Zionists’ weapon of mass destruction against UK’s left

21 November 2016

Profile image Jeremy Corbyn

Baseless accusations of antisemitism are damaging to more than the British left and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Peter Nicholls/Reuters

From Blairite to far-right, the British political elite is relishing having discovered the ultimate weapon of mass destruction to try and block the growth of a movement of the left around Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

All it needs to do is fire off round after round of unsubstantiated assertions of antisemitism, deploying circular and often contradictory arguments.

The left, so the mantra goes, has always been riddled with antisemitism. To deny this is, by definition, antisemitic.

Corbyn is in denial, according to his critics. The ardent pro-Israel advocate Howard Jacobson has accused him of belonging to the “more un-self-questioning wing of British politics.” Those words are probably more applicable to Tony Blair, the former prime minister and Corbyn’s arch enemy.

Jacobson, a novelist and academic, graciously allows in a recent opinion piece that Israel may be subjected to “fair and honest” criticism but asserts, in the face of reams of historical evidence to the contrary, that the Zionism which created and upholds the state is a “dreamy” and idealistic national liberation movement of the Jewish people that has nothing to do with conquest or colonial expansion.

The clincher is Jacobson’s assertion – denied by a considerable body of Jewish opinion – that anti-Zionism is equivalent to repudiating Israel’s right to exist and is therefore “almost invariably” antisemitic.

Case closed. There really is nothing left to say.

“Open season on minorities”

Where does this leave the UK as a proudly democratic society that values freedom of speech? We value it so highly that just last month, the Independent Press Standards Organisation – the media regulator established by UK newspapers – ruled that Kelvin MacKenzie, a former editor of The Sun, was free to denounce Channel 4 for letting a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman, Fatima Manji, report on the Nice terror attacks.

Manji said this meant that it was now “open season on minorities and Muslims, in particular.”

It leaves us in an unpleasant place, following the vote to exit the European Union, where upsetting Muslims and other non-whites is fine. Upsetting friends of Israel is not allowed, however – especially, but not exclusively, if they are Jewish.

It’s also fine to upset Jews like me who are not Zionists. Wes Streeting, a member of parliament (not a Jew), called me a “massive racist” in a tweet about an interview I did with the radio station LBC during October.

But then I’m a pro-Palestinian activist who supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement. Streeting evidently believes I can be discounted as a self-hating Jew.

Just to be clear, I have no time for conspiracy theorists who see Israel as the root of all evil. I do not tolerate anti-Jewish racism, whether or not it is coupled with claims of supporting justice for Palestine, as it sometimes is.

Nor do my fellow campaigners in Free Speech on Israel. We demand justice and security for both Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, and we agree with the Arab-Jewish Forum’s Tony Klug who wrote in The Jewish Chronicle earlier this year: “While antisemitism is monstrous – and, like all forms of racism, should be vigorously dealt with – false accusations of antisemitism are monstrous too.”

Disturbingly, the recent report on antisemitism in the UK from the Home Affairs Committee in the House of Commons gives a free pass to those making false accusations.

Released on 16 October, the report performs a service by highlighting the role of social media – in particular Twitter – in facilitating deplorable abuse and threats to individuals. It also makes the important point, ignored by most media, that the far right is behind 75 percent of all politically motivated antisemitic incidents.

Its main thrust, however, is that antisemitism is rampant and tolerated in the Labour Party, the National Union of Students and elsewhere on the left and that a “new definition” of antisemitism is required so that we can halt this alleged scourge. It is a gift to the pro-Israel, anti-Corbyn brigade who welcomed it ecstatically.

Moral panic

The Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), an intensely Zionist group, tweeted, “We could not have written this report better ourselves.”

caa-tweet-screen-grab

Until the current wave of moral panic, people generally knew what bigotry was and what was specific about the anti-Jewish bigotry usually called antisemitism.

As the Free Speech On Israel website says, language or behavior is anti-Semitic if it expresses hatred of Jews, or inflicts or incites violence against them, because they are Jews; if it stereotypes Jews on the basis of alleged negative personal characteristics such as being mean, sly and avaricious; if it links Jews to conspiracy theories about world domination of media, financial or governmental institutions; if it suggests Jews were responsible for, or fabricated, the Holocaust.

Most people would also agree that it is antisemitic to implicate all Jews in the actions of the Israeli state or to accuse all Jews of embracing a single ideology – Zionism, for example.

Yet no one is more determined to suggest that all Jews owe loyalty to the State of Israel, and that Zionism is part and parcel of being Jewish, than Zionists like Jacobson and the CAA. It isn’t so long ago that Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s chief rabbi, declared that Zionism was a “noble and integral part of Judaism.”

A long list of Jews including well-known figures such as the filmmaker Mike Leigh, actor Miriam Margolyes and writer Michael Rosen put their names to a letter repudiating the chief rabbi’s version of their identity. Gideon Falter, the CAA’s chair, dismissed them as “a fringe assortment of British Jews” who had committed an “anti-Semitic slur” against his group.

Is it any wonder that some people outraged by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians may take the chief rabbi at his word and hold all Jews responsible for what is done in their name?

If only the report from the Home Affairs Committee had tackled this contradiction and affirmed that there are different forms of Jewish identity, different traditions to which Jews adhere, including radical traditions that have no connection with Zionism.

Instead the committee promotes a “new definition” of antisemitism that does everything Falter, Streeting and company desire. If imposed on all areas of public life, as the committee proposes, opposition to their partisan approach is at risk of being criminalized.

To start with, the committee exalts its definition of antisemitism as being “based broadly on the working definition of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).” That falsely gives the impression that the definition favored has already been approved by the European Union.

The so-called working definition appeared on the EUMC website as a discussion document that was found wanting and dropped. It was originally drafted more than a decade ago by Zionist lobby groups, which have pushed it relentlessly since then.

The home affairs committee report lists some of the obvious characteristics of antisemitism but muddies the waters by introducing Israel into the equation.

We already have extensive evidence of how this will be used to censor debate – an academic conference canceled, a theater director pilloried, school children denied involvement in a literary festival.

It is not only Jewish Zionists who are guilty of this kind of censorship. In the three cases mentioned, non-Jewish Conservative cabinet ministers were actively involved.

The Home Affairs Committee’s “new definition” offers myriad opportunities for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. As I write, Israel’s CAA friends are filing a complaint against the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for allowing writer Tom Suarez to lecture about the violent origins of the Israeli state.

These are some of the more problematic examples given in the “new 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.

If this is antisemitic, then Jewish organizations that uphold loyalty to Israel – as most do – will be immune from criticism for doing so. Dissenting Jews, or anyone else who wonders aloud why the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which claims to represent all Jews in the country, persists in supporting Israel right or wrong, will be silenced.

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.

This clause is particularly pernicious. Rights attach to human beings, not states. Asserting the right to self-determination does not give any group a right to suppress others in its name. Palestinians also have rights, including the right to protest at the injustices inflicted upon them in the name of Jewish self-determination. It is not antisemitic for them to do so, nor for anyone else to support them.

Nor is it antisemitic to identify the racism present in the origins of the Israeli state. Jacobson may call its creation an act of “dreamy” idealism – but it was almost by definition a racist endeavor since the intention was to conquer and occupy the maximum amount of land while ensuring that the fewest possible non-Jewish inhabitants remained on it.

Modern Israel offers multiple examples of racism, some of it extreme.

Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

In practice, what Israel’s defenders complain of is Israel being expected to abide by internationally accepted norms while other states behave as badly or worse. Israel’s critics point out that Israel is exceptionally favored on the international scene by being allowed to get away with breaches of international law and human rights conventions without facing any sanction. It is not antisemitic to call Israel to account for those breaches.

Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

The blood libel is a horrifying medieval superstition that led to the slaughter of innocent Jews accused of using the blood of Christian children in religious rites. Today’s pro-Israel censors frequently allege “blood libel” when anyone comments on the shedding of Palestinian blood.

Veteran cartoonist Gerald Scarfe found himself in the center of a diplomatic storm when he dared to portray Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, cementing bleeding bodies between the slabs of a wall. To call this a blood libel distorts Jewish history and, as one Israeli commentator argued at the time, is “not antisemitic by any standard.”

It is certainly antisemitic to allege, as used to happen to my mother when she was a young girl, that Jews bear the guilt of Christ’s death, or to suggest that Jews have a propensity to slaughter children. But it is not antisemitic to hold the State of Israel or its leaders responsible for the real deaths of real children caused by their forces.

Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

The study of history and politics requires us to make comparisons between different societies in different times. Nazi Germany has become the benchmark for a particularly horrifying form of racist totalitarianism. Sometimes people appalled at Israel’s behavior towards Palestinians, including Jewish Israelis, reach for the worst comparison they can muster and draw Nazi parallels.

It can be hurtful and may make productive debate difficult. But it is not antisemitic.

Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.

It is indeed bigoted to hold Jews – or any ethnic or religious group – collectively responsible for anything. But people can hardly be blamed for believing that Jews and Israel are indivisible when most mainstream Jewish organizations are solidly aligned with Israel and Zionism.

It would be far more beneficial for people who are confused about this to learn about non-Zionist Jewish traditions than to drum them out of the Labour Party for crossing a line laid down by pro-Israel partisans.

The Home Affairs Committee report calls for its seriously flawed pseudo-definition to be “formally adopted by the UK government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties, to assist them in determining whether or not an incident or discourse can be regarded as antisemitic.”

There is considerable danger in this.

Not only is the committee’s definition a threat to the possibility of holding intelligent, informed discussion about one of the great moral and political issues of our time, it is also a potential spur to anti-Jewish sentiment because it gives the impression that debate is to be censored at the behest of a Jewish collective acting on behalf of the State of Israel.

Unquestioning media bear much of the blame for obscuring the fact that many Jews are not Zionists and a great many Zionists are not Jews.

While many of us Jewish dissenters have been at the forefront of defending Jeremy Corbyn in his attempts to build a grassroots socialist movement, his enemies have united to undermine him, regardless of their faith backgrounds.

It is not too late to avert the threat to freedom of speech posed by the cynical political games afoot. We should start by rejecting the Home Affairs Committee’s phony definition of antisemitism.

 

Jewish Labour activists in defence of Jackie Walker

jackie-walker-28sept

In Defence of Jackie Walker

We are Jewish Labour activists who were with Jackie Walker at the training session on antisemitism led by Mike Katz, vice chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) during the Labour Party conference in Liverpool on Monday September 26. Like her, some of us were heckled when we raised questions unpalatable to others in the audience who share the JLM’s bias towards Israel, its coupling of Jewish identity with Zionism and its insistence on the uniqueness of Jewish suffering.

Jackie had every right to question the JLM’s definition of antisemitism and the tendency of mainstream Jewish organisations to focus entirely on the slaughter of Jews when they commemorate the Nazi Holocaust. We share her determination to build greater awareness of other genocides, which are too often forgotten or minimised. Jackie responded appreciatively when one audience member described Holocaust memorial events involving Armenians and others.  She has since issued a statement on this issue, reproduced below.

We were shocked at the way the level of barracking rose as soon as Jackie began to speak. JLM supporters demonstrated contempt for her as a Jewish woman of African heritage who is a lifelong anti-racist advocate for the rights of minorities and a leading Labour Party activist in her Thanet constituency.

We unreservedly condemn allegations of antisemitism made against Jackie Walker. Calls for her to be disowned by the Momentum movement of which she is vice-chair, and for her to be suspended for a second time from the Labour Party, are reprehensible instances of the witch hunt to which she and other Corbyn supporters have been subjected over recent months.

The way Jackie has been treated demonstrates the unfitness of the JLM to deliver training on antisemitism. It is an organisation committed to one, contested strand of Jewish labour tradition to the exclusion of any other; it relies on a definition of antisemitism that conflates Jewish identity with Zionism; and it exploits its interactions with party members to set the limits of political discourse about the Middle East in accordance with its own partisan ideology.

By promoting the witch hunt, the JLM has helped to relegate the vile prejudice of antisemitism to a tool in the armoury of pro-Israel advocates, backed by Corbyn’s enemies in the political and media establishment.

Signed:

Graham Bash, Hackney North CLP
Rica Bird, Wirral South CLP
Leah Levane, Hastings and Rye CLP
Jonathan Rosenhead, Hackney South and Shoreditch CLP
Glyn Secker, Dulwich and West Norwood CLP
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, Chingford and Woodford Green CLP


A statement from Jackie Walker

“A number of people made comments in a private training session run by the Jewish Labour Movement. As we all know, training sessions are intended to be safe spaces where ideas and questions can be explored. A film of this session was leaked to the press unethically. I did not raise a question on security in Jewish schools. The trainer raised this issue and I asked for clarification, in particular as all London primary schools, to my knowledge, have security and I did not understand the particular point the trainer was making. Having been a victim of racism I would never play down the very real fears the Jewish community have, especially in light of recent attacks in France.

In the session, a number of Jewish people, including me, asked for definitions of antisemitism. This is a subject of much debate in the Jewish community. I support David Schneider’s definition and utterly condemn antisemitism.

I would never play down the significance of the Shoah. Working with many Jewish comrades, I continue to seek to bring greater awareness of other genocides, which are too often forgotten or minimised. If offence has been caused, it is the last thing I would want to do and I apologise.”


Read Jackie Walker’s interview in the New Statesman
Read Asa Winstanley on Labour’s antisemitism training

FSOI MEDIA NOTICE – Zionism and antisemitism all the rage at Labour Party conference fringe

www.freespeechonisrael.org.uk          info@freespeechonisrael.org.uk

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: LIVERPOOL NOVOTEL, 7.30 PM, SUNDAY SEPT 25

Zionism and antisemitism all the rage at Labour Party conference fringe

  • Three fringe meetings in 3 hrs on allegations against Corbyn supporters
  • Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker confronts her abusers
  • Jewish activists will expose “exaggerated and downright false claims of antisemitism”

Defenders and opponents of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will clash over interpretations of Zionism and antisemitism in three separate meetings in the space of as many hours on the first day of the party conference in Liverpool on Sunday September 25.

The spectacle comes about because of an initiative by Free Speech on Israel (FSOI), a network of mainly Jewish activists opposed to the deployment of antisemitism allegations to silence Corbyn supporters who campaign for justice for Palestine.

A meeting originally planned by FSOI at the conference fringe hub of the grassroots Momentum movement has now been taken over by Momentum itself. It will bring Jeremy Newmark of the Zionist Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) face to face with Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker to debate “Does Labour have an Antisemitism Problem?”

FSOI has organised a separate meeting titled “Jewish Socialists Against the Anti-Corbyn Witchhunt”, also featuring Jackie Walker, at the nearby Novotel later the same evening.

It will pose a direct challenge to the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices, while the JLM – one of the main architects of the silencing – has chosen to hold its own rally at the same time.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi who will chair the FSOI meeting said it would be “the only chance during the four days of conference to uncover the truth behind the devastation wreaked upon Labour by exaggerated and downright false claims of antisemitism.”


NOTES FOR EDITORS

  1. Who is Jackie Walker? (From Jews for Justice for Palestinians website)

Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker is a lifelong anti-racist campaigner of both African and Jewish heritage who has been suspended from the Labour Party for alleged antisemitism and then reinstated.

  1. What is FSOI?

Free Speech on Israel rejects the assertion, by die-hard supporters of Israel such as the JLM, that expressions of opposition to the political ideology of Zionism are equivalent to anti-Jewish racism. FSOI says opposition to Zionism is rooted in defence of Palestinian rights, which have been abused by Israel since its creation.

  1. At the Free Speech on Israel (FSOI) meeting at the Novotel, 40 Hanover Street, at 7.30 pm, Jackie Walker will share the platform with British Palestinian lawyer Salma Karmi-Ayyoub and Glyn Secker, who captained the Jewish Boat to Gaza organised by Jews for Justice for Palestinians in 2010. The vessel was seized by Israeli forces as it attempted to breach the siege of Gaza.
  1. The Momentum meeting at 5pm at 1 Great George Street will feature Jackie Walker, Jeremy Newmark (Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement); Rhea Wolfson (recently elected to the Labour NEC) and FSOI speaker Professor Jonathan Rosenhead.
  1. The JLM has devoted all its energies since Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader to denouncing him for failing to root out party members sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. It has been a prime mover behind the idea that Jewish identity is inextricably linked to Israel and Zionism. Its meeting, which coincides with the FSOI event, is advertised as a Rally Against Racism and Antisemitism, although the organisation has no record of anti-racist campaigning.

Is Zionist a rude word?

Jonathan Rosenhead of FSOI responds to Mary Davis’s Open Democracy article Contestation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism

Reprinted from Open Democracy

Words trail meanings beyond their formal definitions. Raymond Williams in his Key Words leads us through the dizzying journeys that words we thought we knew well have taken over their history. For example, who nowadays brings to mind what ‘Protestants’ were protesting about? Or take ‘fascism’. This theory and practice of authoritarian politics is now so entangled with its delivery of the holocaust that outside academia it is used as a swear word plain and simple.

Words are deployed as moves in a strategic battle. This comes out in the titanic struggle between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty says “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean”, but is challenged on this by Alice. ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

To Mary Davis (“Contestation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism”, openDemocracy, 27 July 2016) words are quite straight forward, Humpty-Dumpty-style. Contested words are deployed in unitary meanings of her choice. The result is of course a coherent story – of Zionism, the stages of development of Jewish settlement, the possible ways forward from the current impasse. However by failing to engage with the other competing versions of this story we get an account remarkable in its lack of nuance. News flash: Mary Davis wrestles with a straw person, and wins!

Antisemitism has in recent months become an active concept in British politics for the first time in most living memories. Many, indeed most, of the allegations of antisemitism that have been made are about statements (not actions), and they are statements about Israel and about Zionism. I will turn to those allegations later, but first need to do some house cleaning around the subject of Zionism.

Zionism in theory

The main thrust of Davis’ argument is that Zionism is not a monolithic movement; historically it has had its internal divisions, its left and right flanks. Back in the day it was Mapai to the right of Mapam (though she gets these the wrong way round). Further to the right still was Herut, the offspring of the arch revisionist Jabotinsky, and the progenitor of Netanyahu’s Likud. She seems to enlist the fact that Yitzhak Rabin, though a Zionist Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated by Yigal Amir, also a Zionist, in support of this thesis of multi-strand Zionism.

Zionism, she seems to say, was and still is fractured: therefore, by implication, criticism of Zionism as a whole should be off limits. But surely the existence of different tendencies within any significant movement almost doesn’t need saying. This is just politics, the struggle between different interests and interpretations, and it is found pretty well everywhere. It certainly doesn’t constitute a veto against making rather general observations about the movement as a whole. Otherwise it would be illegitimate, for example, to interpret, or even make evaluative comments on, those many non-monolithic movements that continue to shape our world: capitalism, liberalism, racism come to mind. Also nationalism – in which Davis herself roots the late nineteenth century origins of Zionism.

The distinctive difference of Zionism from other manifestations of nationalism is this – that it could realise its ambition of national self-determination in a defined territory only by taking someone else’s. One can appreciate the driving need felt by many (by no means all) Jews for a safe haven from antisemitism, but at the same time see the whole future tragedy in embryo in that crucial contradiction.

What sort of ‘ism’ is Zionism?

Growing up in a committedly Zionist household, I celebrated the 1948 ‘War of Independence’, and all the subsequent triumphs of Israeli arms. I was repeatedly surprised when Israel didn’t then make a favourable peace with its neighbours, but instead grew progressively more bullish and bully-boy as it grew stronger.  At the time I put it down to short-sightedness by politicians of limited vision. But after 50, 100 years a more systemic explanation is surely required. The short-hand version of this is that Zionism in practice is an idiosyncratic late version of colonialism (another ‘ism’) – transposed from the nineteenth century and still attempting to survive in the very different environment of the twenty-first.

The uncommon though not unique feature of this colonial project is that there is and has been almost no desire to exploit the labour power of the indigenous population. On the contrary. When land was bought for settlement the Palestinians on it were evicted. The Hagganah, which became the IDF, was formed to keep Arabs off the land that had been cleared in this way. Aggressive propaganda, intimidation and violence was used to pressure Jewish-owned enterprises to use Jewish rather than Arab workers. This forceful eviction of Arab workers was one of the precipitating causes of the Arab Revolt in 1936. The key figure in this campaign for ‘Jewish Labour’ was David Ben Gurion, later first Prime Minister of Israel.

This identification of Zionism as a form of colonialism is not just post hoc rationalisation, but was quite evident to Zionism’s founders. In 1917 Ber Borochov, the relatively progressive Zionist cited by Davis, wrote about the time “when the waste lands are prepared for colonization”. Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, wrote in The Iron Wall that “’My readers have a general idea of the history of colonisation in other countries.  I suggest that they consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonisation being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent.”

Zionism was ‘sold’ as a project of “a land without people for a people without a land”. This was not a statement of fact but of intention. (The late nineteenth century founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, confided to his diary that if Palestine was to be successfully settled the local population would have to be removed.) Zionism sought to get the land, but with as few of the indigenous people as possible. Never letting an opportunity go to waste, in the confusion of the 1948 war out of which Israel was born 80% of the Palestinian population was ejected, by force or the deliberately fostered fear of force. Prime Minister Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and its subsequent sealing off in a still ongoing 10-year siege is a way of ‘containing’ 1.5 million Palestinians on the smallest imaginable patch of ground. Israel’s most intractable problem results from the obverse of this coin. Israel’s 1967 conquest of Jerusalem and the West Bank gave them control of 3 million Palestinians they really don’t want. The Wall is being built to filch as much extra land as possible, and forget the Palestinians on the other side.

This thrust is not seriously contested within the mainstream Israeli political system. Isaac Herzog of the Labour Party (now merged into the Zionist Union) is leader of the Israeli opposition. His policies include maintenance of the occupation, and the completion of a barrier cutting off Jerusalem from the Palestinian villages around it. See Gideon Levy’s recent article in Ha’aretz, (August 31, 2016):

“There is no radical left in Israel. Such a left is anarchist and sometimes even terrorist, as in Europe and Latin America. In Israel, where even Isaac Herzog is seen as “left” and Yair Lapid as “center” – when they’re both moderate right – what counts as radical left is the only left that exists here, and that is moderate left. All the rest are 50 shades of right wing, with an alarming, herd-like consensus and too little real difference of opinion.

Everyone agrees on all the wars, everyone enlists together against all international criticism and meanwhile the occupation arouses no active resistance. And wonder of wonders, in this sticky, unified mess the negligible minority that thinks otherwise, the extinct species, manages to arouse rage and hatred to such an extent that you’d think it was a majority. Such rage can only attest to one thing: the majority’s uncertainty about the rightness of its way.

The litmus test isn’t whether you identify with the left or right, but whether you identify with Zionism, that deceptive, undefined, anachronistic, expired value that distinguishes between legitimate Israelis and the rest. Are you on our side or the enemy’s? Say “Zionist” and you’re not radical. Good, you’re saved. Say “not Zionist” and you’re out. A pity, you’re extinct. When Zionism is a religion, heresy is treason. Anyone who dares to undermine Zionism’s validity, as the majority sees it, is radical left, illegitimate, and lately even criminal….”

Zionism in practice

The consequences of this over-late colonial project have been and remain dire for the Palestinians.

The illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and the repudiation by Israel of the Geneva conventions-attested rights of affected populations has split the Palestinians into 3 components – those living in pre-1967 Israel, those in the occupied territories, and the diaspora of displaced Palestinians in Middle East refugee camps scattered around the world. Their ability to communicate is deliberately restricted by Israeli policies. The ‘matrix of control’[1] over all aspects of Palestinian life has been extended over the years by the most modern technology, drastically restricting not only their daily activities but also the functioning of their culture and community. Palestinian national identity and institutions are under continuous siege by Israel, in what has been described by Kimmerling as ‘politicide’[2]. The Palestinian nation has not died, but many thousands of Palestinians have. I will deny myself the opportunity of providing here a list of inhumanities perpetrated on them – I guess that readers know where to find that information.

The illegal occupation of Palestinian territories is also a running sore for Israel itself. Once it was admired by progressives for its social, even socialist, innovations. But around the world, except in elite circles, its frequent resorts to repression are close to pushing it into pariah status.  The BBC routinely polls respondents in 24 countries on which countries are seen as having positive or negative influence in the world. Since 2007 Israel has been down at the bottom with only Iran, Pakistan and North Korea below them – and sometimes not all of those.

Jews also are by no means exempt from this disenchantment with Israel. A survey carried out for the British liberal Zionist group Yachad in 2015 found that 31% of those surveyed self-identified as ‘No, not a Zionist’. Among the under 30’s the proportion who would support sanctions against Israel if they thought it would encourage the Israeli government to engage in the peace process rose to 41 percent. A report (in Hebrew) published in February found that Jewish American students also have an increasingly negative image of Israel:

  • only 42% believe Israel wants peace.
  • only 38% believe “Israel is civilized and Western”.
  • only 31% believe Israel is a democracy.
  • no less than 21% believe The US should side with the Palestinians.

It is in this environment that the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, including academic boycott, has been going from strength to strength world-wide. This whole BDS movement, according to Davis, is teetering on the edge of antisemitism, and its academic strand “can definitely be construed as anti-semitic”. That’s a claim worth deconstructing, before then moving on to the jackpot question – how are we to understand the amazing increase in rhetoric about antisemitism, quite divorced from any actually discernible increase in antisemitism itself?

Singling out Israel

It was in 2005 that a consortium of 170 Palestinian organisations issued the call to world civil society for a campaign of general boycott divestment and sanctions against Israel. In fact the academic and cultural boycotts had been launched a year earlier, by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Since Davis regards the academic boycott as her slam dunk case, I will take it on.

She says that academic boycott by not focusing purely on the Israeli state, and instead “boycotting only Jewish academics”, demonstrates its antisemitism. It is remarkable how many people who feel qualified to hold forth on this topic seem not to have carried out their due diligence. Israeli universities have Jewish, Christian and Moslem academics, and no doubt other religions besides. For that matter, they also have academics not only from Israel but from around the world. Jewish academics are not singled out for boycott. Nor are Israeli academics – because none of them are boycotted! The boycott does not target academics, or seek to interfere in any way with their work. Mary Davis only has to go to the PACBI website to find this out.

The academic boycott targets university institutions. As a supporter of this boycott I will not attend conferences held at Israeli universities, or get involved with their appointments or promotion processes. I will not teach on any programme based at the university, and I will not engage in joint research if the support funding is based there. But I have no trouble working with or receiving at my university any Israeli academic; and there is no impediment to their participating in international conferences or publishing in international journals on a level playing field with everyone else.

How should one understand Mary Davis’ statement that the boycott targets Jewish academics? That she hadn’t done her homework before writing her article? Or that she did know that there was no individual component to the boycott, but thought she would use the argument anyway? A tough call.

There is another argument that she might have made, as many people do: that singling out Israel for this treatment when other states have committed far worse crimes is surely evidence of antisemitism. [To grapple with the logic of this claim is a bit more complex. There are two factors in the answer, both to do with the reason why boycott is deployed at all.]

The explanation is that boycott is not a moral imperative, a way of demonstrating ones’ abhorrence of a certain regime (though it may offer that release also). It is, rather, a practical tactic to change the cost-benefit calculation for the actors in the conflict. Boycott enables the individually weak, by combining non-violently, to gain some purchase on an otherwise intractable situation. There is no point in mobilising support for a boycott if powerful state actors (e.g. our own governments) are already on the right side of history. And equally a boycott would be a waste of all the participants’ efforts if there was in effect, no significant trade or interchange with the target country.

Think North Korea. An execrable regime, but neither a commercial nor an academic boycott would find much purchase on the situation. It would be hard to mobilise a boycott campaign to do, effectively, nothing.

Israel, like South Africa before it, is a state built on discrimination. As Desmond Tutu says “this, in my book, is apartheid”. There are other parallels. Israel now, as South Africa previously, is both supported to the hilt by the USA and UK governments and most of Europe, and an integral part of the same economic, intellectual and cultural community as us. Boycott becomes a viable and appropriate policy.

Davis says that Israel is repeatedly “singled out for special treatment”. It is indeed singled out among those countries that systematically violate human rights. Its receives special treatment to the tune of $3bn annually from the US (the highest gained by any country), plus a cast iron diplomatic shield at the United Nations. Other transgressor countries have suffered serious economic sanctions, but Israel is rewarded.

Antisemitism everywhere

While I have been writing there has been an elephant in the room. More and more fidgety it is now positively insisting on getting into my critique. The issue is: just why is Mary Davis writing this piece now? Why is the Chief Rabbi jumping up and down about antisemitism right now? Why did John Mann waylay Ken Livingstone about it? Why was it that Sadiq Khan ‘warned’ (Daily Express)/ ‘accuses’ (Daily Telegraph, Independent)/ ‘savaged’ (Evening Standard, Daily Mail) Jeremy Corbyn over his handling of antisemitism in the Labour Party? That’s the Daily Mail, always so delicate on questions of antisemitism, from the 1930’s through to calling out Ed Miliband’s father Ralph as ‘unpatriotic’.

On August 28 the Campaign Against Antisemitism, founded during the attack on Gaza in 2014 to defend Israel from criticism, produced some telling statistics:

Last year the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted a record 15,442 cases of hate crime, but we are only aware of a dozen prosecutions for hate crime against Jews.

Of course the CAA deduced from this that “British Jews are being denied British justice”.

The statistical rigour is rudimentary. But if it is possible to believe that prosecutions for anti-Semitic behaviour really do amount to something like 1 in 1000 of the total, a more plausible explanation is surely that this issue is dwarfed by other forms of intolerant utterance and behaviour – against gays, immigrants, Poles, Muslims…. There is virtually no evidence that there has been a sharp increase in antisemitism; there is plenty of statistical (for example from the Community Security Trust) and experiential evidence that the level has been low for years, interrupted by bulges when Israel attacks Gaza.

I am a member of Free Speech on Israel, an organisation set up in April by Jewish Labour Party supporters alarmed about antisemitism in the Labour Party. Alarmed, that is, by a moral panic that completely denies our own experience. Those in the room at the foundation meeting had something like 1000 years of lived experience of the Labour Party, and no one could recall a single instance of antisemitism. This is broadly consistent with wider experience. When the ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs was asked on Radio 4 about his own experience, his response was, from memory, “Well….actually I haven’t experienced any antisemitism myself. Which is quite odd, because most people know that the Chief Rabbi is Jewish”.

Nevertheless evidence is being dredged up, of carelessly worded tweets and Facebook postings, and leading to instant suspensions from Party membership. (This policy was excoriated in the report of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party.) Nearly all of the ‘evidence’ predates Corbyn’s leadership is nevertheless being blamed on him. Other evidence was simply fabricated – as in the allegations of engrained racism in the Oxford University Labour Club. Nevertheless the mainstream media continue to serve as an uncritical megaphone for the innuendo, and worse.

In this stunningly successful offensive there is every appearance of coordination between diehard supporters of Israel, and the irreconcilables in the Labour Party who cannot accept Corbyn’s leadership. Appearances can of course be deceptive. (One of history’s sadnesses is that we almost never get substantive evidence about actual conspiracies until it is too late to matter.) But since there is in any case a clear shared interest in the defenestration of Corbyn perhaps no explicit pre-communication was needed. Israel is threatened by the installation of the first major party leader in Europe with a committed record of supporting Palestinian rights. Many Labour MPs feel deeply threatened by a leader (and associated membership) who are almost as far left as Harold Wilson was.  So there is a natural affinity of purpose.

Israel, Zionism and anti-Zionism inhabit the political realm, not a religious or ethnic one. What has been called the ‘weaponisation’ of antisemitism is deeply unprincipled. Antisemitism is an ugly phenomenon, and its spores still lie scattered through all western societies and some others. By deploying the spectre of antisemitism in disreputable campaigns its currency is degraded.

Brian Klug’s influential working definition of antisemitism is that “antisemitism is a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are”. Assuming, often aggressively, that all Jews support Israel and Zionism is, paradoxically, making the same simplifying assumption that anti-Semites do – namely that all Jews are in important respects the same. We are not.


[1] Jeff Halper ‘The 94 percent solution: a matrix of control’, Middle East Report 30:3, Fall 2000

[2] Politicide: The Real Legacy of Ariel Sharon, Verso 2006.