I have been asking myself that question for more than two decades since finishing five years at a Jewish high school in 1991 where the idea of Israel’s saintliness was drummed into mine and my classmates’ heads with the force of an animal stun gun.
The question resurfaces every time someone of generally high standing is accused of being anti-semitic.
The latest in the firing line is Sydney University professor, Jake Lynch.
By his association with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, professor Lynch has been accused of being “against jewish people” by shadow foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop, who has promised that should the Coalition win government, it would cut funding from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.
“Mr Lynch is free to raise funds from non-government sources if he requires money to fund his campaign against the state of Israel and Jewish people,” Julie Bishop told The Australian.
“A Coalition government would seek to withdraw funding to any academic institution that used taxpayer funds for an anti-semitic campaign,” she adds.
Bishop, who is not Jewish, makes the familiar leap from it being “a campaign against “Israel” to “against the Jewish people”.
Now, I for one do not support the boycott being promoted by the BDS campaign.
But it seems highly questionable that professor Lynch is “against the Jews” given his CV, academic credentials, published works and experience.
In addition, three Jewish academics have come out in support of professor Lynch’s and other people’s or organisations’ democratic rights to be critical of Israeli policies and actions without the threat of losing their funding.
“Andrew Benjamin, Michele Grossman and David Goodman variously described the policy outlined last week by Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop as ‘outrageous’, ‘counter-productive’, ‘populist’, and as ‘an anti-democratic gesture par excellence,” reported The Australian.
(For professor Lynch’s own explanation for why he supports the BDS campaign, read his view on New Matilda – interestingly, the word “Jew” or “Jewish” is not said once).
A look back through the archives reveals other similar examples where left-wing leaning people and organisations have been labelled ‘anti-semitic” for speaking their minds on Israeli politics.
In September 2010, Fairfax journalist and broadcaster Mike Carlton came under fire for an article he had written highly critical of the actions of Israeli forces in Gaza in May 2010.
In a follow up column a week later, he wrote of the hundreds of angry emails he had received in response from the Jewish lobby, which he called a “ferocious beast”.
“Write just one sentence even mildly critical of Israel and it lunges from its lair, fangs bared, ” said Carlton.
Emails received apparently included:
‘How dare you insult Israel you over priviledged [sic] racist white moron, f— you and your stupid article. I wish I could smash your dumb face in.”
Carlton wrote in his follow up article a week later:
“I replied to Robert Goot (president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry) ,that I am perfectly content with the existence of Israel as an independent Jewish homeland, and that I have no more regard for Hamas than I had for the psychopaths of my own ethnic background, the IRA.
“But nor, I said, would I be silenced about Israel’s cruel and unconscionable oppression of the people of Gaza. Enough. Shalom.”
A complaint of anti-semitism made against Carlton was dismissed by the Australian Press Council.
Last year Nobel prize-winning author Gunter Grass was labelled an anti-semite for a poem he wrote arguing against Germany delivering nuclear submarines to Israel.
For someone who grew up being told not to buy German cars or German appliances (though every parent of every kid I new at school drove a BMW or Mercedes), the ironies are too huge to even try to put in words.
And also last year, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry sought to halt promotion and DVD sales of the SBS series ‘The Promise’ about a young British woman retracing the footsteps of her grandfather, a soldier in the final years of the British Mandate in Palestine, labelling it Nazi propaganda and anti-semitic.
The truth, it seems, is that criticism of Israeli government policies inevitably leads to the cries that there is an underlying anti-Jewish agenda.
And it doesn’t even matter if you’re a Jew.
If you’re a Jew and you criticise Israel, then you are a “Jew-hating Jew”.
The most high-profile example of this was South African Judge Richard Goldstone, who chaired the Goldstone Commission in The Hague prosecuting war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda and released the controversial Goldstone Report.
He felt the full wrath of the small, but highly influential South African Jewish community, when the Goldstone report into the Gaza war of December 2008 and January 2009 was published, accusing the Israeli government, but also Hamas, of deliberately targeting civilians.
The backlash in South Africa was brutal and vindictive, aimed at inflicting maximum personal hurt and pain.
Leading the charge was the South African Zionist Federation, who threatened to picket the synagogue if Goldstone attended his own grandson’s bar mitzvah in Johannesburg.
As someone who remembers the importance of his own bar mitzvah (when you symbolically enter adulthood at age 13), it was the cruellest of threats.
In April 2011, Richard Goldstone wrote in the Washington Post that subsequent findings were that the Israeli government had not intentionally targeted civilians but also that “the purpose of the Goldstone Report was never to prove a foregone conclusion against Israel”.
To any sane individual, Richard Goldstone is not anti-semite.
But not to the South African Zionist lobby – a lobby I might point out is content to live outside of Israel – rather than join in those who actually live there day in and day out.
I can understand though where such views germinate from.
I spent five years at a Jewish day school in South Africa where the idea of Israel’s importance was heavily and relentlessly drummed into our heads, while at the same time no mention was made of our own privileged positions as white school kids in a private school in apartheid South Africa.
We had one particular history teacher, a very severe woman, who instructed us to learn to draw the Israeli map from memory.
I am not joking – Heaven forbid you could not manage the task!
Later, in adult life, I have found myself at dinner parties and where I have been told that institutions like the BBC and The Guardian newspaper – among the most respected media organisations in the world – are anti-semitic.
Instead, I was told to watch CNN for an unbiased (read: pro-Israeli) point of view.
So am I suggesting the BDS campaign is an entirely kosher operation with no bad elements tagged on to it.
Certainly not, that would be naive.
But equally, is it fair to tar anyone who forms a negative view on Israeli government policies as an anti-semite?
Like every government, the Israeli government is far from perfect.
Anyone who has followed the story of Mossad’s use of fake Australian and British passports to carry out a Hamas hit in January 2010 will know that there are some very sinister elements operating within the darker recesses of the Israeli government.
As there are in every government.
The funny thing is that within Israel, Jews protest openly against Israeli policies such as when 250,000 Israelis joined rallies against their government’s economic policies in September 2011 – and no one accuses them of being jew-hating jews.
As Stephen Pollard, editor of The Jewish Chronicle wrote in The Sunday Age a couple of years ago: “It shouldn’t need saying that protesting against the actions of the Israeli government is not the same as being anti-semitic.”
Surely the time has come to separate legitimate criticism of Israel with claims of anti-semitism.
Yes there are many anti-semitic agendas behind Israeli protests and anti-Israeli comments and these should be pointed out when the evidence overwhelmingly says so.
But jumping up hysterically and shouting “anti-semite” every time a word is uttered in anger serves no purpose but to give more ammunition to the real bigots and jew-haters.
Israel holds itself up as an example of a democracy surrounding by states that are not.
Surely it’s time its defenders in the diaspora became a little more tolerant of free speech.