IS CRITICISM of the state of Israel anti-Semitic? What is striking about this question is how it clings to discussion, like an impossible loose thread. Most observers, including defenders of Israel, answer in the negative, acknowledging that authentic concern for the plight of Palestinians under harsh occupation motivates much of the criticism. Objections to the land-grabbing character of the separation barrier, to intrusive settlement blocs, to unilateralism that eschews negotiations, to the embrace of a nuclear arsenal -- all of this reasonably informs arguments made against Israeli government positions (by Jews as well as non-Jews). But recent developments, including European critiques of Zionism as mere colonialism, American talk of a ''lobby" that carries echoes of ''cabal" (a word derived from kabbalah), and the return among Arabs of rhetoric calling for the outright elimination of Israel, suggest that contempt for Jews and the Jewish state can involve more than meets the eye.
Disputes enumerated above are just part of the story. Hostility to the very presence of Jews in the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean goes deep into the unconscious of Western civilization, and it is only recently that pins of that antagonism are being removed. One way to understand this is to review the history of a Christian theology that required the exile of Jews from the Holy Land precisely as a proof of religious claims. In his ''City of God," completed in about the year 427, St. Augustine argued that because Jews, as custodians of what Christians designated the ''Old Testament," are living witnesses to the ancient promises that are fulfilled in Jesus, they should be ''scattered" from what he called ''their own land," to give such witness throughout the Christian world. It seems no coincidence that in 429 the Roman emperor, a Christian, abolished the patriarchate of Israel, ending Jewish sovereignty in Palestine until 1948.
The Augustinian principle of witness-scattering evolved into an understanding of Jewish exile as a proper punishment for Jewish rejection of Christian claims. It was only when a Muslim army took control of Jerusalem in 638 that Jews were permitted to return to the city of their temple. When Crusaders made war against Islam, laying siege to Jerusalem in 1099, they attacked Jews and Muslims both. Jewish presence in the holy city was an affront. Meanwhile, ''wandering" Jews throughout the Diaspora constructed an imagined homeland, always looking toward ''next year in Jerusalem" and faithfully praying for rain in the Galilee, even if they lived in the Rhineland.
In the late 19th century, coinciding with the rise of Zionism, some Christian evangelicals began to think positively about a Jewish return to the Holy Land, but only as a prelude to an End Time conversion. The DNA of mainstream Christianity remained infected with hostility to any notion of Jewish homecoming. When Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist World Congress, asked Pope Pius X to support his program in 1904, the pope replied that he could never sanction it. ''If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize all of you."
Vatican reserve toward the State of Israel was overcome only in 1994, with Pope John Paul II's formal diplomatic recognition. His journey to Jerusalem in 2000 was very different from Pope Paul VI's insultingly brief pilgrimage to the Via Dolorosa in 1964. John Paul II's visit, lasting several days, was expressly an honoring of Jews at home in Israel, a culminating repudiation of the Christian theology that depended on Jewish exile. The establishment of the Jewish state was a triumph for Christians, too.
Remarkable as was John Paul II's achievement, and welcome as it was in Israel, what astounds is how overdue it was. Antagonism toward Jewish presence in Palestine dominated the Western imagination for 1,500 years. It should be no surprise, therefore, that contemporary suspicion of that presence, even when attached to reasonable objections to Israeli policies, shows itself with a visceral edge. Now the dark energy of this tradition has been efficiently tapped by many Muslims, even though its underlying theology is irrelevant to Islam. Any appropriation, including by Palestinians, of what has proven across centuries to be perhaps the most lethal impulse to which humans have ever succumbed must be roundly condemned.
Anti-Semitism, with its racial overtones, is a modern phenomenon. Contempt for Jews and Judaism is ancient. Such impossible threads weave invisibly through attempts to reckon with Israel's dilemma, forming a rope that trips up the well-intentioned and the unaware, even as others use it, as so often before, to fashion a noose.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.