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Criticizing a government and criticizing its people are not the same

Collage: CC wikicommons, collection by Nick.mon

For the last couple of decades the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an increasingly touchy subject amongst Canadians and the rest of the world. This was especially true in 2014, when events like Operation Protective Edge and other brutal attacks had supporters on both sides pumping up their divisive rhetoric.

Since the situation is so controversial, loaded words like “anti-Semite” or “terrorist” tend to be thrown around liberally. The situation is not helped by the use of this kind of language.

Not only does this vocabulary shut down any rational conversation that might take place, but it also perpetuates the idiotic idea that criticizing the state of Israel is the root of modern anti- Semitism.

This kind of attitude was thrown around a lot in the last year.

This past January, while addressing the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened criticizing Israeli policy to attacking Jewish people in general. In July, during the early days of Operation Protective Edge, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird subtly reinforced this position by condemning the United Nations’ criticism of Israeli-led airstrikes against Palestine.

In February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry found himself on the receiving end of this kind of brazen accusation, being condemned by high-level Israeli politicians after endorsing efforts to enforce economic sanctions on Israel if they failed to reach a peace accord with Palestine.

A Dec. 4 letter to the editor in the Fulcrum even claimed that the local chapter of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights club is inherently anti-Semitic and doesn’t have any place on campus.

This kind of sentiment is ridiculous. If I criticize the government of France, I am not necessarily anti-French. If I disapprove of American foreign policy, it does not mean I hate all Americans.

In this light, it is important to distinguish between Jews and Israelis when discussing these issues. After all, Israel is a small, isolated nation state and—despite talk of it being a spiritual homeland—its government does not represent the sum of all 13 to 14 million Jewish views and experiences worldwide. Governments and the people they represent are not interchangeable, especially when half the globe’s Jewish population lives outside the state of Israel.

This call for calm isn’t to suggest that overt anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in the 21st century. Far from it. The recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2014 has revived a lot of old, ugly prejudices in places like Europe, where people like Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, impart the idea that “these are the worst times since the Nazi era.”

While we may never be able truly comprehend this modern surge of Jewish hatred, encouraging insecurities by throwing around loaded words like “anti-Semite” when they’re not warranted is surely not the best way to discourage it.

We need to stop assuming that critical debate surrounding Israel’s military policy, or the act of giving a voice to the territories it occupies, is the same thing as attacking it from a place of hatred. In order to change things for the better in Israel, we need to permit criticism, even if it isn’t precisely what we want to hear.