Israel is my homeland and I love it. But a lot of people don’t - billions around the world, in fact. Recently, as antisemitism and anti-Zionism (we’ll get to the differences and connections between the two in a second) started to creep more and more into the mainstream,
I started to make an effort to find out why. I talked to a lot of people about it, asking them: “Why do you think people hate Israel?”
One person I talked to was my friend Maajid Nawaz, a onetime radical Islamist who has now dedicated his life to reforming Islam and fighting hate.
“Oh, Noa, this is so simple,” he said. “People hate Israel because of antisemitism.”
Antisemitism is something most people understand. It's been around since the beginning of, well, Jews. Sadly, recent years have shown us that antisemitism is not only still around but it also seems to have become acceptable again. In Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, white supremacists chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” proudly and without even covering their faces. The following year, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven people were shot dead, by a gunman who shouted “all Jews must die.”
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high since it began tracking them in 1979, with a 56 percent increase in assaults. That same year, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a longstanding critic of Israel, made comments that struck many as not policy-driven but simply antisemitic. At one point she suggested that American politicians speaking up for Israel (and against her) were “all about the Benjamins, baby.” This played into the old stereotype that rich Jews controlled all the money in the world and could get whatever they wanted.
Later, speaking at an event, she criticized “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country” - a comment that suggested to some the “dual loyalty” charge leveled at Jews going back centuries. To their credit, some among the Democratic leadership disavowed Rep. Omar’s comments, (who later acknowledged she was 'educated on the matter', and apologized) but Democrats perplexingly refused to pass a resolution condemning antisemitism specifically - instead choosing to make it about bigotry in general.
Many Israelis and Jews elsewhere, watching these developments, wondered why the American party that rightly speaks out for so many marginalized groups couldn’t spare a thought for the Jews in particular. Jews are only 2% of the United States population, but they are the target of 50% of national religion-based hate crimes.
So, okay, antisemitism is still a thing. But what about anti-Zionism?
Support for a Jewish homeland in Israel has historically been known as “Zionism.” What my friend Maajid was alluding to was that anti-Zionism, or anti-Israelism had simply become a politically-correct form of antisemitism.
Maajid explained the connection: “People simply do not feel comfortable with Jewish self-determination. It cost me greatly to come to this conclusion [his family disavowed him], but considering everything else that is going on in the world and if you only use logic, I can’t see another explanation to this vicious Israel hating.”
I’d never heard it put so clearly. I grew up in a world that seemed post-antisemitism. Then again, you do notice things. As a teen, I struck up a conversation with a hot German dude I met in Greece, and it went great up until I heard him negate the Holocaust and accuse Israel of systematic hate crimes. I didn’t know people were that ill-informed. After moving to America, I met many ignorant or naïve people, but even the most ardent anti-Zionists claimed to support Jews; in fact, some were Jews.
Some of the most powerful voices speaking against Israel are indeed from within the Jewish community, something anti-Israel groups take pride in. And they should! As Judaism always sides with human rights and encourages dissent, I am all for speaking against the
Israeli government’s policies when you don’t like them. The dangerous line, the one that Rep. Omar and others have been accused of crossing, is the one that runs between criticizing a policy and perpetuating age-old, dangerous, harmful stereotypes.
If you vehemently oppose certain actions taken by the Israeli government, make sure you judge other countries by the same parameters. Not many people walk around proudly describing themselves as antisemites. However, we all carry subconscious biases and these biases - consciously or not - shape our worldview. So if you’re particularly full of rage at only one country on earth, and that country also happens to be Jewish, consider that your opinions about Israel may also have something to do with a subconscious bias you carry against Jews. Then form your opinions on Israel based on facts, not feeling.
This past year has been one of unprecedented challenges for America and the world, and even these seemingly unique problems have highlighted the insidious nature and dangers of antisemitism. We’ve weathered a devastating global pandemic - and yet there were millions of posts and tweets about how the Jews are the ones who actually created COVID-19. We’ve brought new awareness to racial justice after the tragic murder of George Floyd and the awful rise of Asian American hate - yet at some point in those demonstrations people spray-painted “Jews we’re coming for you” at a park by my apartment.
As we hopefully emerge from this COVID-19 mess with a greater appreciation of the essential humanity of all of our fellow citizens of earth, let’s remind the world, over and over again, that no discrimination will ever be okay. In order to weed this evil out we need to look it straight in the eye—even when it’s uncomfortable, even when the ones pushing it are fashionable and powerful. Let’s remind the world that it’s okay to stand up for the Jews - and yes, the Israelis too.
Noa Tishby is an Israeli-born actress, producer, writer and activist. After service in the Israeli army and a successful TV film and modeling career in her home country, she moved to Los Angeles and is currently co-producing the fourth season of the American version of the award-winning Israeli TV show “In Treatment” for HBO. She is the founder of “Act for Israel,” Israel’s first online advocacy organization. This essay is adapted from her book ISRAEL: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, to be published April 6, 2021 by Simon and Schuster. The views expressed are the author’s own.