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In the wake of the proliferation of pro-Palestine student encampments on American college campuses, accusations of antisemitism are back at the center of U.S. and global political discourse. Undoubtedly, as Peter Beinart and others have indicated, expressions of antisemitism have appeared in some of these protests, but their prevalence has been heavily inflated. Indeed, influential Jewish and non-Jewish actors in the media and politics have deliberately sought to create a public moral panic by conflating harsh criticism of Israel and Zionism with antisemitism.

This conflation is the outcome of a decades-long campaign waged by Israel and its supporters around the world to stymie opposition to the state’s violent policies of occupation, apartheid, and domination over the Palestinians — which over the past seven months have taken on immense, plausibly genocidal proportions.

This strategy is not only cynical, hypocritical, and harmful to the essential fight against real antisemitism. It also allows Israel and its supporters, as we will argue here, to deny Israel’s own crimes and violent discourse by inverting and projecting them onto the Palestinians and their supporters, and calling it antisemitism.

This psycho-discursive mechanism of inversion and projection underpins the foundational document of the so-called “fight against antisemitism”: the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which Israel and its allies aggressively promote around the world.

In response to the student protests, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill that, if approved by the Senate, would adopt this definition into law, and despite the fact that the IHRA itself describes it as a “legally non-binding working definition.”

President Joe Biden addresses a group of Jewish community leaders about his support for Israel and his work to combat antisemitism at the White House, Washington, DC, United States, October 11, 2023. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Inversion and projection by definition

The IHRA is an influential international organization comprising 35 member states primarily from the Global North (including Israel and Eastern Europe). The organization adopted a working definition of antisemitism in 2016 that includes a vague articulation of antisemitism as “hatred toward Jews” along with 11 examples that purport to illustrate it; seven of these focus on Israel, essentially equating criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism with antisemitism. It has thus sparked huge controversy in the Jewish world and beyond, despite its adoption by dozens of countries and hundreds of organizations, from universities to football clubs.

Endless examples have been recorded over the years demonstrating how this definition serves to curb free speech, silence criticism of Israel, and harass those who voice it. So much so that Kenneth Stern, who was the main drafter of the definition, has become its major opponent. Alternative definitions like the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (among whose initiators and drafters were these two authors) have been suggested as more accurate and less politically biased tools to be used for educational purposes in fighting antisemitism.

Crucially, the IHRA definition manifests the inversion and projection mechanism by which Israel and its supporters deny Israel’s crimes and attribute them to the Palestinians. One of the definition’s examples states, for instance, that “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is antisemitic. Yet Israel’s official policy of settlement, occupation, and annexation for the last several decades has denied the Palestinian people their own right to self-determination.

This policy has been intensified under Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in January 2024, publicly vowed to resist any attempt to establish a Palestinian state. The governing coalition’s fundamental guiding principles further declare, echoing the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law, that “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right over all areas of the Land of Israel.” As Israel actively thwarts Palestinian self-determination, the IHRA definition inverts and projects this onto the Palestinians themselves, calling it antisemitism.

According to the IHRA definition, “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is another example of antisemitism. Here, too, the pattern of inversion and projection is evident, as Israel and its supporters continuously link Arabs and especially Palestinians to the Nazis.

Jewish students and community leaders protest against the Palestine encampment at George Washington University, Washington, DC, United States, May 2, 2024. (Ted Eytan/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

This is a deeply rooted and very popular discourse in Israel. It runs from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who saw the Arabs who fought Israel as the successors of the Nazis; to Benjamin Netanyahu, who claims that Hamas are the new Nazis; and to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who recently asserted that there are 2 million Nazis in the occupied West Bank.

In light of these hypocrisies, the IHRA definition’s assertion that “applying double standards” in moral judgements of Israel is antisemitic is yet another example of this inversion and projection mechanism. The IHRA definition itself employs double standards: whereas Israel is permitted to deny the Palestinians their right to self-determination and compare them to Nazis, the definition states that denying Jews the right of self-determination and drawing links between Israeli and Nazi policy is antisemitic.

Students camp out in solidarity with Palestine at George Washington University, Washington, DC, United States, April 25, 2024. (Ted Eytan/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

In defense of genocide

This psycho-discursive mechanism goes beyond the IHRA definition, as revealed during the recent Congressional hearing of three presidents of elite American universities. A key moment came when Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik asked the presidents whether their institutions would tolerate calls for the genocide of Jews.

“I assume you’re familiar with the term intifada, right?” Stefanik asked Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University. “And you understand,” she continued, “that the use of the term intifada in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the State of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?”

This equation of intifada with genocide is baseless: intifada is the Arabic word for a popular uprising against oppression and for liberation and freedom (the verb intafad انتفاض literally means “to shake off”). This is an emancipatory call that has been repeated many times in the Arab world against oppressive regimes, and not only Israel. An intifada can be violent, as was the Second Intifada in Israel-Palestine between 2000-5, or non-violent, as was most of the First Intifada between 1987-91, or the “WhatsApp Intifada” in Lebanon in 2019. Given this, the only hint of genocide lies in the imagination of Stefanik and her ilk. This was a tragic moment: Stefanik set a trap for Gay, and Gay fell into it.

Students camp out in solidarity with Palestine at George Washington University, Washington, DC, United States, April 25, 2024. (Ted Eytan/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Another example of a pernicious false allegation is the claim by Israel and its supporters that the Palestinian liberation slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is genocidal and antisemitic. As the historians Maha Nasser, Rashid Khalidi, and others have argued, the vast majority of Palestinians and their supporters who chant this slogan simply mean that the land of historic Palestine will be liberated politically — in absolute repudiation of the present reality of Palestinian unfreedom of various forms between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This could take the form of one state with equal rights for all, two fully independent nation states, or some kind of binational or confederal arrangement.

In both of these cases, Israel and its supporters find a call for genocide against the Jews where it does not exist. Yet in Israel, after the massacres and atrocities of October 7, many Israeli leaders, war cabinet ministers, politicians, journalists, and rabbis called explicitly and openly for a genocide in Gaza in more than 500 documented cases in the first three months alone, some of them on prime-time television shows. This was shockingly laid out for the whole world to see in the case that South Africa filed against Israel in December at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

They include, for instance, President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu. More recently, the influential Rabbi Eliyahu Mali urged the Israeli army to kill all children and women in Gaza, while Smotrich called for the total annihilation of the cities of Rafah, Deir al-Balah, and Nuseirat. Such voices represent a broad swath of Israeli public opinion, and correspond to what is actually happening on the ground.

On Jan. 26, the ICJ issued a provisional ruling declaring that there is a “plausible risk” that the right of Palestinians to be protected from genocide is being violated. The situation has deteriorated further since then, with Israel extending its invasion into Rafah, and deliberately starving Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people.

Many scholars of genocide — among them Raz Segal, Omer Bartov, Ronald Grigor Suny, Marion Kaplan, Amos Goldberg, and Victoria Sanford — reached more or less the same conclusion as the ICJ. The UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, Francesca Albanese, too, in her recent report “Anatomy of Genocide,” asserted that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating Israel’s commission of genocide is met.”

Thus, what Israel and its supporters accuse Palestinians of inciting, Israeli officials and public figures are explicitly and openly declaring, and the Israeli army is prosecuting. And while Palestinians and their supporters chant for liberation “from the river to the sea,” Israel is enforcing Jewish supremacy “from the river to the sea” in the form of occupation, annexation, and apartheid.

We therefore suggest interpreting this inversion and projection not only as a classic case of hypocritical double standards against the Palestinians, but also — as is often the case with processes of projection — a defense mechanism of denial. Israel and its supporters cannot confront the state’s oppressive apartheid structure, its delegitimization of the Palestinians, or its genocidal rhetoric and crimes, so they twist these allegations and thrust them onto the Palestinians.

The so-called “fight against antisemitism” that Israel and its supporters are waging, grounded in the IHRA definition of antisemitism, should therefore be seen as yet another means used by a powerful state to deny its criminal acts and mass atrocities. The U.S. government must reject it outright.

Source: By Amos Goldberg and Alon Confino

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