Tell us what you mean when you say antisemitism

Brian Robinson describes how much discourse about antisemitism is unhelpful because issues around Israel keep intruding and even Jews find themselves silenced. We must confront an epidemic of hysteria if we are to have a sensible conversation

The problem with almost all discussions on television, radio, print media, and also recent street demonstrations, with respect to antisemitism is that the participants never seem to define the word, but everyone assumes, and leaves the reader, listener, viewer, observer to assume that we’re all talking about the same thing. Antisemitism was classically always about discrimination against, or hatred of, or exclusion of Jews as Jews, simply for being Jews, regardless of anything they did or didn’t do. Various refinements of that definition include adding phrases to include the notion of stereotypical projections, where Jews are perceived in prejudicial ways to be something they are not. The Oxford philosopher Brian Klug, for instance, uses scare quotes, as in for example, ‘Hatred of Jews as “Jews”’.

The arrival of Israel on the scene has complicated this account, partly because Israel calls itself ‘the Jewish state’ and partly because Israeli politicians have regularly claimed to speak and indeed to act for all Jews on the planet, not just on behalf of Israeli Jews. Indeed a proposed ‘Basic Law’ some years ago wanted to claim that Israel is ‘the nation state of the Jewish people’, which would have carried the bizarre corollary that the nation state of a British person who happened to be Jewish was Israel and not the United Kingdom. (Leave aside for now the controversial question of whether there is such a thing as ‘the Jewish people’ in the way there is, for example, a French people. Jewishness, after all, has primarily, some would say exclusively, a religious definition. You can’t for instance be ‘culturally’ Jewish or a ‘secular’ Jew without some prior existence as a born Jew, or one by conversion.)

Jews wrongly held responsible for Israel’s actions

Why this complicates the picture is simply that some people may simply take the proclamations of Israeli governments at their word and falsely blame all Jews everywhere for the actions of Israel, including its crimes against the Palestinians. However there is an additional problem. Many Jews internationally do support Israel whatever it does and are reluctant to be highly critical of Israel’s actions. Leading spokespersons of the Jewish community, for instance here in the UK, secular and religious, regularly remain silent for example as they have done during the many instances of highly disproportionate Israeli military actions against people in Gaza, or almost entirely silent apart from a few muttered words of mild reservation or dissent. (I know personally a number of religiously observant Jews who have found they can no longer participate in synagogue services because of sermons wholly supportive of Israel, and which also discourage criticisms of Israel by congregants.) This can lead to an impression, at best, of silence giving consent.

Suppose that I, to use a phrase that has itself come in for criticism from many Zionists, suppose that ‘as a Jew’ I am condemnatory of Israel’s crimes, and suppose I go further to say that although Israel has been extremely bad for the Palestinians whose lives and prospects its creation wrecked, and is still wrecking, it has also been bad for the Jews? Suppose I add that in making the religion of Judaism so profoundly Israelocentric, it has debased and corrupted that religion and its practice? Suppose I claim in addition that although it’s easy to see just why, in the aftermath of the Holocaust Zionism went from being a minority interest in Jewry worldwide to the major force that it is today, but that nevertheless it was never, as many farseeing and prominent Jewish individuals saw at the time of the Balfour Declaration itself, it was always the wrong answer to the persecution of the Jews in Europe? Suppose I add that Israel, tragically, has been itself a major cause of today’s anti-Jewish prejudice?

Who is the victim?

Suppose I were to say to some of my fellow-Jews: “Look, if you continue to permit your authorised spokespersons to claim publicly that most of you support the brutality that Jewish-Israel is inflicting on its oppressed Other, why would you be surprised if many people of goodwill, perturbed and angered at that ongoing brutality, transfer and express some of that anger towards you, its avowed supporters? If a man is beating a slave and a witness is angered at the sight and protests to try to stop the beating, the protesting witness is going to be angry with a third man who begins shouting in support of the brute and to stifle the protester’s words and nullify him with bogus accusations. Where is the justification for your claims of injured victimhood?”

The following scenario has been depicted: Imagine some day you overhear a person in a pub saying to his friends, ‘Jews shouldn’t be living here amongst us, they should go and live with their own kind in a country of their own’, is this person a Zionist or an antisemite? And we know that it could be either, which is not to say that all antisemites are Zionists or that all Zionists are antisemites. In my own childhood that would have sounded absurd to pretty much all the fellow-Jews I knew at the time. Nevertheless we know Zionists can be enthusiastic antisemites, and vice versa.

So, suppose I make any of the above statements, does that make me antisemitic, or a self-hating Jew? Of course it doesn’t. And although my feelings on the matter can never make me want to leave being Jewish, whatever definition I employ for that embraced identity, it can fortify my reluctance to identify with a community that appears to indulge such inexcusable apologetics for Israeli atrocities.

None of the above is to deny that antisemitism exists, of course it does, but overwhelmingly though not exclusively on the right politically, as we can see all too unpleasantly in a number of European countries today. Where it exists it must be fought against. When hate speech occurs, from whatever source, it should be a matter for the police.

Epidemic of Hysteria

But recently in the UK there has been what I can only call an epidemic of hysteria involving the exaggeration of ancient fears (however historically conditioned by a real and tragic past) with the result that some ignorant bigot’s idiot tweet becomes the urgent harbinger of oh-my-god-we’re-all-about-to-be-gassed (again).

As Jews (if I may) we have never been so socially confident in this country, nor so ontologically secure in so many parts of the world, current exceptions notwithstanding. It would merely have been transparently silly had it not been so dangerous for the Jewish community here to have suggested, to have implied without ever actually saying, that Jeremy Corbyn was somehow himself tainted with antisemitism, when everything we know about him over the years is sufficient to guarantee the self-negation of such a thought.

It’s time for everyone, and that includes not least everyone in the Labour party, to calm down and come to their senses.

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2 thoughts on “Tell us what you mean when you say antisemitism”

  1. Antisemitism belongs with racism – the hatred, disdain or fear of a people based on stereotypes. Antizionism is the opposition to an ideology. As such it belongs with, for exemple, anti-imperialism

  2. Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, Bais Medrash of Bayswater congregation. Rabbi Shapiro, noted expert on Zionist ideology and history, gave a lecture at the International Law Institute in Washington D.C., that tried to address the several “Suppose… ” questions raised by Brian Robinson.

    Good article the fitted perfectly with the Rabbi’s deep knowledge and understanding of the conflict between Zionism and Judaism.

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