Skip to 0 minutes and 0 secondsWe can see then that the picture painted by proponents of this form of anti-Zionism is clear - in a world where there are the oppressed good on the one side, and evil oppressors on the other, Israel and Zionism stand right at the heart of evil. This worldview has many elements in common with past conspiratorial antisemitic perceptions of Jews. Yet because it emerges from a sphere that propagates freedom for the oppressed and that views racism, including classical and racist forms of antisemitism, as society's greatest ailments, it garners a level of respectability.

Skip to 0 minutes and 32 secondsAs this vehement rhetoric is most commonly leveled at the Israeli state and targets "Zionists," without clearly defining who these Zionists actually are, it is often presented as a legitimate form of criticism. However we've already seen how this anti-Zionism goes beyond rational and reality based criticism. Does this mean that any criticism of the Israeli government and policy is illegitimate and antisemitic? Of course not. The ability to criticize any government's policy or stance lies at the foundation of a healthy democratic society. How, then, can we differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate criticism towards Israel?

Skip to 1 minute and 13 secondsWorking out the differences between criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism, anti-Israel activity, antisemitism is one of the most complicated issues in this whole field of the study of antisemitism and these different phenomena are often confused and conflated by people on all different sides of the debate. So sometimes people will say antisemitic things or express antisemitic attitudes and when they are called out on it, they will say no no I was just criticizing Israel. And they genuinely won't recognize that the language they used resonated with antisemitic tropes or antisemitic imagery. And similarly, on the other side, criticism of Israel, especially if it's harsh, if it's unfair, if it's expressed in emotional terms, can be misidentified as antisemitism.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 secondsAnd then you get accusations of bad faith in both directions of people accusing each other of behaving dishonestly in the claims and in the denials. And it can get very confusing. Now I think one starting point from this is let's assume everybody behaves in good faith and everybody is honest in what they think they're saying. I think we can separate out some of these issues and identify the different categories. Let's start by saying that normal political criticism of Israeli government policies and actions is very rarely antisemitic. If it's the kind of criticism that other governments would face, if they were doing the same things.

Skip to 2 minutes and 49 secondsNow that can in course include criticism that is unfair, that is inaccurate, that is too harsh because all governments face that. But if it's used ... if it's voiced in normal political language - talking about human rights, about occupation, about war crimes even - it might be wrong - that doesn't make it antisemitic. What changes is when criticism of Israel is voiced in a language that echoes older antisemitic allegations against Jews.

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 secondsSo if it talks about conspiracies or about hidden Zionist power and influence in Washington or in London or in Paris or elsewhere; if it evokes the old blood libel, the old allegation that Jews kill children for religious purposes or delight in the killing of children; if the criticism evokes Israel's Jewish character as an explanation for why Israel does supposedly bad things, I think in those situations we can say there's something antisemitic going on in this criticism. How do we criticize a country? How do we criticize Israel without drifting into a kind of antisemitic rhetoric or even antisemitic argument. I remember the criticism of France. Let's take France during the Algerian war. I'm just old enough to remember.

Skip to 4 minutes and 25 secondsThe left were ... we were fierce critics of French policy in Algeria - the repression, the torture. Even those of us who were not friends of the FLN - the National Liberation Front, which had its own terrorist activities - even those of us who were not friends were very very critical of the French government's role. We never called for the abolition of France. It wasn't part of ... it wasn't part of the left vision. What we wanted was France out of Algeria and we were prepared to admire the French state out of Algeria, as we had admired the French state maybe before Algeria, during the Revolution or after the Revolution.

Skip to 5 minutes and 21 secondsFrance was not a country whose absence we ever advocated, however critical we were of the policies of its government. So that's an example of the way I think Israel should now be criticized. I am ... I think of myself, I hope I am thought of as a very strong critic of the current government of Israel and a lover of Zion and there are a lot of people like me in the American Jewish community and in Israel also obviously. The criticism that drifts toward antisemitism is the criticism that calls into question the existence of a Jewish state.

Skip to 6 minutes and 17 secondsPeople on the left, who defended national liberation everywhere in the world, somehow managed - some of them - to make an exception when it comes to the national liberation of the Jewish people and that does look like or come very close to an antisemitic position. It is the desire, it is the claim that the Jews are not, should not be recognized as a people like other peoples, that they do not have the right to call themselves a nation and to claim the rights of a nation in the society of nations. That claim I would call antisemitic.

Between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel

Dr. Dave Rich, Prof. Michael Walzer

As the anti-Zionist vehement rhetoric is most commonly leveled at the Israeli state, and targets “Zionists” without clearly defining who these Zionists actually are, it is often presented as a legitimate form of criticism, and it even garners a level of respectability. However we have seen how this anti-Zionism goes beyond rational and reality-based criticism. This of course does not mean that any criticism of the Israeli government or policy is illegitimate and antisemitic. The ability to criticize any government’s policy or stance, including an Israeli government, lies at the foundation of a healthy democratic society.

How can we differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate criticism toward Israel?


  • Herf, Jeffrey, ed., Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism in Historical Perspective: Convergence and Divergence (London: Routledge, 2007).

  • Hirsh, David, “Struggles over the Boundaries of Legitimate Discourse: Antisemitism and Bad-Faith Allegations,” in Charles Asher Small, ed., Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity (New York: ISGAP, 2013), pp. 89 - 94.

  • Marcus, Kenneth L., The Definition of Anti-Semitism (New York : Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • Rich, Dave, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (London: Biteback Publishing, 2016).

  • Rosenfeld, Alvin H., Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Delegitimization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018).

  • Walzer, Michael, “The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine,” Dissent (Fall, 2006), pp. 26 - 33.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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