The infallibility of David? On anti-semitism and criticising Israeli foreign policy

Criticising Israeli foreign policy does not constitute anti-semitism. As simple as this statement appears, its reiteration becomes an urgent necessity when faced with renewed debates on anti-Semitism in Europe.

Moritz Pieper
18 March 2013
E1 territory, the source of recent tension between Israel and the EU. Demotix/Nir Alon. All rights reserved.

E1 territory, the source of recent tension between Israel and the EU. Demotix/Nir Alon. All rights reserved.

A wide debate on anti-Semitism recently took place in Germany, following the placement of Jakob Augstein as Number 9 in a list of the top ten world’s worst anti-Semites by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Augstein is a prominent German journalist and columnist who had criticized Israeli foreign policy in a number of his articles.

The incident and ensuing controversy is reminiscent of the debate that happened almost a year ago over a poem by Günter Grass, which designated not the state of Iran potentially armed with nuclear weapons, but the Israeli threats of pre-emptive strikes against Iran, as the bigger danger to world peace. Leaving aside the aesthetics of the poem as well as the self-attested courageous treatment of a topic which is allegedly a public taboo, both of which have been widely criticized in the wake of the debate, the heated public discussion that ensued was indicative of the discourse and culture of debate surrounding criticisms of Israeli foreign policy.

Arguing that the inflammatory rhetoric used by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu doesn't lead to de-escalatory diplomacy in the Iranian nuclear stalemate and can even be destructive for any attempts to create a Nuclear-Weapons Free Middle East does not constitute anti-Semitism. Neither does it constitute anti-Semitism to criticize the Netanyahu administration for its approval of thousands of new settlements in the West Bank, establishing irreversible facts on the grounds in the face of international law, effectively undermining and ridiculing any efforts of justice toward the Palestinian people. And a critique of the Israeli Gaza offensive(s) on the basis of the international law of war and the Hague Conventions, as embodied in the Goldstone report with regard to the war in Gaza in 2008/2009, cannot simply be disqualified as anti-Semite rhetoric either.

However, to the observer of the public discourse on Israel, it seems that any critique of Israeli foreign policy quickly becomes castigated with the apparent catch-all rebuttal of ‘anti-Semitism’, regardless of how differentiated and nuanced the argumentation of the initial critique may be.

Anti-Semitism, according to the definition of the historian Helen Fein, is a ‘permanent latent complex of hostile convictions against Jews as a collective’. Equating a critique of statist policies with the reproach of ‘hostile convictions’ against a people or a religious community, however, is not only a logically incorrect consolidation into a lump sum of an (often) much more specific argumentation, it also insinuates an intrinsic malign intention in a presumptuous way. And it also suggests a moral superiority of the one who reproaches others with anti-Semitism.

Were we to accept such a simplistic syllogism, it would soon be impossible to criticize Israeli foreign policy. Not only would this mean conceding to a logically incoherent reproach (possibly out of a discomfort or unease about tackling such a politically loaded and emotionally charged issue), it would also expose blatant double standards, for it is precisely the capability to judge the foreign policy of any state by the same criteria that constitutes not only factual objectivity, but also moral integrity.

There is no single, clear-cut definition of ‘morality’, which is why the latter observation opens itself up to a plethora of relativizing discourses. However, if we accept morals as a virtual pattern for our actions that dictates our behaviours in an ultimately deontological way, following a Kantian categorical imperative, we would arrive at a moral incoherence in applying double standards in such an outright manner. 

The adoption of such a conclusion as premise when judging foreign policy should apply to journalistic standards in European countries and respective discursive cultures. It should also be a desirable component of European Union foreign policy and security discourses.

Against the background of Netanyahu’s approval of the construction of 1500 new settlements in east Jerusalem last December, European countries that are traditionally among Israel’s closest allies (Germany, the UK, France and Portugal) publicly expressed their displeasure with Israel’s blunt disregard for Peace Process efforts. In a similar vein, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton described the Israeli settlement policies as “extremely troubling”. And - only adding to this growing tension between Israel’s roughshod foreign policies and the EU’s pledges for two-state-diplomacy - Israeli foreign policy is rather unlikely to follow a more accommodating course following the outcome of the latest Israeli parliamentary elections at the end of January 2013.

As Muriel Asseburg rightly points out (in German), a two-state-solution has not become more realistic with half of the seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, being occupied by rightist parties. Apart from Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima faction and, as of late 2012, of her newly-formed party Hatnuah, no candidate has addressed the Peace Process with the Palestinians in the election campaign.

Another worrying observation is the rise of ultraorthodox and intolerant views - not only within the political spectrum, but in society too. It is most telling that Netanyahu himself has portrayed the prevention of the nuclear rise of Iran as his number one foreign policy priority, not devoting a single word to the Peace Process, his settlement policies or even the economic and social political challenges that Israel is facing (as has been brought to the forefront of public attention by the 2011 protests).  

It is this tendency of a hawkish foreign policy line by the new Netanyahu cabinet (which is only to be reinforced by the right-wing shift that followed the parliamentary elections) that should trouble EU diplomacy on the Middle East Peace Process. The appointment of Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister (with a special mandate to push forward the Peace Process) apparently was Netanyahu’s ill-conceived reply to such fears.

For an appropriate and effective diplomatic discourse to emerge, an argumentative rebuttal of the all too often automatic anti-Semitism reproach is a prerequisite. Criticizing Israeli foreign policy must not be a taboo topic. Not for European and EU public diplomacy, still less for journalism in Europe - the freedom of which is fundamental in paving the way for necessary critical discourses, ultimately informing European politics.

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