A BeLaboured Inquiry into Anti-Semitism

In response to a string of anti-Semitic incidents involving prominent members of his party, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has reluctantly established a commission of inquiry.  Members and supporters of the Labour Party and members of relevant communities have been invited to submit evidence.

Shami Chakrabarti, Chair of Labour Antisemitism Inquiry and formed Director of 'Liberty', speaking against new anti-terror legislation {Youtube screenshot}
Shami Chakrabarti, Chair of Labour Antisemitism Inquiry and former Director of ‘Liberty’, speaking against new anti-terror legislation {Youtube screenshot}

Let me be very clear: I have zero confidence in this inquiry.  And not just because Mr. Corbyn’s past actions (such as calling members of terrorist organisations ‘friends’, sharing platforms with Holocaust deniers, patronage of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign) are questionable to say the least.  No, a desire to whitewash, rather than shed light, is obvious from the choice of the inquiry panel.

Mr. Corbyn has called the inquiry ‘independent’ — but it is anything but.  It’s Chair, Ms. Shami Chakrabarti, is an enthusiastic member of the Labour Party.  In her own words

I share the values of the Labour Party constitution and will seek to promote those values in any recommendations and findings […] not just in the Labour Party but in the world.”

Ms. Chakrabarti can claim no particular expertise on the subject of anti-Semitism.  She formerly headed the campaigning organisation ‘Liberty’, a body that militates – among other things – for unrestricted freedom of speech, including the freedom to publish vile racist rants.

Vice Chair of the Inquiry Prof David Feldman, shared a platform with Shlomo Sand, author of a "The Invention of the Jewish People", which claims that modern Jews descend from Khazars, a Turkic population. Prof. Feldman thanked Sand for writing the book. {Youtube screenshot}
Vice Chair of the Inquiry Prof David Feldman, shared a platform with Shlomo Sand, author of a “The Invention of the Jewish People”, which claims that modern Jews descend from Khazars, a Turkic population. Prof. Feldman thanked Sand for writing the book. {YouTube screenshot}

The inquiry’s Vice Chair, on the other hand, can certainly claim to be an expert on anti-Semitism.  Corbyn’s appointment for this position is Prof. David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism.  But, while his expertise in historical anti-Semitism is not in doubt, Prof. Feldman’s positions on contemporary anti-Semitism are – to use a typical British understatement – ‘controversial‘.  As are his views on Zionism and Israel.  Prof. Feldman does not see anything wrong with singling out the Jewish state for disproportionate criticism.  He does not think that likening Israeli Jews to Nazis is anti-Semitic.

Antony Lerman, who prepared the Independent Jewish Voices submission, complained in an interview about "the Israel Lobby" {Youtube screenshot}
Antony Lerman, who prepared the Independent Jewish Voices submission, complained in an interview about “the Israel Lobby” {Youtube screenshot}

Even more interestingly, the good professor is a member of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), a group who has stated its opinion before the inquiry even started:

allegations of pervasive antisemitism within the Labour Party […] are, in our view, baseless and disingenuous [and] deployed politically – whether by the press, the Conservative Party, opponents of Corbyn’s leadership within Labour, or by those seeking to counter criticism of the actions of the Israeli government.”

In its own submission to the inquiry, IJV claims that

Today, Zionism follows the path of maximalist nationalism and settler colonialism, driven largely by right-wing politicians, rabbis and settlers pursuing an ethnoreligious, messianic and exclusionary agenda. […] This maximalist Zionism is the only form of Zionism that has any political agency or power today. All the constructions of Zionism by those who propagate ‘new antisemitism’ theory are designed to spread the net of the ‘new antisemitism’ ever more widely in such a way as to outlaw recognition of this basic reality.  To Palestinians it means the ongoing denial of their civil, political and human rights and the impossibility of achieving Palestinian national self-determination.”

Clearly, some of Mr. Corbyn’s best friends are Jews.  No wonder that he has appointed as Vice Chair a ‘good Jew’ – rather than, for instance, the President of the Board of Deputies (the elected representatives of British Jewry).  The Far Labour leadership is happy to listen to ‘Jewish Voices’, as long as they are properly ‘independent’, not excessively ‘Jewish’ and voice the correct opinions.

The second Vice Chair, by the way, is Baroness Royall, a Labour Party peer who has already completed an investigation into antisemitism at the Oxford University Labour Club.  Folding that inquiry into the larger one and appointing Baroness Royall as Vice Chair gave Corbyn the excuse not to publish her report in full and not to implement its recommendations.

In light of all this manoeuvring and of its composition, it is clear that the ‘independent inquiry’ is nothing but a cover-up operation.  Its report might as well have been written in advance.  It will no doubt exonerate the Party and its new, hard-left leadership (as well as some if not all of the individuals accused of antisemitism) of any systematic and pervasive racist inclinations; it will take great pains to emphasise the difference between antisemitism and ‘anti-Zionism’; it will claim instead that anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Jewish State ‘criticism’ (however obsessive) are two completely different kettles of fish: one rotten, the other smelling of roses.

Some may say, therefore, that submitting anything to such ‘independent inquiry’ is a useless endeavour, a complete waste of time.  Well, I happen to disagree.  True, those submissions won’t change the panel’s ‘findings’, conclusions and recommendations.  But they will deny the ‘inquiry’, in historical perspective, any excuse or plea of ignorance.  As the three sign off the report, they will not just be submitting it; they will also submit to the judgment of posterity.  And that posterity will deliver a harsher verdict, in the context of submissions like the one below.

Text of my submission

Dear Ms. Chakrabarti,

In relation to the inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party, I would like to submit the following:

I am a member of the Jewish community and a former member of the Executive Committee for the Coventry Reform Jewish Community.  I am not a member of any political party – my vote is driven by what I consider each time to be in the best interest of the nation, rather than by any ideological inclination.

I cannot speak for the entire British Jewish community – that is the job of the Board of Deputies.  However, all the Jews I personally know have been greatly offended and worried by the anti-Semitic outbursts that came – of all places! – from the ranks of the Labour Party, a political party that claims to be fundamentally anti-racist.  The issue has become a subject of constant concern in our homes, around the dinner table and in our communities.  There is also a sense of betrayal among many Jews who have always seen themselves as Labour voters and supporters.

The opinions below are my own, but they have crystallised through many a discussion I had with fellow Jews.  To better understand the issues, I have also read submissions to the inquiry from other quarters, for instance those posted here.

Jews, Judaism, Jewishness

I apologise if the concepts below are obvious to you, but I do believe that they are complex and need to be defined from the perspective of the Jews themselves.  I think you will find that the vast majority (though by no means all!) of Jews in this country will agree with these definitions.

While Judaism is a monotheistic religion like Islam and Christianity, Jews are not ‘a religion’.  We are a people, i.e. an ethno-religious and cultural community bound together by a sense of common identity and solidarity.

Although in principle converts to Judaism are considered Jews, such conversions are rare.  Judaism is not a proselytising religion; the vast majority of Jews have acquired that identity through birth, rather than through conversion.

People can simultaneously have multiple identities and Jewishness is one of the identities that British Jews hold.  One can be a Jew, a British national, a socialist, a vegan, a believer in animal rights, etc.  Many people of Jewish descent manifest a very strong sense of Jewish identity; for others it is weak or almost nonexistent in comparison to their other identities.

Clearly, it is not sufficient to be ‘of Jewish descent’ to be a Jew from the point of view of the sense of identity.  However, it is difficult to precisely define at which point a person of Jewish descent should no longer be considered ‘a Jew’.  Most Jews would consider a person of Jewish descent to be a Jew if s/he maintains some level of religious and cultural affiliation, even if s/he does not believe in God and/or does not strictly observe the precepts of Judaism.  There is a small number of ritual items that the vast majority of Jews (whether religious or not) perform at set times in their lives and consider essential to their identity: circumcision of male children, bar-mitzvah (the religious rite of passage to maturity), wedding, burial.  Most Jews also celebrate Jewish festivals (especially the Jewish New Year and Passover) and mark the Day of Atonement.  Most British Jews would consider a person of Jewish descent who does not perform those minimal items as ‘alienated’ or ‘estranged’ from his/her Jewish identity.  The vast majority of Jews see conversion to another religion as the definite loss of a person’s Jewish identity.

Israel

The term ‘Jew’ was initially an exonym derived from the Greek Ἰουδαῖος, through the Latin Judaeus (meaning Judean, or inhabitant of Judea).  ‘Israel’ was the endonym for ‘the Jewish people’.  The Old Testament, for instance, refers to Jews as בני ישראל (B’nei Israel, Children of Israel), עם ישראל (‘Am Israel, People of Israel), or simply ישראל (Israel, see for instance 2 Samuel 7:23-24).  In the Qur’an, Jews are called بَنُو اِسرَائِيل (Banū Isrāʼīl, the Children of Israel).

The Jewish homeland was traditionally called ‘Eretz Israel’ (The Land of Israel) and it is from there that the name of the modern state comes, in the same way in which Finland means ‘Land of the Finns’.

The vast majority of British Jews (as evidenced by several opinion polls, see for instance this) view Israel as central to their Jewish identity.

Strong connection with a different place/country is not unique to Jews, it exists among other minority ethnic communities in Britain (see, for instance, this).

However, in the case of Jews the connection is most likely stronger, for two reasons:

  1. A religious reason: the centrality of the Land of Israel in Judaism;
    Judaism never attained the status of ‘global religion’, but remained an ethnic or ‘tribal’ faith.  This implies a stronger geographic element.  In Judaism, the Land of Israel (also called Eretz HaKodesh – the Holy Land) acquired a sacred character, which was bequeathed to a certain extent to both Christianity and Islam.  Jerusalem (‘Ir HaKodesh, the Holy City) is seen as the sacred centre of the Holy Land; the Temple Mount (which became identified with Mount Zion) is seen as the epicentre of holiness, the half-celestial-half-earthly residence of the Divine Presence.  Wherever they are, Jews pray facing towards Jerusalem.  The importance of the Land of Israel and of Jerusalem suffuses Judaic scriptures and ritual.
  1. A national reason: 2,000 years of statelessness;
    One of the main reasons states exist is to provide their citizens with security.  As an exiled, stateless people persecuted through much of their history, Jews were particularly in need of such security.  From our point of view, statelessness came at a horrific price, culminating with the lack of protection and refuge during the Holocaust.  Throughout history, the Jew’s status of perennial ‘refugee’ (the ‘Wandering Jew’) has generated contempt and has reinforced antisemitic sentiment among ‘host peoples’.

Zionism

Most definitions of Zionism (see for instance this) call it ‘a political movement’ or ‘an ideology’ and mention that it ’emerged towards the end of the 19th century’.  Most such definitions add attributes like ‘European’, ‘Jewish’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘secular’.  Many mention that it emerged ‘as a result of antisemitism’.

Such definitions are reductionist in the extreme.  They usually serve anti-Zionist political aims: if Zionism is ‘European’, ‘Jewish’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘secular’; if it ’emerged at the end of the 19th century’, then it follows that it has nothing to do with the Middle East, with Judaism or with ancestral aspirations.

But the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis appears to contradict that thesis.  Recently, he called Zionism

“a noble and integral part of Judaism. Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years. One can no more separate it from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.”

Rabbi Mirvis is supposed to know a thing or two about Judaism.  But he does not require his opinion to be taken on faith; rather, he goes on to write:

“Open a Jewish daily prayer book used in any part of the world and Zionism will leap out at you. The innumerable references to the land of Israel are inescapable and demonstrative.”

Judaism’s main prayer book is called the Siddur.  Amidah is arguably Siddur’s centre-piece prayer – it is recited (standing up, rather than sitting) as part of every synagogue service.  It includes the following supplication (translation from Hebrew):

“Sound the great Shofar [an ancient trumpet-like instrument made from the horn of a ram] for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our Diasporas, and bring us swiftly together from the four corners of the Earth into our Land.  Blessed are You Lord, Who gathers the exiles of His people Israel.”

Amidah was not concocted (by either mythical ‘Elders of Zion’ or real-life Zionists) in the 19th century.  It dates from around the 2nd century CE.  Observant Jews everywhere have been reciting it three times a day ever since.  Less observant Jews like myself – whenever we happen to attend a synagogue service.

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, has not been invited to sit on the inquiry panel. Nor has Jonathan Arkush, the elected President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. {Wikipedia Commons, CC BY 2.0}
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, has not been invited to sit on the inquiry panel. Nor has Jonathan Arkush, the elected President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. {Wikipedia Commons, CC BY 2.0}

Passover’s ritual Seder meal (one of those basic traditions that most non-observant Jews also perform) ends with the wish “Next year in Jerusalem”.  Again, this is a tradition that has been around for many hundreds of years.

Rabbi Mirvis went on to state:

“Throughout our collective history we have yearned for a chance to determine our own future, to revive an ancient language and return to rejoice in our love for this tiny sliver of land.”

For lack of space or of journalistic interest, his article did not explain that statement.  I take the liberty to do so, by listing here a selection of historical events which preceded the 19th century:

66–73 CE:            ‘Great Jewish Revolt’ against Roman occupation.  After defeating it, the Romans demolish the Temple.  Jews are prohibited from entering Jerusalem and are gradually expelled from the Land of Israel.

115–117:              ‘Rebellion of the Exile’.  Exiled Jews in several corners of the Roman Empire rise against the Romans and return to the Land of Israel.  They are eventually defeated.

132–135:              ‘Bar Kokhba revolt’.  Jews rise against the Romans under the leadership of Bar Kokhba.  They regain Jerusalem, proclaim independence, even make coins with the text ‘To the freedom of Jerusalem’.  They are ultimately defeated by superior Roman forces.  Emperor Hadrian prohibits the practice of Judaism.  He prohibits the terms ‘Israel’ and ‘Judaea’ and re-names the country ‘Syria-Palaestina’ after the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews.

351–352:              ‘Revolt against Gallus’.  Jewish revolt liberates Galilee, before being defeated.

362-572:               Several Samaritan revolts against Byzantine rule.  The Samaritan faith (a sect of Judaism which had survived in the Judean Hills) is outlawed.

602-628:               Persian Jews form an army, join forces with the Sassanids against the Byzantines and reconquer Jerusalem. A semi-autonomous Jewish state is declared, but is ultimately defeated in 628.

636:                       Arab conquest of ‘Syria’ (including the Land of Israel).  Jews are initially allowed back into Jerusalem, but are later prohibited again from entering.  The Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are built on the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple.

1160:                     Revolt of Jews in Kurdistan. Failed attempt to reconquer the Land of Israel.

1198:                     Jews from Maghreb arrive and settle in Jerusalem.

1204:                     Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) dies and is buried in Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

1211:                     Around 300 Jews from England and France manage to reach the Land of Israel and settle in Jerusalem.  The majority are killed by the Crusaders in 1219.  The few remaining are exiled from Jerusalem and find refuge in Acre.

1217:                     Judah al-Harizi (rabbi, translator, poet and traveller who travelled from Spain to the Land of Israel) bemoans in his writings the state of the Temple Mount.

1260:                     Having settled in the Land of Israel, Yechiel of Paris (French rabbi) establishes a Talmudic academy in Acre.

1266:                     Jews banned from entering the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

1267:                     Nachmanides (leading medieval Jewish scholar from Catalonia) arrives in Jerusalem; Ramban synagogue established.

1286:                     Meir of Rothenburg (famous rabbi and poet from Germany) is incarcerated after attempting to emigrate to the Land of Israel.

1355:                     Physician and geographer Ishtori Haparchi (born in France and settled in the Land of Israel) dies in Bet She’an.

1428:                     Jews attempt to purchase the Tomb of David; the Pope issues a prohibition for ship captains to carry Jews to the Land of Israel.

1434:                     Elijah of Ferrara (famous Talmudist and traveller) settles in Jerusalem.

1441:                     Famine forces Jerusalem’s Jews to send emissaries to European Jews, asking for help.

1455:                     Failed large scale immigration attempt starting from Sicily.  The would-be immigrants are condemned to death, but the punishment is commuted to a heavy fine.

1474:                     Great Synagogue of Jerusalem demolished by Arab mob.

1488:                     Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro arrives in Jerusalem on March 25, 1488, having commenced his journey October 29, 1486.  When, following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many of the exiles settled in Jerusalem, Bertinoro became their intellectual leader. These Spanish Jews presented Bertinoro with a site for a yeshivah (religious academy) in Jerusalem, which he founded.  Considerable support for the maintenance of the yeshivah was given by the Jews of Egypt and Turkey at Bertinoro’s written solicitation.

1493:                     Joseph Saragossi travels from Spain and settles in Safed.  He becomes the leader of the local Jewish community and dies in 1507.

1561:                     Spanish Jews travel to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Don Joseph Nasi.  They settle in Safed.  Joseph Nasi secures permission from Sultan Selim II to acquire Tiberias and seven surrounding villages to create a Jewish city-state.  He hoped that large numbers of Jewish refugees and Marranos (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism) would settle there, free from fear and oppression; indeed, the persecuted Jews of Cori, Italy, numbering about 200 souls, decided to emigrate to Tiberias.  Nasi had the walls of the town rebuilt by 1564 and attempted to turn it into a self-sufficient textile manufacturing centre by planting mulberry trees and producing silk. Nevertheless, a number of factors during the following years contributed to the plan’s ultimate failure.  But by 1576, the Jewish community of Safed faced an expulsion order: 1,000 prosperous families were to be deported to Cyprus, ‘for the good of the said island’, with another 500 the following year.  The order was issued as an instrument of extortion: it was rescinded once a hefty bribe was extracted from the Jews in the form of ‘rent’.

1648:                     Jews from Turkey attempt to return as a group to Israel, under the leadership of Sabbatai Zevi.  His arrival in Jerusalem triggers an anti-Jewish pogrom.

1700:                     A group of 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews attempt to travel to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda he-Hasid.  A third die on the way.  The Rabbi himself dies within days of arrival.  The survivors settle in Jerusalem.

1764-1850:          Small groups of Jews (between 5 and 500 each) make their way to the Land of Israel under various rabbis.

It’s not, then, that Zionism was ‘a 19th century political movement’.  It is that it became a political movement in the 19th century – acquiring in the process its modern name and ‘ism’ suffix.  The aspiration (or rather the craving) was there in every previous century – or in every generation; it’s just that it took such extent and form that suited the times.  One can hardly expect any “political movement” – let alone a Jewish one – to have appeared as such in the 15th century.  In fact, in the 15th century Zionism was so much an integral part of Judaism that people who believed in it (and put it in practice whenever possible) thought they were only practicing their religion.

No wonder, then, that Rabbi Mirvis concluded:

to those people who have nevertheless sought to redefine Zionism, who vilify and delegitimize it, I say: Be under no illusions – you are deeply insulting not only the Jewish community but countless others who instinctively reject the politics of distortion and demonisation.”

Britain’s previous Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, agrees:

“Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.”

Anti-Semitism

The vast majority of British Jews will agree that antisemitism is racism directed against Jews.  Despite its name (a misnomer invented by an anti-Semite), it has nothing to do with ‘Semites’ or ‘Semitic people’ (‘Semitic’ really applies to a family of languages, not a ‘race’ or to a group of people).  Antisemites hold racist views about Jews, but not necessarily about Arabs and Ethiopians (who also speak Semitic languages).

Like all racism, antisemitism can take many forms – from subliminal prejudice and stereotypes to violent attacks and everything in-between.  People can hold racist views without necessarily expressing them.  One can hold a prejudice (and be driven by it) without consciously admitting it.  One can even actively support anti-racist causes, while harbouring racist views.  The incidence of racist views among white abolitionists in the US, for instance, is well-known and often analysed in the literature.

Since racist prejudice can be subliminal, how can society recognise manifestations of racism?  Typically, it is easy to recognise such manifestations in historical retrospect, once the society has ‘made up its mind’ about it.  For instance, use of the word “nigger” is recognised nowadays as racist.  But only a few decades ago (see for instance here), one could use the word while considering oneself ‘a good person’ and even an anti-racist.  The reason that the word came to be recognised as racist is that most African Americans find it offensive.

The point of all this is that what constitutes a manifestation of racism is best defined by the victimised community, the one that experienced racism and is most sensitive to its manifestations.  It is not up to white people to judge what black people should or should not find offensive.  And it is not up to non-Jews to define what Jews should or should not perceive as antisemitic.

‘Good Jews’ and ‘Bad Jews’

People accused of antisemitism often point out that their views are supported by/based on opinions of some Jews (sometimes even Israeli Jews) – the implication being that they cannot possibly be antisemitic.

This is a strident fallacy.

Firstly, as explained before, not everybody who is “of Jewish descent” or has a recognisable Jewish name should automatically be considered a Jew.  US President Barack Obama has a Swahili first name, a Muslim middle name and is of Kenyan descent.  Yet he is American (not just by citizenship, but in terms of his sense of identity) and cannot speak on behalf of Swahili-speaking Africans, Muslims or Kenyans.

British-Jewish author Howard Jacobson has famously coined the term “As-a-Jew” to describe people of Jewish descent who preface criticism of Jews, Israel or Zionism with the words “As a Jew…” – in an attempt to impart additional ‘weight’ to that criticism.  For some of “As-a-Jews”, that criticism is the only manifestation of their “Jewishness”.

Secondly, like any other community, Jews hold a wide range of opinions.  It is unclear why some people seem to implicitly request that all Jews (rather than most Jews) should agree with a certain view, before it is taken to represent the collective view of the community.  Such standard of “unanimity” is not required of any other community.  By such standard, use of the n-word should not be viewed as racist (despite being offensive to most black people), if a small minority of black people supports that use.

In fact, most Jews find arguments like “Not all Jews are Zionists” and “Before WWII, most Jews were not Zionists” as themselves inappropriate and expressing a prejudice.  Why would “all Jews” be anything – one does not expect “all Muslims” or “all Swedes” to agree on anything?  How is what past generations of Jews believed (assuming one knows what most of them believed),relevant to how most Jews feel today?  Should we sanitise the n-word because past generations of African Americans might not have considered that word offensive?  Before WWI, the notion of independence from the Ottoman Empire might have been supported only by a minority of Arab people.  Is that relevant to how Arabs feel about independence today?

In the case of other groups of people (including the Labour Party), it is accepted practice that their “collective view” is expressed by their elected representatives – even though, of course, minority opinions exist within the group.  It is unclear, therefore, why the views of the Board of Deputies (the elected representatives of the British Jewish community) are ignored.  How come that the Board is not represented on a panel investigating anti-Jewish views and activity in the Labour Party?

Thirdly, some Jews (or “people of Jewish descent”) can themselves harbour antisemitic prejudice, make antisemitic comments and even commit antisemitic acts.  This is no different than in the case of any other community or group of people.  Before the abolition of slavery in USA, some freed black people have themselves been slave-owners.  Even nowadays, a few African Americans can be heard disparaging their own community.  That, surely, constitutes no excuse for slavery, nor does it justify anti-black prejudice.

“I cannot be antisemitic, because – look – some Jews agree with me” is a fallacious, ridiculous and actually offensive “argument”.

‘Classic’ anti-Semitic tropes

Most Jews have no difficulty recognising certain stereotypes, which have been historically associated with anti-Jewish prejudice.

The ‘blood libel’ (the claim that Jews murder children and use their blood in Passover bread or other ritual uses) is a particularly old and vile accusation, which has been used for centuries to demonise Jews and make possible horrific atrocities against them.  It is hard not to see echoes of that trope in articles and caricatures depicting Israeli soldiers, Israeli politicians and the Israeli society in general as blood-thirsty monsters that deliberately kill children.  Google “caricature Netanyahu kills children” and one will be flooded with horrific depictions of the Israeli Prime Minister killing children.  Substitute “Netanyahu” with the name of outrageous butchers like “Assad” or “Omar al-Bashir” and one finds less bloody caricatures and much less use of children.

Medieval tropes made Jews responsible for the spread of deadly diseases and for poisoning water wells.  Both tropes find a (merely coincidental?) echo in accusations against the Jewish state – see for instance herehere and here.

Another medieval trope is that Jews have a characteristic odour, some sort of demonic smell.  This, too, occasionally finds “modern” reverberations – see herehere and here.

A very pervasive antisemitic prejudice is that portraying Jews as rich, dishonest in money matters, greedy and avaricious.  Ken Livingstone appears to harbour such prejudice – see here and here.

Yet another pervasive myth is that of “the Jewish conspiracy” – an all-powerful Jewish cabal controlling or attempting to control countries, powerful corporations, or “the world”.  This is an age-old but very persistent prejudice, reflected in the “Elders of Zion” forgery and also used by Nazi propaganda.  This deeply entrenched conspiracy theory finds its “modern” outlets in “Jewish lobby” accusations – see herehereherehere and here.  That perpetrators of such conspiracy theories sometimes use euphemisms like “Zionist lobby” or “Israel lobby” does not change the essence of the message.  The issue is not whether Jews “lobby” or not.  Of course they do lobby governments, parliaments and other authorities, in support of their interests.  All communities do.  The issue is also not whether Jews do their lobbying (on Israel and other issues of interest) better or worse than other communities.  The suggestion (sometimes clearly expressed, otherwise just implied) is that Jewish lobbying is somehow “special”, dishonest, conspiratorial, ill-intentioned.

A very strong example of the use of the “Jewish conspiracy” canard in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the Covenant of Hamas.  Here is an interesting passage in Article 22:

For a long time, the enemies have been planning, skilfully and with precision, for the achievement of what they have attained. They took into consideration the causes affecting the current of events. They strived to amass great and substantive material wealth which they devoted to the realisation of their dream. With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.

You may speak as much as you want about regional and world wars. They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state. It was they who instigated the replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world through them. There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it.

‘So often as they shall kindle a fire for war, Allah shall extinguish it; and they shall set their minds to act corruptly in the earth, but Allah loveth not the corrupt doers.’ (The Table – verse 64).

The imperialistic forces in the Capitalist West and Communist East, support the enemy with all their might, in money and in men. These forces take turns in doing that. The day Islam appears, the forces of infidelity would unite to challenge it, for the infidels are of one nation.”

This is the constitutive document of the organisation whose leaders Jeremy Corbyn has described as ‘friends’.  What would be the Labour Party’s reaction, if the leader of Israel’s main opposition party would call Ku Klux Klan leaders ‘friends’?

‘New’ anti-Semitic tropes

Although ‘new’ in chronological sense, these antisemitic views are related and in fact are extensions of the ‘old’ ones.

A ‘family’ of such anti-Semitic beliefs are Holocaust-related.  The most basic one is Holocaust denial.  This is built, among other things on the old “conspiracy” trope: if the Holocaust never happened, then some sort of Jewish cabal or ‘lobby’ invented it for very ignoble purposes.  There are several variants of Holocaust denial, besides “never happened”: that it was “exaggerated” (see here); that the Jews themselves (or “the Zionists”) have somehow concocted it or been complicit in it (see here and here); that it was brought about by the Jews’ own faults (see here).

An even more pernicious version is Holocaust inversion: the claim that “what Israel is doing to Palestinians” is comparable, similar or even identical or worse than what the Nazis did to the Jews (see herehere and here).  Beyond the factual incompatibility of the situations, it should be noted that the Nazi comparison is rarely employed when Jews (or the Jewish state) are not involved.

Nazism has come to be identified as the symbol of evil; the comparison with the Jewish state is an extension of the old “Jew/demon/monster” theme.

A variant of that accusation is “apartheid” – another regime that entered history as a symbol of evil.  On a personal note: I get a bit sad whenever I hear or read the accusation of apartheid levelled against Israel.  Not just because I sense the profound prejudice that lurks behind such accusation, but because it reminds me of my father, who passed away in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Centre in March 2006.  He lost the battle with cancer – despite the heroic efforts of the hospital’s staff (both Arabs and Jews), led by the Head of Surgery Department, Prof. Ahmed Eid, himself a Jerusalemite Arab.  My father spent his last days in the ICU unit, sharing a cubicle with a young Palestinian from the West Bank town of Kalkilia, who had fallen off a scaffold.  Some apartheid!

Needless to say, the accusation of apartheid is also very rarely employed, except for the Jewish state.

Double standards

As a result of antisemitic prejudice, historically Jews have suffered from legal and societal discrimination.  Jews were judged using a different yardstick.  In one of his books, Prof. Alan Dershowitz recalls the notoriously anti-Semitic early 20th century president of Harvard University, A. Lawrence Lowell.  When asked why he singled Jews out for low admission quotas, Lowell claimed that, “Jewish students cheat.”  A member of staff reminded Lowell that non-Jewish students were also caught cheating.  Lowell retorted: “You’re changing the subject. We are talking about Jews now.”

Most Jews see the Jewish state being treated in a similar way.  A classic example is the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to criticise those settlements, point out that they are illegal (even though legal experts are by no means unanimous about that), etc.  The problem is that people who seem to spend half of their time ranting about Israeli settlements have nothing to say about settlements in other occupied territories: Western SaharaNorth CyprusTibet, etc.  It seems that asking people to apply the same standard to all settlements is “changing the subject” away from the Jewish state!

A similar attitude appears to govern some people’s assessment of Gaza-Israel conflicts: while the proportion of Palestinian civilians killed is repeated ad nauseam, it is never compared to that registered in other recent conflicts.  It seems that the Jewish state is measured using a dedicated yardstick, one not employed for any other nation.

It is only the Jewish state, it seems, whose very right to exist (and to have a specific character imparted by the majority of its inhabitants) is constantly questioned – to the point where people do not shy away from suggesting ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews as the “solution”.  This is also the solution favoured by Mr. Corbyn’s ‘friends’ from Hamas.  In the introduction of their Covenant, they claim:

“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”

I wonder what Mr. Corbyn would say if Benjamin Netanyahu would propose to ‘obliterate’ or ‘relocate’ Palestine to – say – Saudi Arabia?

A particularly venomous way to contest Israel’s right to exist is to declare it a “settler colonialist” enterprise, i.e. to put it in the same category with the colonisation and settlement by Europeans of South Africa, North and South America, Australia, etc.  In addition to being extremely offensive to most Jews, the suggestion is intellectually dishonest.  I have discussed previously the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish religion and culture and the long history of Zionism.  Jews who went to settle in Mandatory and pre-Mandatory Palestine were not driven by imperialist and colonialist agendas.  They were re-settling in their ancestral homeland.  This was no colonial enterprise, but one of national emancipation and independence.

Historically, boycotts have constituted one of the major manifestations of systematic discrimination against Jews.  This culminated with the Nazi-organised boycott of Jewish businesses remembered by its German name (Judenboycott) and slogan (Kauft nicht bei Juden).  To most Jews, the call to single out the Jewish state (and only the Jewish state) for this type of “cruel and unusual punishment” is a chilly reminder of that boycott.  The uniquely intense rage manifested by ‘protesters’ against Israeli businesses, artists, academics that have nothing to do with politics or with military conflict is a stark reminder of the Nazi-organised mobs that ‘demonstrated’ against Jewish businesses, artists and professionals.  It should be noted that there are few calls (and even less organised actions) to boycott any other country, including the most egregious human rights violators.  People drive to anti-Israel protests in their cars fuelled with Saudi petrol!

Freedom of speech

It has been claimed that taking steps to tackle antisemitism (for instance, by excluding members who have expressed antisemitic prejudice) constitutes a limitation of freedom of speech.

This is a fallacy.  Freedom of speech (even speech that causes offence) is a fundamental human right; while necessary sometimes, its limitations should be kept minimal.  However, excluding people from an organisation does not muzzle them.  Ken Livingston did not lose his right of free speech just because he has been suspended from the Labour Party.  In reality, we are not talking about freedom of speech, but about freedom to be a member of a political party irrespective of one’s opinions and behaviour.  Such a right does not exist – nor should it exist.  Membership in any organisation is governed by the principles of that organisation – it is not an absolute right.  Since the Labour Party enshrines anti-racism among its principles, it should exclude people who manifest racism.

Suggestions

Here are my suggestions:

  • That the Labour Party leadership officially declares zero tolerance towards manifestations of antisemitism and other forms of racism, in whatever shape and under whatever disguise they come;
  • That the Labour Party leadership officially acknowledges that members of racist and terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah are not ‘friends’ and that calling them such was a mistake;
  • That the Labour Party leadership officially acknowledges that critical discourse about Israel (including within the Party) has slipped into the realm of antisemitism and that this needs to be redressed;
  • That the Labour Party leadership reaffirms that Israel has the right to exist as the state of the Jewish people, in security and at peace with its neighbours;
  • That the Labour Party leadership invites the Board of Deputies to draw up a definition of antisemitism based on the collective views of the British Jewish community and to put together an education programme for Labour activists, aimed at recognising and eliminating anti-Jewish prejudice.
About the Author
Noru served in the IDF as a regular soldier and reservist. Currently a management consultant, in his spare time he engages in pro-Israel advocacy, especially in interfaith environments. He presented in front of Church of England and Quaker audiences and provides support to Methodist Friends of Israel. Noru is the Editor-in-Chief of 'Politically-incorrect Politics' (www.Pol-inc-Pol.com). Translated into Polish, his articles are also published by the Polish portal 'Listy z naszego sadu.'
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