Israel’s antisemitism accusations become more meaningless than ever in row over Amnesty apartheid report

Labour activists demonstrate outside a meeting of the national executive of Britain's Labour Party as it discussed the party's definition of antisemitism in 2018 (Reuters)

Emad Moussa

Mondoweiss  /  February 1, 2022

The pro-Israel tactic of accusing advocates for Palestinian rights of antisemitism is weakening, as shown by a series of recent attacks. Now labelling Amnesty International an antisemitic organization for stating that Israel practices apartheid can only discredit those tactics further.

The past few weeks saw a noticeable increase in organized smearing campaigns targeting Palestinian and pro-Palestine activists. Following recent attacks on known personalities, including Irish author Sally Rooney and British actor Emma Watson, Israel and its lobbies have made Amnesty International their new target.  

It is no secret Israelis have long viewed Amnesty international and other rights groups through the same lens as they have the UN: systematically and disproportionally working against the Jewish state. But today Amnesty  rose in ranks to become an antisemitic organization, or so said Israel’s officials and their cronies.

On the eve of Amnesty’s release of its report titled “Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime against Humanity,”  Israel went into a panic mode, preemptively calling it “false, biased, and antisemitic” and accusing AI of endangering the safety of Jews worldwide.

In a video statement, Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid said that the report denies Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people. He resorted to the same overused tropes in defense of his country; saying: “We are a democracy committed to international law…with a free press and independent judicial system.”

“Amnesty doesn’t call Syria — where the regime has murdered over half a million of its own citizens — an apartheid state. Nor Iran, or other murderous regimes around the world. Only Israel,” Lapid added.

It is unclear how Lapid found it contextually valid to draw such comparisons or how, in the first place, he saw a report calling out Israel’s crimes as antisemitic and, ultimately, an existential threat. What is clear, however, is that he is not alone in this sentiment.

Almost simultaneously, the US-based pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a press statement condemning Amnesty’s reports almost in an identical fashion to Lapid’s.

In addition to embracing the same Israeli defensive tropes, ADL said that the report “goes beyond criticizing Israeli policies and actions to painting Israel’s very creation as illegitimate, immoral, and faulted…It denies the Jewish right to self-determination in its historic homeland.” 

While taking those Jewish claims to the land and self-determination for granted, ADL rejected altogether the report’s call for a right of return of all Palestinian refugees. 

The general tone and content of Amnesty’s report seem similar to the report by Israel’s B’Tselem last year, which also categorized Israel based on legal criteria as an apartheid state. Amnesty adds yet another voice to several rights organizations, among them Human Rights Watch, that have accused the Israeli authorities of committing the crime of apartheid.

The particularly aggressive attack on Amnesty, however, appears more reflective of the Israel smearing campaigns that have been escalating in the past few months than it is of the report’s actual content.

The report has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism, and everything to do with Palestinians, with their conditions under an unorthodox combination of military occupation and apartheid system.

The fact that Israeli officials find the report – much like pro-Palestine expressions – antisemitic,  has nothing to do with Jews and Judaism either, and a lot to do with how antisemitism is used and abused for political ends. This especially signifies how the Zionist definition of anti-Jewish sentiment has been distorting the true meaning of antisemitism.

Palestinians who stand up to Israeli occupation are terrorists, their Israeli sympathizers are treacherous lefties, Jews who oppose Israel’s policies are self-hating, and their gentile supporters are motivated by nothing but a negative obsession with Jews. The umbrella definition of all these groups is antisemitism.

This rationale is page one in Israel’s foreign policy playbook. It among other things springs from the belief that antisemitism has many shapes and forms, which is in principle true. But the non-discriminatory, comprehensive fashion through which it is deployed means that antisemitic categories can be conveniently adapted to match the state worldview. 

Yair Rosenberg wrote in the Atlantic, commenting on the recent Texas Synagogue hostage situation, that because “anti-Jewish prejudice is so different from other forms of bigotry, many people don’t recognize it.”

Of note, there’s a growing consensus among scholars that such prejudice whilst contextually different is nevertheless conceptually similar to Islamophobia and anti-black racism. But more importantly, people do not recognize antisemitism sometimes because it is multi-tiered and it shape-shifts. It could be as obvious as a physical attack on Jews and their symbols, or as subtle as a mere conspiracy theory.

The synagogue attacker, British-born Malik Faisal Akram, demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an attempted murder sentence in the U.S. The assumption that Jews have control over the US judicial system is in itself an antisemitic conspiracy theory, according to Rosenberg.

But what Rosenberg fails to mention is that because of antisemitism’s elusive nature, combating it can be elusive, too. The broad range of antisemitic manifestations allows for a broad range of interpretations of what truly constitutes anti-Jewish prejudice. And when it comes to Israel, these interpretations are almost always twisted and weaponized for political gains.

With the newly introduced “Working Definition of Antisemitism” by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the broadening of the definition of antisemitism has now become a point of reference to Israel’s advocates and government officials. Even though there was no consensus within IHRA for including certain examples of antisemitism in its Working Definition, international and national civil society bodies have been urged to adopt it on the basis that it reflects a hard-won consensus among IHRA’s Member Countries.

report published by Oxford University in 2021 found irrefutable evidence on how the Working Definition was principally drafted and negotiated by pro-Israel advocacy groups, not Jewish history scholars. What is supposedly intended to protect Jews against antisemitism was twisted to protect the State of Israel against valid criticisms.

For instance, Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), one of the groups that drafted the definition, has a track record of haphazardly conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. Amongst the “most notable antisemitic incidents” listed by the SWC in recent years were Airbnb’s 2016 decision to delist Israeli rental properties located in Occupied Territory (decision reversed in 2019); UN Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements; and the 2021 ICC ruling it had jurisdiction in Palestine. In early January, SWC’s “Global Antisemitism Top Ten” included the BBC, the entire state of Germany, and Jewish Voice for Peace, drawing intense criticism from the EU for having “gone too far.”

Within the broad parameters of this definition, most – if not all – forms of pro-Palestine activism are deemed antisemitic. Applied comprehensively, the definition effectively denies Palestinians the right to self-determination, which is not only a politically motivated endeavor, but also a form of racism. It is precisely the same racist worldview, albeit less explicitly expressed, that ADL presented in the aforementioned statement.

Consider that in the Definition an example of antisemitism 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 endeavour.” The phrase establishes a hierarchy of rights. As if to say, to protect Jews against racism and prejudice, it is legitimate to deny Palestinians their basic human rights.  

What is clear at this point is that the more visible Israel’s human rights violations are, the broader the definition and the more aggressive the tactics become. This is deflection par excellence, a type of defensive mechanism. Deflection is a narcissistic abuse tactic often employed by the guilty to shift the attention away from oneself, and then redirect it toward other people, particularly one’s victims.

Since Palestine is no longer hidden in Israel’s war archives and because of increasing Palestinian visibility – and therefore relatability – globally, the chances of antisemitic smearing surviving an open and honest debate are very slim. To control the narrative, Israel is not left with many options but to intimidate and shut down critics.

Using antisemitism for political gains remains only a tactic and, although adaptable, it is unrealistic to expect it to keep up the momentum indefinitely.

The series of  attacks on key figures in the past months prove that the tactic is weakening. The wide support that Rooney and Watson, for instance, had received was only paralleled by another wave of counterattack directed at the abuse of antisemitism to silence Israel’s criticism. Labeling Amnesty International an antisemitic organization can only discredit those tactics further. 

Here in the UK at least, there seems to be a fast-growing public opinion  that does not accept that criticizing Israel and standing up for Palestinian rights are equal to anti-Jewish prejudice.

Many are concerned that of all the debatable issues, the British public are expected to refrain from exercising their right to free speech only when it comes to the Israeli state. The evidence is abundant: the Jew-hate accusations against Rooney for refusing to work with an Israeli publisher in solidarity with Palestine; the Jewish Chronicle, a month later, comparing a student protest at the London School of Economics against right-wing Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely to Kristallnacht; the media attack on Emma Watson; and before that, the smearing campaign against Bristol University’s prof. David Miller over pro-Palestine positions. 

This disrupts society’s democratic process and, as such, begets public resentment and a tendency to push-back – out of principle, or even spite.

One result would be the accentuation of antisemitic conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Another result is apathy. The over-usage of certain words, in this case “antisemitic,” leads to cognitive saturation, otherwise known in psychology as “semantic satiation.” Repetition causes a word to temporarily lose meaning for the listener.

The term “antisemitic” cannot escape the thought-terminating clamp when comprehensively applied and mercilessly repeated. It is not different in this regard from words like leftie, terrorism, fascist, or Nazi. All are casually used by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum to invoke thought-terminating clichés to describe their opponents and to provide their supporters with easy answers to otherwise complicated questions. 

Another side to apathy is overexposure. Repetitive exposure to a stimulus diminishes one’s emotional responsiveness to it. This is particularly true when the stimulus bears a negative association – such as “antisemitism.” It ultimately leads to “desensitization.”

Apathy to antisemitism, in other words, diminishes the phenomenon’s meaning and weakens one’s responsiveness to it. While this may debilitate the political abuse of antisemitism and strengthen Palestine solidarity, it could also lead to downplaying genuine anti-Jewish prejudice.

Not only is Israel’s abuse of antisemitism an immoral exercise that violates Palestinian human rights and encroaches upon democratic principles, it also trivializes the Jewish experience and contributes to creating a hostile environment for Jewish communities around the world.  

Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher, whose focus is the social psychology of mainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict