as AIPAC. 

The ADL also makes a very big deal about their findings about views of Israel, and strongly implies that these are rooted in antisemitism. But they offer no basis for that notion, only innuendo, and, in fact, the figures they produce are disturbingly low, if one takes a fact-based view of Israel and its actions in the Middle East, advocacy activities in the United States, and treatment of the Palestinians. 

For example, the ADL found that 24% of Americans believe that “Israel and its supporters are a bad influence on our democracy.” This is a remarkably low figure considering AIPAC’s statements discussed above as well as the very highly publicized nature of their targeting of specific candidates, clandestinely campaigning against them by launching political attacks on other issues, never letting voters know they were attacking them in truth because of their stances on Israel. 

Another point is that 24% also at least somewhat believe that “Israel does not make a positive contribution to the world.” That is hardly a problematic statement. Many would very much say the same about the United States on balance. 

But the most interesting point was that 18% at least somewhat agreed that “I am not comfortable spending time with people who openly support Israel.” Given the number of reports of horrific Israeli abuses of Palestinians and the many respected human rights groups that have noted that Israel’s practices amount to the crime of apartheid, that is actually a remarkably small number. 

The framing of that question is interesting. It reads very much as asking whether one is comfortable listening to defenses of Israel’s policies and actions. And the question opens an avenue to examine empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. 

Often, I see signs outside of synagogues or Jewish, sometimes even Christian, community centers declaring that “We Stand With Israel.” As a Jew, I understand, even if I don’t share, the feeling that Israel is a big part of many Jews’ Jewish identity. I also understand that what many Jews think of when they think about Israel bears almost no resemblance to the actual country, certainly as it exists outside the Tel Aviv bubble, much less how it exists for Palestinians, be they citizens, East Jerusalem residents, under occupation in the West Bank or besieged in Gaza. So yes, many Jews, when they make that statement feel they are standing up for their identity as Jews, and for the concept of Jewish self-determination. They do not necessarily think they are standing up for apartheid. 

But it always occurs to me to think about how that sign must affect a Palestinian who sees it or anyone who has non-Jewish people they love living under Israeli rule. It isn’t hard to imagine the visceral response. It is undoubtedly similar to what a Black person, South African or not, felt if they saw the flag of Apartheid South Africa that was retired and replaced in 1994. That flag didn’t merely represent a country with which they had a political disagreement or even a fierce objection to their policies. No, that flag was a direct assault on them, a message of hostility and threat, a symbol of all they had lost or were deprived of and whatever might have happened to their friends and family in their ancestral land. It was a symbol of invaders having taken control of that land and relegated its indigenous inhabitants to landlessness, poverty, misery, and, at best, only a few trappings of civil and human rights. 

That is what a Palestinian sees in that “We Stand With Israel” sign, and it’s what Palestinians must, I would think, experience when they hear Israel’s policies defended. 

But it’s not really policies that are at issue, and this is the nub of the problem. It is the very nature of Israel that raises these issues. For Israel’s defenders, they might argue based on the historical experience of Jews, up to and including the Holocaust. They might argue that they oppose the Israeli far right, and that they support a Palestinian state, so why not focus on that? Or they might argue that Palestinians are not entitled to rights in Eretz Yisrael. 

Whatever the argument, from the most radical to those that try to “both sides” the issue, it’s bound to distress Palestinians. And it’s also going to be heard as apologia at best or justification at worst for dispossessing the bulk of the Palestinian people, driving them from their homes, ruling over them in a brutally dictatorial and openly racist fashion. Is it antisemitic to feel uncomfortable listening to such defenses? Hardly. 

The recent protests in Israel against the new government’s assault on the Israeli judicial system offer an illustration of the problem. For many, even for many critics of Israel, the protests—reported to have been attended by some 80,000 Israelis—were a welcome sign that the Israeli majority would stand against Benjamin Netanyahu, Bezalel Smotrich, and Itamar Ben Gvir. But there was a problem.

Haaretz reporter Jack Khoury tells us that the Palestinian population in Israel was subtly disinvited from attending the protests. Not that anyone would have actively discouraged Palestinian citizens from attending, and there were calls from some leaders of Palestinian political parties to attend. But there was no effort to mobilize buses or in any way facilitate transportation to the protests. Palestinian citizens were scared, quite naturally, that if police came to break up the protests, they could be targeted, and could face severe consequences, both at the scene and in the legal system

That reluctance—made even greater by the fact that the Israeli legal system which was to be defended has often permitted considerable discrimination against Palestinian citizens as well as very draconian actions against those under occupation– would have to be overcome by Israeli organizers, Palestinian and Jewish, actively taking steps to get Palestinian citizens there. That didn’t happen. 

Most importantly, as Khoury sums it up, “Another issue that can’t be ignored relates to the organizers and supporters of the demonstration who made sure that their names would not be associated with an agenda focused on Arab equality or chants of ‘an end to the occupation.’

“The message – that such statements would undermine the legitimacy of the demonstration and provide fodder for its opponents – filtered down, and reverberated in the Arab community. What is happening now is designed to protect democracy in Jewish and Zionist Israel – and not democracy in Israel.”

And that is the issue. The ADL objects when people talk about the daily reality of Israel. It’s not only the violence, the abuses, the devastation wrought on the Palestinian economy, the transformation of Gaza into the world’s largest open air prison or the growing effort to assert Jewish control over the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. It’s also the basic fact of Israel being a democracy for Jews only, and even the liberal Jews are defending that while telling Palestinians not to raise their voices lest their effort be undermined. 

That makes people who hear defenses of such behavior profoundly uncomfortable. Such a reaction is not antisemitic, it is the purest form of humanistic empathy. Maybe that’s what the ADL finds so bothersome. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics