PH Quickie: is anti-Israel language anti-Semitic? An analogy

Activists react outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, September 4, 2018. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP

Activists react outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, September 4, 2018. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP

I went to the bank yesterday to get help retrieving some oldish statements that I couldn’t pull up on my laptop. A young man named Andy helped me. Andy was Black.

I told him what I needed, and he explained that normally those records are not available, but he had a way he could probably get to them. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the necessary paperwork was in my hands.

I said to Andy, “You guys know all kinds of secret passageways, don’t you?” We laughed and I headed out the door.

Andy knew that when I said “you guys,” I wasn’t referring to Black people, but to bank people. Even if every employee in the building had been Black, he still would have caught my meaning.

In no way would Andy have had basis for accusing me of racism. (He could have deliberately twisted my words and made a commotion, but any bystander could vouch for the utter innocence of my words.)

If I had gone home and told my husband that Andy had solved my problem, and then asserted, “those guys know all kinds of secret passageways,” he would have understood. The color of Andy’s skin is irrelevant in the story, but even if I’d mentioned it, nothing would have changed. “Those guys” would not suddenly transform into a racist code word.

Nor would I have been under obligation to make further statements about other professions – like “gardeners know all kinds of tricks to make bushes shaped like animals,” or “architects know all kinds of techniques for designing cool-looking staircases.” Such assertions are obviously immaterial.

If every bank employee in every bank in the world were Black, everything would still be okay because it’s obvious to any thinking person that “you guys know all kinds of secret passageways,” must refer to bankers. One can discern this easily by listening to the message and contemplating it intelligently in the context of this particular banker finding a way to access records.

Similarly, a statement like, “supporters of Israel are supporters of injustice toward Palestinians” has a clear intent and meaning. Even if every Israel supporter in the world were Jewish, or every Jew were a supporter of Israel (neither of which is the case), the substance of the message stays the same.

Are there people who, covertly or overtly, cross the line into true anti-Semitism? Of course.

But the vast majority of statements critical of Israel, or critical of the support of Israel, are just that: critical of a state that illegally oppresses a people, occupies their territory, and punishes them for resisting those acts.

The fact that most Israelis are Jews (20% of the Israeli population is Palestinian), and the Israeli government is mostly Jewish, does not alter the meaning of the criticism.

The fact that perhaps other lands in the world are occupied and other people are oppressed, is similarly irrelevant. The occupation and oppression of Palestinian territories is worthy of recognition on its own. If someone wants to advocate for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh under the occupation of Azerbaijan, that is a separate topic (and they are not obligated to also advocate for Palestinians).

Nobody enjoys being criticized. Nobody relishes a conversation criticizing something dear to their hearts. But there is nothing inherently racist about factual statements censuring Israel for its inhumane treatment of Palestinians.

If anything, those who cherish Israel the most should raise their voices the loudest and inspire it to be better.