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Differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel

Differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel
Prof. Marcus’ last example brings us back to the question of the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel. We began dealing with this issue in the fourth week of the course. Let’s return to it again here, as it is crucial to our understanding and identification of antisemitism today. The question rises everywhere today, certainly in the West, where is the limit or where is the borderline between a legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and its policies and antisemitism?
Now, I think in actual fact this is not so difficult to define because as long as you criticize even very sharply and very harshly the policies of any Israeli government, you do not act any differently from any criticism of any government in any situation from the outside. It’s perfectly legitimate. And, in fact, if you look at the internal Israeli scene and look at the critique that is leveled at the government here by various people, organizations, newspapers and so on, you’ll find that it is actually often much harsher than the criticism that is levelled at Israel outside, which is also ok. So as long as you follow this line, this is certainly not antisemitism. In fact, I would say the opposite.
People who criticize Israel, whether from inside or outside - and when I say Israel I don’t mean Israel, I mean the Israeli government and its policies - the people who argue like that will actually desire a better Israel from their point of view. Now, if I criticized - and I did - the policies of the Thatcher government in Britain when Mrs. Thatcher was the Prime Minister, and I thought it was pretty awful what she did, I didn’t attack Great Britain as such. I attacked a certain policy of a certain government. If today there is a candidate for presidency in the United States that says things that are completely abhorrent to me, I will say so.
That doesn’t mean to say that I hate America. It will actually mean that I would like to see a better America, from my perspective, than the one that is being offered to me. Criticism of Israel may be antisemitic and may not be. There are some people who have argued that it is always antisemitic to criticize the one Jewish state, and others who argue that it can never be. Both positions I believe are ultimately unsustainable. The question is under what circumstances is it antisemitic to criticize Israel or to engage in anti-Israel activity. There are many scholars and agencies and government officials who’ve tried to answer that question and what is surprising is the similarity in their responses.
Ultimately it comes down to a few criteria. The most well-known and established effort to explain those criteria was from Natan Sharansky. Sharansky came up with what’s known as the 3 D Test. He explained that it is not always antisemitic to criticize Israel but sometimes it is. Now context matters but he pointed out that we should look at three factors
each of which begins with a D: Is someone demonizing the Jewish state? Now that doesn’t mean criticizing. Demonizing is somewhat stronger. It refers to the ascription of ‘demonic’ or otherworldly characteristics for the Jewish state similar to the way in which Jews for centuries were described as being spawn of the Devil or having sinister or demonic characteristics. Second, is the Jewish state being delegitimized? Again we’re not talking about mere criticism of Israel. We’re talking about the notion that Israel alone among the nations lacks legitimacy in the same way that the Jewish religion was claimed to lack legitimacy during prior generations. Third, are double standards being used?
It’s one thing to criticize Israel using the same standards that we apply to other countries. But if we’re criticizing Israel using a very different set of standards that are applied to one country alone, we have to ask whether something is involved other than mere political criticism. So, if you see the three D’s – delegitimization, demonization and double standards, then something else might be involved other than just politics. And I should say that that three D test is really the skeleton or backbone of some of the most important definitions of antisemitism that are now being used. For example, the 3 D Test is really the centerpiece of the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia’s working definition.
It is also the centerpiece of the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition which is now being used in the United Kingdom among other places. So that 3 D Test is essentially the basis for the most important international definitions of antisemitism.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer, Prof. Kenneth L. Marcus (winter 2017)

What are the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel? We began dealing with this issue in the fourth week of the course. Let’s return to it again here, as it is crucial to our understanding and identification of antisemitism today.


  • Bauer, Yehuda, “Problems of contemporary antisemitism,” in Murray Baumgarten, Peter Kenez, and Bruce Thompson, eds., Varieties of Antisemitism; History, Ideology, Discourse (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009), pp. 315 – 327.

  • 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.

  • Litvak, Meir and Esther Webman, “Israel and Antisemitism,” in Albert S. Lindemann and Richard S. Levy, eds., Antisemitism: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 237 – 249.

  • Marcus, Kenneth L., Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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

  • Sharansky, Natan “3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization,” Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 16, no. 3-4 (Fall 2004).

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