‘Like going down Memory Lane’: Brits For Peace Now raises hopes but offers nothing new

The launch of Brits For Peace Now (BFPN) at Portcullis House, London, on 27 February reflected well on its young leadership whose energy and dynamism ensured a good turnout — testament to the continuing desire for a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict among British Jews. Between 150-200 people made the very large reception room look comfortably populated. I had a sense that spirits were lifted by this demonstration of interest in the rebirth of an organization that, in its former guise as British Friends of Peace Now, was in effect defunct. The enthusiasm of the two co-chairs, Dan Arenson and Dan Levene, was infectious. Yossi Mekelberg, the Middle East expert at Chatham House, acknowledged that this was not a propitious time for the peace movement but it was right ‘to lay the groundwork for when the time for peace is right’. The chair of Peace Now Israel, Yariv Oppenheimer, insisted that the two-state solution was the only way of achieving an end to violence and lasting peace. Fighting for this and for Israel’s democracy, now under political attack in the Knesset, were Peace Now’s priorities. The support of BFPN was important for Israel.

But slick PR, a prestigious venue, hopeful words and youthful passion are all very well. The question is, will BFPN make any difference? I certainly couldn’t see anything in the event itself that suggested it will. Unfortunately, to attract 150-200 to a launch of this kind does not mean very much. Especially since I’m sure that a significant proportion were people already involved in other peace groups. I myself saw at least 20-25 friends and acquaintances I knew to be active in at least one other such organization. Providing yet another framework for the same people who are already active is hardly going to change the way the Jewish community thinks.

I suppose that with a young leadership BFPN perhaps might have more luck reaching out to what is indeed a very important constituency: Jews in their 20s and 30s. And they must be given a chance to do this. However, the launch of Yachad, billed as the UK’s J Street, set out to do something very similar, but I have not seen any evidence that they have achieved any kind of breakthrough. Moreover, while I’m all in favour of creative competition in the Jewish community, to have two such similar organizations targeting the same generation seems rather unwise. There is certainly a level of disquiet about Israel’s policies across much of the Jewish community and it should be possible to tap into it to build a broad coalition. But the re-launch of a British Peace Now support group suggests that no one is achieving that aim. One more small and worthy organization is merely added to the existing list.

The heartfelt words of Mekelberg and Oppenheimer also did little to suggest BFPN is offering anything new. Mekelberg tried to strike an optimistic note, but it was telling that his most memorable line was that being at the launch was ‘like going down Memory Lane’. Peace Now was founded in the late 1970s, long before the Oslo Accords. To carry the word ‘Now’ in the name of an organization for more than 30 years must raise questions about what it can ever do to help reach a resolution of the conflict. Don’t get me wrong, Peace Now does some very important work, first in monitoring settlement activity and seeking to combat the proliferation of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and second in combating anti-democratic trends in Israeli society. But it’s losing the battle on both of these fronts.

Oppenheimer laid great stress on the two-state solution, as did Mekelberg, as if it were the only sure fire way of reaching a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict. But their failure to acknowledge that the actual possibility of achieving such an outcome is now virtually non-existent, given the entrenchment of Israeli power and control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, showed a depressing failure to face up to the truth. A creeping, repressive, undemocratic one-state reality is being constructed by the Netanyahu government. If Peace Now in Israel and BFPN don’t face up to this fact and address it, they will remain marginal to whatever’s coming down the pike.

It’s understandable that the director of Peace Now in Israel should want to garner as much support from diaspora Jews as possible. It needs financial and moral assistance. But whether another UK branch of an Israeli organization is what British Jews need as a vehicle for expressing their views on the Israel-Palestine conflict is very doubtful. BFPN aims to educate Jews and non-Jews about the dangers of West Bank settlement, publicise the struggle for peace taking place in Israel and lobby the British government to encourage peace negotiations, but being tied to an Israeli organization, there is no guarantee that it will do that with a clear-eyed focus on what is best for British Jews. It says that it’s ‘also in a unique position to combat advocacy of the one-state solution, as well as calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions in British political discourse’. But why it should be so positioned is not clear. And why should it be seen as such a good idea anyway, when the language BFPN uses usually means buying in to the levelling of demonising accusations of antisemitism against people who advocate one-state and BDS?

I still firmly believe that British Jews can help themselves, Israel and the Palestinians by acting independently to make people aware of Israel’s disastrous policies and by taking a hard-headed, human rights-based approach to advocating a peace with justice for Palestinians and Israelis. While I wish the BFPN team well, they have a long way to go before they can confidently prove that this is the role they are fulfilling.

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Muslims and Jews: beyond clichés and mutual demonisation

A fascinating and important workshop on relations between Muslims and Jews, organized by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University of London, began with a nuanced account of the treatment of Jews and Muslims in English law by Professor Maleiha Malik (King’s College University of London) and ended with the writer Karl Sabbagh defending his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon‘s antisemitic diatribe The Wandering Who? However unfortunate and deeply depressing the ending, the opening and closing sessions exemplified the intelligent conceptual approach of Professor David Feldman, the Director of the Pears Institute, to organizing the discussion, which was to tackle some issues from a thoroughly academic angle but also to get activists to speak and highlight how Muslims and Jews respond to day-to-day social, political and cultural issues that affect them individually and jointly.

This initiative, which is being undertaken jointly with partner institutions in America, Israel, France and Germany, is unquestionably important. The Pears Institute, together with the other eight members of the International Consortium for Research on Antisemitism and Racism, are committed to ‘reshaping and revitalising’ the academic study of antisemitism, but also to confronting the complex contemporary issues, such as the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, that make studying antisemitism in its current manifestations so fraught with controversy.

If we need reminding of the significance of this approach, we have only to recall the welcome demise of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), which put political advocacy above scholarly objectivity. Unfortunately, the battle to ensure that dispassionate academic standards prevail over politicisation of the subject is by no means over. While the Pears Institute is making a hugely significant contribution to this effort, only a week or so ago the announcement of the launch of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, provides ample evidence that those who give priority to a prior political agenda, most commonly manifested through the promotion of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, over the serious analysis of contemporary antisemitism are still on the warpath. Among the members of the Academic Advisory Board of this centre are the former head of YIISA, Charles Small, and various figures, like Professor Ruth Wisse, Professor Dina Porat  and Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld, who supported the approach followed by Small at YIISA. Most tellingly, the Honorary Chairman of the Board is Professor Irwin Cotler, former Canadian Justice Minister, who has probably done more than anyone else to promote the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ and therefore contribute massively to the politicisation of the study of the subject.

Dispassionate and nuanced academic inquiry certainly characterised the first day’s papers on: Muslims, Jews and the law; representing Jews and Muslims in the media; and Muslims, Jews and multiculturalism. In particular the speakers in the session on multiculturalism – Nasar Meer (Northumbria University) and Humayan Ansari (Royal Holloway) especially – clearly showed, through historical and sociological research, that despite the political attack on multiculturalism so vigorously mounted since the turn of the century, the pursuit of multicultural policies in the UK has not stopped. Moreover, such policies have clearly helped foster integration, social cohesion and a sense of common national belonging, precisely the opposite of what political leaders like Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel claim.

On the second day, activists like Mohammed Aziz (Faithwise) and Edie Friedman (Jewish Council for Racial Equality) had their chance to talk about promoting action to strengthen civil society that aimed explicitly or implicitly bring Jews and Muslims closer together. Other activists focused on the political issues that divide Muslims and Jews. David Hirsh (Goldsmiths) and Daniel Sheldon (Union of Jewish Students) spoke about antisemitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict on university campuses. Alan Johnson (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM) and Karl Sabbagh argued about truth and lies in pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocacy.

Neither Aziz nor Friedman minimised the problems affecting the relationship between Jews and Muslims. But the practical work in which they are engaged gives cause for hope that shared common values and similar visions of Britishness and British society could provide the basis for improved relations over time.  However, the campus conflicts and the propaganda war over Israel-Palestine (especially concerning issues such as Israeli apartheid) show just how easily the stress on being ‘brothers in humanity’ can be overshadowed by politics and accusations of bad faith.

While the second day’s presentations were not billed as academic, nonetheless, grounding judgements in verifiable evidence must surely be common currency when the prevalence of antisemitism and the rights and wrongs of the Palestine-Israel conflict are under consideration. Yet this was sorely lacking. Hirsh said his concern was with antisemitism among the ‘chattering classes’, in ‘our world’ (by which he presumably meant academics and commentators). Using the phrase ‘bloody Jews’ is not something that would now damage an academic’s reputation, he claimed. But he could offer nothing more than anecdotes to back this up. As if to pre-empt criticism of the flimsiness of this approach, he continuously stressed that assessing antisemitism was ‘a political judgement’ and that arguing about definitions of antisemitism was a distraction. But if identifying antisemitism is fundamentally a matter of judgement, with no recourse to any agreed definition of what it is, who’s to say that one person’s judgement is better than anyone else’s? Hirsh’s ‘method’ is a recipe for anarchy and gives licence to anyone to set themselves up as an expert on the subject – precisely what has led to the degradation and devaluation of the academic study of contemporary antisemitism.

Equally troubling was Johnson’s exposition of the BICOM method of pro-Israel advocacy. This seems to involve acknowledging the legitimacy of a degree of criticism of Israel, but in such a way as to perpetuate the entirely false notion that the Israel-Palestine conflict is between two equivalent powers. Phrases like ‘two traumatised peoples’ and ‘it’s more important to be reasonable than right’ seemed designed to undercut clear evidence that Israel, as the occupying power, carries principal responsibility for the current state of affairs and to imply that it’s reasonable – for the ‘greater good’ – for Palestinians to give up their rights. He made much of BICOM’s concern with the plight of the Bedouin in Israel and of Arabs in Israel in general, but deliberately avoided using the term Arabs in Israel now use to describe themselves – Palestinians – and avoided any mention of the word ‘occupation’.

Sadly, Sabbagh’s presentation, supposedly an exposition of the ‘Lies of Zionism’, though heartfelt was misjudged. As one participant pointed out, while there are certainly Zionist lies, any competent researcher would also find lies in presentations of the Palestinian and Arab case. And the legitimacy of his argument was fundamentally damaged by the subsequent concerted critical pressure on him from quite a number of participants for his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s antisemitic book.

For the session on advocacy for Israel and Palestine to have provided a really useful basis for considering the impact of the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict on Muslim-Jewish community relations, it would have been better to have paired the BICOM representative with someone from an equivalent organization, such as the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). It would have then been possible to comment on the more fundamental ethical issues raised by such activity and what it meant for the self-perception of Muslim and Jewish citizens of the UK endeavouring to play a full part in British society and maintain their religious and ethnic distinctiveness. While it was perfectly right for participants to take Sabbagh to task over his endorsement of Atzmon, not only did Sabbagh not relent, it’s hard to see what was achieved by such an exchange, which I think must have left most people deeply disturbed.

Still, coming away from such an event disturbed rather than self-satisfied was entirely appropriate. It is hard to think of any other forum than the Pears Institute in which the discussion of the often very difficult issues raised could have been managed with such a degree of civility and respect. No attempt was made to pretend that  one event of this kind could do much more than identify issues for further exploration. And I hope that the further discussions that David Feldman indicated would take place in the UK, America, France, Germany and Israel will eventually lead to achieving the central goal of better Jewish-Muslim understanding.

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My book’s done, now back to blogging

Dear Blog: I missed you.

Yes, it’s true. I gave up blogging temporarily while I worked intensively on my book, an exploration of my engagement with Zionism and Israel going back 50 years. Much of the last four or five months has been taken up with editing my original completed manuscript: turning a 207,000-word behemoth into a slim, streamlined, cool-looking 99,000. At the beginning of the process, when someone said ‘It’s like tearing off your own flesh’ I was dismissive. ‘Oh, I’ve been an editor for years and I don’t mind cutting my own writing.’ Well, I eventually made it, but it was bloody painful at times. It reminded me of the conundrum of the flea hopping across a table half-way and then each further hop is half the distance of the one before. How long will it take to get to the other side? It gets closer and closer all the time, tantalisingly so, but will never ever reach its destination. That’s how I felt cutting my ms.

At one point I thought I’d never get there, but I did, and the breakthrough came when I’d reached about 127,000 working on screen, printed out the whole thing and worked on the hard copy. Although it sounds ridiculously mechanical, I started to set myself a target of cutting one-fifth from each page, on average, but the discipline worked–together with the fact that having a better visual sense of its shape seemed to open up more possibilities of what could be omitted.

I finally submitted the completed ms to my publishers, Pluto Press, last week and publication is planned for summer/autumn. There will still be more work to do, but the ship has been launched, as it were, with just the full fitting out to complete before the passengers can see inside. I won’t reveal the title here until Pluto’s July-December catalogue appears.

So, while I’m not exactly at a loose end, I plan to re-enter the blogging pit in a gradual fashion over the coming weeks. I’ve often wanted to enter the fray in the past months, but knew that I had to stay focused on the book. I plan to comment on matters both small and large, from the exaggeration of the level of antisemitism in Scotland to the Asian-style authoritarianism that has taken hold in Israel; from those terribly aggressive secularists marginalising religion in the UK to the ideological underpinnings of the Cameron Tory Party; from the far right and the slippage of its sanitising makeover to the further decline of the idea and dream of Europe.

But I also intend to explore other ways of expressing my views and, as you’ll understand, using whatever outlets I can to publicise my book. And I’m also hoping to revamp the look of my blog and make it more connected to the wider world of comment and information-providing.

And then there’s just a small matter of the next book . . .

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A Hungarian Jewish novelist meets the challenge of being different in difficult times

Gabor Szanto is a Hungarian novelist, short story writer, poet, translator and cultural entrepreneur whose Jewish identity informs all that he does. A key figure in the revival of Jewish life in Hungary post-1989, Szanto is the founding editor of Szombat (Sabbath), a Jewish political and cultural monthly, a periodical that is as ready to do verbal battle with the country’s less than perfect political establishment as it is to take to task what has often been a very reactionary Jewish establishment. Hungary’s Jewish population numbers between 80-110,000, although only a relatively small percentage is actually engaged in Jewish religious or cultural activity. That Szanto has succeeded in keeping Szombat alive and vibrant over two decades is both a testament to his perseverance and his realistic optimism about the future of Jewish life in Hungary.

The political pendulum has swung back and forth in Hungary since 1989, with social democrats vying with right-wing nationalists for ascendancy. The current rightist government of Viktor Orban is particularly illiberal, anti-democratic and unfriendly towards all minority groups in Hungary. Anti-Jewish innuendo is apparent once again in the public space, just as it was after 1989 when Istvan Csurka’s Magyar nationalist party, MIEP, was gaining popularity and feeding fears that antisemitism would become an influential factor in Hungarian national politics. Today it’s the far-right Jobbik party that leads the way in smearing Jews. And Orban’s Fidesz party has done nothing to distance itself from this. Rather it co-opted Jobbik-type rhetoric so that it could appeal to growing far-right opinion in Hungary.

In spite of these developments, Szanto continues in his quest to carve out a space for Jewish culture and thinking in mainstream Hungarian society. He explained something about the conditions in which Jewish life operates in an interview he gave to a Hungarian website based in Canada in 2008. Here are a couple of excerpts from it:

Interviewer: Since the collapse of the so called ‘socialist’ regime in 1989, anti-Semitism has surfaced and is more and more apparent in Hungary. Unlike Germany the Holocaust here is not regarded as a national trauma. If I may make a point: Hungary is almost unique in the world in that it simultaneously tolerates (or permits) open anti-Semitism and a blossoming Jewish culture. Isn’t that very bizarre? Isn’t that, using Nietzsche’s expression, ‘living dangerously’?

Gabor Szanto: Some say the anti-Semitism had a huge impact on the Jewish ethnic revival. . . But more seriously, there definitely is antisemitism, and it is tolerated in the media of the political right. It is trendy among youngsters to be on the radical right. It is a kind of rebellion against the mainstream. Jewish and Hungarian coexistence in the past 100 years has been analyzed in several of my essays. People in Hungary are not conscious enough about the historical past, including the Shoah. One of Hungary’s major neuroses derives from the two World Wars: the loss of two-thirds of the territory of the country after World War I. Hungarian identity is also very fragile. There is a minority complex, a constant fear that the nation will disappear . . . On the other hand, Jews also have a fear of the ‘Other’, because of the traumas of the Shoah and because of the fragile Jewish identity. People with fragile or no identities, desperately need the ‘Other’ to create an enemy to be afraid of. By comparing themselves to this ‘Other’, they can try to recreate their own identity on the remnants of their ‘original’ identity.

I: Do you see any future for Jewish youth in Hungary?

GS: After the Shoah European Jewish life can never be the same as before. After the Communism it is also very difficult to start Jewish life. But each generation brings about people who take up the intellectual challenge of individual thinking, of being different, even in spite of difficulties.

You can read the full interview here.

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‘Back the Palestinians’ UN bid’ the right wing Reut Institute tells Bibi–I agree

What does it mean when a highly influential, government-friendly think thank offers the most cogent, well-informed and well-argued advice to the Netanyahu coalition as to how it should respond to the Palestinians’ UN bid and the advice appears to be rejected? The Reut Institute, which defines its aim as ‘provid[ing] real-time, long-term strategic decision-support to Israeli leaders and decision-makers’, just published a paper titled: The Palestinian Declaration of Statehood: An Unparalleled Opportunity? The question mark implies a diffidence that is absent from the paper itself. The authors seem to be in no doubt that actively campaigning to get UN recognition of the Palestinian Authority as an independent state and a full member state of the UN is firmly in the Netanyahu government’s, and thereby Israel’s, best interest.

The Reut Institute came to international attention in 2010 for policy advice, enthusiastically adopted by the Israeli government, on combating the worldwide ‘delegitimization’ of Israel. The narrative associated with this term has become one of the central themes in all Israeli hasbara (‘information’, the Israeli authorities call it; ‘propaganda’ in the eyes of most observers) and in the activities defending Israel undertaken by pro-Israel organizations in the Jewish diaspora.

Reut’s advice on the Palestinians’ UN bid was first offered by its President, Gidi Grinstein, in a Haaretz op-ed in July 2011:

Israel may stand to gain several strategic advantages from the success of Palestinians’ UN motion. For example, this is the only scenario where Israel and the Palestinians can shape the permanent status of their relations, while Israel initially controls all security assets, including the air space and the external borders. Furthermore, a Palestinian state is the most promising way to dilute the refugee problem, as it will render UNWRA redundant and may change the status of refugees. Lastly, establishment of such a state will allow for direct state-to-state engagement on gradually shaping permanent status and determining permanent borders, particularly with regards to the delicate issue of swapping of populated areas adjacent to the border on both sides.

The published paper expands on these points and adds other advantages: ‘Anchoring the principle of “two states for two peoples”‘; ‘positioning Israel as an asset to its allies’; ‘lowering the prospects of confrontation between the IDF and the Palestinian population’.

Make no mistake, however; while the Reut paper takes as read the Palestinians’ rationale for pursuing the statehood declaration through the UN, its sights are firmly set on what is in the interests of the state of Israel. For example, the paper proposes that the Security Council resolution ‘would clearly refer to the “Jewish state” or “nation-state of the Jewish people” parallel to the “Arab/Palestinian state,” or, at the minimum, to the principle of “two-states-for-two-peoples”. Thus, a central and highly controversial demand now being made of the Palestinians by Israel would be achieved.

Furthermore, the paper argues:

Resumption of the political process on a ‘state-to-state basis’ [means that t]he ‘historic issues’ that emanate from 1948, or issues that are resonant for the entire Palestinian people (for example, the refugee issue or the holy sites in Jerusalem), would be negotiated only at a later stage.

But the establishment of Palestine as an independent, internationally recognised state is likely to neutralise once and for all what Israeli governments have always seen as the danger of the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state were it to recognise the right of return of the refugees as laid down in UN General Assembly resolution 194. Reut says that: ‘Palestinian refugees would be able to return to the Palestinians’ state’. Israel would no longer have any international obligation to let them return to its pre-1967 territory. In general, ‘An Israeli political initiative that accepts Palestinian statehood places the “burden of proof” on the Palestinians to meet Israel’s concerns’.

The paper concludes that Israel’s support for Palestinian membership of the UN as an independent state would spare the US from using its veto in the UNSC; it would enable Israel ‘to receive a unique and tailored security package from the US that would guarantee Israel’s capacities to confront future challenges arising from the Palestinian state and the dramatic changes in the Middle East.’

Tellingly, the Executive Summary makes no mention whatsoever of settlements. The full, 14-page, single-spaced paper refers to settlements 4 times, but only once addresses them as an issue requiring resolution: ‘Settlements, borders, Jerusalem, and security are outstanding issues according to the existing agreements, and should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian side. Israel may benefit from the growing accountability of the Palestinian state.’ In this scenario the state of Palestine would have in its midst (outside of Jerusalem) 300,000 Jewish settlers over which it could exercise no sovereignty, its borders would remain in doubt and the balance of control of its security would remain with the Israelis. It may declare East Jerusalem as its capital, but this would prove meaningless since the Israeli government would almost certainly prevent the Palestinian Authority from operating in Jerusalem and exercising any control over its capital.

There’s so much in the Reut paper for Netanyahu to like. And who knows, perhaps he will still adopt this strategy. The Palestinians still plan to defy the Obama administration and apply to the UNSC for full UN membership. But Abbas has reportedly agreed that any vote be put on hold to allow for fresh attempts to revive peace talks. So Netanyahu would have time to change his mind.

This seems to me very unlikely, and it’s not difficult to see why the Reut paper falls short for the Israeli prime minster. (1) He would have to give an unequivocal commitment on his part to the creation of a Palestinian state, something which very many observers believe he fundamentally rejects. (2) Adopting the Reut strategy would of course make it impossible for him to annex the West Bank.

Drastic as it may seem to some, given possible international reaction, there is strong evidence that annexation is a distinct possibility. A number of commentators have suggested that this could be Netanyahu’s response to any UN approval of membership for a Palestinian state. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has threatened as much. There are, reportedly, more than 40 members of the Knesset who advocate such a move. The West Bank is already so fragmented and so subject to Israeli control that extending the Bantustanisation of the area would not be difficult. The anti-boycott law has already established the principle that, to all intents and purposes, Israeli law now encompasses the West Bank.

But perhaps what most clearly illustrates how annexation may be but a short step away is what is being done in Jerusalem. Study the 2009 map produced by Ir Amim (unfortunately, their updated 2011 map isn’t yet on line), which shows the existing areas of Jewish settlement outside of West Jerusalem and within the Jerusalem municipal boundary and also Israel’s future building projects that are effectively aimed at achieving contiguity of Jewish settlement from the north-west round the eastern side of the city to the south-west. To my eye, it’s practically inconceivable that this area, all of which was East Jerusalem and West Bank pre-1967, could, in any meaningful sense now constitute the capital of a Palestinian state. Yes, perhaps, if the future building projects were abandoned. But what is much more likely is that, in the event of the UN Security Council giving its backing to the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and in advance of any serious negotiations taking place, Israel will go full steam ahead to complete its ring of steel round the city.

Leaving aside the Reut Institute, those newspapers, columnists, liberal Zionist individuals and groups, left-wing Jewish organizations and so on, which support the Palestinians’ UN bid will generally respond by saying that international opinion simply won’t stand for such a move on Israel’s part. But I say this is naive, wishful thinking. For all that the world is now openly debating the Palestinians’ UN bid, and the plight of the Palestinians is on the international agenda once again at a level not seen for many years, how that concern might be translated into some serious control over Israel’s actions is utterly unclear. In the last 40-odd years the occupation and the growth of settlements has rolled inexorably on. In many respects Israel-Palestine is already one state, albeit a repressive one as far as the Palestinians are concerned. What power is going to intervene to prevent the Israeli government doing more or less what it likes?

Some argue that it will be the power of non-violent protest, of which the turn to the UN is an expression. The Palestinians are tired of and disillusioned with violence, and few expect a third intifada of such a character. But even though a senior Israeli Defence Force official admitted in 2010 that Israel was ‘not good at dealing with Gandhi’, that does not mean that the security forces will just roll over when faced with mass non-violent process. On the contrary, in situations where they are caught between Palestinian youth and the settlers, they might overreact. Assuming that the PA is still functioning and at least initially maintaining security cooperation with the Israelis, and hasn’t simply handed in its keys to the West Bank in disgust at not securing UN membership, it’s hard to see how the non-violent movement, which is anyway rather fragile, could stand in Israel’s way.

I have felt very ambivalent about the Palestinians’ UN bid – whether it succeeds or fails – because of my fears that it would rebound badly on them: their current situation could deteriorate and the realisation of their rights to meaningful self-determination could suffer a possibly irrecoverable setback. Negotiations were at a standstill so something was needed to break the logjam and some argue that this bold initiative has already achieved that. But the fact that Abbas looks as if he is being fobbed off with promises of renewed negotiations casts severe doubt on that judgement. There is already great Palestinian anger at Obama’s almost entirely one-sided speech and his hard line determination to veto the application to the Security Council if it comes to a vote – more openly one-sided, I think, than even many already sceptical observers expected. Abbas’s political career is on the line.

But while I’m not convinced that the UN bid was the best way of escaping from the current impasse, now that it’s underway I find myself in the curious position of urging Netanyahu to listen to his think tank friends and adopt the Reut strategy – as the least worst option for the Palestinians. Continuation of the status quo only means that options become more limited by the day. At least the rationale behind their advice has the benefit of being transparent. Within the framework of negotiations that would need to follow success in the Security Council and that would have to include some international oversight, and armed with the additional international leverage UN membership would give them – the ability to refer Israeli contraventions of international law to the International Criminal Court for example – the Palestinians would have an opportunity and a fighting chance to develop their own strategy for making statehood work for them.

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9/11 and the destruction of the shared understanding of antisemitism

This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy

Even before 9/11, the redefinition of antisemitism as essentially left-wing and Islamic prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish state of Israel—‘the Jew among the nations’—was well underway. But the popularity of this reformulation of what constitutes Jew-hatred, now commonly called ‘the new antisemitism’, gained decisive momentum as a consequence of the attack on the Twin Towers and has had far-reaching implications. So much so that Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s most prominent and possibly most influential public intellectual, could, with his trademark portentousness, confidently claim in his 2008 book, The Left in Dark Times, that antisemitism of the 21st century would be ‘progressive’—meaning essentially left-wing hatred of Israel—or not exist at all. This bizarre statement symbolises the damage caused by the influence of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, which has turned friends into enemies, helped open the door to fascism in Israeli politics and left Jews everywhere at the mercy of an idea that is ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.

What Levy confirmed, in a strikingly stark fashion, was that the term ‘new antisemitism’ means more than just critical discourse about Israel using antisemitic tropes. The concept contains the radical notion that to warrant the charge of antisemitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of those things which historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic view: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism, belief that Jews are racially inferior and so on. Given that the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ is fundamentally incompatible with any definition relying on elements which historians accept make up an antisemitic view, for anyone who agrees with the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ it’s but a short step to conclude that it replaces all previous definitions and then further to argue that no other kind of antisemitism exists.

How the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ took hold

Make no mistake, this is not an argument about semantics, but about coming to terms with changing political realities. There was never any basis in fact for Levy’s 2008 prediction that there would be no old style antisemitism in the 21st century. A cursory glance at antisemitism monitoring reports from the time prove that it was an absurd statement to make. Today, with indisputable hard evidence of the persistence of far right antisemitism in Europe, as well as the revelation of the role of Jew-hatred in the thinking of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, Levy’s rhetorical flourish looks even more ridiculous. As for the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’, it emerged as a way of explaining the reasons for the increasingly strident attacks on Zionism and Israel, which led to the country’s deteriorating international position. And it was then taken up by pro-Israel groups as a means of defending Israel and attacking its perceived enemies. The increasingly widespread acceptance of the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ since 9/11 has profoundly affected Israel’s foreign relations and the situation of diaspora Jews, especially in the major centres of Jewish population—the USA, France, the UK, Canada, Australia—but also in Western Europe generally and to some degree in the former communist countries.

Events in the year before 9/11 already appeared to lend credibility to the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’. The collapse of the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 (presented by Israel and its loyal supporters as a Palestinian betrayal), the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the autumn and the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish manifestations at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban in August-September 2001 were all explained as evidence of a deeply rooted, extreme, irrational anti-Zionism, seen by pro-Israel loyalists as conclusive proof that Israel was now incontrovertibly the ‘Jew among the nations’. When the Twin Towers were destroyed and the Bush administration moved rapidly to frame its response as declaring ‘war on terror’, it was inevitable that Israel, under the leadership of a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would seek to identify itself ever more closely with the US as a fellow victim of Islamist terror—indeed as the prior victim. Al Qaida’s ideology, which, in part, jointly demonised America and Israel, and also Jews in general, provided the Zionist right with even more justification for its argument that the ‘new antisemitism’ now posed the greatest threat to Jews since the Holocaust.

The far right, Israel and the battle against the ‘Islamization of Europe’

Antisemitism was thus recast as principally anti-Israel rhetoric emanating largely from Muslim sources. That rhetoric figured prominently in various forms of media in European countries with relatively large Jewish populations, like France, the UK and Germany, and was sometimes directed at Jews because of their support for Israel, but also because Jews and Israelis are often seen as one and the same. This—together with an increase in antisemitic incidents ascribed to Muslim perpetrators—led Jewish establishment leaders, while speaking the language of interfaith dialogue and the need to maintain and foster intercommunal harmony, to see the Islamist elements in Muslim communities as a direct threat to Jewish security. Some extended that fear to Muslims more generally. Despite the fact that the growing sense of Jewish belonging in Europe in the 1990s stemmed in great part from the success of multiculturalism and the positive influence of the culture of universal human rights, blame for Muslim hostility to Jews was now put down to multiculturalism’s alleged failure to integrate Muslims and the perception that rights values were being applied to all minorities except Jews. Both were seen as responsible for allowing the unrestrained attack on Israel to proceed unchecked. Add to this the fact that Israeli leaders were only too ready to redefine the Israel-Palestine conflict as a religious war, and it was but a logical step for Israel to come to be seen, in Slavoj Zizek’s words, as ‘the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion’.

Meanwhile, the far right had been undergoing a process of self-sanitisation: playing down its antisemitic past and distancing itself from Holocaust denial, and refocusing its animus towards the ‘other’ on ‘immigrants’ in general, but Muslims in particular. By the early 2000s, a new far right strategy emerged, exemplified by the National Alliance (AN) in Italy, the former neo-fascist party headed by Gianfranco Fini, who reached out to the Italian Jewish community to apologise for the party’s ‘former’ antisemitism and to express support for Israel, all against the background of a supposed shared understanding that Muslims were now the common enemy. The elected head of the Italian Jewish community rejected the NA’s approach, but some members of the community were not unsympathetic to Fini’s message and the issue became very controversial.

While some evidence emerged of Jews publicly identifying with far right groups in France and Austria, it never amounted to very much. More significant, however, was the far right’s increasingly warm pro-Israel rhetoric, which began to be looked upon favourably by the right-wing Zionist parties in Israel and their sympathisers in the Jewish diaspora. Geert Wilders, in his capacity as leader of the Dutch populist, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, visited Israel in 2008 and has been back a number of times since. Leaders of four other far right parties, the Belgian Flemish Interest, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats and a new German anti-Islam party, Freedom, visited Israel in late 2010 and were warmly received by settler leaders and other far-right Zionist politicians. And yet these parties had by no means abandoned their antisemitic roots.

We saw a striking example of this phenomenon in the UK in 2009 when a far-right Polish member of the European Parliament, Michal Kaminski, whose past antisemitic views were well documented, visited the UK in his then role as Chairman of the new right-wing EP grouping of which Cameron’s Tory Party were joint founders. Strong objections to the fact that the Tories were now consorting with Kaminski and his party were raised across the political spectrum and in the Jewish community. But a number of Jewish Zionist leaders, the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the Israeli ambassador and non-Jewish Israel supporters feted Kaminski because of his very publicly expressed support for Israel.

It has become quite clear that, as Charles Hawley writes in Spiegelonline, ‘in the battle against what right-wing populists see as the creeping Islamization of Europe, Israel is on the front line.’ But it’s not only right-wing populists who see Israel playing this role. A melange of Jewish and non-Jewish columnists, public intellectuals, think tank specialists and mainstream politicians who would utterly reject being labelled ‘far right’—such as Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail columnist), Daniel Johnson (Standpoint Editor), Douglas Murray (Centre for Social Cohesion) and Denis MacShane (Labour MP)—express similar views and harsh criticism of the Muslim community for not tackling the extreme hostility to Jews and Israel found in its midst. This same kind of alliance can be found in America and France.

The two main parties in Israel’s governing coalition—Likud and Israel Our Home—have not only been encouraged by the range of anti-Islam forces lining up behind Israel. They have clearly seen it as giving the green light for the slew of anti-democratic bills put before the Knesset in the last few years designed to reinforce the exclusively Jewish character of the state, brand Palestinian citizens of Israel as the internal enemy if they don’t accept Israel as the Jewish state, restrict the activities of human rights groups, undermine academic freedom and curtail freedom of speech. The failure of supposedly more moderate political leaders and of the parliamentary system as a whole to turn back this mounting anti-democratic tide has led respected commentators, academics and former military and security personnel to see the growth of deeply disturbing signs of incipient fascism.

Zionism’s ambiguous relationship with antisemitism

Many Israel-supporting Jews with progressive political views now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. As supporters of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and opposed to settlements and the occupation, the last thing they would have envisaged is finding themselves in the company of the far right, whether in Europe or in Israel. And yet many such Jews are convinced that the threat of a left-wing+Islamist ‘new antisemitism’ is severe and in maintaining their Zionism or pro-Israelism are simply stuck with unsavoury allies. Some Jews have simply chosen to cut themselves loose from their traditional progressive moorings. Others who simply refuse to join the anti-Muslim bandwagon and reject the post-9/11 Clash of Civilizations-type choice—‘you’re either with us or against us’—they feel they are faced with are left high and dry. If they edge towards those dissenting Jews who have doubts about Zionism, reject the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis and refuse to put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people, they are liable to face the hatred and vilification of Zionists whose arguments contain more than a hint of ‘some antisemitic logic’. As Zizek writes: ‘their . . . figure of the Jew . . . is constructed in the same way as the European antisemites constructed the figures of the Jew—he is dangerous because he lives among us, but is not really one of us.’

Zizek sees this as ‘paradoxical’, but—unfortunately—he’s wrong. In fact, from very early on in the development of the Zionist movement, opponents of Zionism were characterised using antisemitic stereotypes. In his 1897 essay ‘Mauschel’, the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, angered by anti-Zionists, painted the weak ghetto Jew that Zionism was supposed to banish forever as the bad Jew who speaks with a Yiddish accent, a ‘scamp’, ‘a distortion of the human character, unspeakably mean and repellent’, interested only in ‘mean profit’—attributes of an unmistakably antisemitic kind. To a great degree the use of demonising language to describe Jewish opponents of Zionism largely disappeared from mainstream intra-Jewish discourse because Zionism appeared to achieve such hegemonic dominance among Jews everywhere. But as dissenting views became more prominent in the last 20-30 years, so the language used to attack dissidents became ever more strident, once again appropriating antisemitic phraseology, as in, for example, Melanie Phillips’s description of the founding signatories of Independent Jewish Voices as ‘Jews for genocide’. (The dangers of using this kind of language, because words can be ‘performative’, are intelligently spelt out by Thomas Hylland Erikson in his openDemocracy piece, ‘The net of hatred: after Utøya’.)

Zionists were not only content to make direct use of antisemitic stereotypes, they also understood full well that antisemitism helped advance the cause, even as they promoted Zionism as the solution to the scourge of antisemitism. Herzl said that ‘the antisemites are Zionism’s staunchest allies’. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said in the 1930s that ‘le malheur of the Jews was the chance of Zionism’, and he and his followers knew all too well how to mobilize antisemitism for the achievement of their vision.

And there is another very contemporary example of how Israel and the Zionist movement are not beyond making common cause with antisemites. Millions of fundamentalist Christian Zionists in America are now among Israel’s staunchest supporters. Since 9/11 they have made funding pro-Israel propaganda groups, right-wing Zionist organizations and settlement activity, and providing political backing to the Israeli government’s hard line policies, a central plank of their foreign policy. But they do this because they believe that Christ’s Second Coming will only occur once the land of Israel is fully united. All believers will be transported to meet the Lord, while everybody else, including the Jews, will perish in the battle of Armageddon. So for Christian Zionists, Jews are merely a means to an end. However, it’s no secret that this ideology is suffused with antisemitism. But right-wing Zionists are quite happy to ignore such an awkward fact on the grounds that the support of Christian Zionists for Israel trumps their Jew-hatred.

Ten years on

Since 9/11, the growing popularization of the redefinition of antisemitism as hostility to the state of Israel has given licence to Jews and Zionists to act according to the maxim ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The forging of links between the Israeli far right and Islamophobic far right groups in Europe, embracing the position of Israel as the front line against the Islamization of Europe, turning a blind eye to the antisemitism of Christian Zionism, entrenching the exclusivity of Jewish nationalism in Israeli law and demonising Jewish dissenters using antisemitic rhetoric have all been made possible by placing Israel at the heart of what is considered antisemitism today. But as I have tried to demonstrate, these developments draw on a deeper, even more murky ideological and political reality: Zionism’s troubling relationship with antisemitism—what Professor Idith Zertal has described as the ‘complex, disturbing affinities, and mutual, even if undesired dependence and pragmatic partnership between antisemitism and Zionism’—and the ethno-national and ethno-religious exclusivism that was part of Zionist ideology from the beginning of political Zionism.

The prevailing spirit ten years on from 9/11 seems to be to draw a line under the events, admit to the mistaken policy decisions taken then and, in Jonathan Freedland’s words, abandon the ‘careless, undiscriminating monomania’ all too eagerly adopted at the time; to acknowledge that security can never be achieved by military means alone or by curtailing civil liberties and trampling on human rights. Regrettably, Israel, encouraged by hard line Jewish and non-Jewish supporters, hasn’t learnt these lessons. Not only is it continuing along the path followed since 9/11, more inclined than ever to see the world through the distorting prism of the ‘new antisemitism’, it is conniving in worsening its own isolation by drawing the wrong conclusions from events in its region. Rather than seek a positive accommodation with the democratic forces struggling to overturn dictatorships and autocracies in the Arab world, Israel has sought to prop up military juntas on the grounds of the narrowest and ultimately mistaken interpretation of its security interests. This, argues Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, is because Israel is now run by its own form of military junta. The diplomatic meltdown with Egypt and Turkey now facing Israel, as well as the damaging exposure Israel will experience as the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to seek support for the declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations comes to a head in the next two weeks, is a case of reaping what you sow. The result is likely to be increasing defensiveness, a strengthening sense of victimhood and even more reliance on an America that the Netanyahu government has made clear it does not trust. This is a high price to pay for treating the destruction of the shared understanding of what constitutes antisemitism as a victory.

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Can Israel’s mass social protest embrace the end of occupation as a key demand?

If you will, harden your heart against the sight of hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting against rampant inequality and demanding a decent society. There’s reason enough to do so: what about all the non-citizens between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river over which Israel exerts control? Don’t they also deserve a decent society, the same social justice that protesters yearn for in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa? There is no justice unless it’s justice for all.

And yet it would be particularly perverse to focus only on what is missing and not to be heartened and even inspired by this mass outpouring of pent-up frustration with the degradation of Israeli society. If this represents a genuine demand for a fully functioning liberal democracy, one that prioritises equality, fairness, protection for the weak, an end to corruption and the arbitrary use of power, would it be so far fetched to dream that the application of these principles to the Palestinians must follow as day follows night? And that the occupation – a system of institutionalised injustice and the denial of basic human rights – must soon come to an end?

This certainly seemed like a night in which it would not be cynical to say that hope triumphed over experience. And while there is still hope, dreams might be realised.

But neither hope nor dreams will prevent people waking up in the morning and wondering just how the J14 demands can be achieved or how bringing an end to the iniquities of the occupation can be integrated into the aims of this unprecedented social movement. It may style itself as a social protest rather than a political one, yet it seems inconceivable that any serious change will occur while Netanyahu remains in power and the Knesset consists of the same line-up of politicians. Removing them will require a political revolution. Whether they like it or not, the J14 leaders will have to sully themselves by entering the political fray in some form if they are to bring about meaningful change.

There are clear divisions between those who seem to want to completely overturn Israel’s neo-liberal economic system and return to what sounds like much greater central state control of services and those who prefer to preserve the free market economy, but introduce significant reforms to ensure that it serves the interests of the entire population and not just the wealthy elites. The government cannot afford to ignore this mass mobilization of opinion and the Trajtenberg Committee, set up by Netanyahu, is supposed to be coming up with a set of plans to meet the demands of the protesters. But if the protesters can’t agree on a united platform, their movement will be much weakened and the divisions will play into the hands of the government, which would surely rather see the entire process come to an end. Dynamic change just isn’t Bibi’s style.

Understandably, after such a damaging period of political stagnation and the erosion of democratic norms and values, sympathetic commentators have freely used words like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘revolution’ to emphasise that something unprecedented is taking place, that things will never be the same again. This remains to be seen.

What does seem to be the case, however, as Carlo Strenger observed, is that

No amount of propaganda can cover up that the social protests have created more unity through the demand that Israel become a decent society for all its citizens than nationalist rhetoric and legislation.

And although unity based on joint social concerns will not automatically lead to an open awareness that there can never be real social justice and economic reform while the occupation and illegal settlements remain in place, that awareness will certainly never come in a society driven by an aggressive and exclusivist nationalism. The current unity is undoubtedly imperfect – the protests seem largely to be dominated by middle-class Israeli Jews; some Palestinian citizens of Israel have participated, but not very many. But the fact that it has come about through focusing on social justice concerns that affect practically everyone at all levels of Israeli society offers a glimmer of hope that a way may still open up for the end of the occupation to take centre stage as a popular aim. For anyone who understands that social justice must apply to everyone in society must surely come to see that the way Israel treats Palestinians within the 1967 borders and in the occupied Palestinian territories is the central social justice issue facing the country.

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