This article was inspired by a lecture given by Alex Hearn, director of Labour against Antisemitism (LAAS).
Of late, the mainstream media and international organizations haven’t exactly been delicate in their coverage of Israel. Nevertheless, Israel’s opponents have been variably cautious in their condemnations. Some claim that they are only opposed to the policies of the Israeli government and that they would reject any claim that could be construed as antisemitic.
It is certainly not objectionable to be personally opposed to any government policy. No country is beyond reproach and Israel is certainly no exception. But that which could be presented as justified criticism of Israeli authorities can quickly turn into something much darker.
Critical media coverage of Israel has commonly been infused with antisemitic tropes, some of which will be further explored in this article. This problem seems to be unavoidable to a certain extent due to the strong ties of the State of Israel with the Jewish nation. Those who in reality hate Jews but don’t want to express their hate publicly seem to use criticism of Israel as a kind of back door through which they can vent their hatred.
The Source of Antisemitism
Openly antisemitic individuals are sometimes bold enough to claim that they have “good reasons” for their hatred. But all such “reasons” are based on generalizations about a nation of 15 million people. In this case, we’re only dealing with a racist pretext rather than legitimate reasons.
Antisemitism has only one basic cause. The Jewish people have always been hated simply because they dared to be different. They have not only preserved their ethnic culture but also their faith. In many cases, they escaped the forced Christianization of Europe and the harsh spread of Islam in North Africa and the Middle East.
A part of every community seems to have a hard time tolerating anyone who violates the unwritten code of the community. Ultimately, all antisemitic ideas and stories stem from individuals and communities who wanted to exterminate or expel the Jews who lived among them. Due to this fact, most of what has been written about Jews in the West over the last two millennia is either false or distorted in one way or another.
Over the centuries, many Westerners have been weaned on antisemitism. Many parents have told their children stories about Jews as greedy, malicious, and culturally deficient. Numerous religious texts, novels, and articles have passed on the same message. All of these ideas have one thing in common: They are manifestations of Jewish dehumanization. But what does dehumanization entail?
Dehumanization occurs when members of a single group routinely deny the human attributes of their alleged enemies. The clearest common denominator of Jewish dehumanization in ancient times was the recurring theme that the Jewish people sought to cause harm to all non-Jews. This same tendency of dehumanization is seen today toward the Jewish State of Israel.
Expressions of this claim can roughly be divided into two categories. The former is the the assumption that all Jewish/Israeli deeds that benefit others are in reality based on hidden selfish motives. This assumption precludes the possibility of Jews/Israelis having human attributes like kindness and compassion. The latter is the assumption that Jews/Israelis never make mistakes based on human attributes like fear and inexperience. Instead, every possible mistake is judged as an act of deliberate malevolence.
Is there really no hate involved in always assuming the worst of Israel as the Western media has been doing for decades? Furthermore, does it make sense to separate ancient manifestations of antisemitism from “criticism” of Israel when said criticism is based on the same trope of deliberate malevolence?
In 12th century England, the Jewish people were accused of kidnapping a Christian child, killing him and using his blood as an ingredient in their bread. This peculiar canard is usually called “blood libel”. Its use eventually spread all throughout Europe after its emergence in England. Blood libel was regularly used as a pretext to massacre entire Jewish communities in Europe from the late Middle Ages up until the 20th century.
Mainstream media coverage of Israel has often echoed this ancient libel. Allegations of Israel’s deliberate malevolence toward the Palestinian minority population have repeatedly been made in a manner similar to the blood libel. In these cases, it’s hardly ever considered necessary to seek further proof of the allegations. Most probably, the main reason is that sensationalistic claims about the alleged malevolence of Israelis reinforce the current relevance of the ancient canards about Jewish “malevolence”. Many communities have accepted these antisemitic allegations as baseline truths and have, unconsciously or deliberately, applied them to the modern state of Israel.
Without any doubt, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is one of the most notorious antisemitic texts of all time. The book was published in the Russian Empire shortly after the turn of the 20th century and deals with the supposed plans of the Jewish people to achieve world domination. However, the book was early on exposed as a forgery. It is essentially a plagiarized retelling of “A Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesqieu” – a French satire from 1864 that deals in no way with the Jewish people.
This conspiracy theory had a profound effect in many parts of the world, including the antisemitic ideas of Nazi Germany. With this canard in mind, the Nazis and other anti-Semites routinely published caricatures depicting the Jewish people collectively in the form of an octopus, a spider, or another many-legged creature.
In recent times, images that embody the state of Israel as a many-legged creature that embraces the world or known landmarks have repeatedly been circulated. One such image shows the Facehugger-monster from the film Alien wrapped around the face of the Statue of Liberty. The Star of David – the unifying symbol of the Jewish people – has been placed on the monster’s back. Such images are obviously intended to incite hatred and give rise to conspiracy theories rather than to present a valid criticism. But many people seem to be willing to excuse this sort of imagery as “only” constituting criticism of Israel.
When Extremists Unite
The aforementioned image of the Statue of Liberty went viral when Kayla Bibby, a member of the British Labour Party, shared it on Twitter. It is worth noting that Bibby got the picture from the neo-Nazi site Incogman, despite belonging to a political party that claims to identify with human rights and the struggle of the working class. She explicitly sent a message to the site, requesting a GIF version of the image. Ironically, antisemitism seems to have therefore united the far left and the far right.
When Thomas Gardiner – an ally of then-leader Jeremy Corbyn – was asked, he stated that Bibby would not be suspended for sharing the image because he considered it to be merely “anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish”. This statement brings up pertinent questions: Did the neo-Nazis who originally created the image only intend to criticize Israel? Are the similarities with the antisemitic propaganda of the past merely a coincidence?
“The Great Replacement”
The canard of Jewish world domination also features in a popular right-wing conspiracy theory known as “The Great Replacement”. According to this theory, a secret group of rulers – usually identified as Jews – is behind a wide-reaching conspiracy to eradicate “the white race”.
On August 11 and 12, 2017, right-wing extremists held a rally in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. Groups of self-identified neo-Nazis took to the streets, waving flags and chanting hate slogans. One group shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” This was in reference to The Great Replacement.
According to a related conspiracy theory, Israel is secretly responsible for all the wars in North Africa and the Middle East. The state of Israel has among other things been accused of organizing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the aim of luring the United States into wars in the Middle East. The alleged purpose of these wars is, according to one theory, to cause an influx of refugees into Europe. Seemingly, the proponents of these theories don’t find it necessary to differentiate between Jews and the State of Israel in their writings.
It would be possible to list more common denominators between known manifestations of antisemitism and “criticism” of the State of Israel, but the above examples should be sufficient to demonstrate the connection between them.
In ancient antisemitic writings, it was often claimed that Jews had an intent to cause harm to all other groups and that everything they were accused of doing was done with deliberate malevolence. In media coverage of Israel, Israelis are also depicted as acting with deliberate malevolence and there is never any mention of the possibility that anything bad could have happened due to carelessness or inexperience. In addition, media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often echoes ancient antisemitic blood libel.
Antisemitic conspiracy theories often revolve around the alleged plans of the Jewish people for world domination. Similarly, many new conspiracy theories revolve around Israel’s alleged plans to achieve world domination. Old antisemitic propaganda drawings, for example from Nazi Germany, often depict the Jewish people collectively as many-legged monsters embracing the world or societal institutions. Likewise, recent satirical images often depict Israel as a many-legged monster embracing the world, societal institutions, or symbols of freedom.
Are all these common denominators merely coincidental? While everyone is free to draw their own conclusion, there is substantial evidence to support that much of what is called “criticism of Israel” is simply a new, updated version of the same familiar antisemitism of the past centuries.
The author is an activist based in Reykjavík, Iceland. He is a board member of the Icelandic branch of MIFF (With Israel for Peace) and a former student of linguistics.