If only Peter Beinart had heeded my words on the death of liberal Zionism in 2015

Following the publication of Peter Beinart’s article in Jewish Currents, ‘Yavne: a Jewish case for equality in Israel-Palestine’, on 7 July, I was reminded of a panel discussion I participated in with him and Mira Sucharov at the University of Chicago, on 10 March 2015. It followed the publication of my op-ed in the New York Times, ‘The end of liberal Zionism’ in August 2014.

My opening presentation at the panel anticipated many of the arguments Peter shows he now accepts in his Jewish Currents article. I welcome his ‘conversion’ to ‘equality in Israel-Palestine’, while not agreeing with all he writes. Had he, and other prominent liberal Zionists heeded the arguments that I and many others were making for some years, perhaps the barriers to achieving equal rights would have been less elephantine than they are now. Then again, perhaps not.

What is certain is that the far right governing forces in Israel have made good use of the fig leaf liberal Zionism has been for the fundamental injustices inherent in Zionist ideology.

I publish my panel presentation here for the first time: for the historical record and to gently chide Peter for taking so long to see the truth.

10 March 2015

Opening presentation at panel discussion with Peter Beinart and Mira Sucharov

University of Chicago

Is Liberal Zionism Dead?

With the peace process at a standstill, no major party in the Israeli election ready even to mention the word ‘occupation’ and self-styled king of the Jews Bibi feted by Republicans as if he were a demi-god, I don’t think it can be much fun to be a liberal Zionist today. But, to be fair on liberal Zionists, they’re not in it for the fun. They intend their beliefs and proposals to be a Zionist politics of the Jewish diaspora that has serious agency and can influence political outcomes in Israel.

But it’s my contention that liberal Zionism has failed, and will continue to fail, to have any significant influence on Israeli government policies, for two fundamental reasons: first, because of its internal contradictions and second because its prescriptions simply don’t address the key problems and political realities in Israel-Palestine. Therefore, as an idea with political agency, liberal Zionism has no future. But having no future doesn’t mean that its present impact is neutral. On the contrary, by acting as a fig leaf for the only Zionism that does have political agency today—right-wing, messianic, ethnonationalist settler Zionism—it’s positively harmful. It acts as a barrier to a truly liberal and just resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict that brings peace and reconciliation.

This is not to say that liberal Zionism is dead. I think it was JFK who said: ‘Ideas have endurance without death.’ After all, there are still people who believe that the earth is flat. So I argue that it will continue to exist, but as a means for a shrinking number of diaspora Jews to relate to a nostalgic view of Israel. In other words, as a means of Jewish self-expression, a choice that gives cultural content to diasporic Jewish life for some, but that has nothing to do with influencing Israel’s political or ideological direction.

But where does this phenomenon come from? Contrary to the impression given by some of its promoters, liberal Zionism was never a stream of Zionist ideology. It’s a modern phenomenon that only emerged in the late 1990s when the Oslo Accords came increasingly under attack from right wing forces inside and outside Israel and therefore unlikely to result in a just and lasting peace settlement. Jews who clung to Oslo as the expression of their liberal principles—2 states for 2 peoples; land for peace—came to cluster around the liberal Zionist position. The last chance to defend their humanist, romantic, Zionist ideal.

There was always something anachronistic about this. ‘Zionist ideology today subsists largely only as a historical relic’, Zachary Braiterman writes. After the establishment of the state, determining the nature of Jewish nationalism became the prerogative of those who held political power. And let’s be clear: there was never anything particularly liberal about Zionism. It’s true that both Herzl and Jabotinsky espoused forms of liberal Zionism, but it wasn’t their liberalism that appealed to the Jewish masses. It was the passion of their Zionism. The political giant who shaped the Yishuv and the state in its first 3 decades—Ben Gurion—was a dirigiste socialist and an illiberal nationalist—not a liberal Zionist.

So, anachronistic, full of internal contradictions and failing to address illiberal political realities, it’s not surprising that everything that liberal Zionists stand for is in doubt and some of their leading commentators know it.

Central to how liberal Zionists see Israel’s future is the 2 state solution. They recognise that Palestinians have a right to self-determination in an independent Palestinian state; it’s restorative justice for dispossession; and they know the occupation must end before it can happen. But the entire edifice is flawed. The ‘2 states for 2 peoples’ recipe is based on notions of national homogeneity and demographic separation; while the truth is that, despite extreme separation measures—unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the security fence and wall, the absorption into Israel of huge settlement blocs in any peace deal—Palestinians and Israelis are living together in a reality of spatial and binational heterogeneity. There is no symmetry or justice in this reality, however. Almost all the power resides on one side. The liberal Zionist idea that equal entities negotiate over state-oriented partition is a fiction.

We have known for a long time now that, as a deliverable political option, the 2-state solution is practically dead—Bibi and the right reject it; the so-called ‘Israeli left’ offer no more than a Palestinian Bantustan; and no outside power has been able to deliver it. But more to the point—and I think liberal Zionists have a hard time acknowledging this—all theoretical talk of an ideal 2 states or 1 state arrangement, freely chosen, is moot: a de facto single, unequal and undemocratic state exists; one single sovereign entity, under Israeli political, military and economic dominion, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In it, rights for Jews are guaranteed, while rights for Palestinians are curtailed or virtually non-existent.

Liberal Zionists largely accept that Jews dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to make way for the establishment of a Jewish state, but believe that it was an acceptable price others had to pay to satisfy overriding Jewish needs. This means that securing Palestinian rights to national self-determination will always be subordinated to liberal Zionists’ insistence on prioritizing Jewish ethnoreligious preferences over full equality. So, no acceptance of the right of return as demanded in UN resolution 194; no full acceptance of responsibility for the Nakba; and no allowing Palestinians to commemorate the Nakba in the state of Israel. Palestinians are told to forget their history; Jews are told to remember theirs.

Liberal Zionists are convinced that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, but they fail to explain how the derivation of authority from God in Judaism can be reconciled with the sovereign power of the people in a democracy. A state founded on what it claims to be Jewish principles can have the trappings of democracy, but it can still have laws and practices that discriminate against non-Jewish minorities. And as we have seen, the power of inflexible, racist and narrow-minded orthodox religious authorities, supported by right-wing legislators, to determine what’s Jewish about the ‘Jewish state’ makes a nonsense of a Jewish and democratic symbiosis—and makes Israel an ethnocracy. (A state that privileges [Jewish] ethnicity over democracy.)

Such a conclusion is reinforced by liberal Zionists’ insistence that Israel must have a Jewish majority in perpetuity. Yet to achieve this inevitably implies policies of exclusion and discrimination, epitomised by the Law of Return—for Jews only. A belief that Israel will be a morally defensible democratic and Jewish majority state if it returns to the pre-67 borders is a false idealisation of pre-67 Israel. Discrimination against the Palestinian minority 20 per cent is endemic. Liberal Zionists may support Palestinian rights in a separate state; they don’t accept acknowledging Palestinian demands for national rights in Israel. (The Declaration of Independence promises equal ‘social and political rights’ for all, but not ‘national rights’.)

The impression liberal Zionists give of understanding Palestinian aspirations—as if liberal Zionism promises them what they want—is false. In my reading of Palestinian views and discussions with Palestinians, it’s clear they do not see liberal Zionism as a viable path to peace and reconciliation. Liberal Zionists may want something ostensibly liberal in the future, some Palestinians believe, but they never set a deadline—so all the while they accommodate themselves to the ongoing colonialist policies of the state. Effectively they are saying that ‘there is no Palestinian minimum (or Zionist maximum) they would not accept’ (Yousef Munayer).

Liberal Zionism is becoming increasingly isolated. It’s challenged ever more strongly from the diaspora Jewish left and it can’t distinguish itself sufficiently clearly from the Zionist extreme right. It may speak more softly about its commitment to Jewish ethno-religious preferences, but that commitment places it less distant from Zionist supremacism than it likes to think it is. So it ends up functioning as a fig leaf for the very form of Zionist colonial expansionism it seeks to oppose. But only this Zionism has political agency. And the degree to which liberal Zionists continue to want to occupy the Zionist space acts as a barrier against more widespread realization that this all that Zionism is really about today.

In short: liberalism is inclusivist; Zionism is exclusivist. Liberalism is about equal rights, human rights, regardless of ethnicity or creed; Zionism is about securing Jewish rights, at the expense of the non-Jewish native inhabitants of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

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Flimsy and vindictive: the ‘case’ against Ken Loach

After a concerted effort by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to vilify Ken Loach, the anti-racist organisation Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) and Ken Loach announced on 18 March that together they had agreed that Loach would not act as a judge for SRtRC’s School Competition 2020.

When the attack on Loach began and SRtRC felt compelled to reconsider its decision, I undertook to analyse the accusations levelled against him as set out in a letter sent on 5 February to Executive Director Ged Grebby by JLM. The Memorandum I prepared was one of a number of submissions sent to SRtRC in defence of Loach, utterly rejecting and disproving accusations against him that he was antisemitic.

At first it seemed that the impressive support given to Loach had stiffened the sinews of SRtRC, which decided to stand by its decision to appoint Loach as a judge of the essay competition. But when it emerged that in February 2019 Loach had responded to a request for support from Peter Gregson, who had been expelled from his union, the GMB, for antisemitic behaviour, pressure on SRtRC mounted once again to reverse its decision.

Once again, I wrote a submission in defence of Loach, this time analysing other accusations against him made in a letter sent on 13 February to Ged Grebby by the BoD. But after threats to withdraw SRtRC’s funding, vilification of its staff and abuse directed at Ken Loach and his family, SRtRC and Loach felt compelled to subsequently announce that, by mutual agreement, Loach would no longer be judging the 2020 School Competition.

Ken Loach’s response to Gregson was categorically not an endorsement of Gregson’s antisemitism. Gregson claimed that he had been expelled unfairly from the GMB, merely for expressing opposition to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and had sent Loach a video about it, asking Loach for comments.

Loach made it clear that he was entirely unaware of Gregson’s ‘deeply disturbing and antisemitic comments’ which he found ‘utterly reprehensible’ and ‘unequivocally’ rejected’. He profoundly regretted not making himself aware of Gregson’s character and the complete picture. Had he possessed that knowledge, Loach said, ‘I categorically would not have engaged with him.’

SRtRC’s statement added: ‘Ken Loach accepts a mistake in expressing support for Peter Gregson and in failing to contact GMB prior to his reply to him. . . . The mistake in replying and expressing support for Peter Gregson does not detract from the support we have received from Ken and his own personal commitment to fighting racism. We do not believe that he is an antisemite or that he supports antisemitic views.’

I did not want to let this shameful attack on Ken Loach and the response of his supporters to pass without putting into the public domain, for the record, the submissions I made showing just how flimsy and vindictive were  the unfounded accusations against him. There is a little overlap between the submissions, which were written in some haste. I could have said much more about the accusations, the profound moral and political errors made by those involved in attacking Ken Loach and SRtRC and the utterly misguided motives of organisations and individuals who are acting against the interests of the very people they claim to represent.

So I begin by publishing the JLM letter followed by my submission. After that I publish the BoD’s letter followed by my second submission.

Update: The text of this blogpost was corrected  at 17:00 on Tuesday 24 March: ‘essay competition’ was incorrect and has been changed to the correct title: ‘School Competition’.

Jewish Labour Movement’s Letter to Ged Grebby, 5 February 2020

Dear Ged

I am writing on behalf of the Jewish Labour Movement’s National Executive Committee, regarding your decision to appoint Ken Loach as judge for your School Competition this year.

As a charity which does incredible work tackling racism in football, it is disappointing that you have chosen someone with a long record of questionable and problematic views on antisemitism.

The record stretches back to 1987, when the play ‘Perdition’, directed by Ken Loach, was staged in London. An account of the libel trial in Israel of Rudolf Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who negotiated the escape of 1,600 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War, the play heavily implied that Zionist leaders were responsible for the death of millions of Jews in the Holocaust and featured some disturbing lines such as:

[Hungarian Jews] ‘were murdered not just by the force of German arms, but by the calculated treachery of their own Jewish leaders.’

When the play was rightly cancelled after many protests from the British Jewish community, Loach remarked that he:

‘ . . . hadn’t tangled with the Zionist lobby before. . . .What is amazing is the strength and organisation and power of their lobby . . . [The Zionists] want to leave intact . . . the generalised sense of guilt that everyone has about the Jews so that it remains an area you can’t discuss.’

His more recent record of seeking to minimise and deflect from the antisemitism experienced by Jewish members of the Labour Party is just as disturbing.

At Labour Party conference 2017, Ken Loach was interview [sic] by the BBC. He claimed that accusations of antisemitism within Labour were aimed at destabilising Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership—denying the very real experiences that many of our members had been through at the time. He was then asked by Jo Coburn whether Holocaust Denial, as had allegedly been discussed at a fringe meeting, was acceptable. He responded by saying:

‘History is for all of us to discuss. All of history is our common heritage to discuss and analyse. The founding of the State of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing, is there for all of us to discuss . . . So don’t try to subvert that by false stories of antisemitism.’

I would hope that it should not need explaining just how crass and offensive this is.

In a Morning Star article in September 2019, Ken Loach decried Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge MP, our Parliamentary Chair, who has faced appalling abuse and intimidation for speaking out against anti-Jewish racism in the Labour Party—the same abuse that led to the hounding out of the Labour Party of Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman. Loach dismissed her concerns on the crisis of antisemitism in the Party, saying:

‘We have allowed individuals like Margaret Hodge to indulge in revolting foul-mouthed abuse of the leader. I don’t know any Labour Party member who was not disgusted by that, yet she is allowed to continue to stand as a Labour MP.’

Loach also defended disgraced former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who resigned from the Party following the withdrawal of the whip and suspension of his party membership following his continually [sic] baiting of the Jewish community and sharing platforms with those suspended or expelled themselves for antisemitism. Despite outcry from other MPs, and the fact that Williamson took the Party to court, Loach defended him saying:

‘Everyone knows Chris is not an antisemite. And if you pass on defending him for some tactical advantage, we are all losers. It’s a slippery slope.’

In short, Loach may well regard himself as an anti-racist, but no fair appraisal of his record could come to the conclusion that this is the case when it comes to antisemitism.

We are not alone in this view. When Loach was awarded an honorary degree by the free university of Brussels in 2018, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel accused him of an ‘accommodation with antisemitism’.

Thus we would ask you to re-consider your decision to appoint someone with such an appalling record on anti-Jewish racism as a judge for your School Competition this year. Educating young people about racism is one of the most effective ways of in which to combat the scourge of racism in our society—and ensure that the next generation is armed with the tools to tackle it wherever they find it.

Your organisation’s endorsement of Loach through his appointment would send the opposite message; that your organisation is not committed to tackling anti-Jewish racism, which sadly is on the rise, both in the UK and abroad.

Yours sincerely

Mike Katz

National Chair, Jewish Labour Movement


Antony Lerman

18 February 2020


I am writing in defence of Ken Loach and wish to draw on my expertise on antisemitism, contemporary Jewish issues, the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict in order to challenge the charges made against Ken by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Labour Movement that he is not a suitable person to be judging the young persons’ School Competition run by Show Racism the Red Card. I will begin with a general comment about the mostly unspoken assumptions as to what is and what is not antisemitic that underpin the JLM letter. I then briefly examine what I see as the five principal charges of antisemitism made against Ken and explain why I judge them to be unfounded.

Unspoken assumptions

Opinion polling in the UK over the last 5 years clearly shows that there is great public confusion about what constitutes antisemitism today. This confusion manifests itself among Jews too. Moreover, among academics studying contemporary antisemitism there are deep divisions, often more like an ongoing war, over what they regard as antisemitism, largely connected to the question of whether certain kinds of criticism of Israel are antisemitic—what is mostly referred to as whether anti-Zionism is antisemitic. Those academics who argue that the two are the same generally use the term ‘new antisemitism’ for this phenomenon. Contrary to what these academics claim, this is far from being a settled matter. Those who do not accept the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis vigorously and thoroughly argue their case.

It is the case, however, that the ‘new antisemitism’ position, the anti-Zionism is antisemitism thesis, has made a very significant impact in the world of anti-antisemitism action, particularly so in the UK where the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Community Security Trust, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Jewish Labour Movement and many other groups and organizations, including within government, operate as if the matter is closed. However, as the ongoing controversy surrounding the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism shows, this is far from the truth.

It is therefore of fundamental importance to point out that ‘new antisemitism’ assumptions are present throughout the JLM letter such that the authors feel it enough merely to quote Ken referring to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestinians as proof of antisemitic intent. Every such assumption must be challenged. Without verifiable evidence of antisemitic expression, taking into account the context in which the words were said or written, the charges cannot be justified.

  1. The play Perdition

This charge ignores the historical context and truth about the Rudolf Kastner trial, a huge controversy in Israel in the early 1950s, which polarised opinion and triggered the fall of the Israeli cabinet. Kastner was a Hungarian Jewish leader who helped Jews escape from Hungary when the Nazis invaded in 1944.

Many Jews in Israel, Holocaust survivors included, believed that Kastner benefitted from the well-documented deal he negotiated with Eichmann, which resulted in 1,684 Jews, including members of his own family, being allowed to escape by train to Switzerland in exchange for money, gold and diamonds. Kastner was accused of failing to warn the tens of thousands of Jews who remained that their ‘resettlement’ meant transport—12,000 a day—to Auschwitz and the gas chambers, and of putting the priorities of the Zionist movement, which wanted to focus rescue efforts on bringing Jews to Palestine, above any effort to save Hungarian Jews more widely. With the support of the government, of which he was an official, he sued his main accuser for libel, but after an 18 month trial, which ended in 1955, the verdict went against him. The judge said that he had ‘sold his soul to the devil’.

He was assassinated in 1957 by former right wing Jewish terrorists. In 1958 the Israeli Supreme Court overturned most of the original judgement. In 1961, the hugely successful American Jewish scriptwriter Ben Hecht published a book, Perfidy, a powerful attack on Kastner. Hecht was a right-wing Zionist.

Whenever the Kastner affair surfaces, strong feelings among Jews are expressed. In 2007, Jager Elliot published an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post, calling Perfidy ‘a devastating account’ of Rudolf Kastner’s betrayal of Hungarian Jewry. Jerome A. Chanes, writing for the Jewish Daily Forward in 2009, described Perfidy as an ‘ill-conceived and irresponsible anti-Kasztner’ account.

As for Ken’s comments about the ‘Zionist lobby’, since this was how the mostly Jewish pro-Israel organizations described themselves at the time, the implied charge that Ken’s use of the term is antisemitic is groundless. And it is the purpose of all lobbies to exert a ‘powerful’ influence to achieve the aims of the cause they represent. Associating Jews with ‘power’ can be regarded as an antisemitic trope, but only if the exertion of power is ‘sinister’, clandestine’, ‘conspiratorial’ etc.—none of which applied in this case. The groups protesting about the play did so openly and vocally, bringing pressure to bear on the theatre to end the run.

There is therefore no reason to see Ken’s directing and supporting of this play as unacceptably going beyond the bitter arguments and disagreements about Kastner that prevailed among Jews themselves.

  1. Minimising and denying the experience of antisemitism of Jewish Labour members

There is some very peculiar logic in the next allegations. According to JLM, if you believe that antisemitism was weaponised to bring Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to an end, you are denying that some Jewish members of the party have experienced antisemitism. If you accept that Jewish members have experienced antisemitism, you must hold Corbyn to account for it and deprive him of the leadership. This is an untenable position.

But for JLM, it is claiming that antisemitism was used to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership and at the same time acknowledging that some Jewish members experienced antisemitism—which is the view held by Ken and many others—which is untenable.

A September 2018 study of press reporting on antisemitism, carried out by the Birkbeck College London and Media Reform Coalition Research Project, concluded that their ‘findings were consistent with a disinformation paradigm’, adding weight to the view that  antisemitism was used for undermining Corbyn. And it is at the heart of the claims, made by Joe Glasman, head of the CAA’s ‘political investigations team’, in the video he made and posted in December 2019, never refuted by the Jewish establishment bodies, where he took credit, on behalf of a legion of volunteers, for the successful defeat of Corbyn and Labour in the general election.

We know from a national poll conducted by Survation in early 2019 that public perceptions of antisemitism in the Labour Party were grossly exaggerated—on average, people believed that 34 per cent of Labour Party members had had complaints made against them. The actual percentage of complaints received, according to data provided by Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby in February, was 0.1 per cent. Simply reflecting this reality cannot be grounds for accusing someone of antisemitism.

  1. Holocaust denial

JLM seek to give the impression here that it is not even necessary to provide any argument as to why critical discussion of the Holocaust, of the circumstances in which Israel came into being, of the experience of the Palestinians losing their homes in the 1948 war, is antisemitic.

There are many aspects of the attempted extermination of the Jews of Europe on which major historians of the Holocaust do not agree—for example, the precise number of Jews who were murdered; the extent to which indigenous populations in occupied Europe helped or hindered the saving of Jews; whether allied bombing of the extermination camps would have ultimately saved many Jewish lives. Without critical discussion of these and many other issues, our understanding of the Holocaust would be much diminished.

It may feel uncomfortable to hear it, but there is undoubtedly a link between the Holocaust, Israel’s creation and the fate of the Palestinians. A minority of Jews supported Zionism before the Holocaust. That changed dramatically after the horrors of the attempted ‘Final Solution’ were fully revealed. The majority of Jews then swung behind the idea of a Jewish state or at least ceased to actively oppose it. Moreover, key state powers—for various motives—backed the idea. The UN voted for partition and the ensuing war, as Israeli Jewish historians like Benny Morris have conclusively shown, led to the ethnic cleansing of up to 700,000 Palestinians.

This is a past that hasn’t passed. Neither in Israel-Palestine itself, nor in academic instititions in many countries. Ken is reflecting this reality in his remarks. There is no basis for judging this to be Holocaust denial. And there is simply no basis for taking it as read that all of this is antisemitic.

  1. ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’

There are undoubtedly many in the Party who have, in measured and determined ways, tackled antisemitism when they have encountered it. I am not a member of the Party, but in talks I have given on antisemitism at Meetings of Labour Party members  I have met such activists who understand the complexities around making definitive judgements about whether a particular person is or is not antisemitic and who have sought to deal with such matters firmly and sensitively, without seeking the limelight.

Margaret Hodge and some others have taken a different approach: seek as much personal publicity as possible in order to expose antisemitism and demand draconian, summary action. But there are manifest dangers in this strategy.  In July 2018 Hodge openly levelled vile insults against Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons chamber and as a result was given hero status as scourge of antisemites by most of the mainstream media. She subsequently submitted, and was given much publicity for, a dossier of 200 ‘examples of antisemitism’ to Party officials. But after investigation it was revealed that they referred to 111 reported individuals of whom only 20 were members.

In highlighting Ken’s comments about Hodge, JLM once again make assumptions that cannot be justified. He does not dismiss Hodge’s concerns, but draws attention to her unacceptable behaviour and her lack of judgement. More evidence of the latter emerged when she told Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy on 5 March 2019 that ‘in her opinion it is not acceptable for Labour members to be anti-Zionist’. But anti-Zionist views are probably fairly widespread in the party, and the people who hold them do not find it in any way incompatible with their party membership. Recent JPR survey research shows that people on the left are no more likely to be antisemitic than others in British society, so there is nothing to suggest that an anti-Zionist position implies any equation of that with antisemitism. There is of course no reason why Hodge or anyone else should be obliged to be anti-Zionist, and the reality is that the Party includes Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. But to proscribe anti-Zionism shows a very worrying anti-free speech tendency. Ken’s questioning of her position in the Party is surely not unreasonable

If you make allegations of antisemitism in the Party that prove to be exaggerated tenfold, you are damaging the fight against real antisemitism. In a rush to judgement, where the pressure to make immediate definitive judgements about whether x is or is not antisemitic—when we know that the degree of a person’s racism or antisemitism is very often a difficult to determine point on a continuum, and not an either/or—mistakes are easily made. The Party must do all it can to protect MPs and ordinary members from suffering antisemitic abuse, all the while minimising the hurt that can easily be caused by making false allegations. And the relatively high number of Jewish members who have been put in this position is surely evidence that something is going wrong, that the pressure to divide the Labour Party world into ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ is utterly counterproductive.

  1. Free University of Brussels

Finally we reach the almost throwaway justification of the attempt to stop the Free University of Brussels awarding Ken an honorary doctorate. JLM seem to think it sufficient to bolster their antisemitism claims about Ken simply by quoting the words of the Belgian prime minister Charles Michel. They omit to mention that the campaign against Ken was a highly orchestrated affair involving close Putin ally Moshe Kantor and the organization he heads, the European Jewish Congress, the BoD, the representative body of Belgian Jewry, the Co-ordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations of Belgium, and other bodies.

Rejecting charges that he had ‘constantly undermined efforts to combat anti-Semitism in the UK’, he made his position clear: ‘Those who try to smear me in this way know that I have always fought all racism, including anti-Semitism. I doubt everyone can say the same. . . I wish to reaffirm in the strongest possible terms that the Holocaust is as real a historical event as the Second World War itself and not to be doubted.’ The allegations against him, he said, were ‘malicious and unprincipled. . . . ‘To avoid any further ambiguity, I wish to state, once and for all, that I condemn any form of Holocaust Denial or negationisme as you say in French.’


Ken is outspoken on the many social and political issues about which he cares so passionately. This is no secret. Many people will not agree with him on the matters raised by those complaining about his appointment as judge in the School Competition. But to use his political views, which are firmly part of a legitimate discourse reflecting issues to do with prejudice, discrimination and all forms of racism—the very burning issues SRtRC is engaged in tackling—as a reason to remove him from this role, flies in the face of natural justice and is surely contrary to the very values SRtRC is seeking to promote: tolerance, respect, understanding and acknowledgement of the innate worth of every individual.

Board of Deputies of British Jews letter to Ged Grebby 13 February 2020

Dear Mr Grebby

I hope this letter finds you well.

Further to your recent conversation with our Interfaith and Social Action Officer Anthony Silkoff, I am writing on behalf of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which represents the Jewish community in Britain.

As you are aware, we are very concerned about your appointment of Ken Loach as a judge for Show Racism The Red Card’s school competition. We find this particularly disappointing, given the support we have previously provided you, for example in this article[1] that I wrote last year.

As I wrote in that piece, “it cannot be left to the black community alone to call out anti-black racism. It cannot be up to Jews alone to call out antisemitism. What is needed is solidarity.” I stand by those words, and trust that this letter will be considered by you and your trustees in that same spirit of solidarity.

Ken Loach is a poor choice of judge for an anti-racism competition. Dave Rich, Head of Policy at the Community Security Trust, has summarised some of the main concerns about Mr Loach as follows:

• In 1987 Mr Loach directed a play called Perdition that alleged Zionist/Nazi
collaboration. It was denounced as wildly inaccurate by leading historians and as
grossly antisemitic by many in the Jewish community.

As David Cesarani explains[2], there is no doubt about the play’s malign intentions. Its author Jim Allen said that the play “touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish
leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring
about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.” Cesarani explains that
antisemitic tropes go to the very heart of the play, which portrays Jews as an “all powerful” force which could have, but chose not to, resisted the Nazis, in Berlin,
Budapest or Washington. And this is reinforced throughout the play by ascriptions of
Jewish cruelty, callousness, expediency and ruthlessness, all in the pursuit of

[1] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/jewish-and-black-communities-must-line-up-together-on-footballracism/
[2] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-349-11262-3_5

As a result of the condemnation, the play was cancelled, and Mr Loach was furious.
Mr Loach said: “I hadn’t tangled with the Zionist lobby before… What is amazing is
the strength & organisation & power of their lobby.”[3] They have “extraordinary

In the same interview with Newsline, the paper of the Workers Revolutionary Party,
Mr Loach complained about “the generalised sense of guilt that everyone has about
the Jews.”[5]

• In 2009 the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency reported an increase in antisemitism in Europe. Mr Loach said this antisemitism was “understandable” given Israel’s actions, and called the report a “red herring” designed to “distract attention” from Israel.[6]

• Last year Mr Loach was asked whether it was unacceptable to debate whether the
Holocaust happened or not. “History is there for us all to discuss” was his answer.[7]

In the same interview he said there is “no validity” to stories of antisemitism in Labour and when MPs raise it they are “mischief-making”. He later clarified his view: the Holocaust did happen but claims of antisemitism in Labour are “exaggerated or false”. He insisted that “We will not be intimidated”.[8]

In addition, as we already highlighted ourselves, Mr Loach has said of Members of
Parliament who protested against antisemitism, “those are the ones we need to kick out.”[9]

For all these reasons, Mr Loach is a wholly unsuitable judge of any anti-racism competition. We urge you to reconsider his appointment.

As was agreed between yourself and Anthony Silkoff, please share this letter with your trustees, and we look forward to hearing their decision by the end of February.

Yours sincerely,
Amanda Bowman

[3] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DbxvCOgXkAAhch9?format=jpg&name=360×360
[4] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DbxvEZYW4AA2chQ?format=jpg&name=360×360
[5] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DbxvR1_W4AAebWr?format=jpg&name=small
[6] https://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2009/03/an-understandable-hatred.html
[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-41404925/ken-loach-on-false-anti-semitism-claims-bylabour-mps
[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/opinion/ken-loach-holocaust-anti-semitism.html
9 https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/kick-them-out-


Accusations against Ken Loach made in the letter sent by Amanda Bowman, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews to Ged Grebby, Director of Show Racism the Red Card

A Response by Antony Lerman 9 March 2020

The claim made by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) that it ‘represents the Jewish community’ is factually very hard to justify. But even if we were to acknowledge that it speaks on behalf of at least a sizeable minority of Jews, I regret to say that the letter written to Ged Grebby about Ken Loach is a serious abuse of its mandate. Despite listing 8 paragraphs of so-called ‘evidence’ as to why the BoD concludes that Ken Loach is a ‘poor choice of judge for an anti-racism competition’, at no point does the letter specify precisely what the Board believes Mr Loach to be guilty of. If the trustees of Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) were supposed to assume from the evidence that Ken Loach is an antisemite or harbours any hatred or animosity against Jews as a group, that evidence is seriously deficient.

Mr Loach has been actively associated with SRtRC for many years, so who would be better placed to know whether he harbours hatred or animosity towards Jews than those who have worked with him. It raises serious questions about the BoD’s judgement that it could assume to have more expertise to evaluate Ken Loach’s anti-racist credentials than SRtRC itself. It defies belief that the BoD could seriously think that Mr Grebby and the trustees would appoint a ‘proven’ racist to judge an anti-racist competition for young people.

I will examine the ‘evidence’ in the letter point by point.


I have already dealt with the way the Perdition affair has been misused to prove that Mr Loach is antisemitic.[i] But I would just add one additional point. The case against him is based on quotations from a chapter in a book, written by the late and very much lamented Professor David Cesarani, published 30 years ago. I edited most of the material for that book; I wrote a chapter for it. David was a friend of mine. We were joint editors of the academic journal on racism and antisemitism, Patterns of Prejudice, and we were both privileged to be members—together with the late Sir Martin Gilbert and the Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott MBE—of the small Advisory Committee for the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum at the end of the 1990s. To use this 30-year old chapter, written when David was still a young scholar holding views I personally know he changed his mind about later in life, is highly questionable to say the least. If the BoD think it necessary to reach back 30 years for evidence against Mr Loach, it only demonstrates the weakness if its case.

The Newsline interview

The case against Ken Loach is derived substantially from an interview he gave to Newsline and published in its 11 April 1987 edition. The three short extracts from Newsline that are the only parts of the interview visible when clicking on links in footnotes 3, 4 and 5 in the BoD letter. These extracts have been ‘edited’, or perhaps more specifically tampered with, in such a way as to grossly distort Mr Loach’s views. Starting with the first quote:

‘I hadn’t tangled with the Zionist lobby before …’

the highlighted ellipsis stands in for this omitted text:

‘but Jim [the playwright] knew there would be a considerable reaction.’

The letter then alters the quote, making it look as if it follows immediately after the redacted text:

‘What is amazing is the strength & organisation & power of their lobby’

when it is actually the opening sentence of a new paragraph:

‘What is amazing’, he insists, ‘is the strength & organisation & power of their                lobby.’

The letter version then follows, in the same paragraph, with:

‘They have ‘extraordinary arrogance’.

But not only does Ken Loach not use the words ‘They have’, this sentence does not follow immediately the previous sentence in the Newsline interview. In fact we know from the extract linked in footnote 4 that there are at least 2 sentences before he uses the words ‘extraordinary arrogance’. And since these sentences refer to lobbying of the BBC, it looks as if there may be quite a few more sentences between ‘power of their lobby’ and ‘extraordinary arrogance’. But we can’t judge for ourselves because there is no link to the full text of the Newsline interview.

Taken together, the effect of these textual distortions, redactions and false attributions is to make it look as if Ken Loach mounted a short, sharp, ugly attack on the Zionist lobby, which we are then to understand to be antisemitic.

Let’s be clear: there was then, in 1987, and is now, a Zionist lobby, and like all lobbies, it seeks to be powerful and influential. It is therefore perfectly justified to subject all such lobbies to criticism, which may well be very sharp. The insidious subtext of the BoD’s playing fast and loose with the Newsline source is to paint Loach as a Jew-hater.

But worse is to come: 11 words are lifted from the next extract (footnote 5) as if they constitute a stand-alone statement:

Mr Loach complained about ‘the generalised sense of guilt that everyone has about the Jews.’

Were it to be such, it could justifiably be read as harsh and malign. But it is not a stand-alone statement. It’s the middle part of the second sentence of a five-sentence segment from the Newsline interview. Read the entire extract and you see that the statement is part of an anti-Zionist argument that draws on the view that pro-Israel and Zionist groups politicise the Jewish experience of antisemitism, and specifically the Holocaust, to shut down criticism of Israel. You don’t have to agree to this view to know that such an argument is made by Israeli Jews every other day in publications in Israel, notably the quality daily Haaretz.

To single out this one sentence, as if to imply that Mr Loach is simply insulting and provoking Jews in general is frankly shoddy and shameful. The BoD’s assumption is that you accept, without question, the highly contentious argument that ‘anti-Zionism is antisemitism’, when many hundreds of thousands of Jews, especially the most devout, do not accept the Zionist premise that Israel is a or the Jewish state.

The 2009 FRA antisemitism report: Mr Loach said this antisemitism was ‘understandable’ given Israel’s actions

To rely on a blatantly biased website’s interpretation of comments Mr Loach made in 2009, the full text of which is no longer available online, is not acceptable. Quite simply, the argument that ‘something understandable is something excused,’ made in a post on Harry’s Place, 15 March 2009,  is not validated by the definition of ‘understandable’ in the Shorter Oxford. It is no more and no less than something ‘That can be understood’. To imply that Mr Loach is ‘excusing’ antisemitism, that he thinks it’s acceptable to carry out antisemitic acts, is disgraceful. He states explicitly that ‘no-one can condone violence’, but the BoD happens to omit this from their quote.

Jewish monitoring bodies like the Community Security Trust know full well, and acknowledge, that antisemitic incidents spike when Israel carries out violent actions in the Middle East. These can have the effect of fuelling anger that can express itself as antisemitism. The point Mr Loach is making is not that Jews should continue to experience antisemitism, but that Israeli violence against Palestinians must stop.

The grave charge of ‘Holocaust denial’

This is perhaps the most egregious and wounding charge in the BoD’s letter.

The BoD start by getting the date of the alleged statement wrong: it was made in an interview with the BBC’s Jo Coburn at the Labour Party conference on 26 September 2017, not ‘last year’.

In a frenetically conducted interview, during which Mr Loach was calm and clear in what he said, he was asked about

‘a discussion about the Holocaust [at a fringe meeting the day before]—did it                happen or didn’t it . . .’

Mr Loach then interrupts:

‘. . . I don’t think it was a discussion about the Holocaust’

Coburn then interrupts:

‘Well, it was reported and it was [inaudible] on the fringe . . .’

Mr Loach interrupts again:

[sceptically] ‘. . . well, reported—reported by whom?’


‘But would you say that was unacceptable?’

Mr Loach was correct. There was no ‘discussion’ about the Holocaust at the 25 September fringe meeting referred to. A speaker made an isolated remark taken by some to imply doubt that the Holocaust occurred. Afterwards, the panellist denied that he was implying any such thing.

So Mr Loach is then hurried—Coburn looked under severe pressure to speed up the interview and there was much noise and activity in the media area where it was being conducted—into commenting about a fake discussion. But he will not be hurried. He calmly says:

‘I think history is for us all to discuss, wouldn’t you?’

He certainly does not say that it is acceptable to discuss whether the Holocaust did or did not happen. Rather he is widening his answer to emphasise the principle of freedom of speech and to return to what Coburn was asking him about in the first part of the interview: antisemitism in the Labour Party:

‘History is for us all to discuss . . .even . . . what all history is [is] our common heritage to discuss and analyse—the founding of the state of Israel, for example based on ethnic cleansing is there for us all to discuss; the role of Israel is there for us to discuss, so don’t try to subvert that by false stories of antisemitism.’

He is by no means the only person to feel that ‘stories of antisemitism’ in Labour have ‘no validity’ and were ‘mischief-making’. But he did not say ‘Members of Parliament who protested against antisemitism, “are the ones we need to kick out”.’ He was referring specifically to those who attended the Parliament Square demonstration on 26 March 2018. Many other Labour MPs protested against antisemitism but did not participate in the rally. And as we know, some of the leading MPs attending that rally voluntarily left the party early in 2019 to set up a rival political grouping.

He was attacked by Howard Jacobson, in a New York Times article of 7-8 October 2017 headed ‘Now Labour is the enemy of the Jews’, and replied in a letter to the editor on 13 October:

‘Howard Jacobson alleges that I defended questioning the Holocaust. I did not and do not. In a confused BBC interview, where question and answer overlapped, my words were twisted to give a meaning contrary to that intended. The Holocaust is as real a historical event as World War II itself and not to be challenged. In Primo Levi’s words: “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.”’

It is quite appalling that the BoD should give credence to accusations that Ken Loach denies the Holocaust. But it is also bizarre and utterly contradictory in respect of what the BoD is protesting about in its opening accusation regarding Perdition. The play he directed in 1987 was not in any sense a denial that the Holocaust took place. That it occurred is the fundamental fact in the play: what Allen questions is the degree to which Jewish leaders, in particular those involved with the Zionist movement, betrayed their fellow Jews by prioritising saving Jews for Zionist objectives rather than saving Jews simply for the sake of keeping them alive wherever they could be found shelter. In my previous submission to the trustees of SRtRC, I commented in detail on the context and controversy over the play Perdition and the role of some Zionist leaders in Hungary during the Holocaust. As I noted, “There is … no reason to see Ken’s directing and supporting of this play as unacceptably going beyond the bitter arguments and disagreements about Kastner that prevailed among Jews themselves.”[ii]


It does not take long to distort words written more than 30 years ago, or 10 years ago or just a few years ago in order to malign the views and character of an individual. It takes much longer to bring to light these distortions and explain them to people who are not familiar with the details. The insinuations in the BoD letter are shoddy and show the organisation in a very bad light.

It goes against all norms of natural justice to base any argument that Ken Loach is not a suitable person to judge the anti-racist School Competition for SRtRC on what this letter contains. That most of it relies on ‘evidence’ from 33 years ago is a sure sign that the BoD is desperate to ascribe guilt to Ken Loach come what may.

Would it not have been far more productive to let those at SRtRC who have had long engagement with Ken Loach in their anti-racist work, including Holocaust education, be the judges as to who would be suitable to judge the competition rather than create a political incident which helps no one?

Antony Lerman

9 March 2020  


[i] See ‘Submission in support of Ken Loach’. Letter to trustees of Show Racism the Red Card in response to submission from the Jewish Labour Movement, 18 February 2020.

[ii] ‘Submission in support of Ken Loach’, 18 February 2020.

This biographical note was included in both submissions:

I am a Senior Fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna and Honorary Fellow at the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Southampton University. I was founding Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR, 1996-1999, 2006-2009), the leading Jewish think tank and research body undertaking high level study and analysis of contemporary antisemitism, a programme of work that I initiated.  I was founding Editor of Antisemitism World Report (1992-1999), and former Editor and now Associate Editor of the international academic journal on racism Patterns of Prejudice. I was Chair of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) in the late 1980s, a member of the Advisory Committee for the Holocaust Exhibition of the Imperial War Museum and founding Chief Executive of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe (1999-2006), a grant-making body supporting Jewish life in Europe. I was President of Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Hania, Crete, from 2009-13 and am now its vice-president. I am co-author of Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (2019) and I have written on racism, antisemitism, multiculturalism, the Middle East conflict and religious issues for, among other periodicals, the GuardianIndependentLondon Review of BooksProspectNew York TimesThe NationHaaretzJewish Chronicle, openDemocracy and tachles.



Posted in Europe | 8 Comments

Brexit: Britain’s greatest political crisis since 1945

Bitter arguments over the UK’s membership of the EU have disfigured British politics for decades. The referendum held on 23 June was supposed to settle the matter once and for all. Brits voted to leave and that’s that. But is it?

No. This was not a cathartic moment of resolution. A hurricane has struck British politics. Instead of clarity, the Brexit vote produced confusion, uncertainty, paralysis and a political vacuum. The UK’s allies are bewildered. The Far Right parties in Europe are delighted. And British society and politics will be plagued by the consequences of the referendum decision for years, if not decades, to come.

Not unexpectedly, within hours of the result being declared, prime minister David Cameron announced his resignation. Although he remains in post until his Party chooses a new leader in September, power is leeching from him and the government is rudderless. Before the vote he said that, if the country voted to leave, he would immediately trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets in motion the 2-year process for a country to exit the EU. But he has now left this to his successor.

However, the British prime minister has no power to trigger article 50 without the prior approval of parliament. The legal and political issues of doing this are so great, the process of extraction from the EU may take many years to come about. A significant majority of MPs supported remaining in the EU, and while they are unlikely to reject the referendum result—though they could, since the result is only advisory—they may delay a parliamentary decision for some considerable time. And while most EU leaders may impatiently demand that Britain get on with it, only the exiting state can fire the gun. This is bound to sour even further the interim relationship with the EU and poison the atmosphere for the coming negotiations.

The leavers have yearned for this outcome for so long, you might think they would have anticipated these complications and drawn up a plan for the UK’s new relationship with the EU and how to get there. But when the two main Brexit leaders, the Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, gave their victory press conference on the morning after the vote, it was crystal clear: there was no plan.

Addressing the world’s media they were curiously subdued, diffident and emollient. One well-argued theory trending on social media is that “they may have won the referendum, but they cannot use the mandate they have been given because if they do so they will be seen to be knowingly condemning the UK to breakup and years of pain.” Together with some other Leave leaders, they have indeed rapidly retreated from demands and promises they made. Suddenly, Boris sees leaving the single market and ending free movement of people as negotiable. Cutting EU immigration? They only promise “control” not “reduction” of numbers. A pledge to spend on the National Health Service the £350 million no longer paid to Brussels each week? Disowned by Farage. Johnson was the favourite to succeed Cameron as prime minister and lead the exit negotiations in Brussels. But could a man as mendacious as this have been trusted with such responsibility?

While, scandalously, there is still no plan, in Parliament on Monday Cameron announced a plan to set up a civil service unit to make a plan. And we already know that the scale of the administrative and legal changes required is huge. Take just two aspects. UK and EU law have been aligned for so many decades, disentangling the two will be an enormous undertaking and immensely complicated, possibly occupying many years of parliamentary time. Second, leaving the EU will automatically terminate all UK trade agreements with countries outside of Europe. Far from being “easy and quick”, negotiating new bilateral trade agreements with upwards of 60-70 countries will be complex, time-consuming and beyond the civil service’s capacity to handle more than one or two at a time.

Meanwhile, the capacity of the UK’s political system to scrutinise the entire multifaceted Brexit process has been seriously compromised. The Labour Party is fighting a civil war over the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Three-quarters of all Labour MPs have passed a vote of no confidence in their leader on the grounds that his role in getting Labour supporters to vote Remain was lacklustre and half-hearted, and they have called on him to step down. He has refused and a leadership election is likely. But whether he stays or goes, Corbyn’s ability to hold the government to account during this period of unprecedented uncertainty has been badly damaged.

If Brexiters feel short-changed, UKIP may pull Euroscpetic MPs away from the Tories, raising the prospect that both major parties could split. It’s even more likely that the new Tory prime minister will call a snap general election to win a new mandate for securing Britain’s post-Brexit future. This may further delay formally informing the EU that Britain is leaving.

And what if the Tories fail to win such an election. Who governs could by then be linked to the question of what is left to govern? Scottish voters chose overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, as did those in Norther Ireland. Determined that Scotland not be forced out of the EU against the will of its people, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader and first minister, is prepared to call another referendum on Scottish independence if it’s the only route to remaining in or joining the EU. Last time, the majority of Scots voted “no”. Polls now show that most Scots favour independence. This is not an option for Northern Ireland, but loss of substantial EU regional grants and the institution of more complicated, formal border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland could lead to the province becoming increasingly alienated from Westminster. If Brexit produces a dis-United Kingdom, that’s losing, not “taking back”, control.

A week on, Brexit looks increasingly like an act of supreme, narrow national selfishness, inspired by a grumbling, raw English nationalism personified by the demagogic bigotry of Nigel Farage. Not only has the Brexiters’ insouciance plunged the country into chaos and crisis, it shows disdain for the fallout for other countries, such as increased economic uncertainty and a strengthened Far Right. Aggressive nationalism licensed Boris’s attack on President Obama for being “half-Kenyan”. It justified comparing pro-Remain scientists to “Nazi propagandists”. And when Farage produced a poster of Syrian refugees in Slovenia with the slogan “Breaking Point” to scare people that floods of immigrants were arriving on British shores, nationalism permits that racism too. The end justifies the means.

Since 23 June racist incidents have increased by 57%. “When are you going home!” racists have shouted. The Polish centre in London was daubed with graffiti saying “Go home”. Children have been taunting others that they will have to go.

Perhaps this is the true meaning of Brexit.

This piece was published first in German on the website of tachles late on 30 June.

Posted in Europe | Leave a comment

No, it isn’t time for the Jews to leave Europe

“Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?” is the title of the 11,000-word cover story in the latest issue of the Atlantic magazine written by the American Jewish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. His answer? “Yes”. Why, while purporting to write out of concern for his fellow Jews in Europe and the antisemitism they are experiencing, he endorses the cries of the antisemites is a puzzle only he can explain. Meanwhile, in a piece on the American Al Jazeera website, ‘Jews in Europe don’t need Jeffrey Goldberg’s provocations’, I explain why he is patronising, contradictory, arrogant and wrong. With friends like Jeffrey Goldberg, we European Jews don’t need enemies.

Embedded in the article is a video discussion between Goldberg and the prominent American Jewish literary figure, formerly the literary editor of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, moderated by the editor of the Atlantic, James Bennet. In it Wieseltier dismisses European Jewry as the “saving remnant” and he speaks of us as “the afterlife of he European Jewish community”. Goldberg acquiesces in these judgements. To him, we are totally powerless to influence our own fate:

[Jews in Europe] are not part of the larger drama; they just sit there and get it in the neck. . . . Jews are not in control of what happens to Jews in Europe and that is the best reason to think about an exit.

As if any Jewish community is in “control”. No doubt that’s the way he sees American Jewry, but however strong and influential it is, when events ‘turn on a dime’, control is an illusion. And anyway, a key reason for the success of American Jewry and the relative insignificance of antisemitism in American society is the way Jews have built horizontal alliances with other groups and organizations on such issues as working for social justice, combating racism, countering Islamophobia, maintaining strict separation of church and state and much more.

Goldberg doesn’t want to know about the extraordinary revival of Jewish life in Europe. He focuses on the very difficult situation facing French Jewry, but fails to understand its complexity. He constructs his story largely on the basis of the testimony of known pessimists.

The problem of antisemitism in Europe — which is ever-present; despite the horrors of the Holocaust, it never went away — has become more serious, but writing intelligently about it requires far more knowledge and understanding than Goldberg possesses. His piece is just another one of many written in recent months that feed fears, encourage panic and aggravate rather than help.

Posted in Antisemitism, Europe | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Israel’s elections: more bad news for Palestinians and Europe’s Jews

Bibi wins the Israeli elections. I guessed he would. To me, the tight opinion polls, that were even giving a substantial advantage to the Zionist Camp, could not take into account a last minute, knee-jerk return to the Likud out of fear about: security, the ‘scary’ Palestinians, the rise of the Joint List, the uncertainty of a possible end to the current ‘comfortable’ status quo and more. Gideon Levy said the same thing today at 5:30 am on BBC World Service.

Anshel Pfeffer says ‘get used to the idea of Herzog as foreign minister’, but for Bibi to go for a unity government would surely require him to undergo a political conversion of staggering proportions. Has he really come this far in politics to now go against everything he has done to solidify Greater Israel? Is he not seeing this win as the last opportunity he has to make control over the West Bank permanent? Why would he saddle himself with a serious handicap by yoking himself to the Zionist Camp? He will be telling himself that all his tactics finally came good: sticking it to Obama, warning the world of the imminence of Iran dropping nuclear bombs on Israel, ruling out a Palestinian state, promising more Israeli settlements, demonising Palestinian Israelis as a fifth column, playing to the electorate’s worst, racist prejudices.

With Obama on his way out, the EU preoccupied with internal matters, Putin keeping ‘the West’ busy with his aggressive pursuit of a Russia first foreign policy, Isis taxing both the foreign and domestic security policies of so many diverse states, who will be able to stop Bibi continuing to consolidate and strengthen the de facto single state?

Whether we should be thankful for it or not, one thing we certainly get from this election result is clarity: the Palestinians will know what to expect, European Jews will know what to expect, the Obama administration will know what to expect, the entire population of Israel will know what to expect. Yet the consequences of the stasis this implies are far more unpredictable. Change was expected. Now there’ll be none, it’s as if a vacuum has suddenly appeared in the centre of the polity. And as the old cliche goes, ‘nature abhors . . .’ Filling it could be a third intifada, as Palestinian anger understandably erupts. It could be another major Israeli military assault, with huge casualties and the inevitable fallout in anti-Jewish hostility for Europe’s Jews. It could be a pre-emptive strike of some kind on Iran. It could be formal annexation of Area C of the West Bank. And it could be a major growth in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement: more action and a widening of the basis of support for the campaign.

Equal rights for all seems to be further away than ever. But without a viable statist solution of any kind, the equal rights agenda as the basis for achieving real change gains added importance and legitimacy.

Posted in Europe, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Muslim hostility to Israel and Jews in Europe: is it antisemitism as we know it?

On 4 August I posted a piece by the Washington-based historian and independent scholar Dr Steven Beller in which he discussed the question: ‘Anti-Jewish hostility provoked by the Gaza offensive: is antisemitism the right word for it?’ It generated a lively response in the form of comments on my blog, on Facebook and on Twitter.

One respondent, Dr Doron Rabinovici, a novelist, essayist, historian and politically engaged public intellectual from Vienna, posted a lengthy comment on the blog that encapsulated many of the critical responses to Steven Beller’s original post and a subsequent post by Steven on the thread responding to some of the points raised by other commentators.

Steven felt that Doron’s response deserved special attention, so they agreed to feature an exchange between them on my blog (full disclosure: we are all friends).

At the heart of this exchange is the specific question: Has the term ‘antisemitism’ outlived its usefulness as a word to describe the hostility in Europe to Israel and the continent’s Jewish communities of Muslim immigrants who support the cause of the Palestinians?

The exchange begins with Doron Rabinovici’s last post from the comment thread on Steven Beller’s first piece. Following that is an essay-length post by Steven, then a full response by Doron, with a final, brief closing comment by Steven. (If you want to see where it all began, click here for Steven’s earlier piece and the comment thread.)

The exchange consists of serious, challenging and sometimes difficult (in the best sense) and passionate stuff, which respects readers’ intelligence. And it’s a debate that is hard to host anywhere because of the strong feelings it arouses. But here, where the name of my blog, Context is Everything, is taken very seriously, free speech is respected as a value in itself.

First, brief biographies of the two writers:

Dr Steven Beller was a visiting scholar at George Washington University and a Research Fellow at Peterhouse College Cambridge. He has written a number of major books on Austrian and Jewish history and is also an expert on the history of antisemitism. He authored Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press (2007).

Dr Doron Rabinovici was born in 1961 in Tel Aviv and has lived in Vienna since 1964. His most recent novel, Andernorts, was short-listed for the German Book Prize in 2010. His non-fiction study of the Jewish Council in World War II Vienna was published by Polity Press in 2011 as Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938-1945.


Dear Steven

As you know we share many points of view. I still hope that the day will come when a Palestinian state will exist next to the state of Israel. I oppose the settlement policy. I also understand your anger against Israeli politicians who try to delegitmize any criticism of Israel as antisemitism.

You know as well that I admire your work and that I think of us as friends and colleagues. That said I find your article very disturbing. I am astonished by your conclusions. It seems to me as if you try to outsmart yourself so as not to have to see the obvious.

You suggest the term “antisemitism” does not apply to Islamist aggressions against Jews and Jewish institutions and that a different word ought to be used. To me this sounds absurd and I would like to explain why.

Let me first remind you that “antisemitism” was never a scientific or analytical term. It was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German activist, publicist and evangelist of racist antisemitism. The word was invented to justify resentments against Jews. Marr wanted to define the Jews as an exotic race. He wanted to stress that they could not belong to the German nation. He strived for the unification of all anti-Jewish trends and ideologies.

The word itself has always been a misnomer. There is no such thing as a Semitic race. The idea of Semitic races goes back to linguistic theories about the history of languages. Nevertheless, antisemitism was always only directed against the Jews. They were denounced as a racial mixture. The Arabs were seen as the “real”, the “pure” Semites, who—according to antisemitic agitators such as Eugen Dühring—also hated the Jews. After 1943 the Nazis preferred not to name their hatred “antisemitism”. Josef Goebbels ordered the use of the word anti-Jewish. He did not want to provoke the Arabs.

Before 1945 “antisemitism” was a self-imposed term, a proud credo. After Auschwitz it became rather delegitimised. In the Western world hardly anyone wants to be called an antisemite. But the irrational and passionate hatred against Jews has nevertheless been classified as “antisemitism”. This is not an analytical, but rather a political decision. After Auschwitz any generalizing attack against Jews bears that stigma. The history of the passion against the Jews shows that the various forms of anti-Jewish aggression are connected to each other. The irrational phenomenon develops different rationalizations and serves as an excuse to persecute Jews. Many studies distinguish between cultural, religious, Christian, economic, racist, political, conservative, revolutionary, secondary and anti-Zionist antisemitism. They show how different and contradictory these variations of antisemitism can be. Some declare to hate only the orthodox believer; others detest first and foremost the assimilated Jew. There are those who want to overcome Jewish capitalism, those who fight against Jewish Bolshevism, those who go after the stateless Jew and those who cannot stand the patriotic Jew. Some pray for the final conversion of all Jews, but not too few strive for the annihilation of every Jewish human being.

Political sciences discussed several definitions of antisemitism. All forms of antisemitism share the belief that the Jews are a cosmic evil. Antisemitism—the Catholic, the racist, the economic or the anti-imperialist version of it—constitutes an explanation of the world. The Jewish identity, the Jewish religion, the Jewish nation, the Jewish economy—in the eye of the antisemite—represents the main obstacle to the salvation of the world.

Let me be very clear: There may be good reasons to criticize certain Jewish personalities, institutions or policies. There is nothing wrong for instance with punishing a Jewish criminal if he committed robbery. He has to be convicted even if his victim insults him in an antisemitic way. The antisemitic assault does not diminish the guilt of the Jew. But does it make the victim’s remarks less antisemitic?

You write: “Even when historical antisemitic tropes are used by Arab and Muslim opponents of Israel and the supporters of its policies, the core reason for them doing this (to bolster their arguments) appears to me to be Israel and its anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, policies.”

Well, I do not think that all Muslim opponents of Israel use antisemitic tropes, but the radical Islamist fanatics not only use antisemitic tropes, they propagate and they believe in antisemitic myths. They declare that the Jews are the main evil in the world. They produce films about the Jewish world conspiracy. They broadcast the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of  Zion. They proclaim that the Jews were behind the French and the Russian Revolution. They call the Jews the “sons of apes and pigs“. In their demonstrations—whether in Beirut, Tripolis, Paris or Berlin—they shout “Death to the Jews”, “Gas the Jews” or “Hitler was right”. They violently assault Jews. They throw Molotov cocktails at synagogues.

It would be mere culturalism if you said a German protestant who called a Jew “Saujud” was antisemitic, but his Muslim compatriot, who stormed a synagogue was not. Such a choice of words would be apolitical, paternalistic and eurocentric.

I think we have to distinguish between the situation for Palestinians in Gaza and a Muslim in Berlin who supports Erdogan. Context is important.

It is true that the radical Islamist demonstrations were triggered by the war in Gaza. But war was the occasion, not the root of the problem. The ideology of modern political Islamism is older than the state of Israel.

You have a point when you say that Israel’s policies are the reason for the new demonstrations against Jews. But I am not sure that traditional antisemitic outbursts were totally disconnected from reality and socio-political circumstances. The Yiddish language knows the phrase rishes makhen. It means: to cause antisemitism. Anti-Jewish pogroms by the end of the middle ages in Europe very often reacted to a financial crisis and the claims of Jewish moneylenders. In 1986 the World Jewish Congress criticised Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. Their criticism of Waldheim’s lies was not unjustified, but it triggered an antisemitic campaign in Austria. Sometimes antisemitic manifestations may be a reaction to certain Jewish activities, but they are always an excessive and irrational attack on Jewish existence in itself.

No question: A peaceful solution in the Middle East could change the feelings of many Muslims towards Jews. Israel should seek a compromise, but the most radical Islamists—whether in Damascus, Tripoli or Alexandria—do not want a compromise. For them the war with Israel is the paradigmatic conflict of all conflicts with the West.

August Bebel once called antisemitism the “socialism of fools”. Islamist antisemitism is the anti-imperialism of fools in the Muslim world.

So why don’t you want to call their anti-Jewish manifestations antisemitic? Your motives seem very clear to me. You react to those who denounce all criticism of Israeli policies as a new form of antisemitism. They do not distinguish between criticism and resentments. Strangely enough you do the same but just the other way round. You say all new Islamic and Arabic antisemitism is nothing but an unfair way of criticising Israel.

Moreover, you write: “When some critics of Israel conflate their target of hostility with the Jewish communities in the various countries, they are only doing what Israel and its Zionist supporters have said they should do…” So, in your opinion, Zionism is to blame for the anti-Jewish aggression? In other words: If the Jews were not proto-Zionists and pro-Israel, the Islamists would give up their resentments? Do you really believe that?

I find it astonishing to read these words coming from you. You are the expert on Jewish politics in Vienna under Karl Lueger. You know how often Jews tried to persuade each other that the antisemites would stop hating them if only they gave up some of their typical Jewish habits: being capitalist, being socialist, being orthodox, being liberal, being rich, being poor. Whatever. Dear Steven, you sound like one of your own historical objects of interest.

There is only one problem. The rather small European Jewish communities cannot distance themselves from Israel. It has become—whether you like it or not—a centre of their identity and of their life, because they are linked culturally, theologically, socially and also politically to this land and state. They may be very critical of the government. They may object to the war. They may lose their Zionist convictions. But they feel for their relatives, when the rockets fly. They hope the Jewish cities will be safe. They listen to Israeli radio. They read Haaretz or the Jerusalem Post. They are connected to this state since 1948. To demand from them to distance themselves from Israel will only strengthen their bondage. To attack them because of Israel will only strengthen the feeling that every attack against Israel is an attack against every Jew around the world. To demand of them to forget about Zion would sound to them like the echo of the old anti-Jewish demands to give up their Jewish identity.

But let’s suppose the Jews would forget Zion, reject Zionism, despise Tel Aviv, hate Israel. Or let’s just assume they would join the ranks of the vehement critics of Israel. Do you think the Islamists would trust them? In fact: could they ever trust them? Don’t you think they would suspect that the Jews did not really change their minds? Any empathy for the Jews in Israel would be seen with suspicion. Sounds familiar to a historian of Jewish Vienna, doesn’t it?

Do you think the Islamist ideologists would then declare: “Sorry, we made a mistake, the Jews do not use the blood of children for Passover matzos after all”?

Well, I am sorry, but I think they would not give up their antisemitic myths of Jewish media, of Jewish money, of the Jewish lobby. They would not refrain from denying the Holocaust, because the Holocaust is for them a possible justification of Israel’s existence. They would not stop referring to the power of the Jews. Erdogan would not reverse his policy and say that the Gezi park protest was not a Jewish conspiracy.

It is antisemitic if someone shouts “gas the Jews” or attacks a person wearing a kippa or the Star of David. It is not the same as blaming the Americans abroad for what the US does. No one promotes the annihilation of all living Americans, raves about a world conspiracy of all Americans or declares the Americans were the incarnation of evil since the beginning of times.

The Islamist ideology reacts to Israeli policies, but it does not share our criticism of the Israeli government. We oppose the chauvinist politics of the Israeli government in the name of human rights. The Islamists oppose human rights because of their chauvinist politics. They do not trust us secular Jewish intellectuals. If they attack Jewish synagogues or Jewish festivals they will not spare us. It is even worse: they hate Benyamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, but they truly despise us as more than any Israeli general or any orthodox Jew. We stand for everything they reject.

I think it is important to use the term “antisemitism” when antisemitic tropes are used precisely because it puts the stigma of Auschwitz on this phenomenon. It is crucial for us as humanistic intellectuals to fight against antisemitism as Jews. Hannah Arendt said: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.”

If we do not name and do not fight the Islamist antisemitism, we will not have any influence in the Jewish communities and we will not have a chance to persuade Jews to support a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” solution to the ongoing Middle East conflict.

But what is much more important, we have to strengthen all Muslim and Arab forces who fight the antisemitic agitators. The liberal, democratic groups brand the propaganda against Jews as “antisemitism”. They know very well how much antisemitism they encounter in Tunis, Cairo, Teheran, Berlin and Paris. They need our solidarity. They do not want us to find a nice new term for the old and ever new passion, for—as Herzl could have said—the “Altneuhass”, for “that ole devil called” antisemitism.

Yours sincerely

Dear Doron

I think you make many good points in your critique of my suggestion that “antisemitism” might have outlived its usefulness as a word to describe the hostility in Europe to Israel and the Jewish communities in Europe of Muslim immigrants and their supporters. Part of the reason I have taken some time to respond and, I warn you, quite voluminously, is because your arguments are not easily dismissed and need careful consideration—even if, in the end, I disagree with your conclusion.

I think we are still more or less on the same page as to what should be done to calm or improve the situation, and what needs to change to reduce the hostility currently so evident. I think we disagree much more on the words we use to express these views than we do on the substance—unlike some once fashionable academic theories I think such a differentiation between language and substance is quite possible, even though I think they are closely linked in many ways. I would not have expressed a concern about the usage of “antisemitism” if I had not. I also think that things look very different in Washington DC than they do in Vienna (and different again in London or Jerusalem, or even between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I suspect).

I should try to put some of your greatest concerns at rest at the beginning. Whatever we call it, call it Jew-hatred if you like, I think any growth in hostility to Jews, in Europe and indeed around the world, whether from Muslims or non-Muslims, is an appalling development.  I think radical Islamism, whether of the al-Qaeda, Taliban or ISIS variety is horrific, and against everything you and I stand for in terms of secular, liberal pluralism—otherwise known as “democracy” in shorthand. I think organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are not all that much better, especially in their militant wings, although I would not put them in quite the same category, and I think it is worthwhile trying to negotiate with their more moderate elements. You may disagree with me on this, but I think there is some sort of parallel with what eventually happened with the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, where the Peace Process involved people sitting down together who regarded each other as ruthless murderers, or at least the representatives of ruthless murderers—but a peace of sorts was achieved in Northern Ireland, and persists, if a bit rickety. You do not gain peace by negotiating with your friends but rather your enemies.

The bottom line remains, however, that violence, terrorism and homicide are—do I need to say this?—abhorrent, whether caused by antisemitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Jewism, Islamism, or indeed Islamophobia or anti-Arabism. I also completely agree with you that it is tragic, disastrous even, as much to the Arab and Muslim cause as anything, that significant parts of the ideological “tool-box” of their hostility to Israel as a Jewish state, “anti-Zion-ism”, were borrowed from a relatively early time from European antisemitism—in the case of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, and that these persist in the stated views of Hamas and many other groups. The fact that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still published in Arabic, with high distribution, as I understand it, and was even made into a television series, is terrible, does not say much good about the cynical exploitation of the public realm by past and present Arab governments, and is, to say the least, unhelpful in persuading both sides that peace is the better option—for how can you make peace with a set of world conspirators on the one hand, and, on the other, a set of benighted people on the other who believe such nonsensical conspiracy theories? (But see above vis. Northern Ireland.)

I am also deeply sympathetic with the small Jewish communities in Europe that no doubt feel besieged and threatened in the current climate, and how they look to Israel, nowadays, as their protector and spiritual haven in what appears an ever more hostile world. I can understand how even the larger Jewish communities, for instance in Britain and France, feel shocked and blind-sided when the apparent “Never again” consensus of the post-war years seems so suddenly to have been torn apart by a new antisemitism from another quarter—Muslims.

Yet I still think the use of the word “antisemitism” in this new context has had its day—that it harms more than it helps when it comes to understanding what is happening, how to counter it, and how to return the situation in Europe and indeed elsewhere to a state where everyone can feel safe, prosper and co-operate for the greater good.

You yourself point out that “antisemitism” is not a particularly accurate word, indeed is a nonsensical one, and its validity as a quasi-scientific/scholarly word for “Jew hatred” is now more political than anything else. So, if it is only a word, and is losing its explanatory usefulness in the way it is applied, then I do not see why it cannot be limited, or, depending on the context, replaced. And that is where we are now, as far as I am concerned. The term is so abused that it has lost its analytic and even (beneficial) political usefulness, especially when applied to the Israel/Palestine conflict. From over here in America, where the Jewish community is large, prosperous and very secure compared to Europe, “antisemitism” is being used, and has been used for quite a while, by Israel’s supporters, as a sort of magic wand that stops dead all critical debate about Israel, or indeed about the political tactics of Israel’s supporters. Individuals who are clearly not “antisemites” by any reasonable definition find themselves dragged through the antisemitic mud because of a verbal infelicity or some tame critical remark about Israel’s frequently poor policy decisions. It is as though “anti-antisemitism” is the new anti-communism—with new McCarthyites dragging reasonable people quite unnecessarily into a paranoid, prosecutorial witchhunt. So when the same indiscriminate usage of the term is applied to European circumstances where it is more deceptive than perceptive, then I think we should replace it.

The anti-communist analogy works well in most respects. It was also used to silence not only actual communists, but also leftist “socialist” critics. You made a good point about the fact that many extremist Islamists are going to hate Israel and Jews no matter what Israel and Jews do, but the same could be said for the actual committed communists who did exist at the time of the McCarthy hearings, and were quite prepared to spy for the Soviet Union. They too were irredeemable, just like the hardcore extremist Islamists. Yet the charge of “communist” extended over a far wider spectrum of people, quite inappropriately, and badly corrupted American ideological discourse, because anyone who was even sympathetic to the aims of communism, if not its methods, as were many socialists, were branded as “Reds”.

It still has strange and perverse results in how Americans think. A New York Times editorial from 2011 (if I remember rightly—I can look it up), defended President Obama from the accusation of being a socialist (correctly), but then stated absurdly that he had “nothing to do with the evil history of socialism”, making no distinction at all, apparently, between socialism and its more radical and totalitarian cousins such as Stalinist communism. This is what “anti-communism” does to your analytic faculties. It obstructs any ability to provide a nuanced analysis of the degree to which individuals or groups adhere to or sympathize with an ideology or political movement.

Similarly with using “antisemitism” as an ideological catch-all, it may ostensibly be aimed only at the outright extremists and terrorists, but it actually catches in its web all sorts of people who might sympathize with the Islamists and their antisemitic fantasies (there, I shall allow you that one) on some level, but on another are quite reasonable and are actually swayed by empirical reality in a way that the extreme ideologues might not be. It is this group, I believe, where the crucial battle should be fought for hearts and minds, and this group is not irredeemable—their sympathies can be swayed by reality.

There is one area, however, where the analogy does not work well: even if they were regarded by American reactionaries as inherently traitors, communists were not completely beyond the Pale in terms of political debate, no matter how much the vast majority in America disagreed with their views. And communism outside of America, in Western Europe for instance, was an accepted part of the political spectrum all along, even if not a hugely popular one. It was quite possible to be a decent communist, and, if slightly passé now, it still is. I don’t think it is possible after Auschwitz to be a decent antisemite. (It was pretty hard to be so ever, harder after 1918, harder still after 1933, but impossible after 1945.) Hence the “antisemite!” magic wand is even stronger, and more decisive, than the “communist!” one—it stops discussion dead, and in the appropriate circumstances, as in the case of historical antisemitism, which was an extreme form of exclusionary nationalism (in Vienna, Hungary, Germany, France, America, Britain, etc.) and in the cases where this historical form of antisemitism has experienced a resurgence, such as in Hungary’s Jobbik, I see no reason why the term antisemitism should not be continued.

I also see that, at the extreme, radical Islamism is so taken up with antisemitic tropes, but also with the same illiberal, anti-pluralist, exclusory logic of antisemitism that denies all opportunity for difference—for other Muslim sects, let alone Jews and Christians—that we might as well write them off as “antisemitic” although that is also just another way of saying “anti-democratic” (see above). I do not think it necessarily Islamophobic to point out that many Muslim states are far from practicing anything like the liberal pluralist democracy of Western countries (although it might be verging on Islamophobic if one did not also point out that many others, such as Indonesia and, for now, Turkey, do) . The problem is that when we get more specific, when it comes to the conflict between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world, I do not see the same rationale for making “anti-Zionism”, or even secondary “anti-Jewish hostility” based on the actual Jewish support for Israel, completely beyond the Pale. Just as I am not a communist, but think it should be not be excluded a priori from the discussion, I might not agree with strong opponents of Israel, but there is a substantial ground for their thinking, due to Israel’s contested history, and there is a place for such views in decent political and ideological discourse. They should not be simply shut up by declaiming “antisemite!”

For instance, I find it very hard to see how, as such, the contestation of the right of Israel to exist in its current form is “antisemitic”. It is anti-Zionist, and anti-Zion-ist; it is probably anti-Jewist, because most Jews now support the existence of the state of Israel. But I cannot see it as entirely irrational or based on Jew-hatred as such. If I were a Palestinian refugee displaced in 1948 or 1967, I would see the success of the Jewish nationalist project of Zionism in founding, securing and—informally—expanding the (Jewish) state of Israel as a disaster that did take my rights and my country away from me. It might be more sensible for me to compromise and accept the situation (especially as the UN recognized Israel), but I cannot see refusing to do this as antisemitic in the usual, unacceptable way. I would think I have a reasonable case to make—and would resent my being prevented making it by being branded an antisemite.

This is directly related to the point that was the main subject of my initial post, which is the fact, in both our opinions (I believe), that the existence of the state of Israel has profoundly changed the whole character of the global Jewish community, as well as the relations of that community with the rest of the world, and hence has profoundly affected anti-Jewish hostility (what you call antisemitism) as well. The “Israel effect” predates the establishment of the state in 1948. As you rightly point out, “the ideology of modern political Islamism is older than the state of Israel”, and I assume you mean by this that it was antisemitic before Israel’s founding, and it is true that there was Arab and Muslim hostility to Jews before 1948. On the other hand, the Yishuv began in the 1880s and it would have been clear to any Arab intellectual who read the right literature by, at the latest, 1900 that a group of Jews, in the Zionist Organization, were intent on setting up a Jewish-controlled state in what was regarded by Muslims as part of the “territory of Islam”.  Therefore the Arab riots, the hostility of the Grand Mufti, the antisemitic tropes in the ideology of the Muslim brotherhood, and all the pre-Israel hostility to Jews in Palestine is fairly clearly a form of, from the Palestinians’ viewpoint, anti-colonialism, and anti-Zionism, with Zionism as Jewish colonial ethnonationalism. (Jews might have another view, but I can well see that this is how Palestinians would see it.)

I think part of the problem when discussing Israel and antisemitism is the exotic language used. You describe the peculiarity of the word “antisemitism”, but “Zionism” is also a strange and loaded term. It connotes a certain religious fervor, and a return to biblical thinking, but the mainstream of Zionism was from the start Jewish nationalism—with the ethnonationalist goal of acquiring a territorial state for the Jewish nation—a classic motive of nationalism. This was a huge change. Traditional attempts to combat antisemitism always saw integral, ethnonationalism as the problem, for persecuting a religious and/or ethnic minority just because they were different; but once Zionism became the mainstream form of Jewish identity, Jewish nationalism became the dominant form of identity, and the creation of a Jewish nation-state the main means by which to “solve” antisemitism. For many decades the nationalist character of Zionism was obscured by the socialist and liberal ideological gloss given to the new, modern nation-state that the Jews would bring about. Western left-wing admiration for Israel in the 1950s and 1960s was at least partly due to the idea of Israel being a pioneer in the new ethical and socially just community. However, Israeli politics began to change radically in the 1970s and by the 1980s the nationalist basis of Israel became ever clearer. Netanyahu’s demand from the Palestinian leadership that Israel be recognized not only as a state but as a Jewish state is only the latest lurch to the right in Israel’s self-understanding. So the ever more central role that Israel plays in the global Jewish community, especially vis. Europe’s communities but also the United States, means that Jewish identity has been inevitably nationalized for most Jews, and also for most non-Jews. (It might be swinging back to a primarily religious identification, if the demographic shift within the Jewish community in favour of the strictly Orthodox continues, but that is another matter.)

Because of this nationalizing shift in identification, many Jews have come to see an attack on the “Jewish” state as an attack on fellow Jewish nationals, i.e. other Jews, and hence as inherently antisemitic. As Tony Judt pointed out, Israel sees itself as the centre of the Jewish world, and so any hostility to or criticism of Israel is antisemitic—from this perspective there really is no distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Judt’s point was that by so doing Israel is effectively inviting its opponents to be hostile to Diaspora Jews as well, because, as Israel’s position holds, they are in fact all part of the same nation, the same community of solidarity. There is a certain inexorable logic about this, but what it means in terms of European Jewry is that their claim to be a religious community unfairly targeted as national allies of Israel for payback by pro-Palestinian Muslims in Europe and their non-Muslim supporters and allies lacks much credibility, because contradicted by the ideological claims of their own Zionism (Jewish nationalism). You may be right that gaining a critical distance from Israel is almost impossible for Europe’s Jewish communities these days, but that does not mean they have to passively agree to an unquestioning solidarity with Israel, right or wrong, and it makes it even more imperative for those Jewish communities to spell out to Israel just how badly their position outside Israel is actually affected, and that Israel should, from their perspective, do everything it can to avoid creating the conditions (such as the Gaza conflict) that exacerbates these situations.

I wrote a few months ago in my blog at Oxford University Press that antisemitism was at a crossroads, inasmuch as the two dominant ways of understanding and combating it were increasingly at cross-purposes. If antisemitism was seen only as a problem for Jews—why do they hate us?—then obviously hostility to Israel was front and centre, all the worst fears of “new antisemitism” basically justified; but if antisemitism was seen as a problem for everyone, as the most notorious example of the genocidal consequences of the persecution of difference, as it had originally been seen, then the solution was not to confront one nationalism with another, one form of exclusion of the other by another such exclusion, but rather to overcome nationalism, overcome the exclusion of difference. In this understanding it was the protection of minorities and the different among us that was the “lesson” of antisemitism, and in Europe today that means combating Islamophobia rather than calling Muslim critics of Israel antisemites (the all too popular solution of the “new antisemitism” school).

I remember you as a leading member of the most laudable efforts to combat the strong antisemitic tendencies in Austria that inhere in that odd concoction of Austrian nationalism, which has, despite all the evidence to the contrary, a strong ethnonationalist element. If I remember rightly, you were involved in the “Wir sind Österreich” campaign that pointed out the inaccuracy and indeed stupidity of this nationalist way of thinking, and I do not think you have changed radically. So I think you would happily agree with me that one more nationalism is not a solution to the problem of nationalism. But that is what Zionism is, and that is why, from a Zionist perspective, that I do not share, I cannot see how protests against Israel aimed at Jews in other countries is not, on nationalist grounds, justified. (To repeat, just to be clear, violence, murder and terrorism are completely reprehensible, and vandalism, the desecration of religious buildings, property damage, and all the other forms of hostile action against Jews that have occurred, including the use of antisemitic rhetoric, are unacceptable, even if the cause the perpetrators claim to back were to be within the bounds of civility.) Israel, which Zionism claimed would be the solution to the existential condition of the Jewish nation, just turns out to create more problems.

Instead, and I may indeed sound like a nineteenth century Viennese Jew here in some respects, or perhaps an Anglo-American Jew from the late twentieth century, the fundamental answer to the problem of antisemitism is, banal though it might sound, liberal pluralism, or what people in the West call “democracy” for short. The only way Jews and other minority groups and diasporas (including the Muslim diaspora)—in fact the only way any diverse and multifaceted society—which is in the end all of them (we are all individuals, all different at some level) can really get along, live in peace and prosper, is by learning the fine art of compromise, conflict-management, mutual respect, and the ability to agree to disagree, and all the rest of the overloaded package called “democracy”. For all its faults and current woes, and if you look at my Facebook page you will see how critical I am of the country’s politics, one of the best examples of this liberal pluralist democracy remains the United States—and without the good ol’ US of A I don’t think democracy or a peaceful world order has much of a chance, given the incredible irresponsibility of so many of the other major world actors on show at the moment. So this is why I found so intriguing your comment about the anti-Jewish hatred in radical Islamism being much more central to its ideology than its hatred of America or individual Americans. I think that is spectacularly wide of the mark, but I also think that bringing in the American example might actually create a large area of agreement between us, beyond any language issues.

Al-Qaeda attacked New York, not Tel Aviv. For the Iranians, there are two Satans, the Great Satan is America, the Little Satan is Israel. Some radical Islamists have bought into the old Nazi and antisemitic trope of America (or before it England) being just a puppet for the Jewish conspiracy or a representative of the materialist “Jewish spirit”, and the lockhold of AIPAC on Congressional policy in the Middle East does not help dispel the “tail wagging the dog” conspiratorial theory of a “Jewish lobby” controlling US policy, but I would claim that most radical Islamists nowadays have America as their main target, not Israel. ISIS is beheading American journalists as Americans. Groups like ISIS hate the liberal pluralist West more than they hate Israel, because the former is an existential threat to their way of thinking, while the latter is, for many not directly impacted by Israeli policy, a small fish when they are after the bigger one. I agree with you that “secular Jewish intellectuals” are among the targets of radical Islamists, but I think they are targeted more as secular intellectuals than as Jews, more as purveyors of liberal pluralism disguised as “democracy”, than as agents of Zion/Israel.

On this level, I am quite happy to talk, ironically perhaps, about radical Islamism being “antisemitic” precisely because it denies choice, difference and individual freedom, just like the antisemitic logic of Nazism as an ad absurdum version of nationalism. By this time, however, the danger of radical Islamism has really gone beyond any direct relation to Jews, or Israel, but is a general threat to the democratic West. You say in your letter that there was “modern political Islamism” before the state of Israel. I pointed out above that the relevant date for this subject was more likely 1900, when Zionism had become a serious concept, but in a way you are right—inasmuch as there were radical Islamist movements from much earlier (for instance, the Mahdi in Sudan who defeated Gordon at Khartoum) that were opposed not only to imperialism but also to modernity. Most Muslim societies, most Muslims, have come to terms with modernity in one way or another, and it is quite wrong, Islamophobic, to say that “Islam” is incompatible with the modern world, or with liberal pluralist democracy. But it is just a fact that what we call “Islamism” is antagonistic to the liberal “democratic” world that we (you and I, and a few billion more) cherish. Islamism—fundamentalist, extreme, radical, intolerant and murderous Islamism—is really something that we should be trying to neutralize, tame and defeat, because it is an enemy of democracy, and of reasonable people everywhere.

The question I have is whether this overarching campaign to restore sanity to the Muslim world is helped or hindered by calling opponents of Israel who protest also against Jewish communities outside Israel “antisemitic”. I think it is not helped but hindered. I think this distracts from the larger purpose, and, because the accusation of real antisemitism is misplaced, discredits people who wave the “antisemite!” banner.  I think it would be much better if Jewish communities in Europe understood that the protests aimed at their synagogues really were, as they purport to be, primarily protests against Israeli policy and only secondarily protests against them as supporters of the state that perpetrates these policies—rather than simply labeling it all as “antisemitism”. This is a particularly controversial point, so let me explain more fully what I mean.

The degrees and kinds of hostility should not be lumped together but need to be understood for what they are. If a synagogue is daubed with a swastika then that is at the very least rhetorically antisemitic, and in any case a crime. Daubing “Free Gaza” on a synagogue wall is also a crime, and hugely disrespectful of a religious institution, just as daubing a mosque with some slogan would be. But the phrase “Free Gaza” in itself is not antisemitic; it is a protest, and a reasonable one in my opinion, even if I can see the other side too. Imagine if “Free Gaza” were the slogan on a banner at a peaceful protest in front of a synagogue. This would be very uncomfortable for the synagogue members, no doubt, but because of the perception, encouraged by almost all Jewish communities these days, that they stand in full solidarity with Israel (whatever that means) I think linking the synagogue with Israel’s policies in Gaza is within the bounds of civility when it comes to expressions of nationalist politics.

It is especially so if the synagogue in question has a big banner in front of it asserting “We support Israel”, as mine does, to my great disquiet. From a Jewish nationalist aka Zionist perspective this solidarity is entirely understandable, but the other side of this is that Jews in the Diaspora who mostly support this view should expect slogans such as “Free Gaza” to be aimed not only at the Israeli embassy but also at their religious, social and community centre, the synagogue. A banner proclaiming “We support Israel” means that the community involved is no longer a purely religious one, but has declared a national, political allegiance as well, and it is at least understandable why opponents would identify such a community with Israel as a result. Given the horrific history of Jewish persecution in Europe I can see how any targeting of Jews, even as peaceful protests, can feel as though it is antisemitic, but we need to be able to control our emotions and think as coolly as possible, and in this instance, I think it just gets us into more trouble if we write off even reasonable protest from the other side, reasonably directed, as just more antisemitism.

I also think it would be best if liberal democratic groups in the Arab world were enabled to distinguish between hostility to Jews that was understandable from an Arab perspective (such as the anger about the recent Gaza conflict) from that which was simply Islamist Jew-hatred based on antisemitic tropes. Currently both responses tend to be described as “antisemitism” here, and the indiscriminate nature of the term ends up discrediting Arab liberals because they are seen as siding with people who are condemning as “antisemitic” an otherwise quite understandable anger at the other side, Israel’s, policies.

The whole subject is, as you know already, a minefield, but my purpose here in questioning the use and usefulness of the term “antisemitism” when it comes to Arab and Muslim hostility to Jews and Israel in Europe today was to try and clarify the issues, and I have to thank you for your intervention, because this has helped me formulate a conclusion that I think we can probably both agree to. The main threat of radical Islamism today is not only to Israel, not only to Jews, but to the whole democratic world order, based on liberal pluralism. Antisemitism is only part of it. The whole ideology and the movements it has spawned need to be countered and the societies affected brought back to a reasonable, tolerable, and tolerant, state. Israel thinks itself the centre of all this, but it is not; America is. What Israel does today, based as its current politics and government policy are on a form of Jewish nationalism, complicates and frustrates efforts at countering Islamism, through its blockade of Gaza and its colonialist settlements policy on the West Bank, and its anti-cosmopolitan, anti-internationalist attitude to the international community. When Israel should be helping the forces of democracy in their efforts to counter the threat of Islamism, its government is instead pursuing their narrow, nationalist agenda, at considerable cost to all of us who want a better, more democratic world.

Israel’s expansionist nationalism jeopardizes the two-state solution with the Palestinians, and it also directly makes the situation of Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere in the world more precarious, because of the understandable anger of Arabs, Muslims and other Palestinian sympathizers at these policies. Because its supporters in America have a lock on American congressional politics, Israel also has a hobbling influence on many attempts of American administrations to foster a better global atmosphere for democratic values such as human rights and education for all. AIPAC’s influence has, indirectly, caused America to lose clout in such bodies as UNESCO, because of the admission of Palestine as a state member. It is not in Israel’s interest for the US to lose influence in UNESCO, or any other UN organization, but its supporters have prevented the small legislative change that would solve this problem so far, because of the nationalist aim of, somehow or other, punishing a UN agency for allowing Palestine in. Israel’s refusal to be really serious about negotiating with the Palestinian Authority and the Obama administration to find an acceptable peace settlement, favouring colonialist settlements instead, showing up the impotence of the Obama administration in the meantime when it comes to American policy decisions related to Israel, has meant that the American policy in the Middle East has been hobbled and discredited almost from the start. Yet it is America and its influence in the UN agencies of the international community that still offer the best hope at countering the horrendous threat of Islamism (in Europe and America, among alienated Muslim youth, as well as the Muslim world) today. So Israel, pursuing short-term nationalist aims, is hindering the best options we have in countering the threat of Islamism. It is not helping, it is hurting, the global democratic cause.

That is why, I think, for the sake not only of ourselves, but also for the long-term interest of Israel and democracies everywhere, we should make a clear distinction between “antisemitism” and whatever other term you want for hostility towards Israel and Jews from Palestinians and their supporters (Muslim and non-Muslim) that is not completely beyond the Pale. If the political magic wand of “antisemite!” were taken away from Israel and its supporters that might be a rude awakening for them, but a salutary one. It might make them reconsider the shortsighted and disingenuous nature of their policies, and the dangerous path on which they have helped set Israel, and us. I do not think simply renaming something can make the problem go away. I am aware of the critical nature of the problem, but I think it behooves us to understand as well as possible what the actual problem is, and to that extent, while I acknowledge that the threat of the exclusory logic informing antisemitism is still with us, and at the moment in a more potent form than it has been for quite some time, I still think that the injudicious use of the term “antisemitism” should be curtailed, in order to fight the underlying phenomenon more effectively.

Yours sincerely


Dear Steven

Thank you for your reply. As always you raise interesting and crucial questions.

I share your view that it is important not to put the various groups of radical Islamism into one category. I agree with you that it might be necessary to try and negotiate with the more moderate elements of political Islamism, and I also believe that it would have been better not to break off all negotiations with Mahmud Abbas after he formed a coalition government with Hamas. I feel connected to the Israeli peace camp and I am a signatory of JCall, the European equivalent of JStreet. About these issues we do not disagree.

You are absolutely right that things look very different in Washington DC as opposed to in Vienna, Paris or Berlin. In Washington DC you are confronted with an alleged fight against antisemitism which is not really a fight against antisemitism but rather the delegitimization of any criticism against Israeli policies. In this context it is appropriate to emphasize the differences between hostile reactions by Muslims to the state of Israel and the resentments of the old European antisemitism. In addition one cannot overemphasize the difference between the unbearable helplessness of Jews in former times and Israel’s current capacity to defuse the situation and solve the conflict.

In Vienna I am rather often confronted with an alleged criticism of Israel which is not at all political criticism but instead genuine antisemitism. Here you come across outspoken antisemitic attacks but also soft spoken myths about Jewish revengefulness and Jewish conspiracies. These antisemitic myths are spread by proponents of various religions and they are no less antisemitic just because they are articulated by a taxi driver whose family happens to come from a Muslim country. Do you think the denial of the Holocaust is less antisemitic just because it is voiced by a Turkish journalist instead of a Catholic construction worker? And what if the son of a Christian nurse and a Muslim teacher shouts “Death to the Jews”? Would you call him a “half-antisemite”? Certainly not.

Allow me to repeat: I agree that the context is important. When in 1952 the Czech Communist Rudolf Slansky was accused of being a Zionist, everyone in Prague knew he was convicted because he was a Jew. When a man in Gaza accuses the Jews of having stolen his land it is clear to everyone that he speaks about the Zionists. But the same sentence in Ramallah does not mean the same in Istanbul, in Berlin or in Paris.

You write that all the pre-Israel hostility to Jews in Palestine is quite clearly, from the Palestinians’ viewpoint, a form of anti-colonialism and anti-Zionism, with Zionism being a Jewish colonial ethnonationalism. But I believe the reasons for the pre-Israel hostility to Jews in Egypt or in Iraq are more complex by far. The pogroms in Baghdad, Cairo or Alexandria in the 1940s, the anti-Jewish laws and discrimination remind me of the persecutions of minorities in other postcolonial countries. I cannot help thinking about the Tamils in Sri Lanka, of the Chinese in Indonesia or, for instance, of the Tutsis in Rwanda. These persecutions were also driven by the colonial strategy of divide and conquer. But even if Islamist antisemitism was caused by Zionism, what would that mean today? Jewish nationalism and Palestinian nationalism were both the reactions to and the roots of specific traumatic experiences.

But Islamist antisemitism has become a process with its own independent dynamics. It is now an irrational passion of hate and murder.

Sadly enough I encounter quite a lot of Islamophobia in Jewish European circles. The origins of this Islamophobia are totally different from the old traditional European racism. The Jewish Islamophobes do not fear an infiltration by foreign agents. They do not fear a biological danger. They refer to the anti-Jewish hostilities of Muslims. They fear the globalization of the Intifada. They speak out because of their fear of extreme Islamism. Some of their concerns may not be totally unjustified, but should we therefore refrain from calling them racists when they rant against the whole Muslim community just because they are Jews? Some of the French Jews voted for Le Pen’s Front National. Are they any better than their Christian compatriots just because they are Jews? No. I call them extreme right-wing racists because that’s precisely what they are.

You write: “from a Zionist perspective, that I do not share, I cannot see how protests against Israel aimed at Jews in other countries is not, on nationalist grounds, justified.” I disagree. From a Zionist perspective protests against the Jewish diaspora are as unjustified as protests against the Croatian diaspora would be from a national Croatian perspective. One should be able—from every perspective—to distinguish between a nation, its national movement, its diaspora and a national government. The radical Islamists call for murder in the name of Islam, but that is no justification for Islamophobia.

I do not fight antisemitism just because I am a Jew. I fight antisemitism because I oppose antisemitism. As a citoyen of a new Europe, I regard antisemitism as a danger for a multicultural and democratic EU. It is a threat to our society. We live in a globalized world but Western culture is still a dominant force. Its images and stereotypes were exported to other continents. There they may gain momentum and grow to become a danger to our civilization. Therefore it is necessary to fight antisemitism wherever it takes root.

I am rather astonished when you suggest that to protect “minorities and the different among us” in Europe today “means combating Islamophobia rather than calling Muslim critics of Israel antisemites”. I fight Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism because I am against Islamophobia and against racism. I think it is wrong to fight antisemitism in order to combat Islamophobia and it is equally wrong to combat Islamophobia to fight antisemitism. Whoever wants to defend the “different among us” has to understand the very importance of fighting all different racisms in their different ways. The moment we start to combat one racism rather than the other we are trapped in the logic of racism.

You suggest making a clear distinction between “antisemitism” and the hostility towards Israel and Jews by Palestinians and their supporters (Muslim and non-Muslim) that is not completely beyond the Pale, because it would lead to a salutary awakening amongst the supporters of the Israeli government. I suppose this argument is also the reason why you seem to reject the whole idea of a “new antisemitism”. Isn’t that an ideological decision which somehow resembles the strategy of the Israeli right and their dogmatic decision to declare every delegitimization of Israel nothing but antisemitism?

Since the liberation of Auschwitz and after the foundation of Israel the phenomenon of antisemitism has undergone some dramatic changes. One doesn’t have to be a Likudnik to encounter agitators of “secondary antisemitism” (e.g.: Schönbach, 1961, Imhoff and Banse, 2008) Since the twentieth century we experience new forms of antisemitism voiced by groups that were not antisemitic before. These are the tedious empirical facts.

I suggest we should not give in to generalizations. We should propagate the obvious differences. We must distinguish between antisemitic tropes, antisemitic resentments and ideological antisemites. We should talk about the discourse of mutual insinuations. One side suspects the other of raising criticism against Israel merely for antisemitic motives whereas the other side suspects that the charge of antisemitism is only brought up to delegitimize any criticism of Israel. Quite often both sides are right. But it is our duty to look at each case independently—sine ira et studio—and not to decide that Muslim attacks on Jews are not antisemitism because something which must not be, cannot be.

This summer we can all see the totalitarian reality and barbaric irrationality of radical Islamism. We agree, dear Steven, that Israel has to stop its settlement policy and negotiate with its neighbours, but we should also not forget that this is not a one-sided conflict. We should not whitewash the new antisemitism in Muslim communities. This we not only owe the Jews in the Middle East and all over the world but all religious minorities who are haunted and murdered by Islamists in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and also in Palestine, and most importantly we owe it the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are currently terrorized and killed by Islamist troops. We have to speak out. We have to react to the antisemitic attacks and to antisemitic language as if we did not strive for peace but we must strive for peace as if there was no antisemitism.

Yours sincerely

Dear Doron

I think we have probably reached a point where we are in agreement on so much in terms of the practical aspect of what should and should not be done that it would be a shame to spoil this by continuing to quibble about the interpretations of a few words or concepts. I think it much more significant that we agree on what policies should be followed even as we disagree on where and when to use the term “antisemitism”.

We still disagree, apparently, on what the practical and hence political importance is of using the term “antisemitism” when referring to Muslim and Arab critics of Israel and its Jewish supporters, even when that criticism is at least understandable, as in much of the protests against the recent war in Gaza. Such criticism is hostile to Jews, but to call such criticism “antisemitism” does seem to me playing into the hands of Islamophobes, because it gives another reason to fear (and hold in contempt) Muslims. I think we need to disallow the use of the term antisemitism here, because it is too loaded. I do not think I am fighting one racism with another one–I am trying to defang the ideological weapons of both sides. You talk of the need to approach all these different antisemitisms  differently–I just think that at some point one of those “antisemitisms” has such different grounds, causation and history that it confuses rather than informs our debate about what to do about it. If we called the Arab/Muslim hostility to Israel and Jews “anti-Jewism” (an option) I’m not sure whether that would that make it all that more attractive than calling it “antisemitism”, but in my view it would help to distinguish it from the well-worn (and too often abused) concept of “antisemitism”.

We still disagree about the implications of Jewish nationalism aka Zionism for the situation of Diaspora Jewry in relation to Israel. Radical Islamism is not a nation-state. Israel is a nation-state, at least in its own self-understanding. You compare Israel to Croatia. But it could be compared to Russia. If a Ukrainian at the moment were to walk up and down in front of Chelsea FC with a sign saying “Roman Abramovich! Break your ties with the fascist Putin!” I don’t think that would be regarded as an illegitimate connection between the actions of the Russian state and that of one of its diaspora’s more prominent members. Within the logic of nationalism I think it is valid to hold diaspora members of “the nation” responsible for the home nation-state’s actions, especially when they are actively supporting that state and/or its actions. However, I am not a nationalist (and nor are you, I would have thought), so I do not think this connection is really valid. (Perhaps that was not clear the first time around.) But what I cannot understand is a nationalist claiming that nationalist logic is all right when he uses it, but from the opponent is somehow illegitimate, and this argument being accepted by non-nationalists as fair. If Zionists were just called Jewish nationalists then I think the obvious logical problem with calling Arab and Muslim critics of not only Israel but also of Jewish “nationals” abroad illegitimate because of “antisemitically” conflating Israel and Jews–just as Jewish nationalism aka Zionism does–would be clearer.

I do agree with you that we should oppose racism, prejudice, exclusionary ideologies that destroy the right to be different wherever they are, regardless of whether we are Jewish or not, and I am certainly with you, therefore, in opposing extreme radical Islamism, as I am sure we both would be if there was such a thing as extreme radical Jewism, or even extreme radical Jewish nationalism. We both support the liberal pluralist principles of what is called “democracy” (even though that is largely a product of “Western culture”–one way or another, just like antisemitism). It is the threat to this “democracy”, from wherever the threat comes–xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, integral ethnonationalism, oligarchic communism, or indeed capitalist plutocracy and the military-industrial complex–that we need to identify as the main target of our intellectual and political energies of opposition. In this effort there are many occasions when the word “antisemitism” can and should be slung at democracy’s enemies, and then there are others when it is not so credible or effective, and often counter-productive. Exactly when and where the line is to be drawn between these occasions is a matter of judgement and I agree, very debatable. From my perspective, some of the current uses hurt more than help the cause of “democracy”, especially when they appear to defend policies that are actually anti-democratic. I do not think we are that far apart, and in practical terms hardly at all.  Agreeing to disagree is not only a practical thing to do in such circumstances, but highly “democratic”. Let us leave it at that.

Yours sincerely


And so this debate draws to a close, for now at least. As you will have realised, much as Steven and Doron agree about a great deal, there remains fundamental disagreement about the central issue of whether it’s time to use a word other than antisemitism to describe the anti-Jewish hostility of Muslim supporters of the cause of the Palestinians. The authors and I very much welcome comments on this exchange, especially if you can bring something new to the table. Meanwhile, I am grateful to them for taking the time to formulate and express their views and to engage in this exchange. I hope it has thrown some much-needed light on what remains a very controversial topic. — Antony Lerman

Posted in Antisemitism, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The end of liberal Zionism? Most commentators say ‘no’

For anyone interested in what has been said–and it’s overwhelmingly critical–in response to the thesis I laid out briefly in my op-ed in the New York Times on 24 August, ‘The End of Liberal Zionism’, here are the titles and links for most of the published and posted pieces I have come across that address my column directly. They range from the elegantly written and persuasively argued to the coarsely hacked and bruisingly prosecuted. I could have omitted a few, but, in the interests of fairness and objectivity, I thought I should not only let the stylists (and I mean that as a compliment) speak but also the rough-tongued.

The scale of the response took me completely by surprise. I realised, of course, that the piece was controversial, but I did not expect so many people to feel the need to attempt to refute my arguments in such strong terms. Clearly, I touched a raw nerve. But I also know that for some, I struck a chord.

I certainly did not expect to persuade the liberal Zionist community with just one short op-ed. I never thought for one moment that they would all fold up their tents and move on, joining–most of them at least–in the Jewish/Israel-Palestinian movement or campaign for equal rights that I advocate in the piece. I wanted to start a debate and in this I reckon I succeeded beyond what I could ever have imagined.

I have learnt a lot from what others have written. It has given me much food for thought. A lot of good thinking has gone into some of the arguments deployed against me. However–and this is a big ‘however’–I’m struck by some of the spectacular misreadings of what I wrote, the need for many to put me in a labelled box in which I simply don’t belong and the tendency to ignore completely some of the very central facets of my argument–as if they are so unpalatable, they simply can’t be engaged with. The mind turns away; it doesn’t want to know.

I am deliberately not spelling out now precisely what was said (you can read it for yourselves here) or precisely why I think it was mostly wrong, because I hope to respond at greater length, both writing a much fuller exposition of my thesis and, in the course of doing so, answering my critics. It may take a little time to secure the right opportunity for this and the right place in which to do it. I will make sure friends and foes alike are informed when and where this will come about.

Meanwhile, make what you will of the pieces I have supplied links to below.

First, here is a link to the op-ed itself, so that anyone alighting on this blog who isn’t familiar with my piece can first see what all the fuss was about. But also for anyone who read it and wants to read it again so that they make sure they know what my arguments really were before they read the counter-arguments of most of the pieces:


Here are the links to the critical articles and posts:

1. The Washington Post 22 August 2014

Two reasons the ‘I can’t be a Zionist because I’m a liberal’ meme is false

David Bernstein


2. Haaretz 22 August 2014

Not the end of liberal Zionism

Michael L Gross


3. Haaretz 27 August 2014

The unrequited love affair between liberal Jews and an illiberal Israel

Strenger than fiction: Carlo Strenger


4. The Nation 26 August 2014

Liberal Zionism is dying. The two-state solution shouldn’t go with it.

Michelle Goldberg


5. The New Yorker 5 September 2014

Is liberal Zionism impossible?

Bernard Avishai


6. Haaretz 29 August 2014

Liberal Zionism: It can’t be dead because it never existed

Asher Schechter


7. New Jersey Jewish News 27 August 2014

The liberal Zionist surrender

Andrew Silow-Caroll


8. The Jewish Daily Forward 19 August 2014

Liberal Zionists Unite! Now is not the time to recoil from Israel

Elan Ezrach and Naamah Kelman


9. Huffington Post 26 August 2014

If liberal Zionism were dead, what actions would that imply?

Robert Naiman


10. Frontpage Mag 24 August 2014

Liberal Zionism isn’t dead, Liberalism is

Daniel Greenfield


11. Jerusalem Post 26 August 2014

Israel’s patriotic left offers an important model for diaspora Jews–and liberals everywhere

Gil Troy


12. Haaretz 28 August 2014

The next step for liberal Zionists: a Freedom Summer with Palestinians

Peter Beinart


13. The New York Jewish Week 29 August 2014

Liberal Zionism and its discontents

Jeremy Ben-Ami


14. The Times of Israel 29 August 2014

Since when is a challenge a bad thing? Response to Antony Lerman

Sheri Oz


15. The Jewish Daily Forward 2 September 2014

So you really think that liberal Zionism is dead? Gaza did not spell the end of the two-sate solution

JJ Goldberg


16. ARZA The Reform Israel Fund 26 August 2014

I am a liberal Zionist and this is NOT the end

Rabbi Josh Weinberg


17. San Diego Jewish World 31 August 2014

Answering a liberal Jewish critic of Israel

Steve Kramer


18. Haaretz 2 September 2014

Despair won’t advance liberal Zionists’ agenda

Brent Sasley


19. Mondoweiss 22 August 2014

‘NYT’ op-ed calls on Jews to abandon liberal Zionism and call for equal rights

Philip Weiss


20. The Partners for Progressive Israel blog 26 August 2014

Examining anti-Zionist op-ed in NY Times

Irwin Wall, Lilly Rivlin, anonymous, Paul Scham


21. PassaicPark.com 31 August 2014

The liberal Zionist surrender


22. Smartertimes.com 23 August 2014

Antony Lerman’s end of liberal Zionism


23. Jerusalem Post 28 August 2014

A dose of nuance: hope you’re having a good summer

David Gordis


24. Theology in the Vineyard 25 August 2014

Endgame for liberal Zionism?


25. New York Times 30 August 2014

Letters to the Editor: Liberal Zionism today

Strong reactions to an essay saying that Israeli policies have tarnished the Zionist ideal.


Posted in Jews worldwide, Middle East | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

British Zionism, Jews and Gaza

Most Zionist organizations and Jewish leaders in the UK found it very difficult to cope with the fallout from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. They were criticized from the right and the left. The right-wing Zionism they espouse ever more aggressively intensified divisions within the Jewish community. In my latest article, written for New Left Project, I argue that the Zionism served up by most of British Jewry’s leadership is of no positive help to the very many British Jews who have grave doubts, and feel uneasy and confused, about Israel’s trajectory.


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The end of liberal Zionism – my op-ed in the New York Times

I have long been convinced that only one form of Zionism has any agency and significance today: it’s the dominant Zionism in Israel, xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by religious messianism, carrying out an open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe. Only a few years ago I thought that liberal Zionism might help in persuading diaspora Jews to voice their reservations about Israel’s policies and thereby influence the actions of the Israeli government. But I’m now convinced that liberal Zionism has reached a dead end and is now a barrier to making any progress towards equality, justice and rights for all in Israel-Palestine.

I develop my argument for this conclusion in an op-ed published today online in the New York Times, which will also appear in the print edition of the International New York Times on Saturday 23 August and in the New York Times Sunday Review (on 24 August). Here’s the link to the op-ed:




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Combating antisemitism and defending Israel: a potentially explosive mix

If any more evidence were required to demonstrate that the Community Security Trust (CST), the private charity that describes its mission as monitoring and combating antisemitism on behalf of the British Jewish Community, is abusing its mandate by providing political support for Israel, look no further than its response to reports of anti-Jewish hostility arising out of the Gaza crisis.

The UK’s Jewish News quotes from a statement by Mark Gardner, Communications Director of the CST, on the rise in reported antisemitic incidents since the beginning of the most recent conflict with Hamas:

“Anti-Semitic incidents will subside along with the images on people’s television screens, but the long term damage to Jews of anti-Israel boycotts will persist. 

“One consequence of this war will be a lot more boycotts, either through choice or intimidation. Just as Israel is being singled out for scrutiny and boycott, so many Jews are going to feel the same way.”

The conflation of the political campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law, with attacks on synagogues and violent, abusive insults levelled at individual Jews, is completely unjustified. There is nothing inherently antisemitic in the aims of BDS yet the CST clearly implies that there is.

It’s hardly surprising that the CST takes this line, one that they have pursued for some years. It’s the line adopted by the main, establishment organizations of the Jewish community, for example, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Zionist Federation, not to mention the Israeli government and its representatives at the Israel Embassy in London. But providing political cover for Israel in this way takes the CST into the realm of partisan political action that hardly seems compatible with its charitable status.

Gardner’s statement, as well as the comment article he wrote for the CST’s website that was republished by the Express on 6 August, also demonstrate a distinct degree of irresponsibility in the CST’s approach to fulfilling its mission. Monitoring and combating antisemitism remains a vital task and the CST has a lot of experience and does a lot of good work in this area. But while it is right to take the facts as they have them and report accurately to the media, local authorities, police, government and so on, they muddy the waters when they seem to be encouraging hysteria and feeding paranoia.

In the Express Gardner uses blatantly inflammatory language: “mass intimidations of supermarkets”; the extent of the UK media’s focus on Gazan child victims “indicates that . . . blood libels still lurk somewhere deep”; “Are British Jews (and those elsewhere) to be forever held hostage to a seemingly intractable conflict in which totalitarian Jihadists are sworn to destroy Israel at whatever cost?” These are not facts. They are exaggerations and speculations. The tone of the entire article seems designed to reinforce rather than calm fears. Instead of telling us that 34 per cent of British Jews believe that a person who criticises Israel and supports a boycott of Israel is “definitely antisemitic” and somehow implying that this view is justified, the CST should be explaining to British Jews that however much they might dislike criticism of Israel and the idea of a boycott, it’s a legitimate political tactic. There are probably many hundreds of British Jews who criticise Israel and approve of a boycott of some kind–are they antisemites too? Does the CST endorse such a conclusion?

Gardner is clearly aware of the inappropriateness of CST mixing up the politics of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians with its role in combating antisemitism. He writes:

The super-heated arguments of how the media covers Israel are not strictly CST’s business; and neither are boycotts of Israel.

But that doesn’t stop him making it CST’s business.

If the CST is determined to politicise its antisemitism work, it would be far more productive if it drew political conclusions from what it rightly does tell the Jewish community and the wider public: that antisemitic incidents rise and fall in concert with the rise and fall of violent action taken by Israel against the Palestinians. Those conclusions are obvious: it should strongly advise Jewish diaspora leaders to lobby the Israeli government to desist from such actions as they bring a political solution to the conflict no closer and lead to actual and potential harm to Jews throughout the world, the very people whose welfare and safety Israeli governments claim only Israel can secure.

Posted in Antisemitism, British Jews, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments