Why conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism makes fighting antisemitism impossible
Robert Cohen explains why Sacks’ comments are dangerous for British Jews as well as attacking Palestinian rights. Reprinted from Patheos by permission of he author
Earlier this week Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made himself look foolish, tarnishing his worldwide reputation as a man of considerable Jewish learning and wisdom by making outlandish criticism of the Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
This morning, on the BBC Andrew Marr Show, he did it again:
“He [Corbyn] implies the majority of British Jews are essentially alien to British culture…he is as great a danger as Enoch Powell.”
For younger readers and those less familiar with U.K. political history, Enoch Powell was a Conservative MP from the 1950s through to the early 70s who Andrew Marr explained to his viewers is “probably the most reviled British figure of the 20th century”.
The former Chief Rabbi of Britain has chosen to storm into the issue that’s dominated U.K. politics over the summer (far more so than Brexit) – the accusations of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn.
As the Jewish establishment’s war against Corbyn goes on, I’ve become more convinced by the day of the damage it’s doing to the standing of the Jewish community and our ability to challenge antisemitism and confront racism more broadly by making common cause with other minority groups.
Every spin, twist and distortion applied Corbyn’s meetings, comments and speeches confuses and undermines public understanding of antisemitism. It’s coming to the point where the very word ‘antisemitism’ will lose all meaning and allegations of antisemitism will become discounted as mere political lobbying or dismissed as inconsequential.
The latest example of phony Corbyn antisemitism, and the one which prompted Sacks to make his Enoch Powell comparison, centered on the news that Corbyn had accused British Zionists of failing to understand English irony despite living in this country for many years. The mainstream media ran with the story, happy to promote the idea that Corbyn was speaking in code and actually meant all British Jews, and not some British Zionists, were not truly British. It took online commentators, such as the Jewish Studies professor Jerry Haber, to examine the proper context of what Corbyn had said, go back to the text of the speech by Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Authority representative to the UK, which Corbyn was referencing, and reveal the obvious and deliberate distortion that had taken place.
[Jerry Haber, Facebook post Saturday 25 August 5pm]
— Did you hear that Jeremy Corbyn, in a speech in 2013, said that British Jews weren’t really British even if they were born there?
— Really? He said that?
— Well, he intimated that British Jews couldn’t grasp English irony and didn’t understand history.”
— Really? He was referring to Jews?
— Well, he didn’t SAY Jews, but he said that about UK Zionists, which is a leftwing code term for British Jews.
— Hang on, he made a reference to UK Zionists as a group?
— Well, not exactly. Actually, he was referring to some pro-Israel members of the audience who came up and started arguing with the Palestinian ambassador who had presented the history of Palestine and used irony when he said, “You know I’m reaching the conclusion that the Jews are the children of God, the only children of God and the Promised Land is being paid by God! I have started to believe this because nobody is stopping Israel building its messianic dream of Eretz Israel to the point I believe that maybe God is on their side. Maybe God is partial on this issue.”” which apparently some of the Zionists thought he meant without irony (We do not have a transcript of what they said) . And Corbyn referred to “the Zionists in the audience.”
— So, you mean to say he did not refer to British Zionists as a whole, but he was saying that the Palestinian ambassador, who is Armenian Palestinian, had a greater grasp of English irony, than these Brits who had lived in England all their lives?
— Yes, that’s about it.
— So, in effect, he accused pro-Israeli members of the audience, whom he referred to as “Zionists”, which they are, and who argued with the Palestinian ambassador, with being humorless and misunderstanding history, compared with the Palestinian ambassador.
— Well, that makes the man clearly an anti-Semite, doesn’t it?
Content to believe the national media’s shoddy journalism, Rabbi Sacks gave his interview to the New Statesman magazine saying Corbyn’s comments about British Zionists were: “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”.
Here’s what I wrote on Facebook as the news of Sacks’ comments were being picked up by the national media allowing ‘Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’ to continue to dominate the daily news cycle:
[Robert Cohen, Facebook post Tuesday 28 August 11.23pm]
Every time a Jewish leader (this time Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) makes a preposterous statement about Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism, it weakens the Jewish community’s ability to make common cause with other minorities facing prejudice and discrimination in the U.K.
By comparing Jeremy Corbyn to Enoch Powell it gives the appearance that Lord Sacks has no understanding of the contrasting experience of the Jewish community here (largely privileged, empowered, economically successful) and that of the immigrant communities from the British Commonwealth – the target of Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech 50 years ago – still experiencing institutional prejudice and economic discrimination linked to class and skin colour. Look at Grenfell. Look at the Windrush scandal.
Just because the Jewish community is now a largely privileged minority does not mean it does not suffer from racial prejudice. It does. Antisemitism remains in our society. And our current position of security could easily be reversed just as it was for the privileged and successful Jews of Germany who in the 1920s thought only further progress would lay ahead.
But by having nothing to say about Israel’s daily persecution and dispossession of Palestinians and by dismissing the global criticism of the new Nation State Law, Jonathan Sacks calls into question his moral authority and his right to criticise Corbyn.Antisemitism undoubtedly exists on the left in the U.K. And far more so on the right. But, as things currently stand, we are a minority that suffers little compared to the minorities around us.
If I were a Muslim or from an African Caribbean heritage and knew something of what has happened to the Palestinian people, I would be thoroughly confused by the stand Sacks is taking and his deployment of Enoch Powell as a point of reference for Jewish U.K. experience. It’s just wildly inappropriate. And indeed, insensitive to the lived experience of non-white minorities in this country.
The only explanation that makes any sense to me is the fact that Israel has become merged with modern Jewish identity in a way that now skews our moral compass. How to untangle this mess is the Jewish challenge of our Age, along with the need to find new ways to ensure Jewish security not dependent on the oppression of others.
In the U.K. (and around the world) it would be better to use our current success and privilege to demand greater attention to the racism and discrimination other groups experience every day, whether it be job opportunities, housing, health or gaining a prominent voice in mainstream media. Our Jewish experience of institutional and cultural oppression makes us well suited to build bridges with those suffering from this today.
As it happens I’m currently reading Sacks’ book ‘Lessons in Leadership’ in which he takes biblical figures and draws ethical conclusions from the Torah about what good leadership should look like. This extract (about Noah) makes me wonder (once again) why Sacks never applies his thinking to Israel and the suffering of the Palestinian people:
“It is not enough to be righteous if that means turning our backs on a society that is guilty of wrongdoing. We must take a stand. We must protest. We must register dissent even if the probability of changing minds is small. This is because the moral life is the life we share with others.”
These words inspire me to take the position I do as a U.K. Jew in solidarity with the Palestinian people and desperate for justice to come to the Holy Land – for all who call it home. I wish Rabbi Sacks would feel the same way when he reads his own writing.
Within 48 hours this Facebook commentary had been shared more than 2,500 times.
The ‘mutation’ argument
Rabbi Sacks chooses to make his Corbyn/Powell comparison because he’s determined to argue that anti-Zionism – the thinking that underpins support for the State of Israel as it’s currently constituted – is nothing more than the latest mutation of antisemitism. As he wrote in 2016
“Anti-Semitism is a virus that survives by mutating. In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation state, Israel. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.”
It’s an idea Sacks was keen to repeat to Andrew Marr this morning and it’s a conflation encouraged and reinforced by Israel’s leaders and by the Jewish communal and religious establishment around the world. As a theory it has traction because it’s a presentation of antisemitism, and indeed Jewish history and Judaism itself, that’s unchallenged by most Jews. In great part, the Jewish embrace of the conflation is an understandable response to the Holocaust. Jewish long-term global security is seen as absolutely contingent on the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel. So to attack Israel, or question the logic or reality of Zionism in any way, is to attack and question all Jews.
The constant assertion that anti-Zionism is no more than a mutation of antisemitism and Zionism has been no more than a noble endeavour with a religious and historically necessary validation, enables the shutdown of legitimate criticism. The whole debate about Israel’s behaviour becomes a discussion (or row) about antisemitism that allows no room for talking about international law, or human rights or the undeniable Palestinian experience of racism that would not have taken place without Zionism.
The Israel related illustrations in the IHRA definition of antisemitism are an example of the conflation/mutation argument being used as a political lobby tool rather than a code to help the understanding of antisemitism.
This is the case even with the IHRA use of caveat words like “might” which attempt to recognise the need for context. The document leaves the onus on the critic of Israel and Zionism to prove they are innocent of antisemitism. Even the author of the illustrations, Kenneth Stern, has voiced his concern that the code works against freedom of speech.
It’s important to recognise that the left is not entirely innocent in all of this. But the behaviour of some is clearly part of the problem caused by the conflation itself.
Some left wing critics of Israel (a tiny but visible minority mostly confined to social media) feed off, or are fooled by, the conflation theory themselves. They draw on traditional antisemitic tropes (such as Jewish control of the media or international finance) to express an ignorant and deeply misguided analysis of the Middle East. It’s clumsy, stupid and racist and needs to be constantly called out and firmly corrected. It also does enormous damage to the cause of Palestinian freedom. But Jewish leaders like Sacks need to recognise that this is the ugly flip side of their insistence that all things Israel are all things Jewish.
While leaders like Jonathan Sacks continue to speak as if Zionism is, was, and forever will be, an innocent and holy endeavour, we will be stuck with a devalued and discounted understanding of antisemitism. And the muddle, confusion and politicisation of antisemitism will continue to undermine our ability to challenge it or understand the suffering of the Palestinian people.