July 21, 2024

Relocations: Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

antisemitism rally
On Nov. 19 at the Ashland Plaza, Rabbi David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash addresses a rally against antisemitism. Julia Sommer photo for
November 23, 2023

Our enemies commit crimes; our side makes mistakes

By Herbert Rothschild

Something happened in Ashland Plaza this past Sunday that disturbed me and prompted reflections I believe worth sharing.

Herb Rothschild Relocations
Herbert Rothschild

That afternoon, there was a rally hosted by Temple Emek Shalom to witness against antisemitism and to honor the mayors of Ashland and Medford for condemning it and proclaiming this week as Antisemitism Week. I attended because I’m a Jew and because every decent person must stand firm against all expressions of bigotry.

About 75 of us listened to uplifting remarks by Mayor Tonya Graham, Councilor Gina DuQuenne, a representative of Medford Mayor Randy Sparacino and the rabbis of two of the three Jewish congregations in Ashland. Then, the rabbi of the third congregation spoke. Most of his remarks focused on identifying common forms of antisemitism, after each of which he said, “That is antisemitism. Call it out.” All went well until he said, “Equating Israel’s mistakes with terrorism. That is antisemitism. Call it out.”

At that point, there were what sounded to me like two or three cries of protest from the rear of the crowd. Then I saw a few people move in that direction and I heard nothing more from that quarter. The rabbi continued, and shortly thereafter the rally ended. I didn’t hear what was said to those who cried out.

I had remained silent when the rabbi made that remark, because I didn’t wish to be rude or disruptive. Nonetheless, I was sorely tempted. It was the rabbi, I thought, who had violated one of the unstated but well-understood rules of decorum for all such rallies as this, which is that the speakers confine their remarks to the announced purpose of the rally and not inject their opinions on other subjects about which there may be disagreement. That rule is important, because to attend is to publicly witness one’s support for what is being declared.

Had Emek Shalom hosted a rally to stand with Israel during this latest chapter of its struggle with the Palestinians, I would not have attended. Obviously, at least two other people felt the same way. Perhaps there were others. Had I been Ashland Mayor Tonya Graham or Councilor Gina DuQuenne, I would have felt sandbagged. The rabbi had pulled us all into a place we hadn’t all agreed to stand.

A second reflection was prompted by his use of the word “mistakes.” That’s a common habit of intense partisans. For example, I personally liked a few members of the Revolutionary Communist Party chapter in Houston, but each time I mentioned the ghastly crimes of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong, they would only allow, “Yes, mistakes were made.” And that is the way most Americans regard what we did to the Vietnamese; the war was a mistake. Such intellectually and morally disreputable apologetics authorize repetition of the crimes.

Let’s talk about a few of the “mistakes” that people other than antisemites might call terrorism. Menachem Begin was leader of Irgun, a paramilitary organization that fought the British when they controlled Palestine and the Arab Palestinians during the 1947-48 civil war in Palestine. The British government described Begin as the “leader of the notorious terrorist organization.” On July 22, 1946, on Begin’s orders, Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The explosion killed 91 people, including Arabs, Britons and Jews. In 1977, Begin was elected Israel’s sixth prime minister, the first from the Likud Party, which he helped found.

On April 9, 1948, Zionist militia killed at least 107 Palestinians, including women and children, in Deir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem. Some were cut down while trying to flee or surrender. A number of prisoners were executed after being paraded in West Jerusalem, where they were jeered, spat at and stoned. That year, other Palestinian villages, including Sasa, Saliha and Lydda, met a similar fate.

The causes of Palestinian flight in 1948 were long contested between Israeli apologists and other historians. In this country all we knew was the story popularized by Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” Then, in the 1980s, both Israel and Great Britain opened their archives. Among other revelations challenging Israel’s narrative was Plan Dalet, or Plan D, drawn up in March 1948. It was a set of operational plans to secure Jewish control over as much territory as possible in advance of the termination of British rule.

The section titled “Consolidation of Defense Systems and Fortifications” called for “Mounting operations against enemy population centers located inside or near our defensive system.” To that end, operations were to include “destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.”

Plan Dalet may not have been a master plan for ethnic cleansing. Israel had to win the armed struggle if it was to exist. But it sheds light on the worst behavior of Israeli forces — both regular and irregular — during the fighting. Many of the 700,000 displaced Palestinians fled in terror.

In the occupied West Bank terror is routine. Israeli Defense Forces soldiers break down doors in the middle of the night. People are dragged away and detained for indefinite periods of time without being charged. Attacks by armed settlers are increasing. Palestinians are driven off their lands. These are not mistakes any more than Hamas’s terrifying actions on Oct. 7 were mistakes.

My last reflection returns us to the rabbi’s blurring of criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Israel and its supporters have long tried to suppress criticism of Israel by labeling it antisemitic. Only in the last two decades in the U.S. has the effectiveness of this strategy weakened. The damage, however, has been done.

By which I mean that as knowledge of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians increases, so does antisemitism, because Israel and its supporters have denied any distinction between feelings toward Israel and toward Jews generally. Had the event last Sunday been a discussion of why antisemitism has intensified, I would have asked attenders to consider that point. As I have argued recently, it’s a serious mistake to dismiss one’s opposition as demonic — that is, devoid of intelligible motives. Whether their motives are defensible or indefensible, we must acknowledge them if we are to reduce the threat they pose.

We Jews still are threatened by the racist antisemitism that has plagued us for so long. Now, however, we are threatened by global outrage over Israel’s behavior. As the conflict between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians moves toward its predictable and gruesome end, those with last names like mine will need to think hard about where in the world we travel.    

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

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