The Politics of Anti-Semitism: Netanyahu’s Use of the Term in Wartime

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's frequent accusations of anti-Semitism against critics during the Gaza conflict have sparked a contentious debate over the use and potential abuse of the term in political discourse

by Sededin Dedovic
The Politics of Anti-Semitism: Netanyahu’s Use of the Term in Wartime
© Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty Images

After the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) requested an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defense minister, and several high-ranking Hamas officials, the Israeli leader accused him of being one of the "greatest anti-Semites of modern times," reports VOA. When protests were shaking college campuses across the United States, Netanyahu said they were full of an "anti-Semitic mob." These are just a few examples of how Netanyahu, during the war, accused critics of Israel or its policies of anti-Semitism, using fiery rhetoric to compare them to the worst enemies of the Jews.

However, his critics say he often uses this term for political purposes, trying to stifle legitimate criticism and risking "diluting" the meaning of the term at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide. “Not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic," says Tom Segev, an Israeli historian.

"The moment you say it is anti-Semitic hatred, you strip any legitimacy from the criticisms and try to stifle debate." According to researchers, there has been an increase in anti-Semitic incidents since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

Many Jews in North America and Europe feel unsafe, citing threats to Jewish schools and synagogues and pro-Palestinian demonstrations on American university campuses, although organizers deny that anti-Semitism is the driving force behind the protests.

The war has reignited the debate over the definition of anti-Semitism and whether every criticism of Israel - from the killing of thousands of Palestinian children to questions about Israel's right to exist - amounts to hate speech against Jews.

Netanyahu, the son of an academic who studied the medieval persecution of Jews, has long used the sufferings of the Jewish people to color political rhetoric. He is not the first leader accused of using national trauma for his own goals.

Supporters say that Netanyahu is genuinely concerned about the safety of Jews around the world. But he makes accusations of anti-Semitism at a time when he is trying to avoid responsibility for the Hamas attack on October 7.

Hamas killed about 1,200 people and took 250 hostages, for which many in the Israeli military establishment admit partial blame. Netanyahu has been criticized both at home and abroad during the war in which 35,000 Palestinians have been killed according to Gaza's Ministry of Health.

The conflicts have caused a humanitarian catastrophe, and ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan has accused Netanyahu and his defense minister of using starvation as a "method of warfare," among other crimes. Historian Segev acknowledges the rise of "violent hatred" towards Israel and says he is not sure if it is now safe to speak Hebrew in public places.

However, he adds that Netanyahu has long used Jewish crises for political gain, including reminders of the Holocaust. At the height of the protests on American campuses, Netanyahu released a video condemning the "intolerable" anti-Semitism and compared college campuses to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine and for free speech outside of the Columbia University campus on Novem© Spencer Platt / Getty Images

“What is happening on American college campuses is terrifying," he stated.

Reacting to the arrest warrant request, he said that the ICC prosecutor was "adding fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism," comparing him to German judges who allowed the adoption of Nazi racial laws. Those comments drew criticism from the European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

“The prosecutor is threatened and accused of anti-Semitism - as is always the case when someone does something that Netanyahu's government does not like," Borrell said. “The word anti-Semitic carries enormous weight, it is too important and serious." Netanyahu compared the accusations that Israel's war is causing hunger in Gaza and that it constitutes genocide to a "blood libel" - unfounded accusations that Jews sacrificed Christian children.

“These false accusations are made not because of what we do, but because of the fact that we exist," Netanyahu said at a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Israel. Netanyahu has previously alluded to the Holocaust to turn the world against Iran's nuclear program.

Israeli leaders and media have made such comparisons regarding October 7, describing Hamas attackers as Nazis and the invasion of Israel as historical violence against Jews, using the word "Shoah" for the Holocaust. Israelis feel hurt by the global rise in anti-Semitism, considering the increase in criticism of Israel as part of that rise and seeing hypocrisy in the focus on the Israeli war while other conflicts attract less attention.

Moshe Klughaft, a former adviser to Netanyahu, believes the Israeli leader is genuinely concerned about the rise in anti-Semitism. "It is his duty to condemn anti-Semitism as the Prime Minister of Israel and the head of the state that is considered responsible for Jews worldwide," he says.

Many Israelis see the war in Gaza as an act of self-defense and are puzzled, believing that more criticism should be directed at Hamas, which they blame for starting the war, using Palestinian civilians as shields, and refusing to release hostages.

The ICC arrest warrant requests amplify these feelings. While Netanyahu repeats accusations of anti-Semitism, he has the Israeli public in mind, says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Hazan says that Netanyahu used the protests on American campuses to gain support from Israelis at a time when his popularity is waning, as citizens grow impatient with the war. He also used the protests to distract from the failure to achieve the war's goals - destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages.

“He shifts the blame from himself, attributing the failures not to his policies but to anti-Semitism. This narrative benefits him as it frees him from responsibility," says Hazan. Shmuel Rosner, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, dismisses the argument that Netanyahu stifles criticism by calling it anti-Semitic, noting many criticisms directed at Israel.

However, he says that using the term "anti-Semitic" for political goals could devalue the word. “I would be more selective than the Israeli government in choosing the people and institutions labeled as anti-Semitic," he emphasizes.

Benjamin Netanyahu