TEL AVIV - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the move by ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan to seek his arrest as an “outrageous decision” and “an attempt to deny Israel the basic right of self-defense.” In his statement, Netanyahu also vowed to press ahead with Israel’s war against Hamas militants.

Critics say that he has long used the travails of the Jewish people to colour his political rhetoric. His supporters say he is honestly worried for the safety of Jews around the world. But his detractors say he is overusing the label to further his political agenda and try to stifle even legitimate criticism.

After the International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor sought arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defense minister and top Hamas officials, the Israeli leader accused him of being one of “the great antisemites in modern times.”

These are just two of the many instances during the war in which Netanyahu has accused critics of Israel or his policies of antisemitism, using fiery rhetoric to compare them to the Jewish people’s worst persecutors. But his detractors say he is overusing the label to further his political agenda and try to stifle even legitimate criticism, and that doing so risks diluting the term’s meaning at a time when antisemitism is surging worldwide.

“Not every criticism against Israel is antisemitic,” said Tom Segev, an Israeli historian. “The moment you say it is antisemitic hate ... you take away all legitimacy from the criticism and try to crush the debate.”

There has been a spike in antisemitic incidents since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, according to researchers. And many Jews in North America and Europe have said they feel unsafe, citing threats to Jewish schools and synagogues and the pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations in the U.S., although organizers deny that antisemitism drives the protests.

The war has reignited the long debate about the definition of antisemitism and whether any criticism of Israel — from its military’s killing of thousands of Palestinian children to questions over Israel’s very right to exist — amounts to anti-Jewish hate speech.

Netanyahu, the son of a scholar of medieval Jewish persecution, has long used the travails of the Jewish people to color his political rhetoric. And he certainly isn’t the first world leader accused of using national trauma to advance political goals.

Netanyahu’s supporters say he is honestly worried for the safety of Jews around the world.

But his accusations of antisemitism come as he has repeatedly sidestepped accountability for not preventing Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. Hamas killed roughly 1,200 people and took 250 hostage, which many in Israel’s defense establishment acknowledge they shoulder the blame for.

Netanyahu has continued to face criticism at home and abroad throughout the war, which has killed 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between fighters and noncombatants. The fighting has sparked a humanitarian catastrophe, and ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan has accused Netanyahu and his defense minister of using starvation as a “method of warfare,” among other crimes.

Segev, the historian, acknowledged there is a rise in “violent hate” toward Israel and, speaking from Vienna, said he wasn’t sure if speaking Hebrew in public was safe. But he said Netanyahu has long used Jewish crises to his political benefit, including invoking the Jewish people’s deepest trauma, the Holocaust, to further his goals.

At the height of the campus protests, Netanyahu released a video statement condemning their “unconscionable” antisemitism and comparing the mushrooming encampments on college greens to Nazi Germany of the 1930s.

“What’s happening in America’s college campuses is horrific,” he said.

In response to Khan seeking the arrest warrants, he said the ICC prosecutor was “callously pouring gasoline on the fires of antisemitism that are raging across the world,” comparing him to German judges who approved of the Nazis’ race laws against Jews.

Those comments drew a rebuke from the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell. “The prosecutor of the court has been strongly intimidated and accused of antisemitism — as always when anybody, anyone does something that Netanyahu’s government does not like,” Borrell said. “The word antisemitic, it’s too heavy. It’s too important.”

Netanyahu has compared accusations that Israel’s war is causing starvation in Gaza or that the war is genocidal to blood libels — unfounded centuries-old accusations that Jews sacrificed Christian children and used their blood to make unleavened bread for Passover.

“These false accusations are not levelled against us because of the things we do, but because of the simple fact that we exist,” he said at a ceremony marking Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this month.

Netanyahu previously made repeated allusions to the Holocaust while trying to galvanize the world against Iran’s nuclear programme.

Israeli leaders and the country’s media also made such comparisons about Oct. 7, describing the Hamas attackers as Nazis, comparing their rampage to the historic violence inflicted on Eastern European Jews, and referring to the images of Jewish victims’ burned bodies as a Shoah — the Hebrew word for Holocaust.

Israelis have been jarred by the global rise in antisemitism, and many view the swell of criticism against Israel as part of the rise. They see hypocrisy in the world’s intense focus on Israel’s war with Hamas while other conflicts get much less attention.

Moshe Klughaft, a former advisor to Netanyahu, said he believes the Israeli leader is genuinely concerned over rising antisemitism.

“It is his duty to condemn antisemitism as prime minister of Israel and as head of a country that sees itself as responsible for world Jewry,” he said.

Many Israelis view the war in Gaza as a just act of self-defense and are befuddled by what many think should be criticism directed at Hamas — blaming the group for starting the war, using Palestinian civilians as human shields and refusing to free the hostages. The ICC warrant requests have likely bolstered such feelings.

When Netanyahu leans on accusations of antisemitism, he is doing so with the Israeli public in mind, said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Hazan said Netanyahu has leveraged the campus protests, for example, to get Israelis to rally around him at a time when his public support has plummeted and Israelis are growing impatient with the war. He said Netanyahu has also used the protests as a scapegoat for his failure so far to achieve the war’s two goals: destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages.

“He deflects blame from himself, attributing any shortcomings not to his foreign policies or policies in the (Palestinian) territories, but rather to antisemitism. This narrative benefits him greatly, absolving him of responsibility,” Hazan said.

Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think thank, rejects the notion that Netanyahu stifles criticism by calling it antisemitic, pointing to just how much criticism the country receives. But he said using the antisemitic label to achieve political ends could cheapen it.

“I’d be more selective than the government of Israel in choosing the people and bodies they tag ‘antisemitic,’” he said.