“Where’s the Line?”: JLSA Talks Criticism of Israel and Anti-Semitism

Jansen VanderMeulen ‘19
Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

As the American political spectrum has revealed itself to be increasingly tolerant of criticism of Israel since the election of President Donald Trump, members of UVA Law’s Jewish community have reacted with concern and introspection about what exactly constitutes anti-Semitism.


For decades, support for Israel has been a more-or-less bipartisan proposition. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have supported Israel with military and economic aid and taken Israel’s side in its myriad disputes with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinian peoples of the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank. While the United States has sometimes acted as an arbitrator, as it did in encouraging and facilitating the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, more often it has stood firmly behind Israel whether governed by a liberal or a conservative.


President Trump has amplified U.S. support for Israel, standing firmly behind right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem, and recently recognizing the Golan Heights—which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War—as Israeli territory. But according to his critics (some of them in Withers-Brown Hall last Thursday), he has also equivocated in his condemnations of right-wing anti-Semites, most notoriously declaring there were “fine people” on both sides of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in August 2017. Trump’s full-throated support for Israel has opened up space on the left wing of the Democratic Party for something rarely seen in American politics: harsh, unmitigated criticism of the Israeli position from national elected officials, most notably Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).


It is that criticism, and especially Omar’s, that attracted the attention of UVA Law’s Jewish Law Student Association (JLSA). Omar drew the ire of many supporters of Israel by calling lawmakers’ support for Israel “all about the Benjamins” and calling other lawmakers’ support for Israel “allegiance to a foreign country.” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, called the latter comment “a vile, anti-Semitic slur,” and the House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, including Islamophobia, a short time later. JLSA leaders decided to host a conversation about when legitimate criticisms of Israel stray into anti-Semitic territory.


That conversation, held last Thursday at the Law School, featured voices from across the political spectrum, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and with various levels of familiarity with Israel’s history and politics. One Jewish student described his frustration with non-Jewish friends who simply didn’t understand the significance of the world’s only Jewish state to Jews everywhere. Another student echoed that complaint: Despite his secular attitudes, he felt that Israel’s unique history merited special consideration.


That issue—the unique position of Israel—came up repeatedly. Julian Kritz ’20, JLSA’s outgoing president, explained to participants the Obama-era State Department’s “Three D’s” of Anti-Semitism: “Demonize Israel,” “Double Standard for Israel,” and “Delegitimize Israel.” The conversation proceeded with those principles at its center. Participants in the discussion aired grievances with Israel; one participant, a Jewish liberal, said she “hate[d] Netanyahu almost as much as Trump.” But participants expressed frustration and offense at what they perceived as Israel citics’ targeting of the Jewish state. One student said he found it insulting and conspicuous that critics of Israel, including left-wing critics, seemed to focus so much ire on Israel and leave unmentioned the much-worse human rights abuses of other nations, including other American allies.


The participants also discussed the use of anti-Semitic tropes. Several attendees considered Omar’s “Benjamins” and “allegiance” comments to carry historical anti-Semitic implications. Anti-Semites have often alleged Jewish conspiracies, especially connected to banking and media, as justification for anti-Semitic policy, and Jews before the establishment of Israel in 1948 were often accused of lacking sufficient loyalty to their respective nations. Many participants in Thursday’s event saw Omar’s comments as a continuation of that historical anti-Semitism. Some considered the House’s change from a resolution condemning Omar’s comments to one condemning bigotry writ large a “watering down.” One student compared it to answering “all lives matter” to a claim of “black lives matter.”


While this event evinced a growing Jewish awareness of left-wing anti-Semitism, attendees were careful not to let the right off the hook. There was little love lost between most attendees and Trump’s administration. Several students brought up Trump’s “both sides” comments as evidence that Trump has empowered right-wing “alt-right” anti-Semites. And even while many students were critical of Omar and what they saw as growing tolerance of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Democratic Party, they were cautious, too. None imputed Omar’s comments to other Democrats, and no one volunteered a willingness to punish Democrats electorally for their tolerance of Omar’s and Tlaib’s outspoken criticism of Israel.


Daniel Grill ’19, who spoke with Kritz about organizing the event, said the event was “a great opportunity to discuss current events as they pertain to anti-Semitism.” Acknowledging that the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy was “particularly challenging” because of its necessary intersection “between political and religious identities,” Grill expressed hope that discussions like these can help everyone have a more productive debate about Israel and anti-Semitism more broadly.