the three sit on the ground
(From left) Fadl Amaar, Rabbi Leah Jordan and Rabbi David J. Cooper during Shabbat morning services at the Negev village of Sarura in 2017. (Photo/Gili Getz)

Telling harsh truths about the occupation is not antisemitic

As I follow recent news, I have been pondering whose statements are generally agreed to be antisemitic, whose are antisemitic but brushed aside — and whose are incorrectly denounced as antisemitic when they are merely criticisms of Israel.

Certainly the statements of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas claiming that we Jews are responsible for anti-Jewish hatred should be condemned as antisemitic. His recent comments have been widely denounced, notably by leading voices of the Palestinian people themselves.

Yet when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Bay Area on Sept.18, he treated tech entrepreneur Elon Musk with kid gloves after Musk has repeatedly dipped into antisemitic tropes. Those include Musk accusing George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and frequent subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories, of “appearing to want nothing less than the destruction of Western civilization.”

In sharp contrast was the treatment of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, after she referred to Israel as a “racist state.” Her statement was made on the fly in July while addressing pro-Palestinian protesters who had interrupted a conference of progressive activists.

Within a day, she walked that language back, explaining that she didn’t think of the entire Israeli state or the whole Israeli people as “racist.” Rather, she explained in her retraction, the Netanyahu government “has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies and that there are extreme racists driving that policy within the leadership of the current government.”

Nevertheless, she was greeted by accusations of antisemitism. A group of Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter condemning her remarks, stating that “efforts to delegitimize and demonize” Israel are “dangerous and antisemitic.”

For my money, she may have walked her statement back too far. The policies that she is condemning aren’t just the policies of the current Israeli government. They have been the policies of many successive Israeli governments.

The realities of the occupation delegitimize Israeli actions more than any critic can.

I have been to Israel and the West Bank many times through several Israeli government coalitions — five times in the last six years alone.

My first time in Israel was as a teen in 1967 in the weeks following the Six-Day War. During my first visit, I was surprised that the neighborhood that once stood in the shadow of the Western Wall was gone. I asked our guide about it. When he told me that the neighborhood had just been demolished, I asked about what happened to the people who lived there. He responded “What does that matter?”

As it turns out, that was the first of countless demolitions carried out by Israeli authorities. Perhaps it helped create a better space to pray at the Western Wall. But in my many visits to Israel and the West Bank since then, I have seen multiple demolitions that served only to displace households, create space for Jewish settlement and assert control over Palestinian lives.

As a rabbi committed to not standing idly by, I have periodically visited and stayed in a Bedouin village in the West Bank, Umm al-Khair, which was established long before the 1967 war. I myself have seen how, over several administrations, the Israeli settlement of Carmel has been built all the way up to the village’s fence as it grows every year. Meanwhile, the village is under ongoing demolition orders.

The Jewish-only settlement gets electricity and water, while the village must rig up solar cells and receives far less water per person. I mourned for a family there when their father was crushed by an Israeli tow truck in 2022 while nonviolently protesting the confiscation of the village’s cars by Israeli authorities. No one has been held responsible for his death.

The realities of the occupation delegitimize Israeli actions more than any critic can.

One can debate whether the Israeli state policies are “racist,” “Jewish supremacist” or “apartheid.” I don’t care what we call them. What is happening there is violent discrimination against Palestinians as the Israeli government protects Jewish settlers, including those who attack non-Jews who have lived there for generations. Even former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, hardly a radical, remarked this summer that Israeli policies are now subject to “Jewish state supremacists.”

What we call these developments is a matter of semantics — not antisemitism. Nothing Jayapal said was antisemitic. While Musk gets away with his antisemitic tropes, we decry people who are willing to speak the truth about the occupation.

Rabbi David Cooper
Rabbi David J. Cooper

Rabbi David J. Cooper is emeritus rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, which has an ally relationship with the Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair. He has been to Israel and the territories many times from 1967 to the present.