Assessing validity of anti-Semitism accusations: Genuine critique or strategic suppression of pro-Gaza voices?

Menna Osama, Thursday 23 Nov 2023

Amid the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, there has been a growing trend in certain Western media and political circles to brand any individual or expression critical of Israel as anti-Semitic.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to Zionism, protest on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2023. AFP


This raises important questions about the motive behind employing such an accusation and whether it serves as a genuine concern or a strategic manipulation to stifle dissenting voices.

Since the start of the Israel war on Gaza on 7 October, Israel has continuously bombarded Gaza, including hospitals, religious sites, schools, and refugee camps, resulting in the killing of over 14,128 people in Gaza, 74 percent of whom reportedly children and women, according to UNRWA figures.

Almost 1.7 million people -- nearly 80 percent of the population -- have been displaced since the war began, UNRWA said on Thursday.

This comes in addition to Israel's blockade of the Strip, cutting off all water, food, and fuel supplies and delaying the delivery of aid into Gaza.

Among the “deadliest incidents” witnessed in Gaza was the heavy Israeli airstrikes targeting Jabalia Refugee Camp, for which the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in early November that given the scale of destruction, “we are alarmed about potential disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes.”

The purpose?

Concerning the context that the term anti-Semitism has been invoked, Mostafa Kamel El-Sayed, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said it comes amid the notable upsurge in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Western media argues that Hamas' aggression was a pogrom against Jews, leaving Jewish people around the world feeling threatened. Speaking to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, FBI Director Christophe Wray has recently warned that anti-Semitism is reaching “historic levels” in the US.

“The purpose of using the term is to suppress any criticism of Israel or the Zionist movement,” El-Sayed told Ahram Online.

Niveen Mosaad, professor of economics and political science at Cairo University, also believes that the purpose of using the term nowadays is to “mute any dissenting voice.”

"The goal is to prevent anyone from criticising Israel, deeming any criticism of Israel as supporting terrorism,” Mosaad told Ahram Online.

This comes despite the fact that all those who criticised the killing of civilians in Gaza clarified that they are against civilian casualties on both sides, Mosaad noted.

“Those directing such accusations do not want anyone openly criticising Israel's policies in killing civilians, including children, and targeting hospitals, bakeries, and ambulances. And yes, for them, it's acceptable for Israel to kill whoever it wants, under the pretext of its legitimate right to self-defence,” Mosaad said.

When French President Emmanuel Macron criticised the killing of Gaza’s women and children, he was accused of being anti-Semitic, Mosaad argued.

In mid-November, Netanyahu strongly rebuked Macron, who criticised Israel's actions in Gaza, particularly for killing babies and the elderly, saying there was "no justification” for Israel’s bombing of “these babies, these ladies, these old people."

In response, Netanyahu accused Macron of making “a serious mistake, factually and morally.” Macron published a letter the next day in Le Parisien, in which he urged his nation to combat “the unbearable resurgence of unbridled anti-Semitism.”

El-Sayed underscores that the application of the term anti-Semitism is primarily situated within Western narratives, prominently surfacing in the French media and the US.

Earlier in November, the US Congress voted to censure Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American serving in the Congress, due to her rejection of labelling criticism towards Israel as anti-Semitic.

"I will not be silenced, and I will not let you distort my words," stated Tlaib during a Congress session.

“No government is beyond criticism. The idea that criticising the government of Israel is anti-Semitic sets a dangerous precedent, and it’s been used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our nation,” Tlaib said before being censured.

Origin and validity

The term "anti-Semitic" refers to hostility directed towards Jews as a religious group. Coined by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 19th-century Europe, the term was introduced to identify and characterise the anti-Jewish campaigns prevalent in Central Europe during that historical period.

Mosaad indicates that “anti-Semitism is a weapon” used against those either who discriminate against Jews or those who take an anti-Israel position.

In this regard, El-Sayed noted that "the problem with this term is that although the Arabs are also Semites, it is understood in Europe to be limited to the Jews, and I think this is an inaccurate understanding of the term."

Mohamed Afifi, a professor in the History Department at the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University, indicated that hostility towards Jews had never existed in Arab countries before the state of Israel was established.

“While after the establishment of the state of Israel, some of the extremist religious currents in Israel have shaped or transformed the conflict into a religious existential conflict, rather than a political conflict over land and borders. Unfortunately, some Islamic currents have fallen into this trap,” Afifi told Ahram Online.

In recent days, several protests took place in the US, with a large number of Jews calling for a ceasefire, holding signs that read “not in our names,” and demanding an end to Israel’s occupation.

“Since there are many prominent Jews who are taking a strong stand against Israel, and they even demonstrated in the US Congress and called for a ceasefire in Gaza, we should highlight such demonstrations and emphasise the fact that our hostility towards Israel and its violence in Gaza and the West Bank does not mean that we are taking a hostile stand against Jews,” El-Sayed said.

Moreover, Afifi believes that “we should shed light on Jews inside and outside of Israel who call for the implementation of international humanitarian law and the non-violation of human rights.”

Afifi noted that Arab media should highlight the fact that “we do not intend to demolish the Israeli state because this violates international law and a UN-recognized state. Rather, we only want Israel to create a political map that displays its boundaries so that it stops occupying nearby territories."

El-Sayed emphasised that “we, as Arab media outlets and politicians, should be cautious when distinguishing Jews, Israelis, and Zionists.”

Mosaad differentiates between both terms, saying that anti-Semitism is anti-race, while anti-Zionism is anti-political ideology.

“We should be very specific that we are critical of the acts of Israelis and Zionists, but we are not critical of Jews,” El-Sayed said.

In 1996, American Jews formed an anti-Zionist organisation named Jewish Voice for Peace, which stands in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom. In 2002, British Jews also founded an anti-Zionist group called Jews for Justice for Palestinians, which advocates human rights and political freedom for Palestinians.

El-Sayed said that there is a term used by the extremists in Israel and Western countries for the Jews who take a stand against Israeli policies, labelling them as “self-hating Jews.”

The AUC professor emphasised that “we respect Jews the same way we respect Christians and people of all religions in general.”

Afifi also agreed, saying that “our statements and interviews, regarding the conflict, should not be directed to Jews, but rather to Israelis.”

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