Is Criticizing Israel Antisemitic?

Plus: The darkly ironic story of how the coronavirus saved one of the world's most historic Jewish cemeteries

Israel is just 73 years old. By contrast, anti-Jewish prejudice is thousands of years old, and its expressions and effects extend far beyond the Jewish state. That’s why most of my antisemitism explainer video series isn’t about Israel. But it would have been dishonest to do an entire project about contemporary antisemitism without reckoning with Israel, and trying to disentangle the thorny debate over whether criticizing the Jewish state can be anti-Jewish.

That’s what today’s video is about. It goes without saying that there is no way I could possibly settle all the permutations and implications of this question in a single video. And so I didn’t try. Instead, I attempted to show that while we might think that this subject is so controversial that we can’t agree about any of it, there are actually a bunch of basic principles and ideas that most folks do agree upon.

We can agree that Israel is a country with actual policies, and those policies—like any other country’s—warrant criticism, including harsh criticism. We can agree that no criticism of Israeli policy justifies vandalism and violence against Jewish people around the world, any more than criticism of Muslim states and groups in the Middle East justifies attacks against Muslims around the world. We can agree that simply taking classical antisemitic conspiracy theories—“the Jews control the government/media/economy”—and replacing “Jews” with “Israelis” or “Zionists” is still antisemitism. And so on.

Watch the whole thing below. I hope it will become a useful resource for the many decent and thoughtful people trying to have this difficult conversation in a decent and thoughtful way.

Now, despite my best efforts to find a workable consensus, I’m sure people of goodwill will still take issue with my choices. These are difficult questions, and I welcome both questions and criticism, so feel free to share either, including in our Ask Me Anything for paying subscribers next week.

Speaking of which, after sorting out some technical difficulties, I’ll be sending out early access to the final three videos in this series to paid subscribers tomorrow. So be sure to sign up if you’d like to get in on that.

How the Coronavirus Saved Vilna’s Historic Jewish Cemetery

Back in January 2017, I reported on an alarming effort to pave over one of the vestiges of historic Jewish life in Europe:

For centuries, the city of Vilna (today Vilnius) was the center of Jewish life in what was then known as Polish-Lithuania. By the turn of the 20th century, the Lithuanian capital boasted over 100 synagogues, an array of Jewish newspapers, and scores of other cultural and religious institutions. It played host to the famed Gaon of Vilna, one of Judaism’s spiritual giants, and also to the socialist Bund, the secular Jewish labor movement.

Today, after the Holocaust, little is left of that historic Jewish community, which once comprised half of Vilna’s population, but now constitutes less than 1 percent of it. One remaining vestige of the city’s illustrious past, however, is its old Jewish cemetery, in which “a galaxy of eminent European rabbinic scholars and authors” were buried, as one leading scholar put it. Yet compounding tragedy upon tragedy, the Lithuanian government, reportedly with European Union funding, is preparing to build a $25 million convention center on the site.

In response, an alliance of local Jews and preeminent Jewish historians has taken up the cause of saving the cemetery.

In April 2017, these scholars and activists produced a short documentary pressing their case:

This debate had implications far beyond one Jewish cemetery in Lithuania. As Shnayer Z. Leiman, one of the world’s preeminent Jewish historians, put it to me, “there’s a much larger issue at stake here, and that is whether any government can at will destroy a Jewish cemetery. Once you allow this in Vilna—and there are those who allowed it—it’s going to happen everywhere. Every government’s going to say, ‘Well, not only did they do it, they got paid by the E.U. to do it!’ Anytime they want to, they can express the law of eminent domain and even destroy Jewish cemeteries. They’re not going to destroy a Christian cemetery, but Jewish cemeteries, why not? Who’s going to complain? So the stakes are very high. What’s at stake is really the future of all Jewish cemeteries in Europe in particular, or anywhere where the Jewish population dwindles and the government feels it can just walk in and do whatever it wants.”

But even as protest continued, the project moved slowly but inexorably forward. That is, until this week, when Lithuania announced that it was finally shelving the project. They did not do this, however, because building a convention center over a historic Jewish cemetery was an awful thing to do. They did it because they determined that the center wasn’t worth the financial investment, since the coronavirus had depressed travel and tourism.

I have no further comment.

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