A torrent of antisemitic abuse… for advocating Palestinian rights?

Rosena Allin-Khan (Via Jewish News)
Rosena Allin-Khan (Via Jewish News)

Antisemitism in the United Kingdom is worse now than ever before. The latest figures from Community Security Trust, a Jewish Charity, show a 10% jump in incidents compared with 2018 – the most ever recorded. Online incidents of antisemitism rose by a shocking 46% over the same period; nearly a quarter of all incidents of antisemitic abuse took place online. Given how many comments, tweets, and threads probably flew under the radar, we would be safe in assuming these numbers are the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Consider, as a case study in the perverse illogic of antisemitism, the plight of Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting. Allin-Khan might not have imagined that, in advocating for the right of Palestinian children and mothers to access medical care in Israel—and for the Israeli government to do more to enable such treatment—that she would be on the receiving end of a storm of online abuse, a flood of hate directed against her Twitter account.

Of course, Allin-Khan (rightfully) took this abuse as an opportunity to highlight and denounce antisemitism, but her original campaigning was completely overshadowed by the extremism on display. This moment captures a new and emerging reality, a deeply disappointing turn in pro-Palestinian activism that mirrors larger trends across Western society. There is less and less room for nuance, for compromise, for a diversity of viewpoints.

Some of the trolls commenting on Allin-Khan’s Twitter account were perversely convinced they were supporting the Palestinian cause. But by spewing such public hate, completely denouncing any kind of ‘co-operation’ with the Israeli government, and resorting to antisemitism in defence of the Palestinians, they directly harmed the very cause they claimed to be defending.

Despite good intentions from some commenters, the descent into antisemitism from others diverted attention from the question of the medical rights of Gazans. They inhibited a British politician’s compassionate and critical lobbying of the Israeli government. They did immeasurable damage to those who genuinely stand for justice and against racism. Polarization comes at a heavy cost. A hardened discourse obstructs the best efforts of leaders of all kinds.

But the polarisation of the debate is neither necessary nor inevitable.

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP and supporter of the rights of Palestinians, can attest to this. As Britain’s first MP of Palestinian descent, she’s long been outspoken in her advocacy for Palestinians, but has never pandered to the intolerance and antisemitism alive within parts of the movement, highlighted most recently by Allin-Khan’s experience. Moran has been clear and unequivocal that antisemitism, in all its forms, must be banished from the Pro-Palestine movement. It is inflammatory, it ignores the reality on the ground, and it does nothing for the Palestinian cause.” She shows unequivocally that it is possible to robustly and empathetically engage with both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate.

Both Moran and Allin-Khan lead by example in their response to antisemitism (and, incidentally, other forms of hate besides) by employing three key strategies: substantive interfaith dialogue, bold and principled outreach between communities, and taking a holistic approach to countering antisemitism.

Consider that some of these are already underway elsewhere.

Groundbreaking initiatives, such as efforts from the Faiths Forum for London, have earned praise from members and leaders of different faiths, and Faiths Forum’s annual ‘Big Iftar’ continues to be successful in building bridges while simultaneously feeding hungry Londoners from all walks of life, an instance of interfaith understanding translating into interfaith cooperation, proving that religion does not only have to be a source of division or suspicion.

In Israel, hospitals remain one of the few spaces where patients and staff – whether Jews, Israeli Arabs, or Palestinians – interact and work side by side on a daily basis. The Faith & Belief Forum are capitalising on this, running an annual program to enhance interfaith dialogue within hospitals. Rather than skirting around the religious elements at play, they dive into them, holding biannual ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ workshops to explore sacred texts and answer questions relating to clinical and healthcare issues. Beyond building bridges between communities, this work serves to genuinely help Palestinians and Israelis – many commenters would do well to take a leaf out of their book.

And what of hate that spreads online? There are, to this, online answers as well.

For example, Arab News’ ‘Preachers of Hate’ series, documenting and denouncing hate preachers from across the extremism spectrum – from Islamists to the far-right – has not shied away from effectively calling out antisemitism. Arab News’ series is particularly notable in that it is a Saudi-led initiative that is putting antisemitism on par with other forms of racism, taking a mature approach to countering extremism.

In other words, Muslims, like all communities, must take the lead in combating antisemitism in their ranks; politicians on the right and the left would do well to follow suit in their political orientations. We might be able to do the most good when we are able to challenge extremism, prejudice, and bigotry, in our names. One must make parallels between now and earlier chapters in European history carefully, but one should not be too hesitant in making them, either.

Hate spreads when it is unchallenged. Abuse metastasizes when it goes unchallenged. While prejudice may be rising, efforts to combat it can rise farther and faster. That is to say, we can still win this battle.


About the Author
Muddassar Ahmed is the President of the Concordia Forum , which is an annual secular retreat, bringing together senior Muslim leaders from across the West