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Opinion: The American Left Can Learn A Lesson From Israel

The language used by the Israeli right to dehumanize Palestinians is now used against Jewish leftists. A similar narrative creep is happening in America.

Posted on May 21, 2019, at 3:15 p.m. ET

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Donald Trump says Rep. Rashida Tlaib “obviously has tremendous hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.” An editorial shared with praise by New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss says the work of American Jewish comic artist Eli Valley represents “the free-form hatred that gloms onto Jews and the Jewish State.”

It’s obvious that what Tlaib and Valley have in common is not hatred of Jewish people or Israel, as their critics cynically and shamelessly claim. It’s their politics: They hold minority views on America’s relationship with Israel — ones that have long been considered subversive and taboo. And those on the right will say anything to label those views off-limits.

Those of us on the Israeli left have seen this show before. For decades, the Israeli right incited against Palestinians by describing them as inherent enemies of the state and terrorists, just for being Palestinian. Palestinians who are citizens of Israel became explicit fair game when Netanyahu said they were “heading to the polls in droves” in the 2015 election. Gradually that language was transferred to Israel’s Jewish leftists, and not just the small minority who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement or call for a single democratic state for Palestinians and Israelis. Even Israeli human rights organizations and those who oppose the occupation and continued settlement enterprise get the same treatment.

In Israel, these people are not accused of anti-Semitism as they would be in America. They are declared traitors, Arab lovers, sometimes even foreign agents serving the agenda of outside forces – a claim made against prominent human rights organizations like B’Tselem and anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, an organization of former combat soldiers that has become the Israeli right’s number one enemy from within.

In each case, the accusations have nothing to do with the welfare of Jewish people or Israel’s future, and everything to do with controlling the discourse — a telltale feature of illiberal regimes. The objective is to silence and discredit marginal voices so as to shut down debate.

Rep. Ilhan Omar — who has been labeled an anti-Semite and harassed about it regularly since entering office in January — is right that the accusations against her and Tlaib are meant to silence Muslims. But as the Israeli left has learned, it does not stop with Muslims or Arabs. After many years of dehumanizing and discriminating against a certain group in a society that opposes the hegemony, it’s an easy transition to target others who are also in the opposition, no matter how unfounded or cruel — and even when they belong to groups being victimized, as is the case with the smear against Eli Valley.

It is in this context that national TV host Meghan McCain, a right-wing American Christian, felt comfortable calling a cartoon of her by Valley “one of the most anti-Semitic things [she's] ever seen.” It’s why the Stanford College Republicans felt comfortable comparing Valley’s work to Nazi cartoons published in Der Stürmer, with national Republican commentators cheering them on.

It’s also why Barack Obama was baselessly accused of being an anti-Semite when he pushed for a nuclear deal with Iran. And it’s why Trump — with Netanyahu’s blessing, and backup from Jared Kushner and other senior Jewish officials in his administration — consistently lobs asinine accusations of anti-Semitism against his opponents, and can get away with calling the Democratic Party anti-Semitic, even as he himself normalizes white supremacists and employs anti-Semitic dog whistles.

People defending Tlaib and Omar have said it’s not about what they say but who they are: Muslims and women of color. That is true, but their politics can’t be overlooked. They are the only House Democrats openly in favor of the BDS movement, and Tlaib is the only member of Congress who supports creating a single democratic state for Israelis and Palestinians. It is no coincidence that pro-Israel talking points equating BDS with anti-Semitism have been fully adopted in Washington.

Valley’s politics are perhaps even more charged for some because he has the legitimacy of being an actual Jew who has engaged with American Jewish politics for over a decade. In the Trump era, his work has directly called out Jews working for Trump, likening them to Nazi sympathizers. After the Pittsburgh shooting, he reposted one of his cartoons showing Netanyahu embracing Trump, who is adorned with a swastika and saying, “See what’d I tell you, the Jews love me.” Indeed, being pro-Israel and anti-Semitic is entirely compatible — but Israel supporters across the political spectrum do not want this amplified, especially coming from a Jew.

In Israel, the strategy of creeping delegitimization has proven highly successful. Palestinians have been so profoundly dehumanized that they are barely a factor in Israeli politics anymore; Israeli leftists have been so marginalized that they can’t muster enough votes to oust Netanyahu, and now West Bank annexation seems to be around the corner.

This strategy is now operating at full force in the US. The more figures like Tlaib and Omar are smeared without consequence and rebuke, the more leftist Jews are accused of anti-Semitism, and the less outrageous it will be to delegitimize anyone who gets in the way of those in power — paving the way to further normalize policies of oppression, inequality, and intolerance.


Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist who has written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, Vice, Foreign Policy, and the Intercept, among others. She is a contributing writer and editor with +972 Magazine.

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