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Amnesty for Antisemitism

Those who wish to destroy the Jewish state almost always hotly deny the charge of Jew hatred. Often, they claim they are merely opposed to Israeli policies, and the charge of antisemitism is meant to shield Israel against all legitimate criticism. Defenders of Israel must therefore waste time in responding to such attacks with a throat-clearing insistence that of course Israel is not above criticism, and of course there can be criticism of this or that Israeli policy that is not antisemitic.

So it is oddly refreshing that, as the former human rights organization Amnesty International launches its latest attack on the Jewish state, it is not bothering to pretend that its condemnation is limited to certain Israeli policies, but rather to the country’s very existence as a Jewish state.

The report is due to be formally published tomorrow, but as quoted in The Forward, a veteran, New York City-based, left-wing Jewish news service that is frequently critical of Israel, Amnesty International is accusing Israel of “the crime against humanity of apartheid,” in that “since its establishment in 1948, Israel has pursued an explicit policy of establishing and maintaining a Jewish demographic hegemony.” So this is an attack on the character of the country from its beginning. There could be no remedy except for dismantling Israel as currently constituted.

It is true that Israel is an explicitly Jewish state, that it was established for the benefit of the Jewish people, and that this creates tension with its democratic character and promise of equality to its Palestinian Arab citizens, a large minority that includes 15 or 20 percent of the population. (Palestinians who live in the “West Bank,” parts of which have been militarily occupied by Israel from the close of the Six-Day War of 1967 until today, are not Israeli citizens.) It is also true that the Israeli Jewish authorities sometimes discriminate against Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. When I lived in Israel in the 1990s, I was an active member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which fights against such policies, a cause I continue to champion. Nevertheless, the accusation that Israel practices “apartheid” when Arab-oriented political parties have 14 representatives in the current, 120 member parliament, some of whom are central members of the governing coalition, is absurd on its face. In case you don’t know, the apartheid South African regime prior to 1994 did not even allow Black South Africans to vote.

But what of Israel’s explicitly Jewish character? That is a unique “crime against humanity,” right? Surely, no other country in the world is an ethno-state, or has an established religion; or at least, no democracy has such a character?

Surely, you jest. All of the states surrounding Israel grant a privileged position to the Arab ethnicity and the Muslim religion. This has real consequences in the murderous yet routine persecution of Christians, minority Muslim sects, and non-Arabs such as the Kurds, much worse than anything Israel has ever done, which has triggered mass flights of refugees for decades. The Palestine National Covenant of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, founding faction of the Palestinian Authority that has controlled much of the West Bank since the 1990s, expressly privileges Palestinian Arabs for the future time when the entire territory, “from the river to the sea,” shall be under its control, and threatens to expel the vast majority of Jewish people who arrived in Israel since “the Zionist invasion” began. But somehow those are not “crimes against humanity” for Amnesty International, a phrase coined during the Nuremberg Trials to describe the unprecedented crimes the Nazis had committed against Europe’s Jews and many other people. Comparing Israelis to Nazis is, of course, a staple of the current Jew-hating scene. As for democracies, most if not all favor a majority ethnic group, de facto and often de jure. If you doubt this, try applying for citizenship in, for example, impeccably democratic Japan. Or see how far you get arguing for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Shortly after Israel declared its independence, the parliament passed the “Law of Return,” which grants any Jewish person, or even a person with a single Jewish grandparent, the right to claim Israeli citizenship. But far from being a uniquely evil invention of those awful Jews, this is merely a variant on the principle of jus sanguinis, or “citizenship by blood,” one of the two main principles under which all nations decide who is a citizen and who is not. Palestinian Arabs born in Israel are also, de jure, fully equal citizens by jus soli, or right of birth in the country.

But what was the necessity for a Jewish state in the first place? Why couldn’t the Jews just stay where they were, rather than returning to their ancestral homeland?

Without even getting into the history of the Holocaust, which took place decades after the Zionist movement began, the answer is that this form of Jewish nationalism arose in response to the nineteenth-century European nationalisms, all of which proposed to set up ethno-states and all of which excluded the Jews as foreigners, no matter how long they had lived in the country. Even the most liberal European nationalists were only willing to accept Jews as fellow citizens in principle if they gave up all of their unique religion and culture; as the famous German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) put it, the Jews could only be granted rights if it were possible “to cut off all their heads in one night, and to set new ones on their shoulders, which should contain not a single Jewish idea.” The famous story has it that the Viennese Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl became convinced of the necessity for the Jews to have their own state during the Dreyfus Affair, when he witnessed mobs in Paris, the city of libertéégalitéfraternité, screaming “death to the Jews” because of the false accusation that French army officer Alfred Dreyfus has spied for Germany. Herzl died in 1904, but all of his children were murdered in the Holocaust, a grim confirmation that he had been right.

Now, one could retort that Zionism is not the answer, because all nationalisms are a priori bad, and the answer is to fight against the entire phenomenon until all men are brothers (in which case, would you let one marry your sister?). But in practice, the demand is always that the Jews must surrender their ethno-state first. Curious, isn’t it? What we have here is another staple of antisemitism, in which the Jews are scapegoated for whatever social problem makes the Jew hater mad. If a medieval Christian cleric, or a modern soi-disant progressive, is unhappy about rampant greed, he blames the Jews for their supposed love of money. If a German conservative after World War I or an alt-right American today is unhappy with the changes in his country, he blames the Jews for supposedly disrupting society. If Professor Tony Judt in 2003 or Amnesty International in 2022 senses that the most violently intolerant forms of nationalism are on the march, they blame it on the Jews, or their state, which amounts to the same thing.

It is personally painful for me to conclude that Amnesty International is on the side of Ayatollah Khamenei and Al Qaeda and Hamas and Jeremy Corbyn and David Duke in calling for Israel’s destruction, which means that they want me and my family dead. I wrote letters on behalf of Amnesty-designated prisoners of conscience when I was in college, and later, in my twenties, when I was living in Tel Aviv, where the group had an active chapter. But my commitment is to Truth, and to Life; to the Jewish people, and to Humanity; not to any party, organization, or abstract cause. No other country in the world has to argue constantly for its very right to exist. No other people in the human family must always debate its right to live on the face of this earth. By its own words and actions, Amnesty International has turned itself from a human rights organization into whatever the opposite is.

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