British Professor Asseses Israel, Anti-Semitism and Free Speech...

Posted: 12/3/2007 3:58:00 PM
Source: This posting originally appeared on the American Jewish Committee's website on Nov. 26, 2007.

British Professor Assesses Israel, Anti-Semitism and Free Speech in AJC Booklet

November 26, 2007 – New York – When does criticism of Israel become anti-Semitism? That is the central question tackled in a new essay by British Professor Bernard Harrison, published by the American Jewish Committee.

In Israel, Anti-Semitism and Free Speech, Harrison, a noted philosophy professor, uses a set of criteria he has developed to parse the language used by critics of Israel, and distinguish fair criticism from defamation.

Those who couple the terms “Israel” and “Jewish state” with the terms “Nazi” and “apartheid,” or who advocate for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are, according to Harrison, without a doubt espousing anti-Semitism.

Yet, disturbingly, says Harrison, this is not widely seen as part of larger efforts to delegitimize the sovereign State of Israel. Further, those who use such language quickly accuse those who challenge them of trying to limit free speech.

Nonsense, says Professor Harrison. “The issue is whether some of the more unbridled ‘progressive’ critics of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are sufficiently aware of the dangers of contributing, through the overuse of certain appealing but deeply compromised arguments and rhetorical tropes, to the growth of a climate of opinion, largely among non-Jews (and I write as a non-Jew), whose consequences, in the long run, may be very different from those they imagine themselves to be pursuing,” says Harrison.

Using a number of recent examples from the media to support his analysis, Harrison points out that a statement is dangerously anti-Semitic if it satisfies both what he calls the Unfairness Criterion and the Continuity Criterion.

The Unfairness Criterion involves spreading lies, or saying discreditable things, or treating one group by a different standard than another. The “Continuity Criterion” is resurrecting the slanders and distortions previously employed in the long history of anti-Semitism.

Harrison acknowledges that not all critics of Israel are alike and there is plenty of room for legitimate, honest criticism of Israel. But in analyzing a number of negative statements, he concludes that indeed there are some criticisms that meet his criteria and should be called anti-Semitic.

“Our aim in publishing Prof. Harrison’s essay is to shed light on the accurate, unpolemical meaning of the term ‘anti-Semitism,’ so that those who practice it in speech or actions can be combated vigorously,” said AJC Executive Director David A. Harris. “We know that words have specific meanings as well as consequences in the realm of action—and that opposing the slander of anti-Semitism makes the world safer for both Jews and non-Jews.”

Harrison was moved to explore these issues by the commotion following AJC’s publication last winter of an essay by Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld entitled “Progressive” Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism.

“Rosenfeld’s object in writing is an entirely proper and necessary one,” says Harrison. “He is blowing the whistle on varieties of ‘anti-Zionism,’ which, whether they issue from Jews or, as they mostly do, from Gentiles, really do have an anti-Semitic edge to them.”

Copies of Israel, Anti-Semitism and Free Speech can be downloaded from