Click here for a PDF of this article: Identifying Antisemitism and Racism in our Talk about Israel and Palestine
Note: This blog emerges from 30 years of my own personal mistakes and painful dialogues with Jews and Palestinians. I hope others will not have to trudge through all the mistakes I have made. This guide is not set in stone. Please send me your ideas for improving it or edits.
One-sided narratives about Israel and Palestine often rely on antisemitic, Islamaphobic, and racist tropes against Palestinians, other Arabs or Jews. Many are eager for outsiders to take sides and to see the situation in simple terms of good versus evil. Many view those who do talk to all sides as traitors and boycott virtually all conversations or authentic relationships with people on other sides.
A lack of understanding of the multiple narratives and perspectives leaves all sides with less information about the conflict. This ignorance makes it difficult to find a way forward. The use of anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic and racist language also makes it more difficult to build strategic coalitions for nonviolent resistance or peacebuilding. Israelis, in particular, unite against antisemitic language. Discrimination takes many forms and effects all people living in Israel and Palestine.
Offensive language worsens tensions and blurs the real issues at the root of the conflict.
A balanced approach does not ignore power differences, nor does it remain silent on injustice. Taking a balanced approach means that we listen to all sides and recognize the history, trauma, and narratives of a wide variety of Jews, including Mizrahi, African, Ashkenazi and diaspora Jews, and Palestinians, Beduins, Druze and other groups living in historic Palestine.
This briefing is the result of two months of research and listening to a wide variety of Israelis and Palestinians, particularly those engaged in seeking social change, from September-November 2017. The goal is to create the conditions to build a wide coalition for social change that both supports justice for Palestinians and peace for Jewish Israelis. Learning about Islamaphobia, racism, and antisemitism requires a concerted attitude of dialogue, learning, and humility.
What does Islamaphobia and racism look like?
Islamaphobia and racism toward people of Arab descent has a long history. Most people are not aware of the history, nor have they educated themselves on media biases and racist tropes. Many people hold racist attitudes toward Arabs, including Palestinians, Bedouins, Druze living in Israel and Palestine. Here are some examples:
- Delegitimizing the idea of a Palestinian state by offering little or no acknowledgement of Palestinian, Bedouin, Druze and Arab history, suffering, trauma or connection with the historic land of Palestine.
- Delegitimizing Palestinian self-determination and statehood and refusing to formally recognize Palestinians as a people.
- Delegitimizing Palestinian Christians by failing to recognize them as Christians.
- Demonizing all Palestinians and other Arabs as violent terrorists responsible for the conflict and rarely seeing them as victims or positive leaders.
- Demonization by placing all the blame on Palestinians and other Arabs, with no acknowledgement of Christian or Jewish roles as oppressors.
- Demonization by treating Palestinians in violating their human rights through disrespectful and violent ways.
- Demonization of Muslims by insulting Islam
- Double standard by focusing on corruption and wrongdoing of Palestinian leadership while ignoring the same behaviors from Western or Israeli leadership.
- Double standard of opposing attacks on Israeli civilians, but silence at the disproportionate killing of Palestinian civilians and collective punishment of Palestinians.
What does antisemitism look like?
Most non-Jews simply do not know about the long history of antisemitism and its many manifestations in our language and attitudes in the media and culture today. Many cannot recognize antisemitic tropes. Here are some examples:
- Delegitimizing the state of Israel by offering little or no acknowledgement of Jewish history, suffering, trauma or connection with Biblical lands and posing Israel strictly as a “settler colonial” project where white Europeans came voluntarily to take Indigenous land.
- Delegitimizing Jewish self-determination by refusing to formally recognize the State of Israel while at the same time supporting Palestinian self-determination and statehood.
- Demonizing Jews by ignoring threats to Jewish lives, historic trauma, and safety concerns.
- Demonizing Jews by presenting them only as oppressors, not as victims and conversely by presenting Palestinians exclusively as victims, not ever as oppressors.
- Demonizing Jews, with no acknowledgement of Christian, Arab or Muslim persecution of other Muslims, Palestinians, Jews, or the state of Israel. Christians and Muslims have killed far more Muslims than have Jews in Israel.
- Demonizing Jews by refusal to dialogue with Jews and supporting campaigns that boycott all contact with Israelis, even those who oppose occupation and work for justice.
- Double standard of supporting dialogue with Iran, the country which openly threatens Israel, while opposing dialogue with Israelis.
- Double standard of focusing only or mostly on Israel’s wrongdoing or obstacles to peace while ignoring Christian and Muslim states’ records on human rights and obstacles to peace in conflicts where far more Muslims and other people have died.
- Double standard by passing resolutions or making statements on Israel’s aggression, without explanation on the criteria for such resolutions or statements.
For example, in 2017 Mennonites in MCUSA conference passed only one resolution, a resolution denouncing antisemitism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Why only one resolution when there are many other conflicts that relate far more directly to Mennonites? By what criteria do Mennonites write and pass resolutions?
- Those conflicts where Mennonites are the settler colonialists (Mexico, Belize, Chaco, US and Canada) that continue to this day to dispossess Indigenous people.
- Those conflicts where many Mennonites are affected. The largest group of Mennonites in the world lives in the DRC, a country where 5.4 million have died since 1998.
- Those conflicts where Mennonites are complicit with violence done to make the products we use. Extractive industries kill people and/or destroy the environment in DRC, Canada, Iraq, and other countries in the name of producing goods we use.
- Those conflicts that are killing far more people than have been killed in Palestine (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan).
What is not antisemitism, Islamaphobia and racism?
It is not anti-Palestinian to support or talk to Jewish people, or to recognize the state of Israel. It is not antisemitic to support Palestinian human rights, or to criticize Israeli policies and oppose occupation. Pro-Palestine supporters often make it seem like accusations of antisemitism are frivolous, but this is not true. It is also not racist or Islamaphobic to criticize the policies of Palestinian or other Arab leadership. Pro-Israel supporters often make it seem like any Arab critique of Israel is anti-Semitic and this is also not true.
Principles for Talking about Israel and Palestine
- Understand the history of all sides and their legitimate grievances.
- Acknowledge that there are Jewish and Palestinian refugees.
- Recognize the significance of the land for all sides.
- Empathize with the trauma of all sides.
- Identify power differences and “false equivalencies” on all sides.
- Acknowledge the right to self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians.
- Recognize different meanings of Zionism.
- Acknowledge wrongdoing on all sides.
- Recognize positive aspects of both Israeli and Palestinian society.
- Avoid “trauma triggers” that entrench rather than transform the conflict.