North Africa, West Asia

Politics, racism and Israel/Palestine

If we need to be vigilant against the evil of antisemitism, we need to be equally vigilant against the kind of virulent racism which is gaining ground in Israel.

Rod Jones
18 April 2016
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Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.The idea that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the left generally in the UK are becoming increasingly antisemitic is gaining momentum. Predictably, the Israel lobby as well as other supporters of Israel have sought to capitalise on this supposed rise and turn it to their advantage.  

Nick Cohen’s ‘Why I’m becoming a Jew and you should too’ sees criticism of Israel by those who oppose Israel’s policies and actions against the Palestinians as somehow implicated in this rise. The article hinges on his broader view of the left and its supposed connections to antisemitism. For Cohen antisemitism has always been a way of fighting progress – human rights, worker’s rights, democracy and so on – in countries like Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany.

Arab dictators and Saudi clerics today, who oppose all these freedoms, continue to do so because they see them as, “nothing but swindles that hide the machinations of the secret Jewish rulers of the world”. The left – activists, institutions, academics – buy into a "politer" version of this. They believe that, “western governments are the main source of the ills of the world. The 'Israel lobby' controls western foreign policy. Israel itself is the 'root cause' of all the terrors of the Middle East, from the Iraq war to Islamic State”.

If we ignore the fact that few on the left would endorse any of these claims they nevertheless reveal a tendency in Cohen’s work to exaggerate the position of his adversary in order then to argue on the basis of their being the fanatical extremists that he takes them to be. Even if what Cohen says was true it would certainly not follow that critics of Israel would buy into an idea that, "turns the Jews, once again, into demons with the supernatural power to manipulate and destroy nations".

As is often the case, those who deplore groundless conspiracy theories are apt to replace them with their own – hence a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world is replaced by an equally absurd conspiracy of the left who find common cause with "religious reactionaries who deny universal human rights and hate every value the centre-left profess to hold", based on the age-old principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

A left so mired in antisemitism, according to Cohen, is unlikely to stop at any reasonable demand for a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict, as the anti-Zionist stance of the "fanatics" – which he identifies with the "call for the total destruction of the world’s only Jewish state" – makes clear.

But to identify a particular brand of Zionism as the founding principle on which the Jewish state is based, so that those who oppose it must then be intent on the destruction of that state, is deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Anti-Zionist Jews in Israel and in the diaspora find common cause with the Palestinian Authority not because they share a desire to annihilate the Jewish state but because they oppose a militant, ultra-nationalist Zionism that ironically has the denial of Palestinian statehood at its core.    

In Cohen’s world anyone on the left who draws attention to the gap between democratic principles and their implementation runs the risk of being labelled a racist anti-Semite. The cost of questioning the status quo either in the UK or in Israel has become high indeed. If anything was designed to keep the left from stepping out of line, this is surely it!

While Cohen’s article shows little awareness that antisemitism has become a highly contentious issue and something of a political football in a game of strategic interests in recent years, this is certainly not the case with Jonathan Freedland’s ‘Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem’.

Freedland argues that many in the Labour Party and on the wider left would dismiss the incidents of antisemitism that he cites because they “aren’t actually about racism at all but concern only opposition to Israel”. For Freedland, Jews are often told that what they are complaining about is not antisemitism but derives from their own habit of, “identifying any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish racism. Some go further, alleging that Jews’ real purpose in raising the subject of antisemitism is to stifle criticism of Israel”. This has the attraction for those who use it that, “all accusations of antisemitism can be dismissed as mere Israel-boosting propaganda”.

We see the same tendency to exaggeration here. Do those on the left really see the vicious antisemitism which is now on the rise in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and France as nothing more than a plot to stifle criticism of Israel? It seems unlikely. Then again, if criticism of Israel is misused for antisemitic purposes, as sometimes must be the case, it does not mean that all criticism of Israel must be motivated by antisemitism as some Zionists suppose because they believe Israel can never be at fault as the chosen agent of God’s divine plan. So maybe the left have a point.

Finally, would Freedland deny that antisemitism is sometimes instrumentalised to stifle criticism of Israel as the left alleges? The existence of organisations like the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) would suggest so. CAA was set up in the summer of 2014 not, as the signatories claimed, "to fight against antisemitism but to counter rising criticism of Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza", according to a group of prominent anti-Zionist Jews in a letter to The Guardian.

The findings of the CAA report on antisemitism in the UK published in January 2015 are described as a "wake-up call" because the rising tide of antisemitism has reached, "a tipping point" in Britain. Unless, it continues, "antisemitism is met with zero tolerance it will continue to grow and British Jews may increasingly question their place in their own country".

Contrast this with the findings of another report by the respected Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) which came out the following May. While admitting that 2014 "broke all known records for the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the country", it nevertheless concludes that "levels of antipathy towards Jews are comparatively low and stable in the UK" and indeed have been for the last decade. The CAA poll as well as two others, the report suggests, "generated more heat than light" since, "the data revealed a rather confusing and incoherent picture of reality". It concludes by emphasising the need for, "professionalism, objectivity and expertise in survey-taking and data analysis and to steer away from knee-jerk reactions and ad hoc research enterprises".  

The fact that a political purpose underlies the tendency to sensationalise the results of its polls is openly admitted by the CAA’s own mission statement. Thus, "The CAA is dedicated to identifying and combatting antisemitism of both a classical ethno-religious nature and also a political nature related to Israel". In other words, it’s not possible to criticise Israel without being antisemitic.

Freedland’s view of Zionism is as unproblematic as Cohen’s. To criticise Zionism is to criticise "the historical movement that sought to re-establish Jewish self-determination in  Palestine". But to see the existence of the Jewish state as an unqualified good without any kind of downside, as Freedland seems to, is simply to ignore some of the complications that have always plagued Zionism which has been riven by internal critique from the beginning. A whole lineage of dissidents – from Martin Buber to Noam Chomsky and David Grossman who believed and continue to believe themselves to be the true Zionists have always known about the dangers of statehood for the Jewish people because they recognised that the legitimate claims of the Palestinians could well be pushed to one side in the process of building a Jewish state.

While conceding that criticism of Zionism "is not necessarily anti-Jewish" Freedland casts doubt on the idea that Israel and Zionism have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism which then makes it difficult, "to deplore the former even while they protect and show solidarity with the latter". Because 93% of British Jews feel that Israel forms some part of their identity it’s simply not possible, he argues, "to loathe everything about Israel – the world’s only Jewish country – without showing any hostility to Jews".

In fact, the reverse is true since the integrity of politics depends upon keeping these terms apart. The consequences of failing to do this are pretty dire. By mobilising the predicate ‘Jew’ and thus suppressing all individual and even collective differences within the wider Jewish community isn’t Freedland employing a reverse kind of antisemitism here which is guaranteed to choke off political debate? Isn’t a kind of special pleading at work here that puts pressure on critics to go easy on Israel? When Freedland points out, "that many Jews worry when they see a part of the left whose hatred of Israel is so intense, (it) is unmatched by the animus directed at any other state" it certainly seems so.

Israel’s crimes – such as the one that occurred recently in Hebron and was captured on film by a member of the human rights groups B’Tselem when Israeli soldier Elor Azraya cold-bloodedly executed an immobilised and incapacitated Palestinian Abdel Fattah al-Sharif by shooting him in the head – cannot be written off even to a Jewish history as a history of relentless persecution and victimhood.

Identity with Israel that Freedland supposes is widespread among Jews is clearly not shared by everybody, including Israeli journalist and writer Gideon Levy. As he writes in his article on the Hebron shooting, ‘Never Have So Many Cheered Such a Vile Murderer’ (Haaretz, March 31), the shooting simply confirms for him that Israel is probably the most racist society in the world today.

If we need to be vigilant against the evil of antisemitism, as clearly we must, we need to be equally vigilant against the kind of virulent racism which is gaining ground in Israel which, as Levy says, incites violence against Palestinian Arabs who are demonised and dehumanised to the point where their lives are worth nothing.

Why are so many politicians and so many commentators as alert to the first evil as they are blind to the second? Maybe we don’t have to look too far to find the kind of politics that works to secure and maintain this state of affairs.

Is gesture politics hindering progress against racism?

We have all seen a huge explosion around the debate on structural racism in recent weeks.

But that has been accompanied by corporate statements that many activists say are meaningless and will lead to little change.

How true is that? How can the movement against racism deliver long-lasting change instead?

Join us on Thursday 9 July at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT for a free live discussion.

Hear from:

Evadney Campbell Managing director and co-founder of Shiloh PR. A former BBC broadcast journalist, she was awarded an MBE in 1994 for her services to the African and Caribbean communities in Gloucester.

Sunder Katwala Director of British Future, a think-tank on identity and integration

Sayeeda Warsi Member of the House of Lords, pro-vice chancellor at Bolton University and author of ‘The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain’.

Chair: Henry Bonsu Broadcaster who has worked on some of the UK's biggest current affairs shows, including BBC Radio 4's Today. He is a regular pundit on Channel 5's Jeremy Vine Show, BBC News Briefing and MSNBC's Joy Reid Show.

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