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The struggle against anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. And no, that is not because Israel faces ever-growing criticism.

Rod Jones
22 March 2015
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Solidarity against savagery: the aftermath of the Copenhagen synagogue attack. Flickr / Kim Bach. Some rights reserved.

The brutal killings in the kosher supermarket in Paris in January and outside the synagogue in Copenhagen last month remind us, if we needed reminding, of the ever-present threat of anti-Semitic violence in Europe. That the victims were killed for no other reason than they were Jewish is a moral outrage which demands universal condemnation.

The idea that this condemnation could be somehow watered down or offset in the light of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians is not only morally reprehensible but itself anti-Semitic. By mobilising the predicate ‘Jew’ and thus suppressing all individual and even collective differences within the Jewish community, such virulent racism has to be seen for what it is.

In 2009, a young man in north London was picked out because he was Jewish and assaulted. According to his assailant, this was in revenge for what Israel had done in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. This, too, was an anti-Semitic attack and it would remain so even if the young man had supported Israel’s actions and had felt duty-bound to support the Jewish ‘homeland’—since this would have been a conscious choice and not because he was so destined by virtue of his Jewish identity, as anti-Semites seem to suppose. Ethnicity is not destiny and to say that it is is racist.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe. Last year in France and Austria the number of incidents doubled. In the UK, according to the respected Jewish Community Trust, such incidents—including violence, property damage, abuse and threats against the Jewish population—soared to unprecedented levels in 2014. The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, said that “those who perpetrate hate crimes of any kind will be punished with the full force of the law”. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has urged Twitter to speed up its removal of racist and anti-Semitic tweets and to improve its communication of criminal activity to the police.

Deeply problematic

More radical than these piecemeal moves but still in response to rising anti-Semitism, the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation is calling for legislation to outlaw a host of activities, including denial of the Holocaust and genocide generally as well as “overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or anti-Semitism”, in the 28 countries of the European Union. In a letter to the Guardian (28 January), however, the author of What is Genocide?, Prof Martin Shaw, described these proposals as deeply problematic.

This for two reasons. First, the envisaged ban on genocide denial, for some unaccountable reason, would not extend to the Armenian genocide in 1915 or the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. Shaw argued that “Nakba denial ... is as likely to contribute to anti-Semitism … as is Holocaust denial”. Secondly, the ban would be based on the decision of an international court but such courts, Shaw pointed out, are highly politically constrained and have only experience of trying individuals for genocide as such. “The proposed ban will only lead to arbitrary and contested prosecutions which increase polarisation, not reconciliation. It is better to combat genocide denial through argument and evidence,” he wrote.

Indeed, it is better to allow such views to be expressed openly so that they can be publicly challenged, rather than driving them underground where they can fester and proliferate beyond public scrutiny.  More fundamentally, there is every need to be ‘tolerant towards the intolerant’: freedom should never be bartered away for the sake of some unrealisable ideal state of security. That mythical ‘balance’ between freedom and security, so beloved of politicians and ‘security experts’, is nothing more than a cover which conceals their secret craving for ever more authoritarian forms of governance.

Vested interest

But isn’t it then at least possible that governments and their allies might have a vested interest in exaggerating threats, including those to the Jewish community, for their own political purposes? In another letter to the Guardian (23 January), 34 prominent British Jews, led by Miriam Margolyes, suggested a wave of hysteria was being whipped up, using a scaremongering report by the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA). This was set up in the summer of 2014—not, the signatories claimed, “to fight anti-semitism but to counter rising criticism of Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza”.

The home secretary, Theresa May, appeared to have accepted the findings of the CAA report, described by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research as methodologically flawed and unreliable.

And the letter went on to make explicit the connection to political repression: “The CAA and the home secretary conflate anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views, convenient cover for her desire to legislate for a snoopers’ charter and criminalise opinions she disagrees with … Accusing critics of Israel and Zionism of anti-Semitism merely devalues the currency, while claiming the right for Jews to censor what others say about Israel is hardly the way to combat prejudice against them.”

By criticising the Zionist policies of the state of Israel, the Margolyes group is itself however guilty of anti-Semitism in the eyes of its opponents. While Zionists concede that Israel can and should be judged, critics of Israel, they argue, misuse such criticism for anti-Semitic purposes. But even if this were true, as sometimes must be the case, isn’t it just a stone’s throw from the Zionist conviction that as agents of ‘God’s divine plan’ Israelis can never be at fault?

If Zionists regard all or most criticism of Israel as invalid, and thus motivated by anti-Semitism, they can only do so by making Israel itself into an exception. To accuse non-Zionist Jews who are critical of the Zionist policies of the state of Israel of being anti-Semitic is surely then itself a form of anti-Semitism. What, tragically, restores purpose to anti-Semitism—which is never anything more impressive than an outlet to discharge blind anger on defenceless victims, according to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkeimer[1]—is its deployment to inhibit and ultimately stifle all criticism of Israel’s present policies and actions.

Catastrophic mistake

For Slavoj Žižek the state of Israel is making a catastrophic mistake in focusing on what Bernard-Henry Levy calls ‘progressive’ anti-Semitism, purportedly masked in a critique of Zionist politics, at the expense of the ‘old-style’ anti-Semitism which is on the rise, especially in the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe.[2] Žižek suggests a kind of pact, a mutually agreed intolerance of the Other, between a Europe increasingly hostile to multiculturalism and what it takes to be the  ‘Islamicisation’ of the continent and an Israel bent on claiming historic Palestine for itself.

Responding to the attacks in Copenhagen, the outgoing Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said: “The international community must not satisfy itself with declarations and rallies against this terror, but must break out of the boundaries of what is politically correct and wage all-out war to root out Islamic terror.” This call to arms was the familiar, all-or-nothing rhetoric of the Zionists, who see Israel as always poised between defeat and annihilation on the one hand and the apotheosis of victory on the other.

Yet what kind of victory would this be? The underside of Lieberman’s statement was endorsement of an apartheid Israel, measuring its actions against the huge weight of Jewish history, presented as relentless persecution, and the actions of today’s ‘fortress Europe’, willing to allow thousands of would-be immigrants drown in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean and increasingly intolerant towards the ‘outsiders’ within—whether Roma, Muslims or Jews.

Bizarre alliances

The struggle against anti-Semitism is undoubtedly getting trickier, as anti-Semitism itself fragments under the impact of bizarre and even counter-intuitive alliances. Certainly, it will need to become ever more reflexive, in response to increasing evidence of its instrumentalisation by strategic interests who don’t take kindly to criticism—as courageous anti-Zionist Jews have found to their cost.

Yet, in spite of these difficulties, the persistence and resolve of that struggle, and its adeptness in responding to these challenges, sustains faith in the idea that the brutal rejection of otherness—the blind anger of anti-Semites realised historically in the Holocaust—can be defeated. 

[1] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘Elements of anti-Semitism’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, 1979, p171

[2] Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Verso, 2012, p38

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