When are fiercely delivered rhetorical attacks on Israel an acceptable part of intense political discourse, and when do they amount to anti-Jewish invective?
It is crucial, although challenging, to distinguish between the two—given the passions understandably aroused by every aspect of the Israel-Palestine dispute—especially when the speakers seem otherwise credible and accomplished. The controversial recent comments by the director of Middle East Studies at Denver University provide a good opportunity to identify the line between criticism of Israeli policies and allusions to age-old anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
Shortly after the vicious stabbing of Indian-British-American author Salman Rushdie, Prof. Nader Hashemi, a specialist on Islam-West Relations, opined on the Iran Podcast that Israel was probably behind the life-threatening attack, as an attempt to derail renewed nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Hashemi's claim was quickly condemned by Jewish organizations, and it drew a tepid response from a Denver University official, who said that "his comments do not reflect the point of view of the university." Otherwise, however, Hashemi's unsupported accusation drew little attention from the mainstream media, perhaps because similarly conspiratorial charges have become almost commonplace in recent years.
Because of the perceived blasphemous nature of his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has been living under a clerical death sentence for decades, due to a fatwa issued by Iran's then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. At least 45 people were later killed in riots in Mumbai, Kashmir, and Islamabad. Rushdie's Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator was stabbed, and his Norwegian publisher was shot. In 2005, Iran's Revolutionary Guardsdeclared that the death sentence remained valid. As recently as 2019, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei announced that the verdict against Rushdie is "solid and irrevocable."
Although Rushdie's alleged assailant, a 24-year-old Lebanese-American named Hadi Matar, was said to have made social media posts sympathetic to Iran's Revolutionary Guard (and carried a phony driver's license with the name of a Hezbollah commander), Hashemi opined on the Iran Podcast that it was "much more likely" that Matar had been "lured" into attacking Rushdie by a "Mossad operative" who deviously claimed "to be affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The supposed false flag operation, according to Hashemi, could have been part of an Israeli scheme to prevent renewed U.S. negotiations with Iran. "Israel has taken a very strong position against reviving the Iran nuclear agreement," he said, which "could explain the timing of this at this moment during these sensitive political discussions related to Iran's nuclear program."
Hashemi told the Denver Post that he also condemned the attack on Rushdie, which he described as "heinous." But, he added, "My training is in political theory... I get paid to theorize." He also called his employer's very mild distancing of itself to his statements "deeply offensive, false and defamatory."
In fact, there is precisely zero evidence that Israel had anything to do with the vicious attack on Rushdie, or that Mossad agents have made a practice of luring young Muslims into terrorism. Hashemi's assignment of likely blame is about a half-step away from the enduring accusation that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks. Apart from the non-existent technology, it is not too far from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's belief that California's 2018 wildfires were caused by the Rothschilds' space lasers.
Hashemi's claim was obviously unfounded and irresponsible. But was it antisemitic, or merely ridiculous?
Two widely circulated definitions of antisemitism provide a useful answer.
In 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) issued a "working definition" of antisemitism that has been adopted or endorsed by 37 countries, including the U.S.,and many non-governmental organizations.
One of the IHRA's illustrative examples is "using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism... to characterize Israel or Israelis." In 2021, a group of over 200 scholars of Jewish and Holocaust Studies issued the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) in response to the IHRA definition, which they considered too ambiguous—and potentially open to misuse—regarding the relationship between Israel and antisemitism. But even the more permissive JDA definition provides that "applying the symbols, images and negative stereotypes of classical antisemitism... to the State of Israel" is antisemitic "on the face of it."
Hashemi's image of a conniving Israeli operative, exercising nefarious control over an apparent act of Islamic terrorism, is a classic conspiracy theory that could have been lifted, with only a few vocabulary changes from a contemporary introduction to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—the notorious forgery, originating in early 20th-century Russia, that claims to be proof of an international Jewish conspiracy for world domination.
It is certainly possible to be critical and even hostile toward Israel without drifting into antisemitism, as was demonstrated by law students at the University of California, Berkeley. Nine student groups (of over 100) adopted bylaws pledging never to invite "speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views... in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine," and calling on other organizations to do the same. These resolutions are immature, counter-productive, and contrary to academic freedom, but they are squarely aimed at Israel's actions, and are not by themselves antisemitic.
Hashemi, I'm sure, is a person of good will, with no ill intentions. But that makes it even more troubling that he would reflexively turn to an anti-Jewish stereotype without recognizing its bigoted implications (even when pointed out to him). Instead, he has doubled down. Rather than admit a mistake, which would probably have ended the controversy, Hashemi claims that he has become a "political target" for refusing to fall in line with Israeli-friendly policies. He described his Mossad attribution as part of a "nuanced and critical discussion of world politics." Criticism of the theory, he complained, was "an attempt to silence public debate," presumably over whether Rushdie's stabbing had indeed been part of a cunning Israeli plot.
The term "antisemitism" itself was originally almost a euphemism, conceived by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879. Anti-Jewish hatred, of course, dates back to Antiquity, but Marr sought to modernize it by reframing the basis of discrimination from religion—which was out of fashion following the Enlightenment —to racialism. In an essay titled "The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism," Marr laid the groundwork for the theory that Jews sought to dominate Aryans and other Europeans through control of finance and industry. "Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness," he warned, "have overpowered the world." Antisemitism was substituted for Judenhass (Jew hatred) because it was secular and therefore more "scientific," but it meant the same thing.
We increasingly see a similar phenomenon today, as in Hashemi's remarks, when classically anti-Jewish themes are recast in the "nuanced" language of anti-Zionism, as though that was sufficient to cleanse the comments of their ancient implications.
That is the beauty of a conspiracy theory. It is all nuance and no proof.