Over the past several years, Israel has become progressively more isolated from the international community.
A slowly growing storm of international condemnation has gathered over Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian lands, its wars against Gaza, and its ongoing annexation of the West Bank. While governments the world over (with the important exception of the United States) have voiced outrage, there's also been a fast-growing independent movement patterned after the international effort against Apartheid in South Africa. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement seeks to disrupt the Israeli economy and thus push it into giving up the occupation.
In response, Israel's defenders have begun to settle on a familiar rhetorical line: that such action is anti-Semitic. They've made similar claims in the past, but the form is beginning to evolve in unsettling ways that infringe on free speech, particularly on college campuses. Where the typical tactic used to be bad-faith readings of criticism of Israel, increasingly the idea is to portray any political activism aimed at Israel as definitionally anti-Semitic.
In the U.S., the most important of the Israel hardliners is undoubtedly Hillary Clinton, who has a good chance to be the next president. She has embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a frankly comical degree, writing how she would reaffirm the "unbreakable bond" with him and would invite him to the White House within her first month in office. (That's despite the fact that he palpably loathes President Obama, has worked to elect Republicans in an attempt to undermine the Iran nuclear deal, and has used dog-whistle politics to get elected.)
At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference last week, Clinton equated BDS with anti-Semitism. Speaking of the movement, she said:
Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate, and undermine Israel and the Jewish people... As I wrote last year in a letter to the heads of major American Jewish organizations, we have to be united in fighting back against BDS. Many of its proponents have demonized Israeli scientists and intellectuals, even students. To all the college students who may have encountered this on campus, I hope you stay strong. Keep speaking out. Don’t let anyone silence you, bully you, or try to shut down debate, especially in places of learning like colleges and universities. [Hillary Clinton, via Time]
The final line about shutting down debate on university campuses is an ironic one, since Israel hardliners have been trying to do just that, most recently at the enormous University of California system. Support for Palestinian rights has been growing on many college campuses, and so the UC Board of Regents, under pressure from pro-Israel groups, had been considering a statement which conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, both of which "have no place at the University of California." This would have been the first such statement at any major public university system.
Like any broad political label, Zionism has several contested meanings, but most commonly it means Jewish nationalism — the idea that Jews should have their own state, placed in the traditional Jewish homeland (more-or-less where Israel currently sits). Given that the merits of any kind of nationalism are a worthy subject of debate and the fact that the creation of Israel in 1948 required an extensive campaign of ethnic cleansing, such a concept is at least contestable. Indeed, many Jews identify as anti-Zionist.
In other words, while there are surely some anti-Zionists who are also anti-Semites, anti-Zionism in itself is not inherently bigoted. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board noted, "It's difficult to read [the UC statement] as anything other than a warning to those students or faculty members who have fundamental disagreements with the state of Israel."
The statement also very likely ran afoul of the First Amendment, as the ACLU pointed out, and so the regents changed it at the last minute before passing it through, removing the equation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. (They still kept in a condemnation of "anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.")
All this is only one small part of what has become a general campaign of political repression against BDS advocates, from America to the U.K. and France.
At any rate, hair-trigger deployment of "anti-Semitism!" would be a lot easier to take seriously if Netanyahu's defenders evinced any worry at all about the bigotry of Donald Trump. He is running the most racist campaign in decades, has many overt anti-Semites among his supporters, and gave a speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition riddled with anti-Semitic stereotypes. ("I'm a negotiator, like you folks," he told the audience.) But the conservative Anti-Defamation League defended him, and a later speech before AIPAC was greeted with wild applause. It's as if George Wallace was enthusiastically cheered by the NAACP in 1968.
Make no mistake, anti-Semitism is a real problem that must be combated. But I can think of no worse way to fight it than by lashing the world's Jews to the political fortunes of de facto apartheid.