Click here for Anti-Semitism in the UK: 1. 75 years after Auschwitz…

Now I’m horribly aware of the hot water I’m tiptoeing into.

So let me say at the outset: I’m no expert; I fully concede that others spend vastly more time weighing the issues than I have. No doubt many will have views, and many will correct me. And yet we can’t avoid this problem. How on earth do we define anti-semitism to everyone’s satisfaction?

2018 Pro-Palestine protest in London

This is a challenge in large part because of the fraught divisions over the political realities of modern Israel

I have dear friends who are Palestinian Christians and who are adamant that they live in ‘apartheid’ conditions (their words). It’s hard to disagree. Incidentally, something I find hard to grasp is why western Christians seem quicker to offer solidarity with the State of Israel than they are to the precious few Christian brothers and sisters who still live (just) throughout the Middle Eastern (see this arresting article about Iraqi Christians, for example).

Even though we might well sympathize with the Israeli State’s entrenched defensiveness and extreme geopolitical insecurity–not least because of the agony of centuries of pogroms and anti-Jewish hostility–there’s no doubting that the living circumstances of Palestinians (the majority of whom are obviously Muslim) are grim. One book that helped to bring these dark realities home was the veteran travel-writer Dervla Murphy‘s A Month By The Sea – Encounters in Gaza.

But what has this to do with the subject at hand? All too often Anti-Semitism gets defined in such a way as to bar criticism of the Israeli state itself. Apart from anything else, no state in human history, including my own, has the right to float above all criticism or censure. Especially those that purport to be democratic.

Israel’s standard-bearers retort that the west (especially in the US, UK and EU) evinces extreme double standards here. They appear to turn a blind eye to other nations’ transgressions for which Israel would never escape criticism. That is entirely fair – to which the response should surely be to be equal-opportunity-critics rather than embracing inconsistently equal-opportunity-passivity. Far easier said than done, of course. An indication of my own geopolitical naivety, undoubtedly.

Unfortunately, I’ve not got much more to draw from at this stage than Wikipedia, to my shame. But the fact that the relevant page appears not to have been disputed as much as other pages suggests to me that it is acceptably impartial.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Association defines antisemitism as follows:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

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Do you think this is unfair or legit criticism?…

The phrase ‘a certain perception of Jews’ is unhelpfully vague (let alone, subjective); it’s on far firmer ground when speaking of ‘rhetorical and physical manifestations’. The definition has been adopted by several nations, and the UK was one of the first governments to use it for internal use. Furthermore:

In October 2016, the cross-party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee reported on antisemitism in the UK.[121] Its report included a long section on defining antisemitism… Among the Committee’s recommendations were “that the IHRA definition, with our additional caveats, should be formally adopted by the UK Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties, to assist them in determining whether or not an incident or discourse can be regarded as antisemitic.”[122][123] The caveats were two additional clarifications designed to protect freedom of speech in discussions about Israel/Palestine:

It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent. It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.[122][124][125] (NB several judges also made important caveats to the IHRA definition on these lines, including one of its original drafters)

This position was powerfully articulated by the provocatively brilliant philosopher and gender theorist, Judith Butler, in 2003 in the LRB. She states what I, a Gentile, have little authority to say.

What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticises Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness, in the name of justice, precisely because such criticisms seem ‘best for the Jews’? Why wouldn’t it always be ‘best for the Jews’ to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is ‘best’ to everyone, Jewish or not? I signed a petition framed in these terms, an ‘Open Letter from American Jews’, in which 3700 American Jews opposed the Israeli occupation, though in my view it was not nearly strong enough: it did not call for the end of Zionism, or for the reallocation of arable land, for rethinking the Jewish right of return or for the fair distribution of water and medicine to Palestinians, and it did not call for the reorganisation of the Israeli state on a more radically egalitarian basis. (LRB Vol 25 #16 ‘No It’s Not Anti-semitic’)

So this is where I end up. In fact, I would go so far as to say that criticism of the Israeli state is, in fact, a corollary of beliving in Israel’s right to exist (for which, incidentally, I do not follow a so-called Christian Zionist position).

We can, therefore, get back to the issue in the UK in the next post.

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