Last night, the BBC broadcast a documentary called Never Again: Fear and Faith in Paris about French Jews emigrating after a decade of creeping intimidation.
At this very moment, thousands of European Jews are questioning their futures. French Jewry is reeling after a decade of creeping intimidation. One of the interviewees, a young Jewish woman called Noemie, reported being “afraid to walk the streets, or take the subway.” Her bitter, knowing smile spoke volumes.
Anti-Semitic attacks in France have grown tenfold over the last decade and the constant fear has left Jews there cynical and distrustful of a system that fails to take their safety seriously. Slogans like death to the Jews are chanted and sprayed on walls, there are physical attacks, and eight Jews have been murdered since 2012. As another interviewee astutely explained, Jews see current affairs through a certain historical lens. Jews may feel reasonably comfortable at any given time, but are on edge and aware that things can change rapidly. We know all too well how words and threats can turn into terrifying violence.
I couldn’t help but think of the current storm over Malia Bouattia, the newly-elected president of the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS). For those unfamiliar, Bouattia previously claimed that a British university with a strong Jewish presence is in effect a “Zionist outpost”, has repeatedly condemned Israel while excusing Palestinian terrorism, and on numerous occasions failed to condemn ISIS.
On Sunday a Jewish Cambridge student called Jonty Leibowitz appeared on another BBC programme, Daily Politics, ostensibly to explain how troubling this is for British Jews. Unfortunately, he contrived to miss a golden opportunity to demonstrate the scale of the problem and influence the public. After another student leader spoke to defend Bouattia and claim that she in’t worried by a the presence of Jews, but by their support of Israel, Leibowitz went to great lengths to distinguish anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. After watching the programme about the exodus of Paris Jewry, I now understand what bothered me so much.
Leibowitz’s forgiving response is symptomatic of a tendency to place too much faith in the system and to hope that racists will see the error of ways in time. Instead of laying into his co-panelist for making the Israeli right to self-defence secondary to the “right” of Palestinians to attack civilians, Liebowitz’s sympathetic approach was full of equivocations and attempts to sound impartial.
Israelis are being demoted to inferior status, not worthy of universal human rights. This is an outrageous claim.
By claiming that rallying to support Israel’s right to self-defence is problematic, the NUS displays a distinct lack of tolerance. Bouattia and her ilk claim not to be troubled by the presence of Jews, but by Jews who dare to endorse Israelis’ basic human rights and the ability to defend themselves in the face of a massive onslaught of rockets from Gaza and stabbing attacks within Israel. In effect, Israelis are being demoted to inferior status, not worthy of universal human rights. This is an outrageous claim.
In trying to be fair and understanding, Leibowitz undermined his own contention — that some forms of anti-Zionism are unquestionably anti-Semitic, and that those espousing them need to be held accountable. Statements like “Malia probably isn’t an anti-Semite” unnecessarily let Bouattia off the hook. While the instinct to be careful and not falsely accuse others of anti-Semitism is praiseworthy, in this instance there’s no need to clear her name quite so fast. Until Bouattia finds it within her to admit the basic fact that Israeli children are not legitimate targets and that Palestinians rocket-fire rockets at Israeli cities is inexcusable, her claims to value human life and care about human rights should be viewed as a sham. If Bouattia’s concept of human rights excludes Israelis, she clearly is no advocate for human rights.
Instead of pointing out how Jewish students self-censor rather than admit they support Israel, or that endless anti-Israel resolutions are motivated by hatred of the other rather than a love of human rights, too often we tie ourselves in knots in an attempt to sound fair. There is certainly virtue in not making sweeping, inaccurate accusations on television, but in meekly describing the issue as “very sensitive phrases for the Jewish community”, Leibowitz failed to demonstrate clearly how Jewish students are afraid to express support for Israel, fearful to mention their right to visit the Jewish national homeland, much less live there, and missed an opportunity to share with the public how anxious Jews are on campus.
Leibowitz’s primary concern seemed to be making an academically defensible case, making sure to explain that “anti-Semitism isn’t anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitism”, but the resulting claim was unconvincing and impenetrable for someone unfamiliar with the topic. In his desire to sound even-handed and considerate of all sides, he neglected to properly present the Jewish side, and parroted trite soundbites instead of highlighting precisely why Jewish students fear that things are about to get worse.
If Jewish leaders want to defeat the likes of Bouattia, they need to be able to demonstrate that repeated condemnation of Israel alienates Jewish students, many of whom have family in Israel. When Jewish students outraged at Palestinian terror and publicly supporting Israelis’ basic right to life are shouted down, and when public figures insinuate that support for Israelis’ right to life is intolerable, leaders need to explain the problem clearly and decisively. Leaders must explain how Jews don’t feel safe enough to confront the vile anti-Zionist rhetoric being peddled on some campuses and online. Leaders need to make plain the extent to which Jewish students feel threatened or shouted down if they express support for Israeli human rights outside of a pro-Israel event.
Framing racist statements as an unfortunate phrase that is “sensitive” to Jews won’t convince anybody. It’s time to tackle the real issue: Jews are afraid to talk about Israel because extremists like Bouattia help legitimate murder by refusing to verbalise the basic fact that Israelis, like all people, have an inalienable right to life free from violent attack.