So 31 Aug 2014
In recent years, the Palestinian solidarity movement has made great progress towards ridding itself of the assorted antisemites and racists who had sought to exploit the Palestinian struggle for their own bigoted ends. Alas, whilst the Palestinian solidarity movement has been making these strides, it is hard not to notice that Israel’s apologists are scarcely willing to acknowledge that they have an antisemitism problem, let alone do anything about it. Because I know how daunting it can be to confront an issue like this, I would like to offer Israel’s supporters the following helpful hints on how to support Israel without being antisemitic.
Here are just a few examples of the terms Israel’s apologists should avoid if they do not want to subject themselves to the accusation of antisemitism.
You should avoid declaring Israel to be ‘the Jewish state’ or ‘the homeland of the Jewish people’ at all costs if you wish to avoid alienating Jews in your audience, many of whom resent the implication that they are any less at home in their respective countries than their non-Jewish neighbours. Terms like these pour salt on the poorly healed wounds left by centuries of accusations of Jewish ‘dual loyalty’.
Not only do statements like these promote antisemitic tropes that call the loyalty of Jews into question, they aren’t even true. The majority of the Jewish population in the world does not live in Israel, and has no intention of doing so in the future.
The same applies, incidentally, to how you name your organisation. Some pro-Israel advocacy groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, and Americans for a Safe Israel, have wisely decided to give themselves names that make it clear that their real concern is Israel, rather than the interests of Jews. Others, such as the American Jewish Congress, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, however, have succumbed to the temptation to use Jews as a human shield for their Zionist advocacy. By using names such as the latter, you are contributing to antisemitic tropes about Jews as a political monolith, and we all know where that leads. In naming your organisation, ask yourself whether its purpose is to represent the views and interests of the Jewish community, or to advocate on behalf of a regime that sees a Palestinian hospital and says ‘Yay, Bonfire Night’s come early this year’. If the latter is your objective, acknowledge and respect that not all Jews will agree with you and name your group accordingly.
PREFER: The Homeland of the Zionist Movement, American Zionist Committee
AVOID: ‘the Tricycle theatre have shown themselves unwilling to work with what is clearly an apolitical cultural festival is tremendously disappointing. They have chosen a boycott over meaningful engagement – to the great detriment of this celebration of Jewish culture, which is of course intrinsically connected to the state of Israel‘.
This is an even more egregious example of the antisemitic ‘dual loyalty’ trope, which goes so far as to claim that Jewish culture, which is centuries old, is somehow ‘intrinsically connected’ to a state that is barely older than a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Although these aspects alone would be enough to justify avoiding claims like these if one wishes to avoid appearing antisemitic, it is also not hard to take sentiments like these as attempts to portray Jewish culture as stultifyingly homogenous and totalitarian, invisibilising the tradition of pluralism and open debate that many Jews are justly proud of.
If that were not enough, claims that Jewish culture is somehow intrinsically connected to the regime in Israel/Palestine practically invite those outraged by the behaviour of the Israeli state to blame Jews as a whole for it. Obviously, this creates a hostile environment for Jews, and opens you up to the accusation that you are using Jews as ‘human shields’ to protect Israeli policies from criticism.
PREFER: Avoiding the subject altogether. Stay on message: This isn’t about Jews, it’s about defending the behaviour of the State of Israel.
AVOID: The New Antisemitism (e.g., http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/we-ignore-the-new-antisemitism-taking-hold-at-our-peril-9634919.html)
Given the state of pro-Israel advocacy, all you’ll get out of accusing other people of antisemitism is a raft of invitations to tidy up your front step before you go complaining to the council about your neighbour’s. Before you risk being jeered out of the room for your chutzpah, ask yourself: ‘Have I done everything in my power to disavow associations with antisemitic propaganda and organisations?’
At all costs, avoid yielding to the temptation to use facile, Jew-baiting arguments that refer to opposition to Zionism, the Israeli government, and/or its policies as ‘antisemitic’. Because such accusations are based on the underlying tropes of Jews as political monolith, Jewish dual loyalty, and stop just short of outright blood libel, such accusations are themselves an egregious example of antisemitism. If you feel the temptation to make such accusations, first stop and ask yourself whether you really think racism/killing defenceless people/territorial expansionism are inherent aspects of Jewish culture. If you do, then you’ve got a lot of work to do on yourself before you should even think of joining in this debate.
If you feel you must address the issue of antisemitism, keep it short, avoid throwing stones from glass houses, and win over your audience with your humility.
PREFER: ‘I know that antisemitic rhetoric has, unfortunately, been a mainstay of pro-Israel and Zionist advocacy from its inception. I am sure that I am hardly blameless in this regard, and all I can do is offer my heartfelt apologies to those in the Jewish community I have hurt and promise that I will do better in the future.’
AVOID: The Nazi Holocaust
It should go without saying that the Nazi holocaust is a big no-go area when you’re advocating on behalf of a state founded by the only segment of the European Jewish community that viewed Hitler as a potential ally, has maintained a track record of establishing strategic partnerships with murderous antisemites, (whether Neo-Nazis or fundamentalist Christians), and allows the holocaust survivors within its borders to eke out a meagre existence on inadequate pensions.
Unfortunately, many pro-Israel advocates can’t resist the temptation of using one of the most hideously traumatic moments in Jewish history as a political dog whistle to create a climate of fear amongst Jews. Even more alarming is the tendency amongst pro-Israel advocates to deny or trivialise the Nazi genocide by inappropriate comparisons and revisionist history.
What do these statements have in common? They are both based on the idea that Holocaust revisionism is acceptable as long as it paints Israel’s enemies in an unfavourable light. To accept that either claim is an accurate analogy, we must assume that Hitler was the leader of a poorly armed, besieged nation, subject to economic strangulation and threats of war from enemies much more powerful than himself, and that he did everything in his power to seek a peaceful resolution of conflicts, but was violently rebuffed at every turn.
In other words, the only way that these analogies can be accepted is if we agree with Ernst Zündel’s creative rewriting of the history of Nazi Germany.
It should go without saying (though clearly it does not) that denial and trivialisation of the Nazi holocaust are unacceptable in all circumstances. Those who trivialise Nazi atrocities in order to score political points for Israel open themselves up to the charge that – like their Zionist predecessors of the wartime years – they only care about of European Jews if they can somehow be of use to the Zionist project.
Similarly problematic are claims that Israel is a ‘sanctuary’ for Jews. Given the sordid history here, these will merely open you up to shouts from the gallery of ‘You lot weren’t much use last time we needed you, so why should we expect you to be any better now?’ from people who remember that the World Zionist Organisation wasted thousands of immigration certificates that could have been used to rescue European Jews bringing in Zionist cadres from North America, Australia, Turkey, and other places where Jews were under no such danger. Every time you bring this subject up, you’re picking at Jewish people’s scabs. Don’t do it.
As Dave Rich of the Zionist-orientated Community Security Trust recently reminded us, ‘[a]nother word’ for ‘false comparison[s]‘ with the Nazi holocaust ‘that [play] on Jewish sensibilities in order to provoke a reaction’ is ‘Jew-baiting’.
Rich is quite right, and I only hope that this acknowledgement heralds a new day in which his and allied organisations carry out their activities without resorting to cheap Jew-baiting.
AVOID: Strategic alliances with Neo-Nazis and other antisemites
One of the lessons we in the Palestinian solidarity movement have learnt in the past few years – at the urging of our Palestinian comrades – has been to be very careful whom we take as our allies. This has meant taking a good look at the views espoused by would-be allies to see whether they are genuinely supporting freedom for the Palestinian people, or – like Gilad Atzmon, Alison Weir, Paul Findley, Jeff Blankfort, Greta Berlin, Paul Craig Roberts, and others – just using the Palestinians as human shields for their struggle against ‘world Jewish domination’. I hope that pro-Israel advocates will take heed of this elementary lesson, because I see them falling into the same trap that we in Palestinian solidarity have been at great pains to extricate ourselves from.
Pro-Israel advocates should ask themselves whether it helps or harms their credibility to be associated, say, with religious fundamentalists who view Israel as a holding pen in anticipation of the day when they can massacre the Jews of the world so that Jesus can return and give one of his trademark sermons on loving thy neighbour (which, one imagines, will be a bit overdue by that point), neo-fascists who have merely decided that, for the moment, they hate Arabs and Muslims more than they hate Jews, and sycophantic holocaust deniers. They should remember that they represent an ideology that – after the Plevhe scandal, the Kasztner affair, the Ha’avara Agreement, and so many other betrayals – only has one wicket in hand, if that. As such, even if basic human decency alone isn’t enough to reconsider alliances with genocidal antisemites, just remember how much it will open you to attack.
RECOMMENDED TALKING POINT: ‘This is not the Zionist movement of the 1900s, or the 1910s, or the 1930s and 1940s, or of the past couple of decades of sucking up to antisemitic Christian fundamentalists. We have turned over a new leaf, and will not associate ourselves with such unsavoury characters merely because they support racism against Palestinians, and promise from now on only to partner with people and groups whose racism is exclusively directed against Palestinians. And, of course, we sincerely apologise to the Jewish people for allying ourselves with their worst enemies in the world.’
To sum up, it is putting it mildly to say that pro-Israel advocates have their work cut out for them if they want to rid themselves of antisemitism. It will be a long, hard slog that requires breaking old habits and abandoning comfortable euphemisms. Believe it or not, I can almost sympathise with the great difficulties inherent in advocating a regime that not only brags about the cowardly murder of defenceless people, but claims it as a victory for all Jews everywhere. But I am confident that, with a little introspection and a lot of self-discipline, pro-Israel advocates will be able to rid themselves of the stain of antisemitism just as the Palestinian solidarity movement has done. Just remember: When you portray Jews as reflexively supporting everything Israel does to the Palestinian population, you are portraying us as a lot of complete arseholes. It’s one thing for you to portray yourself that way – you chose this path – but leave Jews out of it.