1. Debating whether criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is itself a tremendous propaganda coup
Arguing over whether criticising Israel or Zionism is a form of racism is an almost insane inversion of reality: 58 per cent of Israelis think Israel practices apartheid in some (or many) ways. Israel has ruled over millions of Palestinians since 1967 without granting them basic civil or political rights. Jewish settlers in the West Bank have rights under Israeli law denied to Palestinians living in the same territory. The current deputy defence minister of Israel is Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan. He holds the view that Palestinians ‘are beasts, they are not human’, and that a ‘Jew always has a much higher soul than a gentile, even if he is a homosexual’. Rabbi Ben-Dahan is in charge of the Civil Administration; that is, he is responsible for most aspects of the occupation of the West Bank.
Aside from the institutionalised oppression of the Palestinians, in recent years there has been a striking rise in overt racism in public life. Chants like ‘mavet la’aravim’ (‘Death to the Arabs’) are heard more frequently, and there have been pogroms and lynchings by angry mobs against Africans in Israel. A soldier who was filmed murdering an unarmed Palestinian lying on the ground has become a folk hero. As most Israelis don’t think he should be tried, the media has been discussing whether the defence minister has committed political suicide by criticising the act. Some more stats: 58 per cent of Jewish Israelis think Palestinians should be voluntarily transferred from the West Bank, and 48 per cent think they should be expelled, or transferred, from Israel.
It is hard to even narrow the field of illustrative examples. Miri Regev, a Member of Knesset from the Likud, the party of the prime minister, characterised the Sudanese as ‘a cancer in our body’. Most Israeli Jews agreed. Regev later apologised, not to the Sudanese people, but to Holocaust survivors and cancer patients. Because Nazi language is offensive to Holocaust survivors.
Despairing Israelis – such as Israeli Army Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan – have compared modern-day Israel to 1930s Germany. Leading liberal Zionist newspaper Ha’aretz responded by saying ‘We shouldn’t attack or criticise him. Rather, we should listen to him’.
Yet, despite decades of institutionalised apartheid, Israel and its loyalists in Western media continue to insist that the real issue is critiques of the Israeli government.
Given the realities of Israeli racism, the fact that Western discussion of Israel is almost always diverted into discussions of anti-Semitism represents a considerable propaganda coup for Israel. Instead of discussing Israeli racism and oppression, we pore over whether Western leftists are anti-Semitic. Imagine if every time a white person had opposed apartheid, we had stopped to examine whether they were racist (thus letting apartheid and its supporters off the hook).
2. Anti-Semitism claims are often cynical bullshit
It is hard to overstate how cynical claims of anti-Semitism against the left have become. Take Alex Ryvchin, ECAJ Public Affairs Director, who implied that criticising Goldman Sachs was anti-Semitic.
Or Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s justice minister. ‘In the past, we saw European leaders speaking against the Jews,’ she said a few days ago. ‘Now, we see them speaking against Israel. It is the same anti-Semitism of blood libels, spreading lies, distorting reality and brainwashing people into hating Israel and the Jews.’ The Washington Post went onto quote her words as though she were a respectable and disinterested source. But this is someone who posted an article referring to Palestinian children as ‘little snakes’ whose mothers and homes should be killed and demolished to prevent more ‘little snakes’ from being ‘raised there’.
In reality, the extent to which anti-Semitism is abused is disgusting. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is among the worst offenders, constantly playing the anti-Semitism and Holocaust cards as cheap rhetorical tricks. He has repeatedly, for example, compared Iran to Nazi Germany, often on Holocaust Remembrance Day; this year, Netanyahu used the memorial speech to lambast Muslim and non-Muslim critics of Israel. Veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar observed that he remained ‘true to his tradition of trivializing the Holocaust’. Another of his recent lowlights was his claim that a Palestinian was supposedly responsible for Hitler deciding to exterminate the Jews – a claim that was excellently analysed by leading Holocaust historian, Christopher Browning.
Meanwhile, 45,000 Holocaust survivors live under the poverty line in Israel. While Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has apologised to Israeli Holocaust survivors for this failure, Netanyahu has offered nothing but lip service, and his record shows his actual level of concern.
Eldar reports that when Colette Avital, from the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors (‘an umbrella group for more than 55 organizations dedicated to improving the welfare of the survivors and preserving the memory of the Holocaust’) asked for additional aid for survivors back when Netanyahu was finance minister, he answered, ‘What do you want? We’ve done enough for Holocaust survivors.’ According to Eldar, Netanyahu ‘used to “really abuse” the elderly, dragging out their compensation claims in the hopes that they would die in the meantime’. That is the man who lectures the world about anti-Semitism and learning the lessons of the Holocaust, the man we’re supposed to take seriously.
But this abuse of language and history extends far beyond Israel’s borders. In the UK, the Tory and Blairite media have been campaigning hard against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Their latest smear is the assertion that his leadership has seen a surge in anti-Semitism. As the London Review of Books notes:
Labour has 228 MPs, one of whom (0.4 per cent) has been suspended for suspected anti-Semitism; more than 7000 councillors, of whom 0.07 per cent have been suspended; and more than 388,000 members, of whom 50 (0.012 per cent) have been ‘secretly suspended’, the Telegraph reported, ‘as officials struggle to cope with the crisis engulfing the party’.
But as Jamie Stern-Weiner has clearly shown, the response in every instance was immediate suspension or expulsion, even in the case of unwarranted accusations. Indeed, these cases have only emerged because of the sordid trawling of social media accounts in an effort to prove Labour anti-Semitism – but the meagre results above show how un-pervasive this ‘crisis’ actually is.
Moreover, only 22 per cent of Brits take this campaign seriously and think Labour either has a ‘fairly big problem’ or a ‘very big problem’ of anti-Semitism. That is to say: the smear isn’t working with the public, many of whom are presumably sick and tired of questionable accusations of anti-Semitism. Only 9 per cent agreed that criticising Israel is anti-Semitic.
Interestingly, while only 27 per cent thought Ken Livingstone was anti-Semitic, 45 per cent supported his suspension. That is, 18 per cent were in favour of suspending Livingstone for supposedly anti-Semitic comments, though they didn’t really regard them as anti-Semitic. This suggests that some have latched on to the issue of anti-Semitism for perceived political gain. In other words, anti-Semitism is a way to bash Corbyn’s left-wing agenda, while standing on the moral high ground of opposing bigotry. It certainly sounds better than announcing a preference for neoliberal economic policies and overseas imperialism.
3. The left should discuss Israel and Zionism with some sensitivity
The left should discuss anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with respect, sensitivity and concern, just like any other issue of racism. If supporters of Israel would stop abusing those issues, and exploiting them for political gain, then perhaps leftists would be less likely to treat the Holocaust as a rhetorical prop. This is an issue that is worth seriously discussing.
Supporters of Israel reek of hypocrisy when they address their concerns exclusively at the left. It is way beyond time that more people said so.
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