openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The UK government is wrong to confuse antisemitism with anti-Zionism

The Right has managed to conflate the two, but it should be possible to criticise Israel or Zionism without being accused of antisemitism

Jo Glanville
26 May 2021, 10.24am
Speaking in Parliament last week, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said 'anti-Zionism is antisemitism'
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Ian Davidson/Alamy

During the recent escalation of violence across Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, antisemitic incidents in the UK increased fivefold. In one of the most widely reported cases, a convoy of cars driving through Jewish areas of north London incited violence via a megaphone, including sexual violence.

Other incidents include: attacks on synagogues, the assault of a rabbi in Essex, and an email sent to Jewish community leaders that linked to a story on Israel, with the abusive message: “YOU F***ING JEW CU**TS CONCENTRATION CAMPS WERE TOO GOOD FOR YOU HE SHOULD HAVE GASSED ALL OF YOU MONEY GRABBING Y*D B*****DS.”

There has been a similar spate of antisemitic incidents in Germany and the US. The US-based Anti-Defamation League found 17,000 tweets between 7 and 14 May with variations of the words “Hitler was right.”

Last week, the day after the antisemitic convoy drove through north London, secretary of state for communities Robert Jenrick stated in the House of Commons that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”, citing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

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He said that local councils and universities that had not yet adopted the definition “will shortly be named and shamed if they fail to act”. Last year, education secretary Gavin Williamson threatened to withdraw funding from universities that did not adopt the definition.

Sadly, there is nothing new in an increase in antisemitic abuse in response to conflict in Israel. The Community Security Trust (CST), whose mission is to promote and protect the Jewish community in the UK, documented a similar increase during the last escalation of violence, the Gaza conflict in 2014.

Such attacks are racism, which identifies all Jews, everywhere, with Israel and which finds all Jews guilty of Israel’s crimes. They repeat antisemitic tropes embedded in European culture, which characterise Jews as a group intent on plotting harm and seeking control. This view courses through the history of antisemitism in Europe. It is core to the racism that underpinned Nazi acts of genocide. It is this ideology that made self-determination for the Jewish people necessary.

However, Jenrick’s claim that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” is extremely unhelpful – and untrue.

There are Jews within Israel and outside Israel who are not Zionists, or who are vehement critics of Israeli government policy and want a just solution for the Palestinian people. It should be possible to criticise Israel – or Zionism – without fearing an accusation of antisemitism.

IHRA definition: not the final word

The IHRA definition has been widely criticised for placing too much emphasis on Israel, for neglecting the far Right and populism and for limiting legitimate criticism of Israel. One of the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism – “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” – has received particular scrutiny, since Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank immediately places it beyond an equal comparison with “any other democratic nation”. (This example is an attempt to address the fact that Israel’s actions attract a level of popular protest and media coverage that other states abusing human rights, such as Turkey, do not.)

Jenrick’s statement also misrepresents the IHRA. The definition introduces examples of antisemitism with the caveat that the overall context be taken into account. It is cautiously worded to allow for interpretation. The problem is that the UK government, along with other states including Germany and the US, is treating the IHRA definition as the last word on defining antisemitism, when it was in fact designed as a “working definition” that is “not legally binding”.

It was originally intended as a tool for data collection. Yet it now seems that signing up to the IHRA definition is necessary to prove that you are not an antisemite. It has become part of a wider UK government policy that disingenuously proposes to support freedom of expression while actually closing it down.

Both Israel itself and the US under Trump have cynically used claims of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel

The IHRA definition has split the Jewish community. Earlier this year, a group of academics published an alternative definition, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, to address the failings of the IHRA definition. There has been bitter debate and personal attacks within the Jewish community on Jews who have criticised the IHRA or signed up to the Jerusalem Declaration. Since antisemitism is on the rise (and this long predates the current increase in expressions of racism against Jews), such recrimination is more than an unfortunate distraction.

The charge of antisemitism has long been a useful tool for silencing and discrediting opposition. Israeli leaders have used it against each other (David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, compared Menachem Begin to Hitler). More recently, when American-Jewish writer Peter Beinart published an article calling for a one-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal rights, he was denounced by Jewish critics as an antisemite.

Both the state of Israel itself and the US during Trump’s administration have cynically used claims of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel. Last year, the US state department threatened to denounce as antisemitic Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam – all organisations that have held Israel to account for violating the rights of Palestinians.

As the American rabbi Jill Jacobs pointed out in a recent essay, Trump, Israel’s current leader Benjamin Netanyahu and others on the Right have successfully conflated support for right-wing Israeli policy with support for Jews.

We need to be able to voice criticism of Israel – and support for the Palestinian people – in the strongest possible terms without falling into the traps of, on the one hand, using antisemitic expressions to denounce Israel or, on the other, suggesting that anyone who criticises Israel is an antisemite.

Some of the attacks recorded by the CST are rabid racism, but other instances replay ancient religious prejudice, expressing a hostility towards Judaism itself that lies at the very roots of anti-Jewish hatred. At a London rally in support of Palestine, one protester carried a banner with an image of Jesus holding the cross, with the slogan “Do not let them do the same thing again today.”

The equation of Palestinian suffering with the passion of Christ turns the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into a theological drama, with Jews cast as eternal criminals for denying Christ and Christianity. The Palestinians certainly do not deserve friends like this.

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