International leaders push social media companies to ban anti-Zionist speech

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  February 12, 2023 

The effort to criminalize criticism of Israel is hitting new strides, including a renewed effort led by international politicians to censor anti-Zionist views online. 

The international effort to criminalize criticism of Israel is hitting new strides. Bringing the weight of numerous Western governments, the so-called Interparliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism has renewed efforts to label criticism of Israel as antisemitism and to thereby enable online censorship of any such criticism.

On Monday, the co-chairs of the Task Force—Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) of the United States,  Canadian Member of Parliament Anthony Housefather, and former Israeli Knesset Member Michal Cotler-Wunsh sent letters to the heads of Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram), Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok calling on them to redouble efforts to combat online antisemitism. Of course, antisemitism, like every form of violent bigotry, is all too common in social media. Sadly, this task force is manipulating that fact in a most cynical manner as a means to shield Israel from consequences or even criticism for its treatment of the Palestinians.

In the letter, the parliamentarians urged the companies to include “Zionism as a protected characteristic/identity” and “commit to a specific, consistent policy for removing content and users who deny the Holocaust or call for violence against Jews, Israelis, or Zionists.”

While opposing violence against anyone for their identity or political views alone, no matter how noxious those views may be, is laudable, the conflation of Jews as a people, Israelis as citizens of a nation-state (which must include Palestinian citizens of Israel, although in this context, the assumption is that it, like Israeli democracy, only applies to Jewish Israelis) and adherents to a political ideology, Zionism, is deeply problematic. 

But more important is the attempt to categorize Zionists as a “protected characteristic/identity.” This is unprecedented and baseless. It is an attempt to treat Zionism in a manner wholly unlike the way we treat any other political ideology. 

Noa Tishby, an Israeli actor who is also Israel’s Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and the Delegitimization of Israel, shed some light on what this is really all about when she testified at a hearing the Task Force organized last September. She claimed that “recent research has found that between 73.6 and 84% of online antisemitism takes the form of anti-Israel hatred.”

Soon after, Tishby said that “the new antisemitism has very little to do with what Israel really is, but as long as the explicit target of the hatred is Israel or Zionists rather than Jews, then it gets a free pass on social media.”

And what is this false characterization according to Tishby? She says it is characterizing Israel as “evil, racist, colonialist, white supremacist.” These are all adjectives that are far from unique to Israel. They are regularly applied to the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and many European countries. And while most of those countries have colonial histories with episodes at least as ugly as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and some are committing ongoing crimes related to their colonial histories, none of them are currently enforcing a blockade creating an open-air prison for two million people like in Gaza while also holding some five million more people under a brutal, more than half-a-century long occupation with no rights at all. Yet, for Tishby, only Zionism and Israel are inherently immune to criticism for such actions. 

Of course, Tishby gives the game away by pointing out how much online antisemitism is actually hostility toward Israel. This is not to say that the common dodge that people use the term “Zionist” to mean “Jew” doesn’t occur. It does, and it’s too common. But criticism, even harsh criticism of any state is not only permissible, it is necessary. The question of “when does criticism of Israel slip into antisemitism” is absurd, and the answer to that question is “Never.” It isn’t hard to discern when someone is trying to mask antisemitism by replacing “Jew” with “Zionist,” and in most cases, anyone acting in good faith can make that distinction without running afoul of either the risk of shutting down legitimate speech or letting antisemitism go by unchecked. Using that terminology as sleight of hand to dodge accusations of antisemitism is not something people “slip into;” it’s something they do consciously and visibly. 

Expanding on the letter to the social media companies, Michal Cotler-Wunsh emphasized that “Zionist ‘coding’ mainstreams the targeting and exclusion of Jews, exposing the imperative of adding Zionism to platforms’ protected characteristics.” She said this “underscores the urgency to adopt and implement the IHRA consensus definition.”

The IHRA definition of antisemitism—a highly contested definition that has been criticized in many sectors—has been frequently used as a measure of efforts to combat antisemitism. The problematic nature of the IHRA definition lies less in the definition itself than in the examples it uses, which include what the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) terms, “certain expressions of animus toward the Jewish State of Israel that may at times cross the line into antisemitism.” 

The ADL’s description begs the question by defining antisemitism as an animus that is antisemitic. This circular reasoning then becomes open-ended and allows for any criticism of Israel to be labeled antisemitism, depending on the convenience of whoever is defining it at that moment.  

One example cited in the IHRA definition is, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” The idea that Israel, which openly discriminates against non-Jews and, in 2018, passed a Basic Law stating that it was the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people, and therefore explicitly not the state of its citizens, has a major racism problem is clearly based in fact. One can debate whether those facts are reasonably described as racism, but one cannot reasonably claim that an accusation of racism under such circumstances is a priori antisemitic. Yet that is precisely what the Task Force is demanding to be done on social media. 

The argument that Israel and its supporters put forth is that they hold millions of people without basic rights and have done so for over 55 years because of “security concerns.” But that is an argument that is very difficult to make without justifying collective punishment, and a basic doctrine of might makes right. Still, Israel is quite capable of making that argument if it so desires; it has been doing so since 1967. It is, doubtless, the recognition of how weak that argument is that has led them instead to emphasize the effort to pre-empt the counter-argument defending Palestinian rights by labeling it antisemitic. 

This has real-world consequences. Earlier this week, twelve Israeli human rights groups—Adalah, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Combatants for Peace, Gisha – The Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Haqel: In Defense of Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders Fund, Ofek, Parents Against Child Detention, Physicians for Human Rights and Yesh Din—came together to condemn European Union High Representative Josep Borrell’s invoking of the IHRA definition of antisemitism to imply that antisemitism was at the heart of Amnesty International’s report “Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians” and that it was “inappropriate” to use the term “apartheid” about Israel, as if Israel, amongst all countries in the world, has a unique immunity to that crime, or, at least, being accused of it. 

In their statement, the groups—many of whom do not employ the term “apartheid” when referencing Israel’s overall treatment of the Palestinians—also rejected “the escalating instrumentalization of allegations of antisemitism to prevent an open debate about Israel’s oppressive policies towards Palestinians.”

This battle is entering a crucial stage, one which epitomizes the cliché “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” In the last U.S. election, we saw AIPAC get into funding actual political campaigns, which it had never done before. Yet, in doing so, they crafted messages to oppose candidates whose policies on Israel they did not like but made sure that those messages talked about any issue other than Israel. It was an implicit admission that Israel is a tough sell, and its draconian treatment of Palestinians, exposed in the modern era as it has never been before, won’t win over voters like it used to.

By the same token, the efforts—whether by government officials like the Task Force, lobbying groups like AIPAC, or the many grassroots activists working to pressure their elected officials in the U.S. and Europe—to stigmatize and even criminalize criticism of Israel is being stepped up, because pro-Israel forces really don’t have much else in their toolkit. That makes these fights particularly timely, crucial, and potentially, pivotal. 

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