Recently there have been recurring accusations of anti-semitism within the British Labour party. These accusations are spurious; that’s not to say that anti-semitism does not exist on the left at all, but the real source of racism and anti-semitism in Britain today is from the right, enhanced by the scurrilous anti-immigrant Brexit campaign.
In the US, there has been a spike in the number of anti-semitic messages on Twitter, directed especially against Jewish journalists, encouraged by Trump’s racist campaign. The Anti-Defamation League found that more than 800 journalists had been the subject of anti-semitic attacks, mainly from Trump supporters; Trump’s final election ad was grossly anti-semitic.
There is no question that the Jewish community is right to be concerned about the growth of rightwing movements in Europe who spout racism in more or less veiled forms.
Jewish communities have an emotional connection with Israel as part of their sense of identity, which has strengthened as identity politics became more pronounced in the postmodern era. However, the rightwing Israeli Likud government has taken advantage of this sentiment to exert political pressure on governments in its own interests. Most Jewish communities in the US are liberal politically, but the rightwing AIPAC has established an outsized influence on foreign policy.
This is facilitated by an ideological positioning of Jewish experience as exceptional, privileging their persecution in Europe – which has the effect of divorcing Jewish struggles from other oppressed groups with which they have often identified historically.
It is also cynically exploited by the British political establishment to attack the credibility of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. But where were they when Ed Miliband faced the dog-whistle anti-semitism of the Daily Mail and the Sun in 2015? Instead of defending him, the Jewish leadership in Britain attacked him for his principled defence of Palestinian rights.
Today the accusations of anti-semitism have been seized on by the Tories and PLP Blairites to attack the Labour party left and Momentum. Jim Cook contributes a guest editorial analyzing the conflation of anti-semitism with criticisms of the Israeli state.
During the middle ages the Ottoman Empire was seen as, and became, a place of refuge for Jews from Europe. I read many years ago of an English aristocrat who went, as tourist or diplomat, to the ‘Sublime Porte,’ the seat of government of the Empire and found, to his horror, that he, like all Christians, was rated as being at the same level as Jews. Jews lived quite comfortably, albeit like Christians as second class citizens, all over north Africa and through the Middle East including in Palestine and with even a few thousand in Jerusalem.
What changed all this was of course the betrayal of the Arabs by the British and French at the end of WWI. The British, Lawrence of Arabia for one, promised Arabs their freedom from the Ottoman Empire while the Turks tried to enlist Muslim solidarity. At the end of the war the British and the French reneged on any promises made to Arabs and, treating them with their accustomed imperial disdain, proceeded to carve up the Middle East in their own interests – albeit with the need to allow for some local interests to avoid continuous all-out war.
Concurrent with that was the 1917 Balfour Declaration that, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” meant about as much then as the rights of indigenous people in America, Australia, Asia and Africa, that is not very much. Jews bought up land in Palestine from absentee landlords and set about populating it with Jews and driving peasant families from their ancient homes. This, not surprisingly, led to increasing opposition from Palestinians who for some reason did not see their homeland as “A land without a people for a people without a land” – originally a Christian phrase for a way of getting rid of Jews – from Europe.
The Palestinian people have fought the invasion of European settlers for at least a century with loss of life on both sides, though increasingly more Arab lives lost than Jewish. In the course of this struggle Muslims worldwide have, not surprisingly, tended to support the Palestinian side. They too have experienced European, including via the USA, disdain, exploitation, humiliation, occupation and murder: things they can clearly see in Palestine/Israel. Many Muslims have continued to experience at least some of those injuries even after moving to Europe, or the USA.
It is a pity that some Muslims have picked up on European anti-Semitic tropes, perhaps on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. This is counter-productive to the Palestinian cause as it gives the Israeli government yet another stick to beat them with. It can also tend to alienate the many Jews worldwide who support the Palestinians in their struggle and also maintain a long tradition of liberal and socialist principle, not least during the height of the Civil Rights movement of the US.
But the bar is set exceptionally low for someone to be charged with anti-Semitism. When Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was accused of such anti-Semitism there were letters to the Guardian that said that opposition to Zionism was not anti-Semitism, Zionism is a political position not an attribute of Jewish identity. I fully agreed, and agree, with that. But I also started looking at the Jewish Chronicle (JC) to see what attitudes there were. I was a bit surprised to find that, yes, some Jews think that Zionism and support for the state of Israel are part of being a Jew.
For instance: Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University, is quoted in JC September 7 2016 as saying: “Anti-Zionism is a slogan, there’s nothing real behind it. It’s anti-Jewish, it’s antisemitic.”
Melanie Phillips, JC September 29 2016 says in “My letter to the Prime Minister,” “The animus against Israel cannot be separated from hostility to Jews. Antisemitism singles out Jews for treatment applied to no other people: double standards, imputation of conspiratorial powers and false claims they are committing crimes of which they are in fact the victims. This is precisely the treatment applied to Israel.”
Josh Jackman in JC October 10 2016: “The Board of Deputies has condemned a planned event by a pro-Palestinian student group which aims to separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism.” And further, he quotes Marie van der Zyl, Board vice-president who claims: “For the vast majority of British Jews, political, cultural and religious affiliation with the state of Israel is a fundamental part of their Jewish identity.”
So Zionism is just another name for Judaism? And so anti-Zionism is just another name for anti-Semitism? This is nonsense. Zionism is, now at least, the assertion that Jews are entitled to take and live in the lands previously known as Palestine. It is a political assertion and as such these is no reason whatsoever why it should not be opposed without the opposition being labelled as effectively ‘immoral’, not wrong but morally wrong and basically disgusting. Anti-Semitism in itself is a form of racism and so, yes, immoral, disgusting, stupid and ignorant.
And now we have the report of the Home Affairs Committee “Antisemitism inquiry” which, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (October 16 2016): “Important is the committee’s valiant attempt to define what can be constituted as anti-Semitism in modern Britain, and by extension, in Western political discourse. “The report states what should be obvious but sadly is not – that the starting point for any discussion on anti-Semitism should be what the Jewish community and Jews themselves feel is anti-Semitic.”
Zionism was never a part of being a Jew. By some accounts it originated in European ‘Christian’ circles when all sorts of nationalisms were springing up. Jews could be “subjects” just like Protestants, Catholics and even Muslims but “citizens”? So some 19th century Protestants thought it would be a good idea to encourage Jews to go to “the Holy Land”, this would not only get rid of the Jews but also accomplish the divine plan of gathering Jews together in anticipation of Armageddon and the return of the messiah – a belief still held by hordes of American Christians to this day.
There can be lots of reasons why such a call for a ‘homeland’ might be opposed politically but that opposition cannot be defined in itself as ‘racist’ and neither can political opposition to Zionism be called anti-Semitic. Anti-Zionism is not part of the “racist” family but more like part of the ideological or political family that would include “Un-American”.
The main claim to Israel’s moral authority is of course the Holocaust: nothing else could even come close to excusing the crimes committed against the Palestinian people. But even the Holocaust grants no special privilege to Jews, Zionists or the state of Israel: how could massive hurt grant the right to hurt others? It could perhaps justify a Jewish state in Germany but whatever the Mufti of Jerusalem may or may not have done in WWII the Palestinians were not responsible for the Holocaust. Even some of the survivors, not that there are many left now, were opposed to the use of the suffering of themselves and their fellows for narrow political ends.
There are Jews who are anti-Zionist: some of the most orthodox see the return by force of arms, rather than with the messiah, as blasphemy. But the most eloquent opponents of the Israeli state and of Zionism, in the English language anyway, are Israeli and American Jews. They are clearly not anti-Semitic so they have earned the even more ridiculous label of “self-hating Jews” – itself an anti-Semitic jibe. I must admit that in my reading about the Holocaust, Israel, Palestine and American politics, in books by respected Jewish and non-Jewish, Zionist and non-Zionist, historians and other commentators, I’ve come across several “self-hating Jews” and I can only admire their courage.
So what’s this ‘anti-Semitism in the Labour Party all about? Ken Livingstone is quoted by Lianne Kolirin, JC 5 September 2016, as saying on a radio breakfast show, “The simple fact is that until they started to undermine Jeremy, no Labour MP in my lifetime had ever said there was any issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party.”
Despite being the only nuclear power in the region, having the most effective armed forces in the region and having the world’s ‘super-power’ covering their back – and giving them lots of money to buy arms – it seems that Israel is facing an existential threat due to BDS. A Republican Congressman, Doug Lamborn, claimed in a phone call to the Jerusalem post that BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is “the re-emergence of the scourge of anti-Semitism. It is the same hatred just put into new clothing”.
The Israeli political elite is afraid of what they call “delegitimation;” the main thrust of that internationally is the BDS movement and they are afraid that the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, might move from under the US foreign policy umbrella into support for the rights of Palestinians. Hence all this “anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” nonsense. The real movement of socialists, and many liberals, worldwide is for the state of Israel and its Zionist supporters to treat Palestinians as fellow human beings.
But the rulers, and the bulk of the inhabitants, of Israel are not Holocaust survivors. Many of them come from the United States and Europe and share the imperialist disdain for “the natives” that so many from the United States and Europe have held for centuries. They need, for their own long term safety and for the sake of common decency to work for a resolution of their differences with Palestinians – but there is little ground for optimism in this regard at the moment.
The Zionists feel that Israel is the natural “home” of the Jewish people everywhere, but the question must be asked, “What about the Palestinians?” And the answer of the state of Israel, the Zionists and the right wing Christian nutters in the US is, “What about the Palestinians?” And these racists have the nerve to call us anti-Semites.