the discourse

Is That Antisemitic?

The fraught terminology surrounding the war in Gaza.

Illustration: Tyler Comrie
Illustration: Tyler Comrie

Debates over Israel’s policies have always been plagued by antisemitism and specious allegations of the same. This is especially the case in the current moment. Hamas’s mass murder of Israeli Jews and others has prompted some of Palestine’s sympathizers to betray their disregard for Jewish life. Israel’s mass killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, meanwhile, has led its knee-jerk defenders to use baseless allegations of bigotry as a means of disqualifying legitimate dissent.

The president of the Anti-Defamation League has called a left-wing Jewish organization protesting the bombing of Gaza a hate group because it opposed Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Republicans in the House have attempted to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, for criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories in her first statement after the October 7 attack. At the same time, genuinely hateful speech has been disconcertingly prevalent online and in the streets with some supporters of Palestine celebrating the largest mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust.

In this chaotic environment, people may struggle to discern which suddenly ubiquitous phrases — such as “settlers,” “from the river to the sea,” “genocide,” and “Israeli apartheid” — express legitimate points of view and which convey bigotry. Even a supporter of a cease-fire might wonder, Am I supposed to be angry at people who use those words? Or be sensitive to them? Or agree with them?

Too often, arguments about antisemitism get bogged down in assertations about a given claim’s motivation, which in most cases is unknowable. So in determining whether a statement should be branded as antisemitic, let’s focus on its explicit meaning, not its alleged motivation. Some speech acts inherently devalue Jewish life. Others don’t.

In the first category lie all manner of apologia for the October 7 attack. The hateful character of some of these scarcely requires elaboration. Following the revelation that Hamas militants had tortured and murdered hundreds of unarmed Israelis, the Yale professor Zareena Grewal, among a few other self-styled radicals, defended such atrocities on the grounds that “settlers are not civilians.” One need not be antisemitic to question the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to territory that belonged to Palestinian families before their mass expulsion in 1948. But it is hateful to suggest that any human being is a worthy target for slaughter by virtue of being born a Jew on the wrong patch of land. The vast majority of people on Earth live in a territory that was violently expropriated from one group or another at some point before their births.

Other apologias for anti-Jewish violence are more insidious. Rather than justifying the murder of innocents, some have chosen to conceal those atrocities beneath anesthetizing euphemisms, insistently referring to the October 7 attack as a mere “military response” or “counteroffensive.” It is not antisemitic to acknowledge that Hamas’s targets on that day included Israeli soldiers or that its operation had a martial logic. But to use those facts to occlude, if not legitimize, the sadistic slaughter of hundreds of Israeli civilians is to express a callous indifference toward Jewish suffering.

If the discourse about the Israel-Hamas war is plagued by antisemitism, it is also stunted by dubious allegations of bigotry. Of these, the most contentious might be the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” And this chant is unquestionably anti-Zionist: To make the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into “Palestine,” one must eliminate the State of Israel.

In the ADL’s reading, this implies nothing less than the forced “removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland,” and it is surely true that some Hamas militants and sympathizers use the phrase to mean precisely this. But not all visions for a liberated Palestine “from the river to the sea” entail ethnic cleansing. Many progressive Palestinians advocate for Israel’s displacement by a single, binational state in which all Jews and Arabs enjoy full democratic rights.

Some may also genuinely perceive antisemitism in the claim that Israel is perpetrating a “genocide” against the Palestinian people. Yet this allegation is not so baseless as to be indicative of bigotry.

Much of Gaza’s population consists of the descendants of Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from Israel in 1948. Israel now bars them from returning to their ancestral towns solely because they are not Jewish — which is to say, because of their ethnicity. In recent weeks, the Israeli military has cut off Gazans’ access to food, water, and fuel. It has bombed Palestinian apartment buildings and a refugee camp. Leaders of its government have used genocidal rhetoric. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu analogized Israel’s current enemies to a rival tribe of the biblical Israelites whose extermination was ordained by God. A member of Netanyahu’s party has called for “erasing all of Gaza from the face of the Earth.” And a research agency affiliated with the government has published a proposal for Gaza’s ethnic cleansing. For these reasons, U.N. experts have warned that there is “a risk of genocide against the Palestinian People.”

All this said, the claim that Israel is currently conducting a genocide remains unconvincing. For any campaign of violence to constitute that extraordinary crime, its intention must be the destruction of an ethnic or religious group, “in whole or in part,” according to the U.N. The official aim of Israel’s war is not to destroy the Palestinians but to overthrow Hamas. A regime-change war that shows callous disregard for civilian life is an abomination. But it is not a genocide. For now, Israel’s actions appear to fit the former description better than the latter. Given the nation’s military might, it would surely be capable of killing far more Gazans in three weeks of war than it has to this point were its true aim the extermination of the Palestinian people. All this makes the claim that Israel is perpetrating a genocide journalistically irresponsible but not antisemitic.

Finally, there are arguments that get branded as antisemitic but that no well-informed person could possibly regard as such. Chief among these is the claim that Israel has become an apartheid state in the West Bank. In international law, the crime of apartheid is defined as the perpetration of various “inhuman acts” — including the “expropriation of landed property” — for “the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” There is no question that Israel’s policies in the West Bank aim to establish and maintain such domination. The Jewish residents of that region are allowed to vote for the government that rules them; the Palestinian ones are not. There are streets that Jewish people are allowed to walk down but Palestinians can’t. Jewish settlers often attack their Palestinian neighbors — in a deliberate bid to intimidate them into vacating their land — without facing recriminations from the Israeli state. To the contrary, the Israeli legal system has worked in concert with Jewish settlers to force Palestinians out of their communities through a variety of legal pretexts. This constitutes the inhuman act of expropriation, according to a wide range of human-rights groups. But one need not be a do-gooder lawyer to recognize Israeli apartheid; the former head of Mossad, Israel’s CIA, told the Associated Press in September, “There is an apartheid state here.”

In the weeks since October 7, anti-Jewish animus has proved alarmingly prevalent on social media, on some college campuses, and in street demonstrations. Yet the fact that the United States has offered Israel unwavering support, even as it has subjected Palestinians to brutal domination, indicates that antisemitism remains a marginal force in the halls of American power. U.S. policy toward Israel does not evince a disregard for Jewish life but rather an extraordinary tolerance for Palestinian oppression. If the recursive debate about antisemitism leads us to any conclusion, let’s hope it’s to that.


See All
Is That Antisemitic?