Islamophobia and the Weaponization of Antisemitism

Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, false claims of antisemitism have been used to silence conversations about the occupation of Palestine

A recent report by Rutgers University Law School Center for Security, Race, and Rights highlights how claims of antisemitism stemming from Islamophobia are being used to silence discourse about Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. While not a new phenomenon, the practice has seen an explosion online since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.

The study, titled “Presumptively Antisemitic: Islamophobic Tropes in the Palestine-Israel Discourse,” also underscores how the overwhelming majority of news coverage of Palestinians seen in the United States focuses on the most extreme groups while overlooking that most people in and outside of Palestine employ nonviolent means to defend Palestinian human rights.

“The overwhelming majority of the news coverage Americans see of the Palestinian struggle is of the most extreme groups, while most people within and outside of Palestine pursue nonviolent means in defense of the Palestinian right to self-determination,” reads the Rutgers University Law School report. “But even non-violent means of resistance, such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, are discredited as antisemitic and illegitimate.”

The report goes further in pointing out that the nature of Islamophobia in the United States is a nonpartisan issue. It’s seen coming from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents along with voters from all sides of the political spectrum. Since the attacks on the United States on Sep. 11, 2001, anti-Muslim language has progressed to more than simply a rhetorical device and is ever-present in U.S. policy wherever Muslims are part of the discussion.

“In U.S. policy toward Palestine, Islamophobia plays an outsized role. The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is rooted in a settler-colonial project by Europeans and the concomitant resistance of the indigenous, but it is erroneously portrayed as a conflict between Judaism and Islam. Distrust of Muslims and presumptions that they are antisemitic are integral to Americans’ exceptional attitude toward Palestine.”

Rutgers University Law School report

Since the Oct. 7 attacks, the White House has also entered into the fray of false accusations of antisemitism. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who applauded Democrats in Newsweek for skipping the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in 2019 and calling the lobbying group racist and Islamophobic, stood at the podium at the White House and called Democratic lawmakers repugnant for demanding a ceasefire.

“I’ve seen some of those statements this weekend,” Jean-Pierre said in early October. “And we’re gonna continue to be very clear. We believe they’re wrong. We believe they’re repugnant and we believe they’re disgraceful.”

Jean-Pierre later seemed to conflate protests against the slaughter of Palestinians to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

The ‘Demographic Time-Bomb’ Trope

Anti-Palestinian racism has become increasingly normalized so much that it is often portrayed as “common sense” even amongst liberal spaces. The “othering” of Palestinians by Israel is so pervasive that U.S. politicians use terminology that suggests the birth of Palestinian babies is a threat to Israel. This type of language is commonplace and is often used to justify fears of Palestinians outnumbering Jews in all of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

“Anti-Palestinian racism has also become so ingrained and commonplace in U.S. political discourse that it sometimes passes as common sense in typically liberal spaces. Putatively left-of-center Senator Elizabeth Warren once used an iteration of the demographic time bomb’ euphemism on the progressive, pro-Democratic Party podcast Pod Save America with little fanfare or attention.”

Rutgers University Law School report

To further exacerbate this thinking, Israel adopted a controversial “Nation-State Law” in 2018 that is one of Israel’s “Basic Laws” (the basic laws substitute for a written constitution Israel never created). The law demoted Arabic from an official state language to one with “special status” despite 21% of Israeli citizens being Palestinians. The law also declares that only the Jewish people may exercise national rights in Israel and that the state is only obliged to support Jewish settlement throughout the Land of Israel including in the West Bank (which is illegal under international law).

“This view of a superior Jewish claim and, by extension, superior Jewish rights in historic Palestine found its full expression in the ‘Nation-State Law’ adopted by Israel in 2018. As a Basic Law, the Nation-State Law has equal status to a constitutional rule. The law declares that only the Jewish people may exercise national rights in Israel and, crucially, that the state is obliged to support Jewish, and only Jewish, settlement throughout the land of Israel,’ including in the occupied West Bank.”

Rutgers University Law School report

Despite the constant debunking of the “demographic time bomb” trope by various academics and media outlets in Israel and the West, the idea persists. It remains one of the biggest driving factors behind much of the extremist talk from Israeli government officials like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who recently used racist language and said, “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.”

Former Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger writes: “Contrary to the projections of the demographic establishment at the end of the 19th century and during the 1940s, Israel’s Jewish fertility rate is higher than those of all Muslim countries other than Iraq and the sub-Saharan Muslim countries. Based on the latest data, the Jewish fertility rate of 3.13 births per woman is higher than the 2.85 Arab rate (since 2016) and the 3.01 Arab-Muslim fertility rate (since 2020).”

The notion of a demographic time-bomb leads to the dehumanization of entire groups; the United States and other Western countries have employed similar arguments throughout history. Now, the same tactics are being used by far-right extremist Israeli leaders to justify the ongoing onslaught on innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the attacks in the West Bank after the Israeli government armed hundreds of paramilitarized civilian security squads in the area.

The Israeli government has been encouraging settlers in the area by voicing support for further annexation of the West Bank. In recent weeks settlers have used the cover of the Gaza war to further drive out Palestinians from parts of the West Bank according to human rights watchdog B’Tselem.

RELATED: Israeli Settlers Celebrate Capturing Jerusalem, Police Arrest Palestinians [June 2022]

Recent Bipartisan Islamophobia

Recently, former ambassador to the United Nations and current GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley echoed the Islamophobic language that has permeated political discourse in the United States. In an interview on Fox News, Haley made comments suggesting all Muslims are anti-American and conflated Palestinians with enemies of the United States.

She continued by parroting the “you’re either with us or against us” sentiment of former president George W. Bush in demanding all Arab nations unify with the United States in backing the relentless and indiscriminate Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. Haley argued that the Hamas attack on Israel was also an attack on the U.S.

Democrats have also weaponized false accusations of antisemitism coupled with Islamophobia against their fellow Muslim representatives in Congress simply for speaking out against the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Similar to their Republican counterparts, conflating their statements with support for Hamas or genocide against Jewish people in Israel is meant to silence dissent in the overwhelmingly blind support for the far-right government of Israel.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and others such as Mairav Zonszein, an Israel-Palestine analyst with the Crisis Group, criticized Democrats for employing Islamophobia in 2021. Just after the October 7 attacks, President Joe Biden claimed he saw photos of 40 babies that were beheaded by Hamas; the statement that was later retracted. However, his comments exposed how easily Americans and Western media are quick to adopt the narratives based on the supposed savagery of Muslims.

“Tellingly, racist tropes of dual loyalties are not attributed to Jewish members of Congress who proudly proclaim their allegiance to Israel or support Jewish human rights. To do so would rightly be antisemitic. Nor are Jewish congresspersons accused of Islamophobia if they criticize human rights abuses of Muslim-majority countries. The double standard imposed on Palestinians and Muslims in the U.S. devalues their lives and infringes on their free speech rights.”

Rutgers University Law School report

Exposing the Islamophobic nature of how Congressional leadership views Muslims, the only Palestinian-American member of the House, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), was recently censured by a bipartisan vote accusing her of making antisemitic comments. Democratic Minority Leader U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) then falsely invoked antisemitism to excoriate Tlaib.

Jeffries said in a statement, “Echoing slogans that are widely understood as calling for the complete destruction of Israel – such as from the River to the Sea – does not advance progress toward a two-state solution. Instead, it unacceptably risks further polarization, division and incitement to violence.”

Similarly, on the other side of the aisle, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who’s one of the loudest Republicans that called for the censure and expulsion of Tlaib, has made a host of antisemitic and Islamophobic comments. Republicans that strongly support former president Donald Trump lightly criticized him after dining with antisemite Nick Fuentes who often celebrates Adolf Hitler. Greene once spoke at a conference hosted by Fuentes.

Meanwhile, Republicans didn’t accuse U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of calling for genocide after saying on Fox News, “We are in a religious war here, I am with Israel. Whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourselves; level the place.” Israel is currently doing just that in Gaza, killing more than 11,000 innocent civilians to date. Over 4,500 of those are Palestinian children.

RELATED: Over 10,500 Killed in One Month as Israel Continues its War on Palestine [Nov. 2023]

The Islamophobia Network

Accusations of antisemitism have long been used as a weapon to silence criticism of Israel or its policies. While genuine expressions of antisemitism are often heard coming from extremist and white supremacist groups (which Unicorn Riot has investigated in detail), criticizing any nation’s policies by others not associated with such beliefs shouldn’t be the flash point that it is when it comes to Israel.

However, many advocacy and lobbying groups make such accusations.

The Rutgers University Law School report identifies these groups as the “Islamophobia network” which is also used to deny Palestinians recognition of their civil, human, and national rights as it promotes partiality of U.S. policy towards Israel. Criticizing the biased nature of these groups is often associated with antisemitism rather than the politics they influence.

According to the Rutgers report, the Islamophobia network consists of many groups including: the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the Middle East Forum, the Center for Security Policy, Counterterrorism and Security Education & Research Foundation, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the Society of Americans for National Existence, Jihad Watch, American Congress for Truth, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“An Islamophobia network of organizations and demagogues, many of whom are also right-wing Zionists, propagate Islamophobic tropes that Muslims and Arabs are presumptively antisemitic, especially those who defend Palestinians’ human rights. This racist trope has become so pervasive that even some of Israel’s more liberal supporters have publicly condemned it.

Rutgers University Law School report

The network is well-funded – in 2011, the Center for American Progress listed the top eight foundations that funded Islamophobic groups and reported they contributed more than $42 million between 2010 and 2009. In 2021, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that 26 Islamophobic groups received over $105 million between 2017 and 2019. Outside of the Islamophobia Network, the most prominent organization working to deny the rights and freedoms of Palestinians is AIPAC.

The report goes further and highlights how these organizations influence the media.

“Another effective strategy for distorting the lens through which policymakers interpret Israeli and Palestinians’ actions is dominating media coverage to exclude Palestinian voices. Stereotypes of Muslims, and especially Palestinians, as inherently violent and presumptively antisemitic are augmented by Islamophobic punditry and editorial framing in mainstream media.”

Rutgers University Law School report

Of the most telling examples of Islamophobic bias in the media lies with Charlie D’Agata of CBS News. In the earliest days of the war in Ukraine, D’Agata said that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

D’Agata is currently reporting for CBS News from Gaza and is embedded with Israeli troops, under conditions of military censorship.

Weaponizing Antisemitism

The intentional mislabeling of criticism of the state of Israel’s policies as antisemitic is meant to distract the conversation away from inhumane practices. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is one of the groups leading the charge in silencing opposition to Israel’s methods. Even criticizing political leaders in Israel is often conflated with antisemitism by the ADL despite the far-right and oppressive nature of the rhetoric Israeli leaders use and the country’s policies.

“The ADL’s conflation of criticism of a nation’s practices and a political ideology with antisemitism diverts attention away from genuine violations of Jews’ civil rights; in addition to chilling free speech. If similar reasoning applied to Iran, a self-avowed Islamic nation, then people that criticize Iran’s state practices are presumptively Islamophobic—an absurd claim on its face.

Rutgers University Law School report

While the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines antisemitism as a ”certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred for Jews,” it goes on to say that, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” This definition exposes just how far many groups are willing to go to label those they may not agree with while silencing opposition to oppressive and inhumane actions against Palestinians. (Critics of the IHRA say that its vague definition of antisemitism is too easily turned on critics of Israel.)

“Israel is a country, like any other. Its policies are subject to criticism and condemnation, like any other country. Some criticisms are misplaced, exaggerated, mistaken, or in fact rooted in antisemitism. But most criticisms lodged by supporters of Palestinian human rights and adherents of international law are well-documented and established over many years. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israel’s own leading human rights group B’Tselem, have concluded that Israel is an apartheid regime.”

Rutgers University Law School report

The effect of mislabeling valid criticism of Israel and the inherent Islamophobia that is the foundation for such claims harm both Muslims and Jewish people alike. Particularly, students in high schools and college campuses working in solidarity to break such stereotypes. Because of these mischaracterizations students and faculty who hold panel discussions often find themselves targets of frivolous complaints by those who disagree with their viewpoints. This later feeds into both antisemitism and Islamophobia by more extremist thinkers.

“Jews and Muslims working together in support of Palestinian human rights and in opposition to both Islamophobia and antisemitism is an increasingly familiar sight. The attempt to paint Muslims as presumptively antisemitic, however, undermines this growing solidarity, especially among college students and young professionals.”

Rutgers University Law School report

For more from Palestine, see our archives.

Cover image taken from screenshot of 2022 coverage by Mohamed el Saife (Ahmed), edited by Niko Georgiades for Unicorn Riot.

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