When legitimate criticism hurts


racism signs

Antisemitism and racism are rightly considered shameful. So those accused of these things usually deny the charges vehemently. But such is the heat provoked by the accusation that people often shrink from reflecting on the issues that provoked the accusation. So it is worth reflecting on just why the recent graffiti on synagogues and abusive remarks about Jews in Australia are wrong, and under what conditions accusations of antisemitism or racism are justifiable or unjustifiable.          

Many groups suffer from offensive words and actions on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion or political convictions. The behaviour is offensive because the perpetrators attribute to persons negative qualities that they associate with the group to which these persons belong, and abuse them for the negative qualities. They wrongly assume that attitudes and behaviour of individuals can be predicted from their membership of a group. Ultimately they deny personal freedom and value. Those treated in this way may feel afraid, disrespected and alienated. The perpetrators are legion: antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, anti-Communist, anti-American and anticlerical, to name just a few.

These attitudes are more vicious when they focus on more than one distinctive quality of the group under attack. Antisemitic behaviour, for example, is often fuelled by hostility both for the ethnic origins and for the religion of the people attacked. The combination of qualities intensifies hatred and contempt. This is also true of anti-Muslim prejudice, which feeds on negative beliefs about both Islam and about ethnic origin, and so about persons. This double prejudice makes antisemitism especially damaging and deplorable.

Historical and cultural factors can make prejudicial behaviour even more offensive and destructive. The history of the Jewish people in the West has been one of discrimination, occasional persecution, expulsion and, in our time, of attempted genocide. Persons were regularly targeted for their ethnic origins and religious beliefs. The history of murderous cultural prejudice means that survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants will legitimately fear for their security when they see anti-Jewish slogans painted on walls or hear the reality of the Holocaust denied. These historical and cultural factors explain why in some nations Holocaust denial has been criminalised as a symbol of the dangers and viciousness of anti-Semitism.

To say that antisemitism is uniquely vicious, however, is not to say that the targeting other groups, whose members have also suffered a long history of repression, discrimination and contempt, is any less shameful. Abusive words and actions directed against Indigenous people in Australia, against blacks in the United States, and the Romani throughout Europe, for example, are also uniquely vicious because they reflect a history and culture in which people have been discriminated against and treated with contempt by dominant groups in their nations.

Because antisemitic and racist language and actions are so divisive and damaging, accusations should not be lightly made. Nor should they be given automatic credence. In particular the common practice of declaring critics of the actions or policies of, say, the Zimbabwe or the Israeli government, to be racist or antisemitic should be called for the bullying it is. Certainly such criticism may be motivated by antisemitic or racist prejudice. But that prejudice needs to be demonstrated, not asserted.

To criticise the Russian government, for example, for its actions in the Ukraine would be anti-Russian only if we attributed its actions to the supposed bad qualities of Russians as a whole. It is perfectly legitimate to claim that its actions are ethically unjustifiable and should be subject to sanctions, provided we have subjected the behaviour of the Ukrainian government and others involved in the conflict to the same ethical scrutiny. Our claim may be right or wrong, our call for sanctions may be justifiable or not, but if it is carefully considered it is a proper expression of ethical responsibility. Governments represent their people, and should be held accountable for doing so ethically. Their critics should not be deterred by being smeared as racist or antisemitic.

Judged by these criteria, the defacing of Jewish synagogues is a deplorable example of antisemitism. It identifies Australian Jews and their religious institutions, not to mention Jews in Israel and their faith, with negative qualities assigned to all Jews because of their race and ethnicity.

It is, however, legitimate to criticise the Israeli government for its actions in Gaza on the grounds that they are a disproportionate response that cannot achieve its ends, and to call for sanctions that will discourage further violent action, just as it was legitimate to criticise the Assad regime on the grounds that the harm done to civilians was disproportionate, and to call for sanctions.

The fact that criticism is legitimate, of course, does not mean that it is correct. Nor that the actions of the Hamas leaders are ethically justifiable. Indeed the Syrian example should give us pause before taking sides. If we criticise policies and advocate sanctions on ethical grounds we should expect robust rebuttal of our critique.

Both the viciousness of antisemitism and the need to hold the Israeli government accountable for its actions spring from the same respect for the preciousness of each human person. No people may be defined and treated as if their value was determined by their ethnicity.


Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.Andrew Hamilton


Signpost image by shutterstock.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, antisemitism, Israel, Holocaust, Gaza



submit a comment

Existing comments

A very thought-provoking and perceptive article. With extraordinarily great suffering, such as the Holocaust, a deep wound occurs. That wound never fully heals and becomes part of the people concerned. Israel's attacks on Gaza have been disproportionate but may spring from Israel's sense of impending annihilation, no matter how improbable others may view this to be. This may explain Israel's actions, but doesn't justify them. The Jewish people have been subject to anti-semitism and this anti-semitism becomes most apparent when Israel messes up. As Andrew points out, though, there is a deeper issue - one of prejudice.
Pam | 20 August 2014

I am sick to death of the anti-Semitic stufff. Arabs, Assyrians and millions of others are semites not just jews. If people want to talk about being anti-Jewish say so but stop using the usurped word anti-Semitic.
Marilyn | 20 August 2014

I notice you make no mention of Hamas firing thousands of rockets into Israel and using Palestinian civilians as shields and just what do you think is a "proportionate" response when you are under constant attack? You need a reality check!
Michael Siddle | 21 August 2014

Thanks, Andy. When it comes to the brutal and disproportionate actions of the Islamic State (ISIS), calls have been made recently for Australians of similar religious and ethnic backgrounds to publicly denounce it and distance themselves from it, to join "Team Australia" publicly. Such calls are rarely called "anti-Muslim". In fairness (though I find both calls deplorable myself), shouldn't the same be expected of Australians of similar religious and ethnic backgrounds to the Israeli State, when it comes to the (albeit lesser) brutal and disproportionate actions of Israel? Even hints of such calls for the latter (or even criticisms of the Israeli Government) are frequently labelled anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. Where are you Noam Chomsky when we need you?
Jack | 21 August 2014

"These historical and cultural factors" are what newborns bond to as they unconsciously imbibe the attitudes of their elders. Those attitudes become their prejudices and traditions, 'A young man according to his ways, even when he is old, will not depart from them'. 'As the sapling leans, so shall the tree fall'. Bonding generally will become 'bondage', leaving us unwilling or even unable to think outside its confines, unless some catalyst intervenes. Cardinal Newman remarked that overcoming prejudices is like attacking a granite mountain with a razor blade. Unless a new Messiah. arises, it seems only a catastrophic clash will force us to re-examine our prejudices and traditions.
Robert Liddy | 21 August 2014

Mr Hamilton - fine but perhaps Eureka Street could elucidate what you so daintily refer to as "the Syrian example" and "the actions of the Hamas leaders". When the Middle East focus is almost entirely directed at criticism of Israel, the short step (really a slight shift of a foot) to anti-Semitism is a foreseeable consequence.
Damian | 21 August 2014

Andrew – this is mostly a sensitive and balanced article. But two points are contentious. You refer to the “common practice” by alleged bullies of aligning criticism of the Israeli Government with anti-Semitism. But what do you mean by criticism? Are we talking about the same reasonable and rational criticisms that many people regularly make of the Australian or American or Indonesian governments? Or are we talking about the overt ethnic stereotypes and demonization of all Israeli Jews that emanate from the extremist BDS movement? Additionally, what is disproportionate action? Are you saying that any military response to Hamas rockets is wrong, or just a response that causes significant civilian casualties? And if the former, what is the alternative for Israel? Can rational political negotiations actually be held with the far Right religious fundamentalists that control Gaza? Philip Mendes
philip mendes | 21 August 2014

"No people may be defined and treated as if their value was determined by their ethnicity." Agreed! Antisemitism has been used verbally and violently against many Middle Eastern peoples, including the Jews. We have various nationalities, cultures and religions, but there is only ONE race - the human race. If we really belonged to different species and unable to interbreed, we could speak of 'races', but despite our diversity we are all homo sapiens. Those who try to convince us that there is an 'us ' and 'them' are often politicians, religious fanatics, or shameless land-grabbers - all needing a distraction from the truth of their immoral behaviour. There are many in power who wish to divide and conquer so that we are too preoccupied fighting each other to question their motives. Should all religions have their own territory at the expense of killing long-settled civilians? The Jews, like the Cathars, the Catholics,and the Muslims, have suffered persecution by governments who coveted their wealth or land. Israel depends on USA's war economy for nuclear weapons/arms, David has traded places with Goliath and the Palestinian slingshots/rockets are buried in the rubble, Such shame.There is only ONE God, Yahweh,Allah, Jehovah -many languages.
Annabel | 21 August 2014

I see a fairly subtle but pervasive bias in E.S. that is anti Israel. There are attempts to be even, but they are very weak. The provocative barbarism of Muslim groups goes largely ignored in the West, especially by leaders of Muslim communities, yet Israel gets heavy criticism for defending herself. I recommend the New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/opinion/ronald-lauder-who-will-stand-up-for-the-christians.html?_r=2
Jane | 21 August 2014

Thank you for your temperate responses on a difficult topic. By way of clarification, I referred to Syria as an example of the difficulty of taking ethical positions and calling for action in response. A year ago many people criticised the Assad regime and called for support for those wanting to overthrow it. In the hindsight of the growth of ISIS this call now seems to me to have been naive. By the actions of Hamas , I had in mind firing rockets at civlian targets, and launching them from civilian spaces. These are part of the situation that any ethical critique of the actions of the parties to the conflict needs to address. When writing of legitimate (though not necessarily justified) criticism of Israel and other states, I had in mind the reflected upon criticism that looks at the whole situation. These requirements usually distinguish it from criticism based on racist grounds. The serious ethical argument that can be made against the Israeli response in Gaza, as against the pattern bombing of German cities in the Second World War, is not directed against the legitimacy of taking limited military action, in this case to stop rockets, (ius ad bellum), but against the heavy loss of civilan life and other injury involved in the means taken, both in the bombing and in the continuing effects on civilians (ius in bello). That loss of life is inherent in the means taken. Furthermore, it is for a goal that will not be achieved (the stopping of rockets), and will not bring peace. That is where the disproportion comes in. That is the shape of the argument, but of course it is open to reasonable counter-argument.
Andy Hamilton | 21 August 2014

Yes Mr. Hamilton, antisemitism and all forms of racism are vicious and deplorable. I have read reports of thousands of rockets being fired into Israel for years now and have been amazed at their restraint. Imagine if someone was firing thousands of rockets into Australia. Would you want the government to show restraint? The Israeli response to these attacks was long overdue. Each human being is a child of the same God so each of us should respect the preciousness of all others. Your words will help as more people repeat demonstrating the attitude in their every day lives. ISIL just released the video where a morally corrupt person kills a journalist showing the contemptible attitude of his kind. ISIL is killing hundreds and probably thousands just as the Nazis did at the beginning of WW II. The world must respond to this threat to world peace and end the bullying they think is okay. They are anti-all peoples who are not as corrupt as they are being. I pray for us all as this threat to world peace is being allowed to grow. The world must respond to this threat now. Come together, right now!
Lou | 21 August 2014

education is so important.The Australian concept of secular education from the 1870's is outdated. A new national curriculum must include objective information about religion and allied topics. remembering that education is not indoctrination.
john ozanne | 21 August 2014

@Andy Hamilton. Thanks for your clarification. A couple of points. "By the actions of Hamas, I had in mind firing rockets at civilian targets, and launching them from civilian spaces". Israel has been repeatedly criticised for firing rockets at civilian targets, just as Hamas does, but incurs more invective because of the greater damage done. Surely, both actions are equally reprehensible if talking of ethics. Perhaps Israel's over-reaction won't stop Hamas and won't bring peace but it does send the message "we will defend our right to be here". There are no easy answers to this entrenched conflict - Hamas was voted into power when many ordinary Palestinians perceived Arafat's PNA to be corrupt. Hamas has, in fact, taken Palestine deeper into war.
Pam | 21 August 2014

Wake up Andy. The population density in Gaza makes it impossible for Israel to selectively bombe Hamas rocket sites without the risk of hitting civilians. They have no choice but to fire at the launpch sites. Aside from anything else your assertion that the majority of casualties are civilians is false. The demographics say otherwise. As regards the UN, why are they allowing rockets to be fired from their property. Please try and deal in facts not propoganda!
Michael Siddle | 21 August 2014

The population density in Gaza might also help to explain why Hamas have fired rockets from ‘civilian areas’. Compare Gaza with an area of 360 sq. km and population of 1.8 million with Newcastle where somewhat more than 300,000 people occupy about 260 sq. km. It’s difficult to imagine that there might be an area within Gaza that isn’t ‘civilian’. Readers with the stomach for it might care to listen to, or read the transcript of, Radio National’s Background Briefing programme from last Sunday which reports on the origins of this recent assault on Gaza, the kidnapping and horrific murder of three Jewish youths on the West Bank followed by the tit-for-tat killing of a Palestinian youth. The attitude of some of the illegal settlers on the West Bank is quite disturbing to hear. This, for example, from one young mother in the illegal Jewish village of Esh Kodesh: “If you look in the Koran, to see what [Muslims] believe in, you can see that they don’t really have anything here. They don’t need to look at anything in Israel. They’re coming here to bother us. They can go to Cairo. Cairo is their holy place.” Obviously there is no place for Palestinians in what Israelis call Judea and Samaria so what are they supposed to do? Roll over, face the wall and wait till they die?
Paul | 22 August 2014

After reading "When legitimate criticism hurts" from all the comments, this is the first time that I agree with the vast majority of comments. I now feel enthusiastic to keep reading Eureka Street every day,
Ron Cini | 22 August 2014

I don't believe the term "anti-semitic" is being used in the right context when people criticise Israel - even when the criticisms are based on lack of knowledge of this complex war. "Semitic" is actually a broader term which refers to arabic speakers, but it has been more commonly used as a political term to segregate Jews from Aryans in Germany.
AURELIUS | 29 August 2014


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up