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Given its horrific 20th-century connotations, anti-Semitism is a serious charge. It was levelled against critics of Israel on this page recently by three people who have demonstrated a strong lifelong commitment to humanitarian values. Lawyer Clayton Ruby, labour leader Jeff Rose and physician Philip Berger wrote that they feel "anti-Semitism has emerged as a powerful force" among some left-wing opponents of Israeli policy.

As a Jew and a former member of a Zionist youth movement, I understand the affinity the three writers have for Israel. I can also see why the blindly murderous attitudes and actions of some in the Palestinian resistance trigger a powerfully defensive emotional response in the Jewish community.

But the flaw in their argument is rooted in a confounding of Jewish identity with the Jewish state. They write of an "artificial distinction between Israel and Zionism, on one hand, and Jewish identity on the other."

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The modern identification of Jews and Israel emerged largely as a reaction to the Nazi genocide. Although it may represent the majority view today, it should be not taken for granted. Historically, it never has been. It is unlikely to persist.

From its beginnings, political Zionism faced opposition within the Jewish world. The Zionist identification of a people with a state is incompatible with the real position of most Jews as freely chosen citizens of other countries. Long before Roman times, Jews formed widely dispersed religious, cultural and ethnic groups whose commonality was not based on geography or politics. Only their spiritual practices were centred on Palestine.

Some Jews saw in political Zionism a vulgarization of Jewish Messianic tradition that would debase Jewish moral life. The Russian-Jewish writer and "spiritual Zionist" Ahad Ha'am, who emigrated to Palestine, was one of the first to recognize the ethical costs of a project to establish a Jewish state at the expense of the indigenous Arabs. "If this be the Messiah coming," he wrote in the first years of the last century, "then I don't want to see him arrive."

Zionist theory denied the legitimate presence of an emerging, indigenous nation in Palestine. Zionist practice ensured its dispossession and exile. "We may be a people without a home," said a disillusioned German Zionist in 1925, "but alas, there is not a country without a people. . . . Palestine has an existing population of 700,000, a people who have lived there for centuries and rightfully consider the country as their fatherland and homeland."

Ahad Ha'am's dark prophecy of an anti-Messianic future has been fully realized. My medical friend and colleague Philip Berger would be appalled if he saw with his own eyes, as I have, the disastrous humanitarian and health consequences of a policy that grants settlers from New York six times as much fresh water per capita as native Palestinians.

Human-rights lawyer Clayton Ruby would be outraged to witness the proceedings of military courts where tortured Arabs are accused, convicted and sentenced without the right to know the evidence against them.

Unionist Jeff Rose would be shocked at policies that de facto make Palestinian labour groups illegal, exposing their organizers to the threat of incarceration.

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It owes nothing to anti-Semitism that Israel is the subject of more critical scrutiny than are the neighbouring Arab autarchies, dictatorships and pseudo-democracies. No one mistakes the true nature of those regimes. No credible voices are raised in their defence, nor do the abhorrent Palestinian suicide bombings have any serious apologists. Only Israel's relentless and ultimately self-destructive expansionism, militarism and state violence find many supporters.

The Palestinians continue to be disenfranchised, dispossessed and humiliated. Mr. Rose, Dr. Berger and Mr. Ruby, were they to drop their self-generated fear of leftist anti-Semitism, would be inspired by the words of the Israeli officer who chose this week to join dozens of his comrades in jail rather than serve in an army of brutal occupation: "I will do my time in a visible prison for a few months for refusing to enlist in Israel's academy for prison guards: the IDF, Israel's 'Defense Forces' which have been imprisoning an entire people for 35 years." Gabor Maté is a Vancouver physician and writer.

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