It was inevitable. Another Gaza offensive by Israel begins, ostensibly to stop Hamas from firing rockets into southern Israel, and within a couple of days accusations of antisemitism were flying around.
Two particularly caught my attention. The first was the claim that Steve Bell, in his Guardian cartoon of 15 November, was ‘get[ting] away with using antisemitic imagery and tropes‘ because it showed Tony Blair and William Hague as puppets of Bibi Netanyahu.
The second was in a tweet about a letter to the Guardian from emeritus professor Leslie Baruch Brent who condemned the ‘disporportionate response of the Israeli government to the Hamas rocket attacks’ and concluded ‘Has the world learned nothing since Guernica?’ The text of the tweet read: ‘Hard to take @guardian opposition to #antisemitism seriously when they publish letter comparing #Israel to Nazis.’
I was especially interested in these accusations because the first was by Mark Gardner, the communications director of the Community Security Trust (CST), the private charity that acts as the defence organization of the UK Jewish community, and the second by Dave Rich, his deputy.
One of the things that is most worrying about what I believe were these false imputations of antisemitism (and I will explain my reasoning for this conclusion in my next blogpost) is that they come not simply from individuals expressing their own views, but from officials of a very influential, major registered charity, and in the case of the cartoon, writing in their capacity as officials of that organization. The view of the Community Security Trust is seen as, and is intended to be seen as, the view of the organized UK Jewish community. And yet that wider community has no means of calling the CST to account and therefore has to suffer the consequences of its officials’ doubtful and often damaging politically-motivated interventions in public debate.
The politicization of antisemitism research
The institutionalized politicization of antisemitism by bodies claiming to be non-political or academic is not new. And with regard to a charity like the CST, it is very troubling.
We saw this politicization in the now defunct Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), which was closed by the university authorities after it became clear that it was primarily an advocacy body and not a serious research institute. And it was also apparent in the now almost defunct European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (EISCA), established, it seems, with a mandate to grossly exaggerate the problem of antisemitism (the inaugural lecture given by the then Labour Europe minister Jim Murphy was entitled ‘Antisemitism: a hate that outlives all others’). There has been no activity on its website since June 2011, and that was an article by the now disgraced former Labour Party junior minister Denis MacShane, first published in the Jewish Chronicle and cross-posted on the EISCA blog.
While still thinking about the manipulation of antisemitism for political purposes, I received information about a symposium on antisemitism taking place on 2 December at the Wiener Library in London. Though clearly planned long before the latest Israeli offensive against Gaza, the holding of the symposium at this time is an extraordinary coincidence. And it was immediately obvious from the programme that it fell squarely into the category of an event dressed up in pseudo-academic clothes but which is, in reality, an exercise in political advocacy.
Although the symposium is taking place at the Wiener Library, a highly respected documentation, research and educational resource on the Holocaust and the Nazi era, it’s not mentioned anywhere on Wiener’s website. This is no doubt because the event itself is being organized exclusively under the auspices of the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism (JSA), with the library’s prestigious central London premises simply hired for the occasion. Wiener’s director, Ben Barkow, is not speaking at the symposium.
The Journal for the Study of Antisemitism: a home for the ‘new antisemitism’ notion
The JSA is a privately funded periodical founded four years ago. It has no institutional base and is privately published. It describes itself as ‘ the peer-reviewed work of a select group of independent scholars’. Even a cursory glance at the journal’s list of Board Members reveals a great preponderance of neoconservatives, Islamophobes, advocates of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, pedlars of the ‘self-hating Jew’ accusation against Jewish critics of Israeli policies and out-and-out political propagandists.
The individuals funding the event are Daniel Pipes, Mitch Knisbacher and Jeff and Evy Diamond. Pipes, the president of the right-wing Middle East Forum (MEF), is widely described as an ‘Islamophobe’. In 2009 his MEF established a legal defence fund for the far-right, populist, Islamophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Pipes reportedly claimed that President Obama is a former Muslim who ‘practised Islam’. Knisbach, who is the founder and owner of 800response (America’s leading provider of shared-use 800-number services), is active in the right-wing Israel lobby AIPAC and funds Tazpit News Agency, a service set up primarily to popularize a positive view of settlement activity in the West Bank. Jeff Diamond, who heads the Jeff Diamond Law Firm, which has six offices in New Mexico and Texas, was installed in January as chair of the New Mexico Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Board of Directors.
The journal’s editors — Neal E. Rosenberg, a criminal lawyer, and Stephen K. Baum, a clinical psychologist — and the journal itself were mired in controversy early in 2010 when they sacked Dr Clemens Heni, a Berlin-based academic, from the editorial board for criticizing the Berlin Technical University’s centre for research on antisemitism for what he regarded as its ‘neglect of Islamic anti-Semitism and Israel’s security’ — and this was in an article Heni wrote for the journal. Various members of the board resigned in protest. The editors say they were pressured by the Berlin centre, which, a Jerusalem Post article claims, threatened to engineer the resignation of seven German members of the Board and the withdrawal of cooperation with the journal by three German antisemitism research centres. The editors soon relented, reinstated Heni and asked some of the resigning Board members to return. Some did and some didn’t.
Heni vigorously attacked the decision to close YIISA. In the wake of its demise, and no doubt after his experience being sacked and then reinstated to the JSA editorial board, in 2011 he set up a new German antisemitism research body, the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (BICSA), the main focus of which is ‘anti-Semitism in the 21st century, particularly hatred of Israel.’
The symposium: a one-sided affair
The curious thing about this incident is that it’s quite clear that the journal’s posture is very close to the line Heni took in his attack on the Berlin centre. The programme and speakers at the forthcoming symposium demonstrate this. (A note of caution: the programme sent to me looks like the last word on who is attending and speaking, but may not be. It differs from the version of the programme on the JSA website.) Titled ‘Contemporary antisemitism in the UK’, the symposium kicks off with a panel on ‘Defining the new antisemitism’, chaired by Kenneth Marcus. The panellists are Bat Ye’or, Richard Landes and Winston Pickett.
Marcus heads the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which was founded in late 2011 and took over where YIISA left off when it was closed down. YIISA’s director, Charles Small is on the advisory board, the honorary chairman of which is Professor Irwin Cotler, former Canadian justice minister, who has probably done more than anyone else to promote the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’. Other like-minded board members, who were also YIISA supporters, include Professor Dina Porat, Professor Ruth Wisse and Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld.
The three panellists will find much to agree on. For decades Bat Ye’or has been banging the drum about the ‘Muslim hordes’ who were about to take over Europe. Rather generously referred to as a ‘self-taught Jewish intellectual’, she now believes that Europe is dead, and in its stead ‘Eurabia’ has risen. Richard Landes, director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, told the Herzliya IDC conference in 2007:
European democratic civilization can fall before the Islamic challenge. Do not say that this will never happen in Europe and that Islam will not be able to take control of Europe.
If Europe continues its current path, the fall will be sooner.
Winston Pickett was the director of the now non-functioning EISCA. He lavishes unreserved praise on Professor Robert Wistrich for his huge tome, Antisemitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad, a book that, as its title suggests, sets out to justify the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’.
Panel sessions 2 and 3 — ‘Mapping the rise of contemporary antisemitism’ and ‘Antisemitism on campus’ — present much the same picture. Both chairpersons, Manfred Gerstenfeld and Kenneth Lasson, see no real distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Gerstenfeld’s crude and wild assertions about antisemitism are legion. A recent online article about antisemitism in Norway is a good example of his continuing attempt to portray European countries as riddled with antisemitism, no matter what the data say. Lasson’s views are clearly laid out in an 80-page paper, ‘Antisemitism in the academic voice’, in which he writes that ‘Anti-Zionism . . . has evolved into antisemitism’ and reveals how ill-equipped he is to comment on this subject when he says: ‘The misnamed “occupation” allegedly began after Israel’s 1967 victory . . .’
In panel 2, Mark Gardner of the CST and Robert Wistrich, who heads the Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA), should feel comfortable with each other’s role in justifying and promoting the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, though it would be only fair to acknowledge that Wistrich’s influence in this regard far outstrips that of Gardner’s. Wistrich restated the classic definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ in a talk at the Hebrew University Jerusalem in June 2011 entitled ‘From blood libel to boycott: changing faces of British antisemitism’. A Cif Watch post summarised his remarks: ‘efforts to boycott and delegitimize Israel (the Jewish collective) as a form of exclusion from the community of nations [are] not dissimilar from historical efforts to exclude the individual Jew from the communities where they resided.’ Gardner’s use of the ‘new antisemitism’ argument is clearly apparent in his and Dave Rich’s analysis of Caryl Churchill’s short playlet Seven Jewish Children. (My refutation of their analysis is here.) It is also unlikely that there will be much disagreement in panel 3 between Clemens Heni, Ronnie Fraser (fresh from the tribunal hearing his claim of ‘institutional antisemitism’ against the University and College Union), who runs the Academic Friends of Israel, and Dave Rich.
Some dissent at last?
Some serious diversity of views then appears possible when Lesley Klaff chairs a panel discussing ‘Addressing current approaches’. This would be unlikely, however, were Professor Klaff to proffer her own views. Linked to BICSA and the Brandeis Center, she has made her opinions on the connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism perfectly clear. As she writes in the journal of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs:
University codes of conduct and UK law recognize that an important university goal is the promotion of equality of opportunity for minority students and their protection from discrimination, including harassment. Given the growing consensus that anti-Zionism is in fact anti-Semitism in a new guise, this goal is flouted with respect to Jewish students every time that anti-Zionist expression takes place on a university campus.
So, no anti-Zionist views allowed on campus then. Period. While Günther Jikeli, co-founder of the International Institute for Education and Research on Anti-Semitism in London and Berlin, is under the false impression that the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU endorses its predecessor’s ‘Working Definition’ of antisemitism, he, the PhD student Hagai van der Horst from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University of London will hopefully be able to offer a stark contrast with what will have gone before. Feldman’s approach at the Pears Institute is a model of inclusiveness and variety; he creates a safe space for the expression of sharply different opinions.
Worrying about the left and boycott, and promoting the EUMC ‘Working Definition’
The speakers on the final panel, ‘Strategic interventions: what can be done?’, are not on record, as far as I could ascertain, as specifically subscribing to the JSA‘s line on the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. The barrister Julian Hunt is described in the programme as ‘having experience defending pro-Israel activists’, which, from his July 2012 post on the Commentator blog, seems to refer to Jewish students on campus. With a title like ‘Criminalising the boycott bullies’, it seems fair to assume that he has an uncompromising attitude to anti-Zionism. Philip Spencer, an expert on the Holocaust and genocide, is director of politics and international Relations at the Helen Bamber Centre for the Study of Rights, Kingston University, and has a special interest in what he sees as the left’s less than glorious history of standing up to antisemitism. Francisco Garrett, a lawyer from Portugal, appears to have no significant track record as an antisemitism expert.
But there is little ambiguity in the position of the chair of this panel, L. Ruth Klein. In her 2009 report on antisemitism in Canada presented to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA), the national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada refers to anti-Zionism as ‘that unholy hybrid of age-old and new-age bigotry’, calls for the criminalization of boycotts ‘against the Jewish state’ and for the adoption of the EUMC ‘Working Definition’ of antisemitism.
Giving the political game away
A spirit of free inquiry does not seems to govern these proceedings. And this view is strengthened further by the sessions of the symposium that are not panel discussions. The former chairman of EISCA, Denis MacShane MP, is given the platform to himself to speak on ‘The politics of fighting antisemitism’. I and others have drawn attention to his woeful lack of understanding of antisemitism, his propensity to exaggerate what it represents – ‘there is no greater intolerance today than neoantisemitism’ – and his readiness to vilify Muslims and pro-Palestinian activists. For a man fêted as such a friend of the Jews, his ignorance about Jews and Israel, as displayed in his book Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism, is deeply disturbing.
But having written a book with that title he will certainly be at home among the JSA‘s ’select group of independent scholars’ at Sunday’s symposium. So much so that he is being presented with ‘The Award of Merit: Righteous Persons Who Fight Antisemitism’. (Whether the organizers still think he is quite so righteous after being found guilty of fiddling his parliamentary expenses, we do not know.) At the head of the page in the programme detailing this award, and two others, is a photograph of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the right-wing, revisionist Zionist ideologue, whose ideas have inspired much of today’s ruling political elite in Israel and, so it clearly appears, the organizers of this symposium. Manfred Gerstenfeld receives the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ and Shimon T. Samuels scoops the jackpot with the ‘Jabotinsky Award’.
Samuels is the director for international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Paris and a long-standing promoter of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’. In July 2011, after attending a UN meeting in Brussels titled ‘The role of Europe in advancing Palestinian statehood and achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians’, he wrote to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon saying that the experience was akin to a ‘gangbang’. On 2 August 2012 he told the Jerusalem Post that the action of the Swiss Migros supermarket chain to label Israeli products from the West Bank was a boycott measure and must be viewed as ‘a continuation of Nazism’.
It shows just how far the academic study of contemporary antisemitism has become corrupted in some circles that the organizers of this symposium did not seem to feel a moment’s shame in so blatantly politicizing it by identifying so completely with the political ideology of Jabotinsky. As if this wasn’t enough to damn as bogus what’s billed as an academic event, the screening of Gloria Greenfield’s ‘documentary’, Unmasked Judeophobia, can leave no one in any doubt. The New York Times‘ reviewer Nicole Herrington wrote:
the film loses ground toward the middle, when it calls out individuals (often just by showing their images) and organizations for their passiveness or criticism of Israeli policies without giving a full account of the facts. The roster is long: the United Nations, feminists, the European news media, Alice Walker, human rights groups and American academics.
In the end the issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are conflated, weakening the filmmaker’s argument.
Less restrained, but equally reasonable, was this from James van Maanen’s film review blog:
I suspect there is some very good information in Gloria Greenfield’s new documentary, Unmasked Judeophobia: The Threat to Civilization (that sub-title alone should raise a red flag), but the repetitive, ham-handed manner in which it is presented is enough to make aware and thinking people — anyone, that is, who might find and be willing to admit as reprehensible some of the state of Israel’s current behavior toward its Palestinian residents — run for the exit.
This comment could equally be applied to the entire JSA symposium.
Anyone who disagrees with the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’ should always be prepared to discuss it with its promoters. And its promoters should always be willing to debate the notion with its critics. This is the only way that sense on antisemitism can be arrived at. By the nature and format of this symposium, the JSA has clearly shown that it has no interest whatsoever in such a dialogue, even if one or two brave souls may try to speak up for the values that underpin true academic exchange.
(Thanks to Ben White for drawing my attention to this symposium and for sharing information and sources.)
Note: This post was amended on Friday at 13:51 to make it clear that the Tweet by Dave Rich of the CST referred to in the 5th paragraph was wrongly described as being sent expressing the official view of the CST. It was from Dave Rich’s private Twitter account, which makes clear that his tweets are his personal views only. Apologies to Dave for this error.
A day or two after Jonathan Freedland wrote an op-ed published in the Guardian announcing that he could not vote for Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, because ‘he doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’, I started to write a blogpost taking issue with Jonathan’s argument and conclusion. Unable to complete it immediately because of other commitments, I sat down yesterday afternoon (Thursday 29 March) to finish it and discovered that Ken had written a long-ish conciliatory article for the Jewish Chronicle in which he effectively apologised to the Jewish community for hurt he had caused – actually using the words ‘humility’, ‘sorry’ and ‘regret’. He paid tribute to the Jewish contribution to London, pledged to work better with Jewish Londoners, not to promote one faith or community over another, promote interfaith and inter-community dialogue, in which, he acknowledged, Jewish-led organisations have taken a lead.
The tone of the piece was remarkably contrite. But especially surprising were his remarks about Israel and Jewish peoplehood. He stressed that he does see Jews as a people, that he opposed the academic boycott of Israel, visited Israel because it’s democratic and supports a two state solution, with ’strong economic ties to make both states economically successful and committed to lasting peace’.
It’s quite clear that a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to bring about a rapprochment between Ken and London’s Jews following the disastrous ‘Chatham House’-style dinner on 1 March at the London Jewish Cultural Centre between Ken and some prominent members of the Jewish community who were Labour supporters. This event was supposed to draw a line under the past and lay the ground for a new beginning. But it seems that Ken signally failed to enter into the future-looking spirit of the gathering. According to a leaked letter written to Ed Miliband by some of the attendees, Livingstone suggested that ‘as the Jewish community is rich, [it] simply wouldn’t vote for him’. He also made other remarks which, it’s claimed, amounted to negative stereotyping of Jews.
I am sure that many people will be unconvinced by Ken’s sudden need to say sorry and will say that it’s narrow electoral calculation making him do it (and that he has had his arm twisted by Labour Party Central). You can find just such a view on Harry’s Place. Perhaps. But even the sceptical Martin Bright, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, seems to regard this as a significant and highly unusual step, for which Livingstone himself has taken responsibility:
ultimately the decision to eat humble pie lay with Ken Livingstone himself, and though the Jewish community will never take him to their heart, some may at least give him credit for admitting he was wrong.
I don’t think it ever had to get to this point. Whatever Ken did to alienate Jews was compounded by the ill-judged and immature response of the Board of Deputies of British Jews under the presidency of Henry Grunwald in 2005. Grunwald made a strategic error in ratcheting up the confrontation with Ken, egged on by various hotheads. Although I am not in any way party to what has been happening over the last few weeks between Ken and the Jews, I suspect that had the methods that were applied to produce the current outcome been deployed five or six years ago, the likelihood of any further ‘Ken and the Jews’-type dramas would have been minimised.
Whether Ken’s apology will sway Labour-supporting Jews who were preparing to follow some other course of action or inaction rather than vote for Ken remains to be seen. Which brings me back to the original starting point for this blogpost: Jonathan Freedland’s op-ed, which I suppose remains as relevant as it was last week, because those who sympathised with Jonathan’s view may well be thinking of his piece again in the light of Ken’s JC article. I therefore continue below with my original draft post, with some additions in the light of the most recent developments:
* * *
I think Jonathan Freedland is wrong to conclude that because Ken Livingstone ‘doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’, he ‘can’t vote for Ken’ as London’s mayor.
I’m not saying this because I believe Jonathan is wrong to make Ken’s impact on his Jewish sensibility the touchstone for his electoral judgement. He’s perfectly entitled to assess Ken’s suitability as mayor from a Jewish perspective if he wishes. But it is important to understand that he is not just expressing a personal preference based on his appraisal of Ken’s attitudes to Jews. He’s saying that it is not in Jewish interests to vote for Ken even if you believe his policies for London are right.
Equally, I am not arguing that Jonathan has reached a wrong conclusion because he is wrong about Ken’s attitude to Jews. As it happens, I don’t agree with Jonathan on this. Yes, Ken has caused offence. Yes, he may ‘show Jews a “hard heart”‘. But to say that Ken ‘doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’ is a very harsh and sweeping statement and I don’t believe it’s proven by the examples recalled in Jonathan’s article. Nonetheless, whether he is right on this or not, it doesn’t effect my argument. My disagreement with him is about what should be the right response by Jews to a candidate deemed to be unsympathetic to them.
But is there any point in arguing with Jonathan? After all, his Guardian piece was written as a personal statement, not a call to arms. He’s entitled to his views and one should respect them. Nevertheless, as one of the Guardian‘s principal columnists and an influential figure in the Jewish community, Jonathan must at least be aware that he is in a very strong position to sway Jewish opinion. Furthermore, he is very likely to have an impact on non-Jews who sympathise with his characterisation of Ken’s attitudes to Jews. Jonathan must know this and I would guess that he’d be more than happy if others followed his lead. Jonathan’s article therefore matters. Even more so if the race between Boris and Ken turns out to be very close. So his piece deserves a response.
There are three main reasons why I think Jonathan is mistaken.
First, by not offering any practical political alternative, he leaves Jews in limbo. Is he saying that he won’t vote at all? If the policies of the three candidates were equally bad you could argue that there is some sense in this. But Jonathan firmly believes that Ken’s policies are best for London. This also seems to make it perverse to vote for the Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick. Is he then, in effect, advocating disengaging from the political process? If so, wouldn’t this be politically highly irresponsible?
Second, given that he has decided to prioritise Jewish concerns, what does that mean exactly? If it means that you feel so upset with a candidate, you turn your back on the whole business, this is hardly mature politics. Surely, anyone really bothered about Jewish concerns must take a wider view of what’s good for the Jews. It’s hardly likely that any candidate, however noble and attractive, will have a set of policies or an outlook that in all respects is positive for Jews. A personal compromise is almost always inevitable. Jonathan rejects that, implying that he did it once but can’t do it again. But why not? It’s the stuff of politics and political choice.
Third, and this is my main argument, I think Jonathan is acting in a way that flatly contradicts the manner in which Jews have achieved so much over the last few centuries in terms of attaining emancipation, equal rights etc. If Jews in previous generations had behaved as Jonathan advocates, opting out because a candidate held some views that made them feel uncomfortable, yet the fundamental thrust of that person’s policies would clearly be of advantage to Jews, we’d still be in ghettos. For example, although Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary in the Attlee Labour government that swept to power in 1945, was known to have antisemitic views, as far as I know this did not prevent Jews from supporting Labour in the general election of that year. In the early 1990s, I once had a private conversation with the former Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, and was rather taken aback by some comments he made about Jews that, while not antisemitic, seemed to sail awfully close to constituting anti-Jewish stereotyping. He was a pretty blunt speaker so I imagine that I was not the only person in the Jewish community to have become aware of this. Yet I don’t recall ever hearing any doubts expressed among Jewish leaders and commentators about Callaghan’s attitudes to Jews while he was a senior Labour Party politician in the 1970s.
Of course there are red lines not to be crossed; candidates and parties to be shunned and opposed. Often, it’s not difficult knowing where these red lines are. But there are times when it’s harder to judge. I think it’s fair to say that in some respects for many Jews those times have become harder in recent years because of the part the issue of Israel plays in British politics, which has led to the deeply damaging phenomenon of some Jews, here in the UK but more seriously in France for example, expressing support for far-right, anti-Muslim parties, which say they back Israel because it’s the front line of the battle against Islamism. But for all Ken Livingstone’s dubious embracing of the homophobic Egyptian Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who justified suicide bombing, it seems to me to be a serious misreading of Ken’s politics to place him among the perceived enemies of the Jews.
Frankly, I was rather surprised to see Jonathan travelling so far down the road of identity politics in his Guardian article. I think there is a distinct difference between, on the one hand, being aware of the impact of political policies on Jews and actively campaigning on them, yet remaining universalist in political outlook, and on the other hand, allowing Jewish identity or sensibility to be the principal determining factor in one’s political outlook. (There are very good examples of some American Jewish organizations that successfully achieve the former.) The danger inherent in identity politics has been starkly highlighted by the deeply depressing result of the West Bradford by-election, in which a massive Muslim swing to the maverick George Galloway, who shamelessly pandered to what he perceived to be Muslim interests, wiped out the Labour majority. I can’t believe Jonathan approves of such a development for one second, and yet it seemed to me that his article could easily be read as endorsing this kind of ethnification of politics.
I think there are two lessons that can be drawn from the ‘Ken and the Jews’ drama. The first is that for ethnic and religious minorities that are or have been disadvantaged, the fight for civic equality, political representation, an end to discrimination, and the basic desire just to be treated as equal citizens and not as the ‘other’, never fully comes to an end. The persistent nature of prejudice means that gains achieved can be eroded in certain circumstances, and not necessarily in ways that are overt or deliberate. Nevertheless, Jews today are far less vulnerable to this process than other minority groups, which does not mean that we can afford to be complacent, nor that we should shirk our responsibility for fighting for the rights of other minorities to achieve the same status in British society that Jews now have.
The second lesson is that, as Jews we need to pay far more attention to detoxifying the role that the Israel-Palestine conflict plays in British politics and inter-communal relations. This is fundamentally a matter of first and foremost telling the truth to ourselves about the deeply damaging nature of Israeli government policies and the legally and morally unacceptable manner in which Israel as a state behaves towards the Palestinians both inside pre-1967 Israel and in the occupied territories. This is not something we must do to please or appease anyone else. It’s simply a matter of being true, come what may, to the human rights principles we say we believe in and which have been so central to the positive transformation of the position of Jews in the world since the end of the Second World War.
Despite the dire warnings, it seems that civilisation as we know it did not collapse after last weekend’s student conference at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, on Israel/Palestine and the One-State Solution. Who’d have guessed?
US Senator Scott Brown called on Harvard to cancel the conference. It promotes the ‘elimination of the Jewish state’, Abe Foxman, Executive Director of the US Anti-Defamation League, wrote to the President of Harvard. ‘[T]here can never be any legitimate discussion of a concept which, by its very nature, will result in the end of the Jewish character of Israel’, Foxman continued, calling on him to ‘forcefully denounce’ the conference. ‘The one-state idea is a recipe for Israel’s destruction,’ said American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris. ‘The Harvard One-State Conference, promot[es] the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination, . . . a so-called one-state solution is a non-starter, except for those who seek a world without Israel.’
After the event, The Crimson, Harvard’s daily newspaper, reported: ‘Though critics of the conference anticipated the panelists would only present arguments for a one-state solution, attendees emphasized that the conference facilitated discussion and dialogue on varied possibilities.’ One of the conference’s student organisers, Lena K Awaad, said: ‘Many people expected the conference to have one specific idea, but [the panelists] brought forth very different perspectives on a one state solution’. And during some of the events, panelists responded directly to critics accusing them of promoting a one-sided dialogue.
Those who turned their fire on the Harvard Students should have had a different conference in their sights: the annual Washington jamboree of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where the real one-state action was taking place. On the evening of 5 March, Bibi addressed the 13,000 delegates and within the first minute proclaimed ‘Jerusalem – the eternal and united capital of Israel’. Nothing new in that, of course, but the two-state solution as commonly understood includes the designation of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. If Jerusalem is the ‘united capital of Israel’, that leaves no room for it also to be Palestine’s capital. For that to come into being Jerusalem would have to be divided. A Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital would not be acceptable to the Palestinians and therefore, at the very least, the de facto one-state regime that already exists would be perpetuated. Such a scenario would by no means be looked upon with disfavour by AIPAC. As Peter Beinart pointed out
the organization’s 2012 ‘action principles’ . . . which will guide AIPAC’s legislative agenda for 2012 [and] were approved in private session by the body’s National Council the morning that the conference began . . . consist of 12 bullet points, none of which mentions the words ‘Palestinian state’ or ‘two-state solution.’ To the contrary, some are actively hostile to the idea. In point six, for instance, AIPAC pledges to ‘work for the recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.’ But every serious model for a two-state solution—be it the parameters outlined by Bill Clinton in December 2000 or the Geneva Accord struck by former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 2003—envisions the opposite: a capital divided between a Jewish and Palestinian state.
Moreover, when Ameinu, a progressive Jewish group on AIPAC’s National Council, introduced an amendment ‘gesturing modestly’ towards a two-state solution, the proposal was defeated by a voice vote of roughly 300-5.
The hasbaristas, graduates of the Bibi school of Israel advocacy, will no doubt produce all manner of non-denial denials that neither Bibi nor AIPAC reject the two-state solution. But this smoke screen cannot conceal either the reality on the ground, where Israel’s infrastructural grip on the West Bank and East Jerusalem is tightening day-by-day, or the reality on the political level where one-state, repressive and fundamentally discriminatory, is openly advocated by the right-wing and proto-fascist politicians. Only last week, Noam Sheizaf reports, the well-known settler MK Uri Ariel, member of the radical right National Union party, called on Israel to annex the West Bank immediately giving all Palestinians living there the status of residents in Israel, similar to those living in East Jerusalem. In this single state:
Residents have access to social security, health insurance and they can vote in municipal elections. They don’t have the right to vote in national elections or be elected to the Knesset, and they cannot purchase homes on state land. All residents will be able to become Israeli citizens after five years, subject to a test in Hebrew and a loyalty oath.
Ariel’s ideas are in line with similar thoughts expressed by rightwing hawks recently, among them Moshe Arens, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, former chief of staff for PM Netanyahu Uri Elizur and Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely. All of them spoke on record in favor of a one-state solution in a feature piece I did for Haaretz a couple of years ago.
In light of the above, the fuss made about the Harvard conference looks even more absurd, especially in the context of America’s free speech principles. Even if objectors to the gathering argued that it promoted hate speech, the standard response would be ‘the best way to combat hate speech is more speech’. Be as opposed to one-state ideas as you like, but discuss them into the ground, don’t try to bury them in the ground by overtly or covertly preventing people from discussing them.
AIPAC is a very powerful right-wing, pro-Israel lobby group, but on Israel-related issues it doesn’t always represent the views of the majority of American Jews, who remain determinedly liberal and vote Democrat over Republican by between 3 or 4 to 1. Neither does it represent the attitudes of Israelis on the key issue of the moment: Iran. A recent poll showed that only 19 per cent of Israelis supported an attack on Iran without the support of Washington and 42 per cent said it should attack only if the United States backed the decision. So what, I wonder, did American Jews and most Israelis make of the candidate for the Republican nomination for POTUS, Rick Santorum, when he openly called for war against Iran this a.m. (6 March) in his speech to AIPAC, and the audience went wild with excitement. And then called on his God to bless AIPAC.
Although this is happening across the pond, it should worry us deeply here. Most commentators seem to believe that Obama effectively neutralised Bibi and made it difficult for him to pursue a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally in the coming months, but I’m not so sure. The tenor of Bibi’s speech suggested that he will do all in his power to recover ground and keep the military option in the very centre of the table. He’s probably banking on the fact that Obama will become increasingly preoccupied with his re-election campaign as the weeks pass and may have his hand forced if Israel strikes Iran, for fear of handing a propaganda victory to the Republicans, who will paint him as anti-Israel and weak if he doesn’t back the Israelis with military support.
This is also bad news from the point of view of the fortunes of the British Jewish community. If an Israeli strike becomes more likely it will do nothing for the Jewish population’s sense of security, given the political fallout and the possible increase in risk of terrorist incidents. But what we should be doubly worried and indeed angered about is the support being lent to AIPAC positions by the major establishment organizations of the community. Representing the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews at the AIPAC conference is the JLC’s Executive Director, Jeremy Newmark, who seems to be fully backing the AIPAC ethos if his enthusiastic Tweets are anything to go by. That the two bodies which claim to represent the wider interests of British Jews should be aligning themselves with such a hawkish, anti-Obama administration, pro-settlement, anti-two-state solution Israel lobby group is quite disgraceful. For Brirtish Jewish leaders who at one moment are demonising and lambasting people willing to discuss the merits or otherwise of a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and at another moment are tacitly supporting the repressive, discriminatory one-state idea (now virtually a reality) favoured by AIPAC is thoroughly detrimental to the interests of the British Jewish population.
The launch of Brits For Peace Now (BFPN) at Portcullis House, London, on 27 February reflected well on its young leadership whose energy and dynamism ensured a good turnout — testament to the continuing desire for a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict among British Jews. Between 150-200 people made the very large reception room look comfortably populated. I had a sense that spirits were lifted by this demonstration of interest in the rebirth of an organization that, in its former guise as British Friends of Peace Now, was in effect defunct. The enthusiasm of the two co-chairs, Dan Arenson and Dan Levene, was infectious. Yossi Mekelberg, the Middle East expert at Chatham House, acknowledged that this was not a propitious time for the peace movement but it was right ‘to lay the groundwork for when the time for peace is right’. The chair of Peace Now Israel, Yariv Oppenheimer, insisted that the two-state solution was the only way of achieving an end to violence and lasting peace. Fighting for this and for Israel’s democracy, now under political attack in the Knesset, were Peace Now’s priorities. The support of BFPN was important for Israel.
But slick PR, a prestigious venue, hopeful words and youthful passion are all very well. The question is, will BFPN make any difference? I certainly couldn’t see anything in the event itself that suggested it will. Unfortunately, to attract 150-200 to a launch of this kind does not mean very much. Especially since I’m sure that a significant proportion were people already involved in other peace groups. I myself saw at least 20-25 friends and acquaintances I knew to be active in at least one other such organization. Providing yet another framework for the same people who are already active is hardly going to change the way the Jewish community thinks.
I suppose that with a young leadership BFPN perhaps might have more luck reaching out to what is indeed a very important constituency: Jews in their 20s and 30s. And they must be given a chance to do this. However, the launch of Yachad, billed as the UK’s J Street, set out to do something very similar, but I have not seen any evidence that they have achieved any kind of breakthrough. Moreover, while I’m all in favour of creative competition in the Jewish community, to have two such similar organizations targeting the same generation seems rather unwise. There is certainly a level of disquiet about Israel’s policies across much of the Jewish community and it should be possible to tap into it to build a broad coalition. But the re-launch of a British Peace Now support group suggests that no one is achieving that aim. One more small and worthy organization is merely added to the existing list.
The heartfelt words of Mekelberg and Oppenheimer also did little to suggest BFPN is offering anything new. Mekelberg tried to strike an optimistic note, but it was telling that his most memorable line was that being at the launch was ‘like going down Memory Lane’. Peace Now was founded in the late 1970s, long before the Oslo Accords. To carry the word ‘Now’ in the name of an organization for more than 30 years must raise questions about what it can ever do to help reach a resolution of the conflict. Don’t get me wrong, Peace Now does some very important work, first in monitoring settlement activity and seeking to combat the proliferation of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and second in combating anti-democratic trends in Israeli society. But it’s losing the battle on both of these fronts.
Oppenheimer laid great stress on the two-state solution, as did Mekelberg, as if it were the only sure fire way of reaching a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict. But their failure to acknowledge that the actual possibility of achieving such an outcome is now virtually non-existent, given the entrenchment of Israeli power and control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, showed a depressing failure to face up to the truth. A creeping, repressive, undemocratic one-state reality is being constructed by the Netanyahu government. If Peace Now in Israel and BFPN don’t face up to this fact and address it, they will remain marginal to whatever’s coming down the pike.
It’s understandable that the director of Peace Now in Israel should want to garner as much support from diaspora Jews as possible. It needs financial and moral assistance. But whether another UK branch of an Israeli organization is what British Jews need as a vehicle for expressing their views on the Israel-Palestine conflict is very doubtful. BFPN aims to educate Jews and non-Jews about the dangers of West Bank settlement, publicise the struggle for peace taking place in Israel and lobby the British government to encourage peace negotiations, but being tied to an Israeli organization, there is no guarantee that it will do that with a clear-eyed focus on what is best for British Jews. It says that it’s ‘also in a unique position to combat advocacy of the one-state solution, as well as calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions in British political discourse’. But why it should be so positioned is not clear. And why should it be seen as such a good idea anyway, when the language BFPN uses usually means buying in to the levelling of demonising accusations of antisemitism against people who advocate one-state and BDS?
I still firmly believe that British Jews can help themselves, Israel and the Palestinians by acting independently to make people aware of Israel’s disastrous policies and by taking a hard-headed, human rights-based approach to advocating a peace with justice for Palestinians and Israelis. While I wish the BFPN team well, they have a long way to go before they can confidently prove that this is the role they are fulfilling.
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A fascinating and important workshop on relations between Muslims and Jews, organized by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University of London, began with a nuanced account of the treatment of Jews and Muslims in English law by Professor Maleiha Malik (King’s College University of London) and ended with the writer Karl Sabbagh defending his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon‘s antisemitic diatribe The Wandering Who? However unfortunate and deeply depressing the ending, the opening and closing sessions exemplified the intelligent conceptual approach of Professor David Feldman, the Director of the Pears Institute, to organizing the discussion, which was to tackle some issues from a thoroughly academic angle but also to get activists to speak and highlight how Muslims and Jews respond to day-to-day social, political and cultural issues that affect them individually and jointly.
This initiative, which is being undertaken jointly with partner institutions in America, Israel, France and Germany, is unquestionably important. The Pears Institute, together with the other eight members of the International Consortium for Research on Antisemitism and Racism, are committed to ‘reshaping and revitalising’ the academic study of antisemitism, but also to confronting the complex contemporary issues, such as the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, that make studying antisemitism in its current manifestations so fraught with controversy.
If we need reminding of the significance of this approach, we have only to recall the welcome demise of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), which put political advocacy above scholarly objectivity. Unfortunately, the battle to ensure that dispassionate academic standards prevail over politicisation of the subject is by no means over. While the Pears Institute is making a hugely significant contribution to this effort, only a week or so ago the announcement of the launch of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, provides ample evidence that those who give priority to a prior political agenda, most commonly manifested through the promotion of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, over the serious analysis of contemporary antisemitism are still on the warpath. Among the members of the Academic Advisory Board of this centre are the former head of YIISA, Charles Small, and various figures, like Professor Ruth Wisse, Professor Dina Porat and Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld, who supported the approach followed by Small at YIISA. Most tellingly, the Honorary Chairman of the Board is Professor Irwin Cotler, former Canadian Justice Minister, who has probably done more than anyone else to promote the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ and therefore contribute massively to the politicisation of the study of the subject.
Dispassionate and nuanced academic inquiry certainly characterised the first day’s papers on: Muslims, Jews and the law; representing Jews and Muslims in the media; and Muslims, Jews and multiculturalism. In particular the speakers in the session on multiculturalism – Nasar Meer (Northumbria University) and Humayan Ansari (Royal Holloway) especially – clearly showed, through historical and sociological research, that despite the political attack on multiculturalism so vigorously mounted since the turn of the century, the pursuit of multicultural policies in the UK has not stopped. Moreover, such policies have clearly helped foster integration, social cohesion and a sense of common national belonging, precisely the opposite of what political leaders like Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel claim.
On the second day, activists like Mohammed Aziz (Faithwise) and Edie Friedman (Jewish Council for Racial Equality) had their chance to talk about promoting action to strengthen civil society that aimed explicitly or implicitly bring Jews and Muslims closer together. Other activists focused on the political issues that divide Muslims and Jews. David Hirsh (Goldsmiths) and Daniel Sheldon (Union of Jewish Students) spoke about antisemitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict on university campuses. Alan Johnson (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM) and Karl Sabbagh argued about truth and lies in pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocacy.
Neither Aziz nor Friedman minimised the problems affecting the relationship between Jews and Muslims. But the practical work in which they are engaged gives cause for hope that shared common values and similar visions of Britishness and British society could provide the basis for improved relations over time. However, the campus conflicts and the propaganda war over Israel-Palestine (especially concerning issues such as Israeli apartheid) show just how easily the stress on being ‘brothers in humanity’ can be overshadowed by politics and accusations of bad faith.
While the second day’s presentations were not billed as academic, nonetheless, grounding judgements in verifiable evidence must surely be common currency when the prevalence of antisemitism and the rights and wrongs of the Palestine-Israel conflict are under consideration. Yet this was sorely lacking. Hirsh said his concern was with antisemitism among the ‘chattering classes’, in ‘our world’ (by which he presumably meant academics and commentators). Using the phrase ‘bloody Jews’ is not something that would now damage an academic’s reputation, he claimed. But he could offer nothing more than anecdotes to back this up. As if to pre-empt criticism of the flimsiness of this approach, he continuously stressed that assessing antisemitism was ‘a political judgement’ and that arguing about definitions of antisemitism was a distraction. But if identifying antisemitism is fundamentally a matter of judgement, with no recourse to any agreed definition of what it is, who’s to say that one person’s judgement is better than anyone else’s? Hirsh’s ‘method’ is a recipe for anarchy and gives licence to anyone to set themselves up as an expert on the subject – precisely what has led to the degradation and devaluation of the academic study of contemporary antisemitism.
Equally troubling was Johnson’s exposition of the BICOM method of pro-Israel advocacy. This seems to involve acknowledging the legitimacy of a degree of criticism of Israel, but in such a way as to perpetuate the entirely false notion that the Israel-Palestine conflict is between two equivalent powers. Phrases like ‘two traumatised peoples’ and ‘it’s more important to be reasonable than right’ seemed designed to undercut clear evidence that Israel, as the occupying power, carries principal responsibility for the current state of affairs and to imply that it’s reasonable – for the ‘greater good’ – for Palestinians to give up their rights. He made much of BICOM’s concern with the plight of the Bedouin in Israel and of Arabs in Israel in general, but deliberately avoided using the term Arabs in Israel now use to describe themselves – Palestinians – and avoided any mention of the word ‘occupation’.
Sadly, Sabbagh’s presentation, supposedly an exposition of the ‘Lies of Zionism’, though heartfelt was misjudged. As one participant pointed out, while there are certainly Zionist lies, any competent researcher would also find lies in presentations of the Palestinian and Arab case. And the legitimacy of his argument was fundamentally damaged by the subsequent concerted critical pressure on him from quite a number of participants for his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s antisemitic book.
For the session on advocacy for Israel and Palestine to have provided a really useful basis for considering the impact of the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict on Muslim-Jewish community relations, it would have been better to have paired the BICOM representative with someone from an equivalent organization, such as the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). It would have then been possible to comment on the more fundamental ethical issues raised by such activity and what it meant for the self-perception of Muslim and Jewish citizens of the UK endeavouring to play a full part in British society and maintain their religious and ethnic distinctiveness. While it was perfectly right for participants to take Sabbagh to task over his endorsement of Atzmon, not only did Sabbagh not relent, it’s hard to see what was achieved by such an exchange, which I think must have left most people deeply disturbed.
Still, coming away from such an event disturbed rather than self-satisfied was entirely appropriate. It is hard to think of any other forum than the Pears Institute in which the discussion of the often very difficult issues raised could have been managed with such a degree of civility and respect. No attempt was made to pretend that one event of this kind could do much more than identify issues for further exploration. And I hope that the further discussions that David Feldman indicated would take place in the UK, America, France, Germany and Israel will eventually lead to achieving the central goal of better Jewish-Muslim understanding.
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This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy
Even before 9/11, the redefinition of antisemitism as essentially left-wing and Islamic prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish state of Israel—‘the Jew among the nations’—was well underway. But the popularity of this reformulation of what constitutes Jew-hatred, now commonly called ‘the new antisemitism’, gained decisive momentum as a consequence of the attack on the Twin Towers and has had far-reaching implications. So much so that Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s most prominent and possibly most influential public intellectual, could, with his trademark portentousness, confidently claim in his 2008 book, The Left in Dark Times, that antisemitism of the 21st century would be ‘progressive’—meaning essentially left-wing hatred of Israel—or not exist at all. This bizarre statement symbolises the damage caused by the influence of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, which has turned friends into enemies, helped open the door to fascism in Israeli politics and left Jews everywhere at the mercy of an idea that is ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.
What Levy confirmed, in a strikingly stark fashion, was that the term ‘new antisemitism’ means more than just critical discourse about Israel using antisemitic tropes. The concept contains the radical notion that to warrant the charge of antisemitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of those things which historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic view: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism, belief that Jews are racially inferior and so on. Given that the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ is fundamentally incompatible with any definition relying on elements which historians accept make up an antisemitic view, for anyone who agrees with the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ it’s but a short step to conclude that it replaces all previous definitions and then further to argue that no other kind of antisemitism exists.
How the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ took hold
Make no mistake, this is not an argument about semantics, but about coming to terms with changing political realities. There was never any basis in fact for Levy’s 2008 prediction that there would be no old style antisemitism in the 21st century. A cursory glance at antisemitism monitoring reports from the time prove that it was an absurd statement to make. Today, with indisputable hard evidence of the persistence of far right antisemitism in Europe, as well as the revelation of the role of Jew-hatred in the thinking of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, Levy’s rhetorical flourish looks even more ridiculous. As for the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’, it emerged as a way of explaining the reasons for the increasingly strident attacks on Zionism and Israel, which led to the country’s deteriorating international position. And it was then taken up by pro-Israel groups as a means of defending Israel and attacking its perceived enemies. The increasingly widespread acceptance of the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ since 9/11 has profoundly affected Israel’s foreign relations and the situation of diaspora Jews, especially in the major centres of Jewish population—the USA, France, the UK, Canada, Australia—but also in Western Europe generally and to some degree in the former communist countries.
Events in the year before 9/11 already appeared to lend credibility to the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’. The collapse of the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 (presented by Israel and its loyal supporters as a Palestinian betrayal), the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the autumn and the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish manifestations at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban in August-September 2001 were all explained as evidence of a deeply rooted, extreme, irrational anti-Zionism, seen by pro-Israel loyalists as conclusive proof that Israel was now incontrovertibly the ‘Jew among the nations’. When the Twin Towers were destroyed and the Bush administration moved rapidly to frame its response as declaring ‘war on terror’, it was inevitable that Israel, under the leadership of a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would seek to identify itself ever more closely with the US as a fellow victim of Islamist terror—indeed as the prior victim. Al Qaida’s ideology, which, in part, jointly demonised America and Israel, and also Jews in general, provided the Zionist right with even more justification for its argument that the ‘new antisemitism’ now posed the greatest threat to Jews since the Holocaust.
The far right, Israel and the battle against the ‘Islamization of Europe’
Antisemitism was thus recast as principally anti-Israel rhetoric emanating largely from Muslim sources. That rhetoric figured prominently in various forms of media in European countries with relatively large Jewish populations, like France, the UK and Germany, and was sometimes directed at Jews because of their support for Israel, but also because Jews and Israelis are often seen as one and the same. This—together with an increase in antisemitic incidents ascribed to Muslim perpetrators—led Jewish establishment leaders, while speaking the language of interfaith dialogue and the need to maintain and foster intercommunal harmony, to see the Islamist elements in Muslim communities as a direct threat to Jewish security. Some extended that fear to Muslims more generally. Despite the fact that the growing sense of Jewish belonging in Europe in the 1990s stemmed in great part from the success of multiculturalism and the positive influence of the culture of universal human rights, blame for Muslim hostility to Jews was now put down to multiculturalism’s alleged failure to integrate Muslims and the perception that rights values were being applied to all minorities except Jews. Both were seen as responsible for allowing the unrestrained attack on Israel to proceed unchecked. Add to this the fact that Israeli leaders were only too ready to redefine the Israel-Palestine conflict as a religious war, and it was but a logical step for Israel to come to be seen, in Slavoj Zizek’s words, as ‘the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion’.
Meanwhile, the far right had been undergoing a process of self-sanitisation: playing down its antisemitic past and distancing itself from Holocaust denial, and refocusing its animus towards the ‘other’ on ‘immigrants’ in general, but Muslims in particular. By the early 2000s, a new far right strategy emerged, exemplified by the National Alliance (AN) in Italy, the former neo-fascist party headed by Gianfranco Fini, who reached out to the Italian Jewish community to apologise for the party’s ‘former’ antisemitism and to express support for Israel, all against the background of a supposed shared understanding that Muslims were now the common enemy. The elected head of the Italian Jewish community rejected the NA’s approach, but some members of the community were not unsympathetic to Fini’s message and the issue became very controversial.
While some evidence emerged of Jews publicly identifying with far right groups in France and Austria, it never amounted to very much. More significant, however, was the far right’s increasingly warm pro-Israel rhetoric, which began to be looked upon favourably by the right-wing Zionist parties in Israel and their sympathisers in the Jewish diaspora. Geert Wilders, in his capacity as leader of the Dutch populist, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, visited Israel in 2008 and has been back a number of times since. Leaders of four other far right parties, the Belgian Flemish Interest, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats and a new German anti-Islam party, Freedom, visited Israel in late 2010 and were warmly received by settler leaders and other far-right Zionist politicians. And yet these parties had by no means abandoned their antisemitic roots.
We saw a striking example of this phenomenon in the UK in 2009 when a far-right Polish member of the European Parliament, Michal Kaminski, whose past antisemitic views were well documented, visited the UK in his then role as Chairman of the new right-wing EP grouping of which Cameron’s Tory Party were joint founders. Strong objections to the fact that the Tories were now consorting with Kaminski and his party were raised across the political spectrum and in the Jewish community. But a number of Jewish Zionist leaders, the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the Israeli ambassador and non-Jewish Israel supporters feted Kaminski because of his very publicly expressed support for Israel.
It has become quite clear that, as Charles Hawley writes in Spiegelonline, ‘in the battle against what right-wing populists see as the creeping Islamization of Europe, Israel is on the front line.’ But it’s not only right-wing populists who see Israel playing this role. A melange of Jewish and non-Jewish columnists, public intellectuals, think tank specialists and mainstream politicians who would utterly reject being labelled ‘far right’—such as Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail columnist), Daniel Johnson (Standpoint Editor), Douglas Murray (Centre for Social Cohesion) and Denis MacShane (Labour MP)—express similar views and harsh criticism of the Muslim community for not tackling the extreme hostility to Jews and Israel found in its midst. This same kind of alliance can be found in America and France.
The two main parties in Israel’s governing coalition—Likud and Israel Our Home—have not only been encouraged by the range of anti-Islam forces lining up behind Israel. They have clearly seen it as giving the green light for the slew of anti-democratic bills put before the Knesset in the last few years designed to reinforce the exclusively Jewish character of the state, brand Palestinian citizens of Israel as the internal enemy if they don’t accept Israel as the Jewish state, restrict the activities of human rights groups, undermine academic freedom and curtail freedom of speech. The failure of supposedly more moderate political leaders and of the parliamentary system as a whole to turn back this mounting anti-democratic tide has led respected commentators, academics and former military and security personnel to see the growth of deeply disturbing signs of incipient fascism.
Zionism’s ambiguous relationship with antisemitism
Many Israel-supporting Jews with progressive political views now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. As supporters of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and opposed to settlements and the occupation, the last thing they would have envisaged is finding themselves in the company of the far right, whether in Europe or in Israel. And yet many such Jews are convinced that the threat of a left-wing+Islamist ‘new antisemitism’ is severe and in maintaining their Zionism or pro-Israelism are simply stuck with unsavoury allies. Some Jews have simply chosen to cut themselves loose from their traditional progressive moorings. Others who simply refuse to join the anti-Muslim bandwagon and reject the post-9/11 Clash of Civilizations-type choice—‘you’re either with us or against us’—they feel they are faced with are left high and dry. If they edge towards those dissenting Jews who have doubts about Zionism, reject the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis and refuse to put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people, they are liable to face the hatred and vilification of Zionists whose arguments contain more than a hint of ‘some antisemitic logic’. As Zizek writes: ‘their . . . figure of the Jew . . . is constructed in the same way as the European antisemites constructed the figures of the Jew—he is dangerous because he lives among us, but is not really one of us.’
Zizek sees this as ‘paradoxical’, but—unfortunately—he’s wrong. In fact, from very early on in the development of the Zionist movement, opponents of Zionism were characterised using antisemitic stereotypes. In his 1897 essay ‘Mauschel’, the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, angered by anti-Zionists, painted the weak ghetto Jew that Zionism was supposed to banish forever as the bad Jew who speaks with a Yiddish accent, a ‘scamp’, ‘a distortion of the human character, unspeakably mean and repellent’, interested only in ‘mean profit’—attributes of an unmistakably antisemitic kind. To a great degree the use of demonising language to describe Jewish opponents of Zionism largely disappeared from mainstream intra-Jewish discourse because Zionism appeared to achieve such hegemonic dominance among Jews everywhere. But as dissenting views became more prominent in the last 20-30 years, so the language used to attack dissidents became ever more strident, once again appropriating antisemitic phraseology, as in, for example, Melanie Phillips’s description of the founding signatories of Independent Jewish Voices as ‘Jews for genocide’. (The dangers of using this kind of language, because words can be ‘performative’, are intelligently spelt out by Thomas Hylland Erikson in his openDemocracy piece, ‘The net of hatred: after Utøya’.)
Zionists were not only content to make direct use of antisemitic stereotypes, they also understood full well that antisemitism helped advance the cause, even as they promoted Zionism as the solution to the scourge of antisemitism. Herzl said that ‘the antisemites are Zionism’s staunchest allies’. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said in the 1930s that ‘le malheur of the Jews was the chance of Zionism’, and he and his followers knew all too well how to mobilize antisemitism for the achievement of their vision.
And there is another very contemporary example of how Israel and the Zionist movement are not beyond making common cause with antisemites. Millions of fundamentalist Christian Zionists in America are now among Israel’s staunchest supporters. Since 9/11 they have made funding pro-Israel propaganda groups, right-wing Zionist organizations and settlement activity, and providing political backing to the Israeli government’s hard line policies, a central plank of their foreign policy. But they do this because they believe that Christ’s Second Coming will only occur once the land of Israel is fully united. All believers will be transported to meet the Lord, while everybody else, including the Jews, will perish in the battle of Armageddon. So for Christian Zionists, Jews are merely a means to an end. However, it’s no secret that this ideology is suffused with antisemitism. But right-wing Zionists are quite happy to ignore such an awkward fact on the grounds that the support of Christian Zionists for Israel trumps their Jew-hatred.
Ten years on
Since 9/11, the growing popularization of the redefinition of antisemitism as hostility to the state of Israel has given licence to Jews and Zionists to act according to the maxim ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The forging of links between the Israeli far right and Islamophobic far right groups in Europe, embracing the position of Israel as the front line against the Islamization of Europe, turning a blind eye to the antisemitism of Christian Zionism, entrenching the exclusivity of Jewish nationalism in Israeli law and demonising Jewish dissenters using antisemitic rhetoric have all been made possible by placing Israel at the heart of what is considered antisemitism today. But as I have tried to demonstrate, these developments draw on a deeper, even more murky ideological and political reality: Zionism’s troubling relationship with antisemitism—what Professor Idith Zertal has described as the ‘complex, disturbing affinities, and mutual, even if undesired dependence and pragmatic partnership between antisemitism and Zionism’—and the ethno-national and ethno-religious exclusivism that was part of Zionist ideology from the beginning of political Zionism.
The prevailing spirit ten years on from 9/11 seems to be to draw a line under the events, admit to the mistaken policy decisions taken then and, in Jonathan Freedland’s words, abandon the ‘careless, undiscriminating monomania’ all too eagerly adopted at the time; to acknowledge that security can never be achieved by military means alone or by curtailing civil liberties and trampling on human rights. Regrettably, Israel, encouraged by hard line Jewish and non-Jewish supporters, hasn’t learnt these lessons. Not only is it continuing along the path followed since 9/11, more inclined than ever to see the world through the distorting prism of the ‘new antisemitism’, it is conniving in worsening its own isolation by drawing the wrong conclusions from events in its region. Rather than seek a positive accommodation with the democratic forces struggling to overturn dictatorships and autocracies in the Arab world, Israel has sought to prop up military juntas on the grounds of the narrowest and ultimately mistaken interpretation of its security interests. This, argues Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, is because Israel is now run by its own form of military junta. The diplomatic meltdown with Egypt and Turkey now facing Israel, as well as the damaging exposure Israel will experience as the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to seek support for the declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations comes to a head in the next two weeks, is a case of reaping what you sow. The result is likely to be increasing defensiveness, a strengthening sense of victimhood and even more reliance on an America that the Netanyahu government has made clear it does not trust. This is a high price to pay for treating the destruction of the shared understanding of what constitutes antisemitism as a victory.
If you will, harden your heart against the sight of hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting against rampant inequality and demanding a decent society. There’s reason enough to do so: what about all the non-citizens between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river over which Israel exerts control? Don’t they also deserve a decent society, the same social justice that protesters yearn for in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa? There is no justice unless it’s justice for all.
And yet it would be particularly perverse to focus only on what is missing and not to be heartened and even inspired by this mass outpouring of pent-up frustration with the degradation of Israeli society. If this represents a genuine demand for a fully functioning liberal democracy, one that prioritises equality, fairness, protection for the weak, an end to corruption and the arbitrary use of power, would it be so far fetched to dream that the application of these principles to the Palestinians must follow as day follows night? And that the occupation – a system of institutionalised injustice and the denial of basic human rights – must soon come to an end?
This certainly seemed like a night in which it would not be cynical to say that hope triumphed over experience. And while there is still hope, dreams might be realised.
But neither hope nor dreams will prevent people waking up in the morning and wondering just how the J14 demands can be achieved or how bringing an end to the iniquities of the occupation can be integrated into the aims of this unprecedented social movement. It may style itself as a social protest rather than a political one, yet it seems inconceivable that any serious change will occur while Netanyahu remains in power and the Knesset consists of the same line-up of politicians. Removing them will require a political revolution. Whether they like it or not, the J14 leaders will have to sully themselves by entering the political fray in some form if they are to bring about meaningful change.
There are clear divisions between those who seem to want to completely overturn Israel’s neo-liberal economic system and return to what sounds like much greater central state control of services and those who prefer to preserve the free market economy, but introduce significant reforms to ensure that it serves the interests of the entire population and not just the wealthy elites. The government cannot afford to ignore this mass mobilization of opinion and the Trajtenberg Committee, set up by Netanyahu, is supposed to be coming up with a set of plans to meet the demands of the protesters. But if the protesters can’t agree on a united platform, their movement will be much weakened and the divisions will play into the hands of the government, which would surely rather see the entire process come to an end. Dynamic change just isn’t Bibi’s style.
Understandably, after such a damaging period of political stagnation and the erosion of democratic norms and values, sympathetic commentators have freely used words like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘revolution’ to emphasise that something unprecedented is taking place, that things will never be the same again. This remains to be seen.
What does seem to be the case, however, as Carlo Strenger observed, is that
No amount of propaganda can cover up that the social protests have created more unity through the demand that Israel become a decent society for all its citizens than nationalist rhetoric and legislation.
And although unity based on joint social concerns will not automatically lead to an open awareness that there can never be real social justice and economic reform while the occupation and illegal settlements remain in place, that awareness will certainly never come in a society driven by an aggressive and exclusivist nationalism. The current unity is undoubtedly imperfect – the protests seem largely to be dominated by middle-class Israeli Jews; some Palestinian citizens of Israel have participated, but not very many. But the fact that it has come about through focusing on social justice concerns that affect practically everyone at all levels of Israeli society offers a glimmer of hope that a way may still open up for the end of the occupation to take centre stage as a popular aim. For anyone who understands that social justice must apply to everyone in society must surely come to see that the way Israel treats Palestinians within the 1967 borders and in the occupied Palestinian territories is the central social justice issue facing the country.
The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem – Hope for Salvation. Wikicommons.
The furore over the new law did just about make it onto the pages of national newspapers and broadcast news bulletins in the UK and other countries, but with so little coverage of events in Israel and Palestine recently, observers may find it hard to judge what the wider implications of this current controversy may be. The fact that even right-wing organs of opinion in Israel, like the Jerusalem Post, staunch Jewish institutional defenders of Israel and its government, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and NGO Monitor and a politically hawkish diaspora Jewish periodical, like the UK’s Jewish Chronicle and many other non-left wing voices have attacked the law for being a dangerous infringement of freedom of speech could give the impression that the Israeli Zionist right has gone too far and is about to be reined in. Or that this is some kind of aberration in a society known for the unfettered character of its public debate. Regrettably, neither of these optimistic conclusions can be justified.
‘The tail is wagging the dog’
Most Israelis are utterly opposed to a boycott of their country and would probably argue that advocates of a boycott are motivated by antisemitism. They would therefore view the aims of the law as uncontentious and would not be troubled by accusations that it undermines freedom of speech. If such freedom gives licence to people to propose measures that would lead to the destruction of the state, many Israelis would no doubt regard it as one freedom well worth curbing. But the motivation for the law is not primarily to give voice to the sentiments of the Israeli-Jewish majority, although it relies on the existence of those sentiments to achieve its goal—and that is something altogether more far-reaching. As the Labour MK, Daniel Ben Simon, put it, this law ‘binds Israel and the settlements into one piece’. In other words it constitutes a de jure annexation of the West Bank by giving legal protection to the settlements for the first time and in effect obliges Israelis to support the settlements by doing business with them. Or in Bradley Burston’s words: ‘The measure erases the legal differentiation between settlements and Israel proper, regarding targeted boycotts against goods from the settlements as actions harmful to the state of Israel itself.’
This move can hardly have come as a surprise to Israelis, Israel’s supporters in Jewish communities worldwide and those governments, particularly in the west, that are sympathetic to Israel’s definition of its existential concerns. In reality, the settlement movement has been insidiously hijacking politics and the apparatus of the state for years. And since the advent of the Netanyahu government in 2009, any limitations on this process have been greatly weakened. The prime minister may have rhetorically accepted the 2-state solution, but all his actions – or perhaps it would be better to speak of his inactions – have been designed to prevent its implementation. In the absence of any serious government peace initiatives and as a result of the government’s refusal to halt settlement building, the political initiative has been ceded decisively to the settlers and their political allies. As Yossi Vertersummed it up: ‘there is no government in Israel and no head of government. The tail is wagging the dog. Junior MKs dictate the national agenda to the government.’ It’s as if the settlement project has openly swallowed the state whole.
Sliding down the anti-democratic slope
The anti-boycott law is just one of a slew of anti-democratic, racist and repressive measures introduced mostly by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) MKs since the 2009 general election. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) monitors these developments. At the end of July last year it produced a list of the top 14 anti-democratic Knesset bills. Some have passed into law, like the Naqba law, which prohibits the use of taxpayers’ funds to commemorate the establishment of the state of Israel as a tragedy – a direct attack on the Palestinians’ perception of their experience of 1948 – and the anti-boycott law. Others are still under, or are awaiting, consideration (and often subject to political infighting between the main right-wing parties). For example, the foreign state funding bill, which targets left-wing political organizations and human rights groups in order to curb their activities, and a bill giving the Knesset veto power over appointments of Supreme Court justices, by means of hearings for candidates in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – a proposal that Likud MKs were already announcing, to the excitement of the Likud central committee, as their next legislative project barely 48 hours after the vote on anti-boycott bill. It’s true that Netanyahu, only hours later, publicly stated that the government would oppose this second bill and protect the Supreme Court, but his behaviour over the boycott law suggests that such commitments are distinctly flaky.
The targets of these illiberal measures – the NGO sector – are doing what they can to fight back against the attacks on their credibility and very existence. But there is no public groundswell of support for them. On the contrary, there seems to be a popular appetite for, or at least an indifference to, the undermining of individual human rights and the bolstering of the tyrannical power of the hard-line Zionist right-wing in the Knesset. Much of the comment in Israel objecting to the anti-boycott law focused very specifically on the principle of freedom of speech, almost in abstract, and showed no sympathy for the aims and objectives of the human rights NGOs or the groups defending the rights of Palestinian-Israelis. As the columnist Carlo Strenger put it: ’The result of Netanyahu and Lieberman’s systematic fanning of Israeli’s existential fears is tangible in Israel: polls show that Israelis are deeply pessimistic about peace; they largely do not trust Palestinians, and in the younger generation belief in democratic values is being eroded.’
In a society where there is increasing sympathy for the notion of ‘transfer’ – the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and of Palestinian citizens from Israel – as well as growing hostility to foreign workers, attacks on academic freedom, a religious right unashamedly propagating racist measures against Arabs, accentuation of the character of Israel as a specifically ‘Jewish’ state in which rights of citizenship vary according to religious or ethnic identity, the anti-boycott law will only strengthen the growing international perception that Israel’s citizenship values diverge from those in the countries with which it most likes to associate itself, especially the United States. These trends have been accentuated ever since the pro-democracy character of the Arab uprisings became clear. As Paul Pillar wrote in the National Interest: ‘Not only have the demands for popular sovereignty in Arab countries highlighted the deprivation of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs; to the extent that democracy emerges in any Arab countries, it undercuts the old we’re-the-only-democracy-in-the-Middle-East argument that repeatedly gets served up to Americans.’
The situation is made even worse by the failure of right-wing Israeli politicians to understand the international climate. There is certainly hostility to Israel across the region but the prevailing Israeli mindset, reinforced by the kind of scenes we saw when the US congress lapped up every intransigent word and phrase of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech in late May, refuses to recognize that the state has anything to answer for and sees its image problem almost entirely as a matter of improving the country’s public relations. The popular mood is both sullen and self-satisfied. Carlo Strenger writes: ‘Ordinary citizens in Israel don’t trust the world; its politicians are richly rewarded for noisy declarations of undying patriotism and for defying the world.’ Israelis are understandably tired of constant wars and international vilification. On the other hand, many Israelis would agree that ‘Israel is currently experiencing one of the finest periods in its history’: low unemployment, booming tourism, radically reduced fears about security, the introduction of major reforms in transport, education and communication.
If this combination of aggressive nationalism, a political leadership devoid of principle and led by the nose by anti-democratic parliamentary factions, a drive to silence the country’s ‘fifth column’ and disloyal ‘alien’ elements, a mounting sense of regional isolation and the celebration of the fruits of a kind of economic autarky—if all this is reminiscent of incipient or proto-fascism, it’s an observation made by many worried and loyal Israelis in recent months and years. Ha’aretz’s Burston writes about ‘learning about fascism one step at a time’. ‘I’m learning that the success of the Boycott Bill is a textbook case of the quiet appeal, the brilliant disguise, the endlessly adaptable expertise in the workings of democracy, that help explain the progress of fascism in our time. So this is what I’ve found out so far: At first, it doesn’t feel like fascism. That’s why it works.’ Last November, the Director of ACRI told me that ‘proto-fascism is becoming normal’.
Significance of the diaspora Jewish response
Finally, the response of diaspora Jewish supporters of Israel to the new law is undoubtedly significant. Despite a shift to the right in recent years, Jews are generally still on the liberal side of liberal societies. While some have become disillusioned with the culture of human rights, because they believe that bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are grossly unfair in singling out Israel for condemnation, many still care deeply about human rights, oppose the occupation and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect very many such Jews have a bifurcated attitude on the question of boycott. They may well support, even if only by personal action, the boycott of produce from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but they are utterly opposed to boycotting universities or businesses in Israel. They argue that it would hit liberal Israelis who are themselves severely critical of the Netanyahu government. Underpinning such views is the common, unspoken feeling one senses among even very concerned Jews: a visceral shrinking back from the idea that Israeli Jews could ever deserve the treatment meted out to apartheid South Africa. For them, it was perfectly logical and principled to separate boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank from boycotting Israel proper. The settlements represent the Zionism that has gone astray. Pre-’67 Israel still represents the values of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law.
How ironic then, or even tragic, that such good friends of Israel have been consigned, at a stroke, to the category of enemies of the state. Some of them have spent years of their voluntary time supporting Israel in one way or another, donating funds to charities, investing in Israeli businesses, defending the country in political forums and working for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation. But it’s clear that they have failed to come to terms with the fundamentally disastrous changes in Israeli society, aided and abetted by Bibi Netanyahu and epitomised by the passing of the anti-boycott legislation. It’s a nice distinction to think that the settlements are not the ‘real’ Israel. Now such Jews must face the fact that ‘the settlements have annexed the state of Israel’.
Some commentators see a glimmer of hope in the broadly negative response to the law across the mainstream political spectrum in the Jewish diaspora. I find myself feeling far less sanguine. If enlightened Jews persist in holding to this illusory image of Israel, no matter what good works they may do supporting Israeli human rights organizations, they become part of the problem and not the solution. Israeli political leaders can continue to wrap themselves in the language of Jewish peoplehood with impunity—a very important weapon in their armoury: Jews worldwide, whether they like it or not, are enlisted as transnational allies in the state’s lone stand against the forces of regional and international darkness.
It’s not the law itself that matters, it’s the history that’s produced it, the context out of which it has emerged, the trends that look set to continue irrespective of what actually happens to the law. There’s no easy way out of this morass. But at a panel discussion on the Arab uprisings and the Israel-Palestine conflict, organized by Independent Jewish Voices on 14 July at Birkbeck, University of London, Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor cut to the quick when he said there’ll never be any real change until, ‘Israel reconciles itself with the Palestinians’.
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