With the recent annexation of large portions of the West Bank and the displacement of over 300,000 Palestinians, the Jewish state has become a prominent topic in today’s affairs.
Against the backdrop of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the human rights violations against Sunni Muslims in China and the proliferation of police brutality in the United States, current discussions around Israel will naturally invoke claims of violations of international law and human rights towards Palestinians. This conversation, however, is much trickier to navigate on both sides of the political aisle for numerous reasons.
A clear distinction must always be stated between Judaism and Zionism when entering discourse on this topic.
Judaism is the Hebrew faith dating back before Christianity and is an ethnic religion pertaining to 14 million people across the world. It can be likened to or mapped onto most other major world religions, such as Christianity or Islam.
Zionism is a political movement of the early 20th century with the central belief that Jewish people should have their own nation and state, and that it must be around the ancient city of Jerusalem.
It must be made clear that not all Jewish people are Zionist. But conversely, not all Zionists are Jewish.
This is when the conversation becomes more complex. Noted white nationalist and neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer, is a fond supporter of the state of Israel, praising its “white ethnostate” and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Nation-State” law, a law that officially defines Israel as “Jewish State”, reserving the right to self-determination for Jewish people (a move heavily criticised by Israel’s 21% Arab population and Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin). That, however, in no way diminishes Richard Spencer’s status as an unequivocal and unambiguous anti-Semite.
The term “Zionist” has often been thought of as a euphemistic slur for Jewish people, and that criticisms leveled against the state of Israel and its policies are just fronts for anti-Semitic rhetoric. On more levels, many “critics” of Israeli policy will label such politicians and lobbyists as “globalists” or any word that bring connotations to a secret elite controlling and manipulating the world order. On the other end, the government and administration of Israel and its supporters (notably the Trump administration) have frequently dismissed criticisms and labelled condemnation of it as mere antisemitism and an attack on Jewish sovereignty. Individuals will be branded “anti-Semites” or the common slur, “self-hating Jew”.
Anti-Zionism is characterised as opposition to the idea of a Jewish state, but particularly the course of action of the Israeli government and its allies towards the state of Palestine and its people. Brokers for peace are more often unsatisfactory as people opposed to anti-Zionism will primarily take issue with the original division of the British mandate following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Anti-Zionists generally don’t hold the denial of Jewish people’s want and justifications for a Jewish run nation, but rather its implementation.
As mentioned, policy, ideas and concepts must always be open to scrutiny and criticism. And it is possible and constructive to have a sensible discussion surrounding the Israeli state, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the ideology of Zionism without dehumanising or degrading anybody.
However, remain cautious. As wherever you will come across people, boards and conferences criticising Israel in a legitimate manner and in good faith, you will find others present sneaking antisemitism into the conversation. Attend a meeting titled “Free Speech on Israel” and you will come across people openly denying the Holocaust.
What, then, is antisemitism? The working definition from the IHRA (the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) reads: “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.”
Tackling it through the lens of simply an aversion to followers of a religion (much like its contemporary, Islamophobia) ignores a lot of the history around the topic. Many thinkers and historians after the Second World War and the Holocaust asked, “Why Jews”? Why was antisemitism so central to the essence of Nazi persecution, and why were many others not only complicit, but active participants?
Jean-Paul Sartre grappled with this question in his iconic essay, “Anti-Semite and Jew”, in which he concluded that antisemitism was a fundamentally irrational position. He writes of a classmate who failed his exams and proceeded to blame the Jewish candidates for it specifically despite admitting to have never studied for the test. Rather than blaming other candidates or himself, he believed it was the fault of Jewish candidates, having already arrived at the conclusion that Jewish people were nefarious and duplicitous.
“Far from experience producing his idea of the Jew, it was the latter which explained his experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him”.
To further complicate matters, the anti-Semite, according to Sartre, is also not “completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous”. They conduct this bad faith discourse “not to persuade by sound argument, but to intimidate and disconcert”.
Unfortunately, this signals that antisemitism itself is too complex of a topic that would digress too greatly for the purposes of this article.
How, then, with all this mind, do we conduct discourse around current political topics in the middle east and Israel and avoid the reasonable fear of being labelled an anti-Semite?
A pamphlet titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” by April Rosenblum gives extremely useful guidance on the matter. The main advice is to be as specific as you can about what you are criticising.
For example, the concern that Israel has an ongoing issue with human rights violations that have garnered condemnation from Amnesty International – whatever you make of that – is specific and clear. To say, “Israel is the root of all evil in the world” or centring concerns of human rights solely around Israel is more of an indication of a problem with Jewish people.
To say that AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee – a lobbying US group that fund government policies to support Israel with military aid) incentivises US politicians to send military personnel to Israel and that that may cause conflicts of interest in ethics and pragmatism is valid and clear. To say, “Zionists are controlling the government!” may garner labels of antisemitism.
Speaking out against Trump’s recognition of the Israeli Golan Heights Law of 1981 as potentially destabilising for the landlocked region may attract criticisms of antisemitism, but specifying that this was a law deemed “null and void” by the UN will save you.
So where does this leave us? Evidently, left-wing parties struggle with this issue as demonstrated by the many accusations and reports of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party. Former US Vice-President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden has called on the condemnation of criticism of Israel that drifted towards antisemitism.
It has been an issue on the left, with activists and politicians being anti-Semitic beyond mere mistakes or infiltrators. However, what has always been noted is that when it comes to antisemitism, the right are a lot more deadly about it.
Although political polarisation and partisanship is inevitable on this issue, fractures can mend in the political landscape and bigotry that does not go unchecked will prevent exacerbation's of current tensions. By being more careful with the words we use, issues and action arising from miscommunications and willful ignorance can be mitigated one day at a time.