Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi explained Monday why criticism of Israel’s existence was a modern adaptation of an ancient hatred.
Halevi spoke at an event at DePaul Law School in Chicago where he described a question from a student asking about the ethics of "humanizing" Zionists.
In response the students question, Halevi explained how anti-Semitism throughout history blames Jews for the day’s ills, turning the Jew into an execrated "symbol of whatever it is that a given civilization defines as its most loathsome qualities." Whether the "Christ-killer" of pre-Holocaust Christianity, the "capitalist" of communism, or the "race-polluter" of Nazism, the Jew took the shape of society’s most hated idea.
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Today, Halevi argued, "the most loathsome qualities are racism, colonialism, apartheid. And lo and behold, the greatest offender in the world today, with all the beautiful countries of the world, is the Jewish state." Those who refuse to "humanize" Zionists, to humanize supporters of Israel’s right to exist, mark a "classical continuity of thousands of years of symbolizing the Jew."
He said that while "criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism," denying Israel's right to exist was another story. "Criticism of Israel’s existence, denying Israel the right to exist, calling Israel the ‘Zionist entity,’ that is anti-Semitism," he said.
Halevi argued that those spouting anti-Semitic language today include the far left, white supremacists, Islamist extremists, and many others. But according to Halevi, "all of those groups converge on one idea: the Jew remains humanity’s great problem."
Halevi is an American-born writer living in Israel. He was formerly a member of the far-right Jewish Defense League, designated a terror organization by the FBI in 2001. He renounced his involvement in the 1990s and spent much of the intervening years advocating for mutual respect and the rights of Israelis and Palestinians.
The DePaul event was part of Halevi’s speaking tour with Walid Issa, the executive director of the American Palestinian Hope Project. Issa was born in Palestinian occupied territory and is now based in the United States. The talk was cosponsored by Department of International Studies, Center for Religion Community and Culture, and others.
Halevi’s full response:
Those who traffic in that kind of language are on very thin ice. My understanding of anti-Semitism is the following: anti-Semitism is not simply hating the other, the Jew as other. Anti-Semitism works a little bit differently. What anti-Semitism does is turn the Jews, the Jew, into the symbol of whatever it is that a given civilization defines as its most loathsome qualities. And so, under Christianity, before the Holocaust and Vatican II, the Jew was the Christ-killer, his blood be upon our heads and upon our children; that’s forever. Under communism, the Jew was the capitalist. Under Nazism, the Jew was the race-polluter, the ultimate race-polluter.
Now we live in a different civilization. Now we live in a civilization where the most loathsome qualities are racism, colonialism, apartheid. And lo and behold, the greatest offender in the world today, with all the beautiful countries of the world, is the Jewish state. The Jewish state is the symbol of the genocidal racist apartheid state. That’s Israel. That’s the Jewish state.
An Israeli political philosopher named Jacob Talmon once put it this way: ‘The state of the Jews has become the Jew of the states.’ What that means to me is criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israel’s existence, denying Israel the right to exist, calling Israel the ‘Zionist entity,’ that is anti-Semitism. That is a classical continuity of thousands of years of symbolizing the Jew. So using that kind of language places you in very uncomfortable company. That kind of language can come today from the far left, it can come from white supremacists, it can come from Islamist extremists, it can come from many sources. But all of those groups converge on one idea: the Jew remains humanity’s great problem.