It’s fine to criticize Israel (so long as you say it’s a vibrant democracy and leave out the oppression of Palestinians)

The Forward has run an opinion piece saying that the left must come to terms with its anti-Semitism, citing anti-Zionist cartoons by Carlos Latuff. There are various leaps of logic here, but I want to jump to this part of Izabella Tabarovsky’s argument:

“One place to start is to learn the boundary of where the criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. (Hint: Israel’s ban against Omar and Tlaib unleashed a storm of criticism from U.S. Jewish institutions and individuals. None of it was anti-Semitic.)”

Of course Tabarovsky ignores the fact that much of the criticism she approves of from Jewish institutions and individuals was actually complimentary towards Israel and was bigoted against Palestinians. The idea is that Israel is a “vibrant democracy”, maybe with a few warts, but its overwhelming virtues would be immediately apparent to any fair-minded observer.

At worst Tlaib and Omar might have criticized Israel, and Israel would brush this off because there are Israelis who criticize Israel too, so what’s the big deal? As long as there is some internal debate within Israel the criticisms actually show the healthy nature of Israeli democracy.

And so: The oppression of millions of Palestinians is a golden opportunity for Israelis to show off the vibrancy of their political culture by having lots of differing opinions about it.

It seems almost churlish to point out how much this reeks of narcissism. It’s as if slavery didn’t really matter— what mattered was that 19th century America was a vibrant democracy where Lincoln and Stephen Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Calhoun could voice their opinions. Even Frederick Douglass was allowed to get a word in edgewise.

Someone who is consciously or unconsciously bigoted against Palestinians would miss the moral idiocy involved in this type of Israel apologetics. That probably accounts for most of that type of editorial.

Recently someone in the comments asked if there is any criticism of Israel that isn’t antisemitic and it occurred to me that there is. You are allowed to criticize the Israeli government for not having the self confidence to recognize how wonderful Israel is. That is what the New York Times and AIPAC and Tom Friedman criticized them for when Netanyahu kept the congresswomen out.

Tom Friedman:

Excuse me, but when did powerful Israel — a noisy, boisterous democracy where Israeli Arabs in its Parliament say all kinds of wild and crazy things — get so frightened by what a couple of visiting freshman American congresswomen might see or say? When did Israel get so afraid of saying to them: “Come, visit, go anywhere you want! We’ve got our warts and we’ve got our good stuff. We’d just like you to visit both. But if you don’t, we’ll live with that too. We’re pretty tough.’’

Peter Beinart recognized that what Israel did was rational— Tlaib and Omar would not have stuck to the sort of guided tour that AIPAC would give. But the Times editors stuck to the AIPAC line.

The Times:

It has long been Israel’s mantra that critics of its policies should come see for themselves, and the country is certainly strong enough to handle any criticism from two members of Congress.


We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.

It was the liberal path of least resistance— they could criticize Trump and they could criticize Netanyahu for his alleged caving in to Trump and they could praise Israel as, yes, a vibrant democracy. These editorials practically write themselves. Maybe there is an app for that.

I called this unconscious bigotry. The term “unconscious” is charitable, but it is probably accurate for most. People just follow the same reasoning that others use. In the US, bigotry on this subject is widely acknowledged in two forms. First and foremost, people are concerned about antisemitism, both real and imagined. (Trump just made an antisemitic statement which is similar in reasoning to those who say JVP members aren’t real Jews. It will be interesting watching people ignore that point.) But more recently, mainly since Trump, mainstream liberals are also concerned about Islamophobia and racism within our borders, so there was genuine outrage over what Trump said about the Squad and where they come from.

But there is no concern about racism against Palestinians. People who criticize Israel are constantly scrutinized or accused of antisemitism. There is no scrutiny going the other way. The New York Times carried four writers’ opinion pieces last year defending the shooting of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and nobody in the political mainstream batted an eye. Imagine if four NYT columnists defended terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. People most likely would have noticed and maybe even said something. Of course it would never occur to the NYT editors to allow such views in their paper.

The simple fact is that to defend Israel’s actions towards Palestinians you have to defend terrorism and war crimes, but people who do this are never considered to be racist in mainstream circles. They are congresspeople and Senators and pundits and Presidents. They are part of respectable opinion and these are the people convinced that a nonviolent Palestinian rights movement is Hitler reincarnated. That almost seems bigoted.



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