Yesterday on Twitter, Alex was musing about the fact that while we tend to take their word for it when minorities believe something to be racist, we do not extend the same courtesy to accusations that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic. To be sure, some criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism — but that tends to come from fringe elements that few would take seriously.
Leaving that out of account, I think the key reason that criticism of Israel shouldn’t be viewed as necessarily anti-Semitic is that in Israel, the Jews are the powerful ones. They’re not a poor oppressed group that’s being scapegoated — they are in charge of the biggest military power in the Middle East, which has the virtually unconditional backing of the biggest military power in the history of humanity.
Racism is not symmetrical — it’s not “just as racist” for an African American to distrust white people, for instance. Racism is a tool used against a disadvantaged group in order to justify their oppression by the dominant group. Obviously this doesn’t tell the whole story, but this is a necessary starting point if we want to keep the real political stakes of racism in view, rather than letting it devolve into the analytically useless question of “personal prejudices” that are “just as bad” no matter who’s harboring them against whom.