Progressive Movements, Israel, and Anti-Semitism

Dr. Philip Berger

By Dr. PHILIP BERGER Special to The Jewish Post & News Some organizations and persons holding themselves out to be progressive have grown increasingly hostile to Zionism and to Israel ever since the 1967 Arab Israeli war. Their claims that Israel is a colonialist and racist state sometimes equate with the denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. They have thrown virtually every imaginable slander at Israel, with the intent of delegitimizing and eliminating the only Jewish state.

Some progressives have expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in their fury at Israel. Other progressives who are not Jewish insist on defining for the Jews what is anti-Semitic and what is not.

To me, being a Zionist in 2022 means that I accept as primordial the right and the necessity of survival of the Jewish people, and the right and the necessity of a Jewish state capable of ensuring that survival.
Hence, as a Jew, I also believe anything which undermines or threatens Israel’s survival undermines or threatens the existence of the Jewish people and is, ipso facto, anti-Semitic.
Holding such an existential position does not diminish my five-decades long belief in an independent Palestinian state, support for full civil and political rights of Palestinians in Israel or my opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Jewish self determination and survival and Palestinian self determination and survival are not incompatible. I believe that the former is under serious threat by many in diverse progressive movements.

Some progressives disagree, claiming that Palestinian solidarity is rooted in anti-racism. The 2001 Durban conference on racism uprooted that claim. Non-Governmental Organizations connected to Palestinian groups distributed anti-Semitic materials including “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. T-shirts with a swastika and Star of David were handed out and placards were held high proclaiming, “If only Hitler had won.”

The 2020 European Union report on the pedagogical materials of the Palestinian Authority catalogued an intoxicating amount of outright anti-Semitic tropes and caricatures. The Hamas leadership continues this enterprise with its promotion of the blood libel against Jews. Progressives are silent.

Palestinian solidarity rooted in anti-racism? Not always.

Many progressives call for a one-state solution - a state to be shared by Jews and Palestinians. In effect, this would turn time back to before the 1948 Jewish state’s establishment, when Jews relied for millennia on the beneficence of others for their survival. We all know how the Jews have fared over time with that arrangement.
For progressives, the idea of one state is a utopian aspiration, no different than a world without borders. But such a utopia would be fatally catastrophic for Jews. It is predictable what would happen. The inevitability of a murderous assault on the Jews, along with the loss of Jewish self-determination, are what make the project of one state anti-Semitic.

Some progressives say that the era of ethnic, racial, or religious nation-states is fading. Such a claim is absent any evidence, especially in the Middle East. But even if nation-states are somehow destined to fade, why should the Jews go first? It is the Jews who have been excluded forever from nation-states, having endured expulsions, forced conversions, boycotts, isolation, and industrialized genocide. That, indeed, is why they need their own nation-state.

Apparently frustrated by such debates, progressives have been seeking to exclude from public discourse both the Zionist perspective and the very idea that the progressive position is anti-Semitic. A former Green Party MP exclaimed that there are “no two sides to this conflict, only human rights abuses” by Israel, which she accused of pursuing a policy of apartheid. The progressive Zionist position is thus derided and delegitimized.
At the same time, the progressive movement’s concept of intersectionality excludes Jews as objects of racist hatred by applying whiteness to the Jewish people, hence consolidating the bigoted view of Jews as powerful and dominating. History is full of examples of Jews being oppressed, excluded, and murdered. Jewish history is full of examples of periods of success and integration of Jews only to be followed by pogroms and genocide. Yet many progressives effectively deny this history, portraying Jews as racist oppressors. How can racist oppressors be objects of racist hatred?
Anti-Zionism rooted in anti-racism? Not necessarily.
Last spring a federal New Democratic Party Member of Parliament participated in a “Building Solidarity” conversation with former United Kingdom Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is widely viewed by British Jews as hostile to Jews. Regarding the Labour Party under Corbyn, the United Kingdom Equality and Human Rights Commission in an October 2020 report “identified serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints across the Labour Party”, and “identified multiple failures in the systems it uses to resolve them”. The EHRC “concluded that there were unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour Party is responsible.” What is a federal NDP MP doing meeting with a politician tainted by anti Semitism? How did the NDP leader let this so-called conversation proceed with one of his MPs along side Corbyn, under whom anti Semitism ran rampant in the UK Labour party?
Later in the spring two non-Jewish former NDP MPs sponsored a resolution to have the federal NDP oppose the IHRA definition of anti Semitism at its national convention. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been adopted by 34 countries, including Canada; by the European Union; and by numerous local governments and institutions around the world. The IHRA definition explicitly declares that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Good faith critique which does not undermine or threaten the existence of Israel as a Jewish state is not anti-Semitic.
But why should Israel be subject to a different standard of scrutiny than that levelled against other nations? It appears that only the Jewish character of Israel demands that it be more harshly judged than nations engaging in mass detention, gang rape, forced starvation and killings.

While some 60 Jewish NDP members and two Holocaust survivors publicly supported the resolution, the convention was urged to reject the resolution by over a hundred Canadian Jewish advocacy organizations, including synagogues, Holocaust survivor groups, rabbis, and communal agencies.
How is that that those outside the community feel free to define for the victims what constitutes racism? How can leaders of a major political party be colliding with the leadership of any ethnic community?

Yet some progressives who regularly bash Israel continue to claim they are being silenced by unjust accusations of anti-Semitism. No mainstream Canadian Jewish organization, even the most conservative, states that criticism of Israel constitutes anti Semitism, none. And none has ever stated that every critique of Israel is an existential threat to the state. Critics of Israel have no problem whatsoever criticizing Israel and the full-time denouncers have no problem denouncing Israel. The conservative Jews have done a pretty poor job of silencing anyone.

The ferocious obsession of some critics of Israel is frequently couched in language about ending the occupation of the land “from the river to the sea.” As they know full well, this geographical reference to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is code for replacing the entire state of Israel with a Palestinian state. Nothing could be more anti-Semitic in substance or intent than that.
Anti-Zionists are not simply criticizing Israel; they want to take it down as a Jewish state. Their definition of being silenced is having to endure any expression of opinion that is opposed to their own. Their double standard is breathtaking. They use code to advocate the elimination of the only Jewish state and no other country. That is why the IHRA definition rightfully calls them out as anti-Semitic.

The distinction between anti Zionism and anti Semitism is tissue thin. Only for Jews is self determination and autonomy, Zionism, castigated as a racist endeavour. Only for Jews is reclamation of their unforfeited homeland considered as colonialism. Only for Jews is the accusation hurled by a faculty association president that their self determination movement is just an “entitled powerful Zionist minority” conducting “psychological warfare.” at the university.

Anti Israel actors on the Left call for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel, not just in the occupied territories. BDS today is viewed as a non- violent form of protest. Boycotts against Jews date back to the 19th century in Hungary and were instigated in Russia, Austria, Ukraine, Poland, the United States and even in Quebec in the 1930s. The culmination of the Jewish boycott under Nazi Germany rule was Kristallnacht (literally “Crystal Night”) in November 1938 when over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Boycotts of Jews have always been deeply connected to anti Semitism and violence against Jews. No wonder Jews view the Left’s exclusive focus of BDS on Israel as inherently anti Semitic.

One of the Canadian boycotters posted a cartoon of a puppeteer controlling a puppet of former Prime Minister Harper “handing out sodastream which support the occupation of Palestine”. Though perhaps inadvertent it comes perilously close to a replication of the classic anti-Semitic portrayal of powerful Jews controlling the state, such cartoons going as far back as the late 19th century and featuring prominently in Nazi propaganda.

During the most recent war between Israel and Hamas in May, little attention was directed to the genocide in Tigray. At the same time Gaza was being bombed, Tigray women were being gang raped, citizens were being executed with bullets shot in the back of their necks and the population was on the verge of mass starvation provoked by Ethiopian military forces. But that was not enough to bring 5000 Torontonians out on to the streets as happened in the protest against Israel. Some body counts count. Others do not.

Not to be outdone, a prominent Canadian activist with a long history of attacking Israel but with no connection to the Jewish state posted this last August about Afghanistan: “If you are not an expert on #Afghanistan, have not been keeping up with what has been occurring, and are not directly impacted by what is happening don’t share unsolicited opinions and takes”. Only for the Jewish state is gratuitous commentary permitted and encouraged.

Some progressives blame the rise of worldwide anti-Semitism on Israeli government policies and actions. By holding Jews responsible for the hatred directed against them by anti-Semites, these progressives are giving the anti-Semites a licence to hate Jews. At the same time, some progressive movements are subjecting their Jewish members to a de facto test of fidelity: denounce Israel or face political excommunication. The irony here is that denouncing Israel would bring progressive Jews into common cause with anti-Semites on the Right as well as the Left.
Disavowing Jewishness or tests of loyalty took place historically in relation to Christianity, Islam, feudal rulers, and some governments. Loyalty tests in the Left are a continuation of centuries of anti Jewish pressure and sanctions.

Some progressives complain that Palestinian rights are not given fair time or space in the discourse. The facts are otherwise. In 2020, the United Nations General Assembly condemned Israel three times more often than it condemned all other nation-states collectively. Fifty percent of United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions are similarly directed at Israel. Israel Palestine is the only permanent agenda item at their meetings (number 7) and the only permanent commission of the UNHRC is Israel Palestine. Nearly every UN subject specific committee targets only Israel whether in health, culture, or women’s rights. The High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention in its three meetings since 2001 (the first in 52 years) centres out Israel only for censure and condemnation. Nor do the world’s media ignore the Palestinians – far from it. Just turn on the news.

What makes some progressive movements anti-Semitic? Their penchant for disproportionately maligning Israel relative to their denunciation of widespread human-rights violations elsewhere on the globe. Their denial of Jewish self-determination. Their erasure of Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel. Their failure to include anti-Jewish hatred in notions of intersectionality. Their creation and distribution of hateful materials. Their strategy of blaming Israel, not anti-Semites, for anti-Semitism worldwide. Their denial of the right of Jews to defend themselves. And their dissembling about their true aim, which is to take down the Jewish state.

Progressives free of anti-Semitism? Some are not.


Philip Berger is an Officer of the Order of Canada and has been involved in left wing causes and issues for 50 years.