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The president’s baseline
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The president’s baseline

Campus critics of Israel are often right when they complain that their activities are too often dismissed as “anti-Semitic.” They should be able to argue for a Palestinian state, and against certain Israeli policies, without being tarred with a hate crime. 

But defenders of Israel know when criticism crosses over into anti-Semitism, as when leaders of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement call for a binational state that sounds the death knell for a sovereign Jewish state and reverses Jewish history. In that case, even criticism that begins with no intent of anti-Semitism ends with the effect of anti-Semitism.

This was the point made clearly and expansively by President Obama in his interview last week with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Obama rejected that idea that those who criticize Israel are necessarily anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. The bonds between Israel and the United States are based on shared values, he said, and it is no contradiction for one friend to point out when another is not living up to those values.

But the president also drew the connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. “I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind.” On the other hand, he continued, engaging constructively with Israel means “you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism — that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current — …you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology.” 

Obama’s baseline is one of respect: for history, for the rights of a people, for the aspirations of a country’s citizens. His words echo State Department policy, whose definition of anti-Semitism includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.” 

The president has provided moral clarity on a much-debated issue. We hope his words are heard on all sides of the conflict.

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