When does criticism of Zionism and Israel lapse into antisemitism?

Jul 18, 2023
Unknown woman holding David Star. Israel, Judaism, Holocaust, Zionism concept.

An exchange between Larry Stillman, Harold Zwier and Chandra Muzaffar on the question: When does criticism of Zionism and Israel lapse into antisemitism?

In late 2022 Dr Chandra Muzaffar with others, announced a bold global initiative called Saving Humanity and Planet Earth (SHAPE).

Dr Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist, is an Islamic reformist and human rights activist. He is president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) based in Malaysia and has written about interfaith dialogue and beliefs, including that of Jews, and promulgated a moderate religious tone in his many works.

He is also known to Australian audiences through an article in Pearls and Irritations (20/3/2023) titled, To All Who Care about Humanity’s and the Planet’s Future, in which he and his co-authors wrote:

“We believe it’s time to nurture civic engagement informed by reflection and conversation. With this in mind, SHAPE is planning an ambitious program of innovative research, education, advocacy and action. The crowdfunding campaign RESTORE HOPE is meant to fund this early phase of the program, while we seek longer term funding from other sources.”

While the aims of the SHAPE initiative are commendable, we have great concerns about what the “nurture (of) civic engagement informed by reflection and conversation” may mean when the stated views of one of the organisers behind SHAPE presents conspiracy theories about Jewish wealth, influence, control and religious belief.

In November 2012 Dr Muzaffar was interviewed about the prejudiced portrayal of Muslims and why it serves the interests of Western power. Part way through the interview he said:

“One of the main reasons why the US elite is not able to abandon its patronage and protection of Israel is because of Zionist influence and power in some of the key sectors of American public life. The US Congress, Senate and the White House are all beholden, in one way or another, to Zionist funds and Zionist lobbies.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the assertion made, criticism of the power of lobby groups who advocate on issues is obviously part and parcel of political discourse in an open society.

Dr Muzaffar then went on to say:

Zionists are dominant in the upper echelons of finance. Look at the ethnic background of almost all the major figures connected to the 2008 sub-prime crisis. Zionist power in the media, including the new media channels, is obvious. The top stratum of leading universities also reflects Zionist presence and influence. Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole is another example of subtle Zionist influence.”

The word “Zionist” legitimately refers to those who support and advocate for Israel, or politically lobby on its behalf. But referring to the “ethnic background” of people “in the upper echelons of finance” means that the word “Zionist” is being used interchangeably with the word “Jew”.

Dr Muzaffar makes four points in this paragraph.

  • Zionists/Jews are dominant in the upper echelons of finance. Look at the ethnic background of almost all the major figures connected to the 2008 sub-prime crisis.
  • Zionist/Jewish power in the media, including the new media channels, is obvious.
  • The top stratum of leading universities also reflects Zionist/Jewish presence and influence.
  • Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole is another example of subtle Zionist/Jewish influence.

They are asserted as straight facts, without qualification. In another article about Israel’s 2014 invasion of Gaza and its massive civilian death toll, Dr Muzaffar wrote that, ”Israel is determined to show friend and foe that it is above the law, that the norms that apply to other states bear no relevance to it. It is ‘exceptional’ because the Jews are a ‘chosen people’.”

Anti-Zionists invariably claim that their critique of Israel or Zionism is not a commentary about Jews and this is most often the case. In this latter example, instead, we see that Jews – as a group – are presented as people apart, with an inbuilt sense of superiority. At least the Catholic Church and others have cast aside their theological antisemitism.

In 1996, Dr Muzaffar also offered support to the notorious French holocaust denier Roger Garaudy to legitimize his downplaying of the extent of the holocaust.

In another article, unreservedly using the views of conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan, Dr Muzaffar suggested that the large explosion in Beirut harbor in 2020 was linked to a purposeful attack with a tactical nuclear missile by Israel. In fact, the explosion was wholly due to inadequate management of the facility. Thierry Meyssan also engages in questioning the holocaust with a clear antisemitic twist.

Falsely labelling the members of any ethnic, racial, religious or cultural group as controlling the institutions of a society, to the detriment of that society, is to promote and incite hatred of that group. Likewise, the imputation of Jewish separatism mixed into political ideology is false and pernicious.

These sorts of tropes belong to conspiracy theories about hidden power and influence with evil intent. In the mid-20th century antisemitic campaign in the Soviet Union, the term “rootless cosmopolitan” was a substitute for the word “Jew” – with the same idea of a group undermining the state. These are also the views put forward by the contemporary far right concerning what they call the “Zionist Occupation Government”. All this has its roots in the kind of thinking that resulted in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the 19th Century forgery that is still widely available in many countries.

Since we became aware of Dr Muzaffar’s statements in September 2020, we have sought to try and resolve our concerns by establishing a dialogue with Dr Muzaffar. Although we have exchanged several emails, we have been unable to reach a resolution. How such views can be construed as anything but traditionally antisemitic is beyond our comprehension.

For readers’ information, we do not raise concerns about antisemitic language lightly. For decades we have been critical of Zionism, Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, and have at times been subject to considerable criticism from within the Jewish community, including accusations that we are antisemitic. We are opposed to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism believing it to confuse legitimate political criticism on the question of Israel and Palestine with real antisemitism.

However, we believe that real antisemitism does exist and must be exposed, whether on the right or left.

Larry Stillman and Harold Zwier are committee members of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.

Reply from Chandra Muzzafar, July 14, 2023

Since Larry Stillman and Harold Zwier have misinterpreted some words of mine from a 2012 media interview as “antisemitic” I have chosen to make public my reply to them of 18th May 2023. My reply underscores my concern about Zionist power which is often concealed by the fig leaf of ‘antisemitism.’

It is my hope that readers appreciate this.

Correspondence, May 18, 2023

Dear Larry Stillman and Harold Zwier,


Thank you for your letter of 11th May 2023.

I have given serious consideration to your proposal to make public, our private exchange on your allegation that I am “antisemitic.” I am compelled to reject the proposal for the following reasons.

One, what is its purpose? Is it to show the world that I am antisemitic? I have already denied the allegation vehemently.  A cursory look at my writings and speeches will convince any fair-minded person that I have not only acknowledged the universality of Judaism but have also often extolled the outstanding contributions of Jews in the sciences and humanities. In this regard, a passing, but factual, reference to the ethnic background of individuals involved in a financial crisis in 2008 does not make one antisemitic. The critical point I was making was about Zionist influence and power in that sector of society which you have chosen to sidestep.

Two, it is your reluctance to come to grips with this issue — of undue Zionist power and influence in various sectors of society — which exposes the hollowness of your proposal to make public our private email exchange. It is this issue which was one of my main concerns in the 2012 interview that you cite as the source of my alleged antisemitism. Antisemitism is often used to camouflage and even conceal the truth about Zionist power which has caused so much pain and suffering to millions of people and not just the ethnically and religiously diverse Palestinian sons and daughters of that ancient land. It is this colossal injustice which underscores that undeniable truth that Zionism is “the real enemy of the Jews.”

Three, since you are not willing to evaluate in a dispassionate manner the consequences of political Zionism in the last few decades and appear to seek refuge in the “antisemitism” label, I am convinced that making public our exchange will be an exercise in futility. We will be speaking at cross-purposes. You with your antisemitism while I will continue to argue that one of the real challenges before all of us is untrammelled Zionist power and its threat to global peace.

What this means is that unless there is a genuine change in your attitude, making public our private exchange or even continuing with this private exchange is not worth our time and energy.

With warm regards,

Chandra Muzaffar, May 18, 2023.

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