The Big New Lie:  That Critics of Israel Are Being Labeled Anti-Semitic

by Alan M. Dershowitz


Tyrants understood that if you repeat a big lie often enough people will begin to believe it.  The big lie that’s being repeated all around the United States, and especially on college and university campuses, is that anyone who is critical of Israeli policies or the Sharon government will automatically be labeled an anti-Semite.  It would be terrible if that were true, since criticism of Israel is important, as is criticism of any imperfect democracy.  But the reality is that in the many years that I have been speaking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I have never heard anyone ever actually label a mere critic of Israel or Sharon as anti-Semitic.  Nor have I ever heard mere criticism of Israel described as anti-Semitism.


Yet the big lie persists.  Susanah Heshel has made the following charge: “we often hear that criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism.”  Michael Lerner has made a similar charge.  Most recently a leading professor at Harvard, Paul Hanson, has made this charge.  I hereby challenge anyone who claims that mere criticism of Israel is “often” labeled anti-Semitism to document that serious charge by providing actual quotations, in context, with the source of the statements identified.  I am not talking about the occasional kook who writes an anonymous postcard or e-mail.  I am talking about mainstream supporters of Israel who, it is claimed, have “often” equated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. 



Surely that is not what President Lawrence Summers of Harvard did when he made the following statement:


And certainly there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israel’s foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged.  But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities.  Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.


Summers then referred specifically to those who have called for a boycott of, and divestiture from, Israel alone:


Surely that is not what Thomas Friedman of the New York Times did when he wrote the following.

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile.  But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction - - out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East - - is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.


Surely it is not what I have done when I have welcomed criticism of Israel, while accusing of bigotry those who would single out Israel for economic capital punishment, despite the reality that Israel’s human rights record is far better than that of any other country in the region and at least as good as any other country that has faced comparable dangers.  Indeed, I have often myself been critical of particular Israeli policies, such as Prime Minister Sharon’s foolish efforts to isolate Yasser Arafat in his compound.  Yet, I have never been accused of anti-Semitism, nor have Israel’s many critics in the Israeli media.


It is important to understand that although criticism of Israel is not, by itself, anti-Semitism, there are certain kinds of criticism of Israel which are clearly anti-Semitic, even if the word Jew is never mentioned.  An obvious instance is that of Amiri Baraka who has claimed, in his bad poetry, that Israel and Sharon knew about the attack on the World Trade Center before it happened and warned 4,000 Israelis to stay away.  Can anyone doubt that this variation on the blood libel is anti-Semitic to the core?  So, too, is any attempt to demonize, isolate, and delegitimate the Jewish nation for imperfections that are far worse among other nations.  A good working definition of anti-Semitism is to take a characteristic that is universal and to single out only the Jews for exhibiting that characteristic.  For example, in the 1920s Harvard’s racist President A. Lawrence Lowell tried to impose a quota on Jews admitted to Harvard because, as he put it, “Jews cheat”.  When a distinguished alumnus reminded him that non-Jews also cheat, he replied, “You’re changing the subject.  We’re talking about Jews.”  Can anyone doubt that Lowell’s statements were anti-Semitic?   So too is the singling out of the Jewish State for faults that are far worse among other states.


Even those who believe that singling out Israel for criticism is not anti-Semitic, must surely acknowledge that there is a difference between mere criticism of Israel and singling it out for unique sanctions such as divestiture or boycott.  It is true that those who advocate the latter have been accused of anti-Semitism, but it is false that those who fit into the former category have been so labeled.  Yet the recent big lie lumps these distinct categories together.


The time has come for those who are spreading this big lie either to put up, by documenting their charge, or shut up.


Alan M. Dershowitz is a Professor of Law at Harvard and author of Why Terrorism Works.