the national interest

We Should Use the Same Principles for Debating Israel As Debating Racism

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Here is the beginning of an article that ran not long ago in the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s popular site for conservative news:

On Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) blamed Jews for the conflict between Israel and Hamas, tweeting, “I am extremely concerned by the growing conflict in Israel and Palestine. Once again we are seeing how the irresponsible actions of government-allied right-wing extremists in Jerusalem can escalate quickly into devastating war.

It is of course literally true that Sanders blamed “government-allied right-wing extremists” and those extremists are Jewish. But this construction is as accurate as describing any criticism of the Venezuelan government as “blaming Latinos” or a denunciation of China’s government as an attack on “Asians.”

This passage is fairly unexceptional — not only for the Daily Wire, but the conservative media as a whole, which habitually treats criticism of Israel’s government as ipso facto anti-Semitic. Conservative commentators casually toss about the term “blood libel” (a centuries-old anti-Semitic myth that Jews murder Christian children for ritualistic purposes, frequently used as justification for pogroms) to describe any criticism of Israel they find objectionable. “Squad members such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib openly spread blood libel,” claims National Review’s David Harsanyi. “If you listen to them, you’d think Israelis go around killing Palestinian children for kicks. It’s odious. They’re Jew haters, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.”

“When reading and listening to Western progressives, it is impossible to distinguish between their hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews,” argues the Washington Free Beacon. “The charge of apartheid is the new blood libel,” asserts National Review editor Rich Lowry. “Obama’s deployment of anti-Semitic tropes in selling the Iran deal gave a lot of cover to Jew haters everywhere,” claims his colleague Philip Klein. Shapiro made “the Jew-hating Obama administration” almost a catchphrase.

All these quotes come from publications that devote the large bulk of their space to complaining about the excesses of the woke left, tossing around loose charges of racism to wantonly discredit their opposition. It is almost surreal to watch them toggle easily between decrying the harm of false charges of racism while discussing one form of bigotry and then toggle immediately into hypersensitive snowflake mode while discussing another.

The hypocrisy on display is important. But conservatives are not the only ones who employ one set of rules for charges of racism in debates over Israel and another set of rules for other subjects. The subject of Israel merely illuminates a strange transformation that causes everybody to invert their principles. The subject matter of debates over Middle East policy and racism may be very different, but the meta-debate — the argument over the argument — is strikingly similar.


Any broad debate over the subject of Israel will usually contain each of the following:

1) A critic of Israel making overtly or covertly anti-Semitic comments.
2) A supporter of Israel lobbing poorly founded charges of anti-Semitism at one of their opponents.
3) A critic of Israel citing the prevalence of false charges of anti-Semitism to present charges of anti-Semitism as merely a silencing tactic.

We don’t need any consensus on how common each of these three claims may be to agree that they all exist.

It seems equally obvious that all three tend to aggravate one another. The existence of anti-Semitism makes it easier for Israel supporters to depict criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. The existence of Israel hawks using inflated charges of anti-Semitism as a cudgel makes it easier for anti-Semites to pose as victims being silenced.

This dynamic is not unique to the Israel debate. You can use roughly the same model to describe debates over racism. Grasping this parallel does not require equating anti-Semitism and racism as social problems. (I personally consider anti-Black racism a far broader and deeper form of oppression in American life.) My point is simply that debates over racism and debates over Israel and anti-Semitism have common elements: (1) racism, (2) ill-founded charges of racism, and (3) a backlash against ill-founded charges of racism. And all three interact with one another in roughly the same way.

At different times, I’ve taken both sides on both debates — questioning and supporting charges of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel, questioning and supporting charges of racism. That hardly makes my judgment on any of these issues infallible. But it has helped make me aware of the patterns of fallacious reasoning that both sides seem to slip into easily.

The general dynamic in both these different kinds of debates is that partisans on both sides apply motivated reasoning. You’ve probably heard of the can-believe/must-believe dichotomy. If we encounter a charge of bias against the opposing side, one’s tendency is to ask whether we can believe it. If we face a charge against our own side, we ask if we must believe it.

Debates over bias lend themselves naturally to this form of motivated reasoning because they are so tribal, and because they speak to motivations that are often concealed. The can-believe standard lets us ask, if this person were biased, is the statement in question something they would say? And since it is true that an anti-Semite would hate Israel, and a racist would question affirmative action, condemning people whose motives we already suspect is easy.

When the charge is turned around at our own side, the must-believe standard lets us assume the very best of intentions. The apologetics made by Donald Trump supporters for his decades of racist comments, or by Jeremy Corbyn defenders for his long string of anti-Semitic statements and associations, follow the same pattern. The defender considers each offense individually, rather than as part of a larger pattern, before turning the issue to the motives of the enemy seeking to discredit them with hyperventilated accusations.

The value of thinking about the Israel debate and the racism debate in parallel with each other is that it easily allows us to see the traps of motivated reasoning. Liberals often mock complaints about unfair charges of racism: Oh, you think being called racist is a bigger problem than racism itself? You complain of being canceled, yet here you are, still talking to your audience.

But thinking about the effect of bogus charges of anti-Semitism on the Israel debate ought to make it easy for those on the left to see the downside. Unfair charges of anti-Semitism don’t have to be as large a social problem as anti-Semitism itself to have a chilling effect on debate. Being publicly labeled an anti-Semite is in fact quite harmful to a person’s reputation, whether or not they retain their job or legal right to free speech. All these things hold true as well of being branded a racist.

Liberals easily understand that charges of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel ought to clear some evidentiary hurdle in order to be taken seriously. A blanket policy of deferring to any Jewish person’s definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism would hand control of the debate over to the most militant and unreasonable hawk. Yet many liberals implicitly or explicitly believe that charges of racism deserve that level of deference, as if they can never be made either in error or political motive.

Liberals should likewise understand how easy it is for actual anti-Semites to rally ideological comrades to their side. We have seen racists do this by changing questions about their own serious bigotry into a backlash against wokeism run amok. The right doesn’t have a monopoly on this tactic.

Conservatives, for their part, ought to understand how tempting it is to evade debates over policy by branding one’s opponents racist. They make assertions about motives by the left on Israel that would make them howl in outrage if made against conservatives on race. And because they have seen anti-Semites conceal their prejudice as mere anti-Zionism, they should understand that racists on their own side often understand how to express bigoted ideas in facially race-neutral terms.

I am not pretending to have devised a formula that can resolve every debate over prejudice. Every dispute boils down to specific questions, some of which are genuinely hard to answer. But it is easier to think about these questions clearly, if not always simply, if you think about all these controversies over race and anti-Semitism as different forms of the same debate and attempt to apply consistent rules to all of them.

Use the Same Principles to Debate Israel and Racism