Since early in 2016, debate about rights for Palestinians has been under severe threat because criticism of Israel and of its founding ideology, Zionism, has been misrepresented as antisemitic.
Antisemitism is hatred of Jews simply because they are Jews. It must be vigorously combatted, along with all forms of bigotry. Confusing it with opposition to the state of Israel or Zionism is to obscure the real meaning of the term antisemitism and make fighting against it more difficult.
First, let me begin by saying that anti-Semitism in itself is certainly not a hoax. There are centuries of evidence supporting the existence of virulent Jew-hatred. Anyone with a Twitter account knows that such anti-Semitism exists. I’ve recently highlighted it at Mint Press News, a publication to which I contributed for over a year. So anti-Semitism, though largely an enterprise of the far-right, exists on the left as well. Fighting anti-Semitism is a laudable goal.
But here’s where I part company with the institutional Jewish community. If you were to poll Jews about their priorities in life and issues that most concern them, anti-Semitism would be very far down the list.
Of course, members of all religions react with great concern to threats to their co-religionists. That is understandable. But Jews aren’t the only religion under threat: true, Jews have been attacked by Islamists in Europe and places like Turkey. But Coptic Christians were attacked by ISIS in Egypt this week and Rohingya Muslims have been ethnically cleansed by Burmese Buddhists for several years. Jews in today’s world don’t have a monopoly on victimhood. But the organized Jewish community acts as if it does. As if they own the field of religious hatred and are the only victims, or at least the only ones who really matter, because of our past suffering in the Holocaust.
Exaggerating the significance of anti-Semitism also tends to distort Jewish life and identity. If you define yourself as a Jew as someone fighting against anti-Semitism, rather than fighting for a rich, positive, substantive Jewish identity–you don’t have much substance on which to base your Jewishness. That’s a significant part of my quarrel with groups like the ADL and AJC, whose existence and financial wherewithal is predicated on anti-Semitism.
Jews obsessed with anti-Semitism do offer what they see as a positive model of Jewish identity: Israel. I wrote about this in the essay, The Closing of the American Jewish Mind, my contribution to the newly published Israel and Palestine: Alternative Models of Statehood. There I noted that Israel has become a substitute for the Jewish culture, traditions, art, and even religious practice that used to be at the heart of Diaspora Jewry. Wealthy Jews like Sheldon Adelson, Michael Steinhardt and others have bet hundreds of millions of dollars that while Judaism may wither on the vine, Israel will not. That’s why they’ve funded Birthright as their primary response to assimilation.
But what happened to Torah, Talmud, religious ritual, Biblical prophecy, Kabbalah, Zohar, Yiddish culture, language, and song, among many others? If you posit anti-Semitism and Israel as the sole arbiters of Jewishness, it leaves nothing of what sustained us over centuries and even millenia. It is a poor substitute for what we’re losing. And I can’t say that I blame any Jewish youth who rejects this tepid porridge they’re offered as a substitute for Jewishness. This also explains why the Pew poll found that the younger generation is rejecting their parents’ generation and its single-minded near-obsession with Israel to the exclusion of almost all else.
Jewish Voice for Peace protest UC Regents proposal to define criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic
It goes without saying that if you offer Israel as the New Jewish Religion, that you view any threat to Israel as a threat to the Jewish people. That is why the Israel Lobby has worked so diligently to insinuate criticism of Israel as a primary tenet of anti-Semitism. That is why the current far-right Israeli government repeats the smear that BDS is not just anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic.
These are, of course, radical revisions of the traditional definition of anti-Semitism as expression of hatred toward Jews. If you believe there is no difference between Israel and Jews, then this may make some sense. But if you conflate the two then you fall into a morass of internal contradictions. If you reject the notion of dual loyalty, then how do you combat the claim by anti-Semites that Diaspora Jews must be disloyal to their homelands because they retain sole loyalty to Israel? How do you stand against acts of terror by Islamists aimed at Jews, when the terrorists believe that in attacking Jews they are also attacking Israel? How do you embrace the claim by the Likudist far-right that Iran aims to destroy not just Israel, but the entire Jewish people? Especially when the Iranians have never made such a sweeping claim?
Which brings me to the current efforts by legislators in the U.S. and UK to legislate a radical revision in the definition of anti-Semitism. Recently, the U.S. Senate passed almost unanimously the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which employs the following definition and examples:
Calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews
Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
Demonizing Israel by blaming it for all interreligious or political tensions
Judge Israel by a double standard that one would not apply to any other democratic nation
Few will have any argument with the first two definitions, but the second two are so vague and broad as to be meaningless. Under this problematic rubric, reporting that Israeli Jews kill Muslims because of their religion is anti-Semitic. Criticizing Israel for fomenting political discord in the Middle East also appears anti-Semitic. And criticizing Israel before criticizing every other democracy which engages in bad behavior is also anti-Semitic. In fact, such an approach makes most Jews themselves anti-Semites because most American Jews are critical, some highly critical of Israel and its policies.
Such definitions have one major goal: to silence, rather clumsily, political speech regarding Israel. They are intended to “box in” the BDS movement and other forms of “delegitimization” by defining legitimate political discourse as off-limits. Such efforts must be seen for what they are: bald-faced attempts to stifle debate and suppress dissent. Democracies are antithetical to such notions. They are strong precisely because they permit, even encourage the free flow of ideas. That is how the best ideas develop and how we keep such societies strong and vital. Suppressing speech, as the Israel Lobby seeks, is anti-American and anti-democratic.
The British parliament stands ready to pass an equally noxious anti-Semitism bill which the media have largely misreported as a milquetoast affirmation of the basic decency of Jews in the face of mindless hate. This Christian Science Monitor report sounds innocent enough:
…The British government hopes the new definition will offer a more concrete and clearer notion of anti-Semitism, to be adopted in as many circles as possible. Proponents believe that the clarified definition will prevent vagueness that may lead to anti-Semitic crimes going unreported or unacknowledged. The definition is part of an international effort to end hate crimes against Jewish people as well as combat Holocaust denial in all its forms.
Until you read the fine print on the website of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance which the Parliament relied on in crafting its own definition:
Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews
worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence
of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
These examples themselves are deeply problematic. The State of Israel is racist. It’s policies are racist. The structure of its society is racist. By noting and criticizing such racism prevalent in Israeli society I by no means “deny Jewish people their right to self-determination.” In fact, I strengthen Israel in doing so.
The “double standard” theory is bogus as well. Holding Israel to the standards of international law is not “applying a double standard.” In fact, the three main demands of BDS (ending Occupation, return of Palestinian exiles, and offering fully equality to Israeli Palestinians) derive from the heart of democratic traditions.
As for the “Nazi analogy,” I’d be a lot more comfortable with this one if the Israel Lobby wasn’t so free and easy to call Israel’s critics and opponents Nazis and the like. Not to mention that there are clear elements of Israeli policy that echo those of the Nazis, just as there are elements of Trumpism which do so as well. Why should the former be labelled anti-Semitic? A clear, carefully articulated analogy based on historical facts cannot be.
Finally, you can’t call “holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel” anti-Semitic if Israel’s leaders themselves refuse to make such a distinction. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
These efforts to redefine anti-Semitism for the convenience of the Lobby and as a buttress against criticism of the noxious polices of the State of Israel are worse than a waste of time. They are a radical departure from established consensus both among moral philosophers, historians and Jews themselves about the definition of the noxious concept of Jew-hatred. We are about to see such a radical departure from consensus here in the United States as Donald Trump takes office. It will lead to great ugliness and distortion of the great traditions of American democracy. Let’s not do the same to the concept of anti-Semitism.
International “definition” of antisemitism threatens to limit criticism of Israel
This ‘international definition’ has no international status
The ‘definition’ deliberately emphasises criticism of Israel and Zionism as likely to be antisemitic
The UK government’s proposed adoption of it threatens to obstruct or even criminalise free speech
The UK Government has announced that it will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism:
“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.”
Were the definition to stop at that point its adoption by the Government could be applauded. But the major part of the definition is given over to examples of actions that should be investigated as purported to show antisemitic motivation. Of the eleven examples given, seven relate not to Jews as Jews, but to the state of Israel and its actions.
This emphasis reveals the motivation of those who have been promoting this definition for more than 10 years. It will be all too easy for governments, or others via litigation, ‘lawfare’, to employ it to limit criticism both of: Israel’s repeated breaches of International Law and abuses of the Human Rights of Palestinians; and critiques of Zionism as an ideology used to justify and excuse Israel’s actions.
There are already many examples of attempts to illegitimately stretch the use of the definition to censor legitimate political and moral debate. A particular target has been the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – a mass non-violent civil society campaign to hold Israel to account. Already Israel’s UK supporters have rushed to pre-emptively interpret the Government’s announcement as shielding Israel and its foundational political philosophy of Zionism, rather than protecting Jews.
There is a simple option for the Government that will allay fears that this definition will be used to suppress free speech. This is to adopt just the 40-word definition cited above, but not the contentious, partisan, politically slanted examples that accompany it.
Free Speech on Israel also urges the Government to adopt an equivalent definition of Islamophobia and promote it vigorously since attacks on Muslims, both verbal and physical, are a far greater and more frequent threat to the safety and security of British citizens and residents than is antisemitism.
Free Speech on Israel is a network of labour, green and trade union activists in the UK, mainly Jewish, who came together in April 2016 to counter attempts by pro-Israel right wingers to brand the campaign for justice for Palestinians as antisemitic. Their attacks form part of two highly orchestrated campaigns: one, to undermine the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the first potential British Prime Minister to have a consistent record of supporting Palestinian rights; the other, to suppress the pro-Palestinian voices of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others of many faiths and none, campaigning for freedom, justice and equality for all.
Oxford University philosopher Brian Klug has proposed a more straightforward and easier to apply definition of antisemitism as: ‘a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.’ Use of Dr Klug’s definition was recommended by Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism in his report commissioned to assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism.
The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign was launched by Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005 and has attracted worldwide support. It is the object of concerted attack by the Israeli Government and its supporters in other countries.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is not a formal international organisation. It is a loose alliance whose founding purpose is to ensure, through education, that new generations are informed about that tragedy.
“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”
The report discusses some criticisms of this definition including its unrecognised status and its attempts to extend the applicability of the term beyond the clearly limiting parameters of pure racism. If it be accepted that a racist statement is always necessarily general form of:
ALL ‘race’ ARE ‘pejorative’
We can see the IHRA definition of antisemitism attempts deviate this structure by claiming:
“ALL ‘Jews’ ARE ‘pejorative’ AND may be directed toward things of ‘Jewish nature’ = antisemitism”
The definitional extension applied here would seem to logically make proving an antisemitic claim more difficult to demonstrate. However, in the court of public opinion and the examples of antisemitism given by the IHRA, the crucial importance of the first clause of this definition and the ambiguity introduced by ‘may’ seems to completely ignored. This renders the effective definition to be perceived as:
“’pejorative’ directed toward things felt to be of ‘Jewish nature’ = antisemitism”
The HACSC recognises that allowing for subjective perception of antisemitism is not a tenable position when it says:
“for a perpetrator to be prosecuted for a criminal offence that was motivated or aggravated by antisemitism, requires more than just the victim’s perception that it was antisemitic.”
The need for objectivity is stress in the statement:
“It also requires evidence, and it requires that someone other than the victim makes an objective interpretation of that evidence.”
The report again goes on to justify its need for a clear definition:
“The difficulty of making such a determination in the face of conflicting interpretations underlines the importance of establishing an agreed definition of antisemitism.”
This can be seen as an additional problem to the ambiguity introduced into the IHRA working definition by the use of the word ‘may’.
Rather than deal with the structural problems with this definition and the examples that are provided the HACSC proposes the following particular exceptions:
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.
The methodology of providing a loose ‘working definition’ and then seeking to restrict that definition by listing exceptions is fundamentally flawed. In this instance the HACSC is doubly flawed because it attempts to define antisemitism circularly in terms of antisemitism. The suggested modifications in no way bear on the general issue of subjectivity in interpreting antisemitic statements.
This is subsequent borne out by the way the HACSC report completely acknowledges the term ‘Zionism’ as a political concept worthy of discussion and yet goes on to be completely persuaded by personal testimonies alone that the word ‘Zionist’, and by extension its contraction ‘Zio’, has such “toxicity” that it can automatically be assumed to antisemitic. The report avoids explicitly falling into this fallacy, but by subsequently siding with the aggrieved John Mann MP at the hostility and “vilification” he received, the conclusion can be in no doubt.
The report singularly fails to remain objective by making this arbitrary determination. The report fails to take account of the fundamental right to freedom of speech. This right cannot be arbitrarily interfered with. Thus the HACSC is legally duty bound to provide a suitable and necessary principle that would differentiate the term of abuse, of say, “Trot”, as directed toward left wing members of the labour party with that of ‘Zio’ for the political backing of Israeli policy.
The Select Committee report highlights the angry tweets received by John Mann MP and seems to imply the obviousness of their antisemitic guilt. At least half of those many texts have no discernible racist element by lack of generality. No effort is made to show how any of the tweets are in fact antisemitic in terms of the proposed definition. Merely presenting them in their hostility is hoped to bring your nodding acquiescence along, under an already prejudiced definition. The reader is not reminded of the context of these written messages in which Mr Mann himself appeared to be on the verge of physically assaulting Ken Livingstone in the most insane political moment I can think of in recent times.
The Chair of the HACSC report, the conservative’s Mr Loughton MP, attempts to mock Baroness Chakrabarti’s report for describing some antisemitic complaints as “unhappy incidents” and yet his report cites Mr Mann as a victim of vilification “after his attempts to challenge Ken Livingstone’s comments”. Comments which have not been found to be antisemitic at the time of writing and not likely to in this author’s opinion. On the contrary it would seem a likely justice if Mr Livingstone was to prosecute Mr Mann for his gross inappropriate actions and false accusations. The Baroness was quite right to defend her own report’s impartiality in not delving into ongoing investigations and taking sides. Words Mr Loughton ought to let sink in. The report is an abuse of process and should bring professional sanction because of its clear lack of impartiality. This would go some way to safeguarding future parliamentary Select Committee reports.
To make my point concrete I adduce the first of the example tweets cited in the report regarding the John Mann incident:
“@johnmannmp why don’t you admit you’re a Zionist wh*re then ??”
Angry, hostile and offensive? Certainly. Racist? Absolutely not, and by extension not antisemitic. I don’t admire or even like the person who sent this message, I don’t know him or her, it might be a small piece of evidence that he or she might be a despicable person. But equally it might not be such evidence. When you try to arbitrarily restrict human freedoms, many will take those liberties even more, as a ‘screw you’ if you like, in essence echoing the sentiments of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said:
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”
It seems a convenience for this MP and to other vested interests to show the political language of so many in such a tainted ‘working’ definition.