Gaza march and rally in London, August 2014. Flickr. Some rights reserved.In tandem with the Gaza conflict this summer, a significant rise, by word and deed, of anti-Jewish sentiment in the UK and other countries has been recorded. This disturbing phenomenon is often perceived and experienced as ‘antisemitism’. However, how accurate or helpful is it to designate it as such?
I would contend--drawing on my experiences of nearly 50 years of engagement with people on both sides of the divide--that the growth in anti-Jewish sentiment, particularly in the Arab and Muslim worlds, is principally a product of the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict. This conflict also accounts for the simultaneous and parallel phenomenon of the rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the Jewish world. The two phenomena should be considered alongside each other.
The correlation between the conflict and attitudes towards the Other is not one-way. During the Oslo period, not only were there rather few manifestations of hatred, but Jewish-Arab dialogue groups and other co-operative projects started to mushroom. Firm friendships across the divide were formed, some of which continue to prosper.
Generally, though, the Arab-Israeli conflict has fuelled a hatred and fear of Israel within the region. Whatever the claimed justifications, Israel has at times pounded the towns and villages of neighbouring countries, while sometimes making the audacious claim to act in the name of Jews worldwide. Prime Minister Olmert opined that Israel’s ferocious war with Lebanon in 2006 was ‘a war that is fought by all the Jews’. Of course, there have been atrocities committed by Israel’s enemies too.
Within other countries, Israel’s unending and generally oppressive policies towards the occupied Palestinians have fanned the flames of latent anti-Jewish feeling, often driving deep-lying prejudices to the surface. Deplorable though this may be, the connections are made partly because Israel claims to be ‘the Jewish state’ but also because its policies are widely perceived to enjoy the unquestioning support of organized Jewish communities around the world, including in the UK. Would the custodians of Jewish values tolerate these policies if they were perpetrated by any other country?
On the other hand, to my understanding, the basis of Palestinian opposition to Israel’s actions has little to do with it being a Jewish state as such. Had it been a Hindu or a Buddhist state, for example, the Palestinians would have been no less embittered if the state, irrespective of the motive, had dispossessed them and later proceeded to corral and dispossess them further through policies of annexation, expropriation and the settling of their would-be state with its own citizens. Bemused sympathizers of the occupying state, innocently or wilfully missing the point, might then have ascribed any resultant animosity, on the part of the Palestinians themselves or their sympathizers, to deep-seated anti-Hinduism or anti-Buddhism.
The analogy can be taken only so far. For what distinguishes the Jewish case from others is the enduring, unique ideology of classical antisemitism. Armed with its simplistic and sinister answers, it stands ever-ready to exploit the fertile ground generated by the conflict to delve selectively into Jewish belief systems, history, scriptures, or supposed genetic makeup, to ‘explain’ the ostensibly wicked ways of this ‘nation of usurpers and occupiers’. Rising anti-Jewish sentiment may in this way ominously tip over into full-blooded antisemitism. But they are not the same thing.
One of the tragedies is that the state of Israel was conceived as a way of normalizing relations between Jews and all other peoples. The pressing question today is: might it be normalizing antisemitism instead? While the level of international support for Israel’s policies and consequently Israel itself has been seeping away, alongside the fading memory of the Nazi holocaust, it simultaneously has firmed up in organized Jewish communities in other countries, through a form of heightened tribal solidarity. The sharpening polarization is increasingly isolating Jewish opinion and leading to a steady upsurge in anti-Jewish feeling.
This is not a new observation. I first warned of this prospective danger in a pamphlet published in the mid-1970s.[i]
One danger of changing or stretching the meaning of antisemitism is that it may then appear more prevalent than it really is. This can inflate the figures and expand the fear factor. More ominously, it can obscure the real situation. Worse still, it can pervert it, as was seen in 2009 when certain Zionist circles in Britain courted two far-Right members of the European Parliament, from Poland and Latvia, who had been accused of blatant neo-Nazi associations in the past and distinct antisemitic proclivities more recently. Later the same year, two right-wing Hungarian politicians, who had made very disparaging comments about their country’s Jews, participated in the annual Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism in Jerusalem, sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
There was a time when Jews and official Jewish bodies would not go near such people with a bargepole. However, their records as ‘friends of the Jews’ were defended partly on the ground that their political parties could be relied on to take Israel’s side on resolutions at the European Parliament. (Why they do this is a matter of conjecture, although it might have something to do with many modern-day fascists apparently hating Muslims more than they hate Jews and seeing them as the greater threat.)
Another example was when Nick Griffin, then the leader of the far-Right British National Party, disavowed his antisemitic past on BBC Television’s Question Time in October 2009, by claiming that his party was ‘the only political party which, in the clashes between Israel and Gaza, stood full square behind Israel’s right to deal with Hamas terrorists’. In all of these cases, professed support for Israel or Israeli actions was employed to relieve the charge of antisemitism, even by an avid antisemite with a record of Holocaust denial.
Among Israel’s most impassioned partisans on the other side of the Atlantic are members of the ardently pro-Zionist but ultimately deeply antisemitic evangelical Christian Right in the United States. Its leaders are sought out and serenaded by many of the influential pro-Zionist Jewish lobbies in America and by the Israeli government. They are, after all, through their ostensible support for even the most outrageous Israeli policies, proven ‘friends of the Jews’.
In essence, it now seems that it is the stance that groups and individuals take toward the Israeli state and the policies of its government of the day, that is becoming, bit by bit, the standard by which antisemitism is measured and assessed, In essence, it now seems that it is the stance that groups and individuals take toward the Israeli state and the policies of its government of the day, that is becoming, bit by bit, the standard by which antisemitism is measured and assessed. steadily replacing the former gold standard of enmity toward the Jews qua Jews. Traditional antisemites are no longer--necessarily--antisemites. They may even be regarded as philosemites. Their place has been taken by people who have no quarrel with Jews qua Jews but who do have a problem with the behavior and the policies of the political leadership in Israel, particularly with regard to its actions in occupied Palestinian territory. In some cases, they may even have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. They, in this worldview, are fast becoming the new antisemites.
Contesting Zionism as a political ideology or questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish state are bound to make many supporters of Israel feel uncomfortable, even outraged. That’s understandable, but the critics are not necessarily driven by antisemitism. To corral them into this fold by slapping on the prefix ‘new’--as in ‘new antisemitism’-- is not only simplistic and muddling, but it also risks trivializing past Jewish suffering, as well as genuine instances of antisemitism today. In general, it debases the ‘antisemitism’ currency.
Not only this, but many Jews--religiously observant or secular--within Israel and without, would suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of this ‘definition creep’. So too, retrospectively, would past luminaries of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, leading figures of which, prior to the establishment of the Israeli state, were outspokenly anti-Zionist. Should they therefore now be deemed antisemitic, or newly antisemitic?
Another, contrasting, example of the frequent misuse of the term was provided by disgruntled West Bank settlers in 2010, when they greeted Israeli government officials who were overseeing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s partial construction freeze as ‘antisemites’.
None of this discussion is to say that anti-Zionism or hostility to Israel is not sometimes used as a cover for antisemitism or, in some cases, that it does not spring from similar impulses, whether on the part of the far Right or the far Left or elements in between. There are many examples of this.
Nor is it to say that it is not absurd to see a clutch of despotic human rights abusers sitting in sanctimonious judgment of a nation that, despite its own serial transgressions, is not in their league.
And it is certainly not to say that the propensity, wittingly or inadvertently, of some anti-Zionist jargon to propagate many of the familiar, sinister antisemitic tropes--such as Jewish power, Jewish money, Jewish control of the media and governments, Jewish vengeance, or even the idea of Jews as child-murderers--is not of major concern.
While all this is deeply troubling, the concern should not cause us to lose a sense of proportion: the ‘objective’ situation of the shtetl Jew in ‘mittel Europe’ in past centuries--when antisemitism was often official state policy and authentic blood libels were common currency--and the ‘objective’ situation of the modern-day state of Israel, bear no resemblance to one another. In this sense, Israel is not the new ‘collective Jew’[ii].
The Jewish reality has changed dramatically since the end of the Second World War, with the entrenchment of equal citizenship rights in most if not all countries that Jews inhabit and the establishment of a Jewish state. The Jews had suffered enough over many generations and deserved their own place if that’s what many of them wanted. But it should be understood that another people paid a heavy price and are still paying it.
In any case, there is no comparison between past trumped-up accusations of abusive power levelled against a downtrodden, defenseless community that time and again was made to pay hugely for these baseless smears, and the current accusations of improper use of power against an advanced, nuclear-armed state which, for the past 47 years, has enforced a harsh military rule over the lives of another downtrodden, dispossessed people, while relentlessly colonizing their remaining land.
Drawing parallels is treacherous territory, but if there is any sort of parallel with the ‘mittel Europe’ of centuries past, the more compelling one is not between the subjugated Jew of then and the powerful, occupying state of Israel today but between the Jew of then and the occupied Palestinian of now. This is the parallel that much of international public opinion instinctively perceives and it goes a long way to explaining the global switch of sympathy. To the extent that the Jewish world remains in denial, it is dislocating itself from the rest of the world. It risks bringing about the very perils it seeks to avoid. To the extent that the Jewish world remains in denial, it is dislocating itself from the rest of the world. It risks bringing about the very perils it seeks to avoid.
Indeed, if the tendency to equate support of the human and national rights of the Palestinian people with antisemitism becomes more voluble, there is a danger that some people may wear the accusation as a badge of pride.
Jewish communities would be well-advised to throw their energies openly behind a fair resolution of the conflict that would accommodate the genuine minimum aspirations of both sides. No one would expect them to waver from their uncompromising support for the genuine welfare of the Israeli state and people. But, with precisely this welfare in mind, it is beyond time for them to distance themselves from the expansionist policies of the Israeli government, its belligerent approach to problem-solving in the region, and its propensity to infringe Palestinian human rights, periodically on a massive scale.
If the conflict were to become unresolvable and transform itself into a state of perpetual strife, there could be dire international consequences, not least, I fear, for Jews around the world.
[i] Middle East impasse: the only way out, Fabian Research Series 330, January 1977.