When I first arrived in Washington last January to begin an internship with a nonprofit Jewish advocacy group, I told my boss that I was a student at Berkeley. He narrowed his eyes a bit and tilted his head back skeptically, waiting for me to explain myself. I had seen this reaction many times before. Berkeley, whether deservedly or not, has a reputation for hosting a fiercely anti-Israel student body. Yet what I asked myself as I stood under my boss's scrutiny was, "Why do so many Jews feel personally threatened by anti-Israel attitudes?"
Most Americans, if asked whether anti-Israel sentiment is synonymous with anti-Semitism, would probably say "no." I would respond in the negative as well, yet this is too simple a question and too simple an answer. While political critiques of Israel can be completely separate from attitudes toward the Jewish people, the extensive censure of Israel and undue attention given to its activities are largely rooted in anti-Semitic tradition.
This can be difficult for us as Americans to understand. Unlike our parents and grandparents, my generation has grown up in an era in which Jews are well integrated into society and enjoy the freedom to practice religion and culture. Anti-Semitism is rarely visible, and most Americans that I have encountered do not cast their opinions regarding Israel, positive or negative, upon American Jews. Yet when we turn our attention to regions of the world that are perceptibly plagued by anti-Semitism, the relationship between this form of bigotry and anti-Israel attitudes becomes clearer.
Europeans have a long history of anti-Semitism. Over the course of the past five or six centuries, Jews have been persecuted in, and expelled from, nearly every European nation. After the Holocaust, anti-Semitism started to become politically incorrect. While anti-Semitic acts continue to occur at a high rate in Europe, they are usually publicly denounced, especially by governments. In light of this development, Europeans who carry on the anti-Semitic tradition have found a politically acceptable way to express their prejudice through the vilification of Israel.
In an extensive public opinion poll executed by the European Commission in 2003, 59 percent of European Union citizens agreed that Israel was the "biggest threat to world peace." Can they really believe that Israel is a bigger threat than countries like North Korea and Iran? While the activities and policies of a powerful country in such a sensitive situation should certainly be scrutinized, Israel consistently receives greater reprimand than it is due—probably more than any other nation in the world. It is difficult to find an explanation for the excessive vitriol directed toward Israel beyond a general mistrust of Jews.
A more concrete connection between anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism is seen in many Europeans' repugnant portrayal of Israel's actions as the "real Holocaust." In political cartoons, published opinions, and street protests, Israelis have been compared to Nazis, Prime Minister Sharon to Hitler, and the star of David to the swastika. Such affronts strongly suggest anti-semitism conveyed through an anti-Israel guise. At the very least, they demonstrate an ignorance of the realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and an insensitive belittlement of the events of the Holocaust.
A venue through which many Europeans have consistently shown clear anti-semitic colors has been anti-war and anti-Israel protests. In several cases, these rallies have deteriorated into podiums for Jew-bashing. In 2002, a demonstration organized in London to protest the war in Iraq was marred by participants adorned in suicide bomber belts and Hamas head bands, and chants of "death to Jews." Since then, similar episodes have occurred in Rome, Berlin, and Paris.
This type of alarming racism is not unique to Europe; it can be found through much of the world, including here on our own campus. In April 2002, 79 people were arrested after the Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine organized an occupation of Wheeler Auditorium (on Holocaust Remembrance Day). At a later rally, a lecturer from the Middle East Studies department declared that if students wanted to discover the source of the pressure to prosecute the trespassers, they should "look at the Jewish names on the school buildings." A surge of anti-semitic events erupted in Berkeley around this same time: synagogues received bomb threats, the Hillel building was vandalized, two orthodox Jews were physically assaulted, and anti-semitic slogans were scrawled on buildings and flyers around campus. All of these attacks were presumably in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had significantly intensified around that time. A comprehensive article on anti-Israel and anti-semitic activity at Berkeley can be found at
So, to answer my original question, many Jews are sensitive to anti-Israel politics because those who espouse such views are often either motivated by anti-semitic bigotry, or allow anti-semitic sentiment to sneak into their established political views. Or, as in the cases of many of my peers, people adopt the anti-Israel rhetoric that bombards them at their universities and elsewhere, not realizing that much of it is fueled by anti-semitic bias. It is easy for us to become caught up in impassioned movements while lacking sufficient knowledge of the issues.
I would like to make clear that I am in no way accusing all who oppose Israel and its policies of being anti-semitic. Nor am I calling for censorship of political expression. I simply aim to inform those who are unaware of the very thin line that has been drawn—and often crossed—between anti-Israel and anti-semitic views. This article has barely scratched the surface of this issue. I myself disapprove of some of the tactics Israel has employed in its dealings with the Palestinians, but I largely support Israel as a democratic nation with rule of law and an accountable government, that diligently and relentlessly struggles to achieve peace and stability in the region, while maintaining the security of its own people. My opinions regarding Israel are derived from thoughtful analysis of thorough and unbiased information—not from the fact that I am Jewish. I urge everybody to respect each other's right to their own opinions, yet also to ensure that their opinions are informed and founded on the principles in which they believe.
Noah Cohen-Cline participated in the UC Washington program this past spring.