Antisemitism and Criticism of Israel Not the Same Thing
PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 15 Dec 2014
Jews for Justice for Palestinians is an organisation centrally concerned with the Israel/Palestine conflict and any fallout from it. We believe there are signs that antisemitism, along with all other forms of racism, is growing in this country. There are clearly linkages to the conflict but it is vital not to fall into the trap of treating upset, and even outrage, at Israeli actions in the conflict as automatic evidence of antisemitism.
Who are we?
Jews for Justice for Palestinians has nearly 2000 signatories, including leaders in the fields of the law and other professions, the arts and academia, as well as many Jews who, as a result of the Holocaust, were brought up in families which had suffered the worst possible consequence of antisemitism. Signatories sign up to a declaration that
- Peace in the Middle East will only come about with mutual recognition and respect and must be seen as just by both sides.
• Peace requires the end of illegal occupation and settlement.
• Violence against civilians is unacceptable.
• Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza are breeding hatred and resentment.
• It is crucial that Jews speak out for Palestinians’ human rights.
• The humanitarian values of Judaism have been corrupted by the Israeli state’s human-rights abuses.
• A lasting peace must be seen as just by both sides.
• Britain, the EU, the USA, Russia and the UN must be persuaded to implement UN resolutions on Palestine.
We have a well respected and widely read website and a Facebook page, launched in July this year, which has received almost 12,000 ‘likes’. We encourage support for the Jewish charity, the British Shalom Salaam Trust, which funds projects within and beyond the 1967 Green Line. Many of our signatories regularly visit friends and family in Israel, hold discussions with Israelis critical of the Occupation and the blockade of Gaza, visit the West Bank, and meet with Palestinian activists.
We represent a view that is widely held within the Jewish community – but not reflected accurately, if at all, in statements made on its behalf. Each time a major issue occurs in the Israel/Palestine conflict (such as the bombardment and incursion by Israel into Gaza this summer) our support increases significantly. In July and August 2014 we gained 137 new signatories; normally we increase our numbers in single figures per month. We believe we represent just the tip of the iceberg of widespread Jewish discontent at the virtually uncritical support given by community leaders to Israel.
Racism and antisemitism
We stand implacably opposed to racism in any form including antisemitism from whatever quarter it stems.
We are very concerned at what seems to us to be a significant and recent shift in racist and xenophobic discourse both in the UK and in Europe more widely. The arrival of UKIP on the mainstream political scene is both symptomatic of and is encouraging this shift. As Jews we are aware that racist, including antisemitic, language and attitudes have crept back into everyday life. In the case of antisemitism, this everyday discourse is sometimes linked to a narrative about the Israel/Palestine conflict.
We wish to stress, however, that we are also clear that antisemitism has deep historic roots, particularly in Europe, and exists irrespective of the current state of the Middle East and feelings of anger generated, particularly in Muslim communities worldwide, by the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Antisemitism and the Israel/Palestine conflict
Of course we noticed that anger at Israeli actions over Gaza ran very high this summer and many things were said and accusations made that offended some within the Jewish community. The Community Security Trust noted a sharp rise – to 300 – in the number of antisemitic incidents recorded in July alone.
That said, we believe that criticism of Israel must be taken at face value and assessed on its merits, and not dismissed in advance as essentially antisemitic in its origins. There are a large number of legitimate reasons for questioning Israel’s actions, including its seemingly unending – and expanding – occupation of the West Bank, its violations of international law, the large-scale killing of civilians including children and the impunity of its armed forces and settlers.
A substantial number of Israeli organisations monitor and report on these violations (Acri, Adallah, Breaking the Silence, B’tselem, Gisha, Machsom Watch, Pcati, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights, Who Profits?, Yesh Din, to name but a handful). Critics often pay lip-service to the idea that Israel can be legitimately criticised but then find every reason to deny this criticism in concrete cases, as during the war on Gaza this summer.
We consider that holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government is a sign of antisemitism. Paradoxically it was the leadership of the Jewish community (the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Zionist Federation, for example) who contributed to this problem by maintaining in successive public statements that “the Jewish community” was entirely united behind Israel in its actions on Gaza. It is hard to see daylight between the use of such terms as ‘Jews’, ‘Israelis’, ‘Zionists’, in the statements of this leadership.
Of course criticism of Israel may be a cover for antisemitism. But it is our experience, working closely with a variety of groupings in the broader Palestine solidarity movement (Palestine Solidarity Campaign, various Muslim groups, Stop the War, church groups, War on Want and many, many others) that this is not generally the case. Such critics of Israel do generally distinguish between ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelis’. When, over the summer we encountered people who held Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions in Gaza we rejected this in the strongest terms. Our own existence and actions were and are a clear refutation of this allegation. But we do not believe that this elision is rooted in classical antisemitism. Rather it is a strong – if unjust – reaction against Israeli actions and an understandable response to being told that British Jews were united behind the actions in Gaza.
The assumption that most criticism of Israel’s policies is antisemitic is not just wrong but also counter-productive. Middle-of-the-road Christian groups we talk to, who have returned from visiting or working on the West Bank, commonly report feeling silenced, fearful of voicing their genuine feelings of revulsion because Israel has somehow to be beyond criticism. And that sense of being silenced feeds a classic antisemitic notion that Jews are all powerful since ‘they’ have apparently been able to remove from the political agenda a legitimate discussion concerning the policies of successive Israeli governments. The recent Parliamentary debate and vote on Palestinian statehood is a very welcome sign that that silence is coming to an end.
We ourselves are often dismissed as ‘self-hating’ or ‘ashamed’. This vilification from other Jews (and their supporters such as Christian Zionists) occurs only because we seek to defend and promote Palestinian human rights. To support Palestinians in their struggle against occupation and blockade is apparently a sufficient condition for us being labeled antisemites ourselves.
Attempts are made to silence and marginalize our organisation by important powerbrokers in the Jewish Community. We have, over the past twelve years, sought to build a dialogue with the ‘mainstream’ Jewish community in Britain, but find ourselves systematically misrepresented and maligned e.g. as ‘anti-Israel’, which we are not. Great effort is made to exclude our voices from mainstream Jewish publications, notably The Jewish Chronicle. (In the summer they refused to publish our paid advert concerning Operation Protective Edge. It had to be published in the Guardian for our point of view to be heard.) Our perception of the organised leadership of the Jewish community is of an inward-looking leadership that feels itself embattled as ties between diaspora Jews and Israel loosen. However we are delighted to see that since the summer, and despite fierce controversy, the Board of Deputies has very recently accepted the application of Yachad, a pro-Israel, anti-occupation, pro-two-state solution, organization to join its ranks. We consider this a helpful move and likely to improve intercommunal and intracommunal relations.
The tendency to elide distinctions between criticism of Israel and antisemitism is nowhere clearer than when it comes to dealing with BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. People may disagree with such methods. But they are not, by definition, antisemitic and calling them such is, in our view, an attempt to demonise an essentially non-violent way of putting pressure on Israel to change its policies. Similarly, criticism which labels Israel an apartheid society (already or in process of so becoming) may cause upset to many Jews, but it is not a debate which can be ruled out in advance and in principle. From Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Tutu the issue has been raised and it does no good to label such criticism as antisemitic. The more that hundreds of thousands of ordinary, concerned people see legitimate, non-violent political activity and discourse being called antisemitic, the more antisemitism itself as a concept loses its significance. If everything is antisemitic, nothing really is.
Jews and Muslims
You noted in your 2006 report ‘evidence of an increase in antisemitism within certain fringe elements of the Muslim community’. We accept that this is true – on the fringes. However, as explained above, we do not think that the hostility witnessed over the summer, sometimes expressed as hostility to Jews as such, has much connection with classic antisemitism.
The fact that the Jewish leaders over the summer made no distinction between what Israel does and what British Jews support means, unfortunately, that it is not surprising that criticism of Israel is often couched in the language of antisemitism and that ‘Israelis’ are referred to as ‘Jews’ and actions in Gaza are somehow specifically ‘Jewish’ actions. Nor is it helped by the fact that the Israeli settlers and soldiers on the West Bank are indeed all Jewish.
None of this justifies words of hate, or worse, being hurled at people in Britain who are identified as Jews and held responsible for the conflict. We condemn this without reservation. We consider that, while individual cases will vary, the increase in incidents reported by the CST is not caused by classic Jew hatred but by reactions to Israeli offensives. Such overt antisemitism might be dealt with more effectively if there were more understanding of how it has arisen.
In our experience discussion and dialogue with those opposed to Israeli policies is a very fruitful way of defusing potential antisemitism. We frequently speak with Muslim organisations. In the past young Muslims sported official banners that linked the Swastika with the Star of David but we did not ourselves see that image on the demonstrations this summer. Similarly we have encountered Muslims who deny the Holocaust but, once they find themselves in conversation with descendants of Holocaust survivors, they generally acknowledge a different reality. During crises in Israel/Palestine, such as Operation Protective Edge, we get large numbers of messages of support from Muslims – in contrast to what can only be described as ‘hate mail’ from some Jews.
We have also found that the diversity of the Jewish community in Britain – in terms of lifestyles, access to power and political views – is also not readily appreciated. Identifying as Jews who support Palestinian rights has enabled us to undermine various stereotypes of Jews. Indeed, our presence on the many marches of protest over the summer, together with the Jewish Socialists’ Group, Young Jewish Left and others in a “Jewish Bloc” was much appreciated. We were particularly taken with the literally hundreds of Muslims, young and old, who came to engage us in conversation and have their photos taken with us and our placards “Jews Against the War on Gaza” – many claiming they had never knowingly met a Jew before. We believe this played a greater role in combatting potential antisemitism and elision of “Jews” with support for Israeli government action than anything the Jewish community leadership was – or indeed is – willing to offer in this arena.
The Executive, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, November 2014
To combat antisemitism and help develop and seek implementation of effective public policy to combat antisemitism.
Chair: John Mann Lab
Vice-Chairs: Natascha Engel-Lab, Tom Brake-LD, Lord Boswell of Aynho
Treasurer: Dr Matthew Offord Con
Secretary: Sylvia Hermon Ind
Presidents: Lord Hunt of Wirral Con, Baroness Deech CB, Lord Haskel Lab, Sir Andrew Stunell LD
Vice-Presidents: Louise Ellman Lab, Mike Freer Con
TWENTY QUALIFYING MEMBERS
1 James Clappison – Con, 2 David Burrowes – Con
3 Lee Scott – C, 4 Bob Blackman – C
5 Eric Ollerenshaw-C, 6 Lord Carlile of Berriew – LD
7 Sajid Javid – C, 8 James Arbuthnot – C
9 Richard Harrington-C 10 Robert Halfon – C
Main Opposition Party
1 Phil Wilson, Lab 2 Margaret Hodge, Lab
3 John Woodcock, Lab 4 Luciana Berger, Lab
5 Lilian Greenwood, Lab 6 Lord Dubs, Lab
7 Barbara Keeley, Lab 7 Jim Murphy, Lab
8 Lord Beecham, Lab
Seema Malhotra, Lab/Co-op
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