Shifty antisemitism wars
In 2005, a draft, working definition of antisemitism was circulated by the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). To the dismay of its critics, the document confused genuine antisemitism with criticism of Israel, and was repeatedly, and erroneously, promoted by Israel advocacy groups as the EU definition of antisemitism.
By 2013, the EUMC’s successor body, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), had abandoned the politicised definition as unfit for purpose. Just this week, in response to a motion passed at NUS conference, the FRA explicitly denied having ever adopted the definition. Yet on March 30, Eric Pickles, UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust issues and chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, revived the discredited definition by publishing it on the government’s website. Why?
Nine days previously, Pickles had spoken at a conference on antisemitism in Berlin, where he described the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign as akin to the Nazi boycott of Jewish goods. “There’s nothing complicated to it,” he told the audience. “It’s the same thing happening 70 years later. It’s the same ideology, it’s the same language, it’s the same threats.”
So what is going on here?
Antisemitism – the socialism of fools
Antisemitism can certainly be found amongst those who claim to be Palestine solidarity activists, though the opportunism of a marginal few has consistently been condemned by mainstream solidarity groups, both here in the UK, and in North America. Twitter, of course, has made it easy for anyone to (anonymously) say whatever they want, and has drawn attention to various forms of bigotry that continue to have currency in the population at large.
More broadly, the presence of antisemites or antisemitic discourse amongst those who identify as being ‘on the Left’ is also real. The reason why antisemitism has been described as the ‘socialism of fools’ is that it purports to offer explanations for problems like inequality or economic instability which are, for many people, pressing concerns. Antisemitism, however, offers conspiracy theories in place of political analysis, and bigoted scapegoating rather than political solutions.
The ‘new antisemitism’ (again)
So what is antisemitism? Brian Klug, an international expert on antisemitism and a Senior Research Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, has defined antisemitism thus: “A good, simple working definition of antisemitism, according to a broad consensus of scholars, is this: hostility towards Jews as Jews.” He continues: “It would be more accurate (if cumbersome) to define the word along these lines: a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are. Or more succinctly: hostility towards Jews as not Jews.”
This ‘broad consensus’, however, has broken down. When Antony Lerman, Senior Fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna, first started studying antisemitism 40 years ago, there was, he tells me, “broadly speaking, a shared understanding of what antisemitism was. And Israel was hardly ever mentioned.” Today, he says, “Israel is promoted as the central recipient of antisemitic hate”, constituting nothing less than “a fundamental redefinition of antisemitism” (a topic he wrote about for openDemocracy last September).
This so-called ‘new antisemitism’ was the subject of a searing critique by Brian Klug as far back as 2004, in an important intervention published by The Nation. “The semantic question has been politicized”, wrote the Oxford academic. “This is why the definition matters. It is time to reclaim the word ‘anti-Semitism’ from the political misuses to which it is being put.”
Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism
So why is it wrong to equate anti-Zionism and antisemitism?
First, it is comparing apples and oranges. Indeed, there have always been Jews opposed to Zionism, for different reasons. See, for example, the current work of the International Jewish Anti-Zionism Network (IJAN), or the new book by US professor Dov Waxman, which, among other things, shows how it was only after the Six-Day War in 1967, “some two decades after Israel’s founding”, that “the American Jewish pro-Israel establishment was built.”
For Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a group with more than 200,000 online members and 60 chapters across the US, “equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism obscures the long history of Jewish anti-Zionism and diasporism.” According to the UK-based group Jews for Justice for Palestinians, fusing “Jewishness/Israel/Zionism” enables antisemitism to become “a weapon for imposing conformity on dissidents within the Jewish community.”
Chicago-based Rabbi Brant Rosen has described how “growing numbers of Jews” identify as anti-Zionists for “legitimate ideological reasons”, motivated “by values of equality and human rights for all human beings.” His words chime with those of a former President of Edinburgh University’s Jewish Society, who recently wrote of “the growing frustration felt by many millennial Jews about the default positioning that support for Israel receives amongst Jewish civil society organisations.”
But what about the claim that, since Zionism is simply Jewish self-determination, anti-Zionism is anti-Jewish bigotry? This is also misguided; put simply, “self-determination does not equate to statehood.” As legal scholar Michael Kearney has explained, self-determination is “less understood these days as a right to one’s own exclusive state, and more as a right to non-discrimination and to democratic participation in society.”
Israel’s supporters, however, are deliberately conflating terms such as ‘homeland’, ‘home’, ‘state’, and ‘self-determination’. The concept of a Jewish homeland is one thing; the creation and maintenance of a ‘Jewish state’, in Palestine, at the expense of its non-Jewish inhabitants, is another. The right to self-determination is never a right to colonisation, whoever is doing it.
Finally, to maintain that anti-Zionism is antisemitism is to deny the historical and contemporary reality of the Palestinians’ experience, and to dehumanise them as a people. For the Palestinians, Zionism has meant violent displacement, colonisation, and discrimination – are they ‘antisemitic’ for refusing to cheer their own dispossession? By extension, as orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor Charles H. Manekin put it recently, labelling Palestine solidarity activists as antisemitic is to imply that “the Palestinians have little justified claim to sympathy.”
The Israeli government’s war on Palestine solidarity
The conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and the appropriation of the fight against antisemitism as a means of combating Palestine solidarity, is perhaps best embodied by a periodic conference organised by the Israeli government. Convened by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the Global Forum for Combatting Antisemitism has become a talking shop and strategizing opportunity, in particular, for how to best thwart the growing BDS campaign.
In 2007, delegates discussed topics such as “pre-emptive strategies” against “academic and economic boycotts”, while at the 2009 Forum, a working group was tasked with proposing “imaginative, effective and successful solutions to counter [BDS].” Four years later, in 2013, the conference’s anti-BDS ‘task force’ produced another ‘action plan’, while in 2015, the gathering proposed that activists “pursue legislation at the local, state and federal level to constrain BDS.”
These are not just empty words. In February this year, an Israeli spokesperson admitted that the government had “stepped up our efforts directly and indirectly, dealing with friends of Israel in a variety of countries in which we have the BDS movement, fighting it with legal instruments.” As a recent AFP report put it, despairing of ever winning “the battle for public support” in many countries, “Israel has instead increasingly focused on measures limiting BDS legally.”
This year, the Israeli government budgeted NIS 100 million to fighting the boycott movement, and has boasted of its plans to use cyber-tech in its efforts to undermine Palestine solidarity activism and BDS. This comes five years after Israel passed a domestic anti-boycott law, described as “the silencing and the restriction of legitimate protest to criticise and act to change Israeli policy.”
Israel’s allies have picked up the baton, including in the UK, where support for BDS and Palestinian rights has grown considerably amongst political parties, trade unions, faith communities, human rights groups, and on campuses. In the Israeli embassy in London, a ‘battle’ map hangs on the wall showing “the deployment of pro-Israel activists and the location of the ‘enemy forces’.”
Willing UK accomplices
The Israeli government’s counter-offensive has found willing accomplices in the Conservative government, with ministers seeking to deter local councils from taking ethical investment and procurement decisions that they are in fact entitled to make. These efforts are the ‘soft end’ of a wave of repression that, as documented by Amnesty International, has seen Palestinian human rights defenders, including BDS activists, threatened and intimidated by Israeli authorities.
In Britain, the target of the current crackdown is broader than just BDS: the very legitimacy of Palestine solidarity activism is at stake. On March 22, the Board of Deputies of British Jews president Jonathan Arkush told the Daily Mail that “this is not about criticism of Israel – every country can be subject to criticism.” This has become a clichéd talking-point by proponents of the ‘new antisemitism’; that mere criticism of Israel does not constitute antisemitism.
Yet a few weeks earlier, Arkush had admonished David Cameron for having issued a very mild rebuke to Israeli settlements, claiming that it had made “many” in Britain’s Jewish community “concerned and uncomfortable.” Last year, as then-vice-president, Arkush had urged another Board official not to even “criticise the government of Israel.”
In other words, this is a much broader assault on political freedoms and the right of Palestinians and their allies to campaign against Israeli violations of international law. ‘Of course, mere criticism of Israeli policies isn’t antisemitic’, say those who never actually criticise Israel, ‘but – why are you singling out Israel?’
Lerman is worried about the impact of this strategy by the Israeli government and its allies. “Given the misery and murder that antisemitism has caused over the centuries,” he notes, “one might expect pro-Israel groups to be more circumspect before using it indiscriminately as a political tool.” According to Lerman, “not everything that offends Jewish sensibilities is antisemitism”, and by labelling BDS as antisemitic, Israel advocates “are draining the word of any meaning.”
Targeting Corbyn’s Labour Party: a convergence of interests
On February 15, the co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned his position, in response to OULC deciding to endorse Israeli Apartheid Week (a telling trigger). Shortly afterwards, and for a period of roughly a month, the media reported a number of cases where Labour members were alleged to have been guilty of antisemitic remarks, predominantly on social media.
Corbyn’s political opponents and their friends in the media, saw an opportunity: the Daily Mail declared Corbyn to be “a long-standing supporter of the terrorist organisation Hamas”, while Boris Johnson urged Londoners to vote Tory in the mayoral contest, citing Labour’s antisemitism “cancer.” In mid-March, The Jewish Chronicle declared that Labour “attracts antisemites like flies to a cesspit.”
The Labour Party has more than 400 MPs and peers at Westminster, in addition to almost 7,000 local government officials and some 390,000 members. The antisemitism ‘crisis’ has involved half a dozen individuals, most of whom have either never held, or no longer hold elected office. Corbyn himself has repeatedly condemned antisemitism since becoming leader, while according to Party General Secretary Iain McNicol, everyone reported for antisemitism has been suspended or excluded.
Getting a problem in perspective is not the same as denying that any problem exists (by definition). As Richard Kuper, spokesperson of Jews for Justice for Palestinians tells me, “there is some antisemitism in and around the Labour party – as there is in the wider society in Britain”, a problem made worse by “increased use of social media.”
However, Kuper said, “there is clearly also a coordinated, willed and malign campaign to exaggerate the nature and extent of antisemitism as a stick to beat the Labour party” under Corbyn. Ian Saville, a founder of the ‘Jews for Jeremy’ Facebook page, agrees, saying he is “disturbed” by the way antisemitism has “been taken up as a proxy with which to attack the left in the Labour Party.”
As Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, member of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (JBIG), tells me: “This is not about whether we should be dealing firmly with antisemitism – of course we should – but how antisemitism is defined.” This politicised redefining of antisemitism should worry us all: it dehumanises Palestinians and delegitimises solidarity, imperils the fight against real antisemitism, and constitutes a much broader attack on our democracy and political freedoms.
First published in openDemocracy.