Valid criticism of Israel, or unleashed anti-Semitism

NEW YORK — It was on full display last year at the global anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, but the "demonization" of Israel has reached a fever pitch during the past month with the surging death toll in the Middle East, say Jewish observers.

Even as Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated Tuesday, critics of Israel worldwide increasingly are employing Nazi and Holocaust imagery and analogies to describe the Jewish state's behavior toward the Palestinians.

At the same time, Western Europe — particularly France — has seen a rash of attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

All of which seems to prove the adage coined by the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: "Words are loaded pistols."

Israel advocates say they accept the fallibility of Israel and people's right to criticize it.

However, the line between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism blurs when the world seems to hold Israel to a higher standard than all other countries, they say.

"I wouldn't have a problem if the Fourth Geneva Convention were convened to discuss Rwanda and Northern Ireland and Kashmir and the Middle East, but why is it that it's been convened only twice in its 53-history — both times to discuss Israel? That's anti-Semitism," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, referring to a set of human rights guidelines passed after World War II.

"How many times did the U.N. Security Council meet to discuss and pass resolutions about Rwanda or Northern Ireland? You have to ask the question: Why only Israel? The whole world is entitled to their nationalism, their right to self-determination, their independence movement, but Jewish nationalism — Zionism — is treated differently."

Some contend that, veiled beneath today's vitriol for Israel, is a form of anti-Semitism of the "we-don't-hate-Jews-just-the-Jewish-state" variety, which was formally enshrined when the United Nations equated Zionism with racism in 1975.

Likening Israelis to Nazis is particularly nefarious, advocates say, and goes hand in hand with the Holocaust denial pervasive in the Arab world.

"To open the world for new crimes against Jews, you either have to say the Holocaust did not exist, or to minimize or trivialize it by saying that the victims are really the victimizers," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's deputy foreign minister.

"This is total demonization of the state of Israel, and, therefore, of the Jew. Whether they be an Israeli Jew or a French Jew."

In some cases the rhetoric is purely political, aimed at damaging Israel's image. For many of those who blindly mimic the rhetoric, it's ignorance of history.

But for a sizeable portion – especially many in Western Europe – it is a way to ease the conscience, contends Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum.

"It's some measure of solace for Europeans that Israel seems to be in the morally compromised position, because it relieves them of the residual guilt they have for the Holocaust," said Berenbaum, a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Research Institute.

"It's a way of getting even with Jews, whom they think have lorded the moral depravity of the Europeans over their heads."

The movement can be traced to the 1960s, Foxman said, when some in the Arab world embraced the Holocaust denial propagated by unreformed Nazis.

"The idea was, if the only reason Jews were given Israel was because of the Holocaust, then if this is a hoax, they don't really deserve it," Foxman said.

Over time, he said, Arab and Muslim Holocaust deniers have generally become even more zealous than neo-Nazis.

Then came the "Zionism is Racism" equation, a U.N. resolution that remained on the books until it was rescinded in 1991.

U.N. officials, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have described that period as a stain on the world body's record.

Nevertheless, it was feared the Arab world was angling to resurrect the equation at the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, late last summer in Durban.

In fact, the denunciations of Israel there were broader and more visceral.

Israel and the Middle East overwhelmed all other issues, as Israel was branded an "apartheid state" guilty of "genocide," "ethnic cleansing" and "war crimes."

In street rallies outside the conference, some protesters likened Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with Hitler. Other handed out caricatures of bloodthirsty Israelis killing Palestinian children, copies of the anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and fliers with Hitler's photo above the question: "What if I had won? There would be no Israel, and no Palestinian bloodshed."

Most disturbing to Jewish observers was how easily so many otherwise compassionate activists from around the world jumped aboard the bandwagon.

In light of the now-renewed rhetorical offensive against Israel, Foxman said, "Durban was the dress rehearsal to see if this kind of anti-Semitism could sell. And with all these well-meaning people there who would have laid down their lives for others, no one was willing to stand up for the Jews."

With Israel's current siege of Palestinian cities, refugee camps and the Ramallah headquarters of Yasser Arafat, Israel has been barraged with Holocaust denials, Nazi comparisons and blood libels that circulate globally via the Internet. And the fusillade has also come from beyond the Arab world.

Not many are speaking out against the incendiary rhetoric.

To more forcefully counter this "demonization" of Jews, Israel's Melchior announced in January plans to create the International Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism. The blue-ribbon panel of non-Jewish figures should be in place within six months.

"Anti-Semitism undermines the basic fundamentals of democracy and decency, and anyone who cares about those two things should fight against it," Melchior said.

"As someone once said, anti-Semitism is a sickness that non-Jews have, but which Jews die of."