Opposing settlements is constructive criticism, not anti-Semitism

I spoke at an event last night, a debate on whether the two-state solution is dead, with Melanie Phillips and others. The Jewish News website has published a transcript of my remarks.  

It was largely a pro-settlement audience.  Many seemed to think it would be a betrayal if Israel were able to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from the West Bank. Somebody shouted that I was like Neville Chamberlain.  Others yelled and heckled. People were outraged when I said that the upswell of support for the soldier who executed a prisoner in Hebron was a worry.

As somebody who has spent a lot of time in anti-Zionist spaces, the atmosphere of ‘we’re right and the other side is disgusting’ was familiar to me. It isn’t a political ‘we’ it is a national, ethnic or religious ‘we’ – to be technical an essentialised ‘we’ – which claims to be right; and it is ‘The Arabs’ or ‘The Arab World’ which is the ‘them’. 

But it is also the EU and the US which stand behind and are really responsible for the threat of ‘the Arabs’. There was openly racist rhetoric from the audience and there was also an intellectual and political culture which incubated and licensed it.

After I was silenced for a minute by angry shouts, I made the point that this atmosphere reminded me of what our students face in student unions when they oppose BDS, or if they should try to argue that Zionism is not a form of racism; similar certainty, similar anger, similar contempt for debate, similar accusations of betrayal.

Melanie Philips wrote in The Times last week that denying the legal and historical rights of the settlers to the land demonises and dehumanises them and that dehumanisation of the settlers leads inexorably to the dehumanisation of all Jews.

This argument is not right and it is also dangerous. It follows that anybody who is for a two-state solution is part of the anti-Semitism problem. 

According to this view, most Jews, most Israelis, the British Government, the European Union, the President of the United States: everybody who wants Israelis and Palestinians to find a safe way for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank is part of the anti-Semitism problem. This, of course, includes Israeli governments; it includes Yitzhak Rabin who was murdered, accused of being a traitor to the Jewish people.

In fact, many of us two staters are part of the solution to anti-Semitism, not part of the problem.

This is not the anti-Semitism problem in the UK. The anti-Semitism problem is Hamas and the political support it enjoys from the leader of the Labour Party. It is the Iranian regime and the support if finds in the British left ‘against imperialism’.

The real problem is Ken Livingstone’s love of baiting Jews by calling them Nazis, and the fact that he has got away with it for decades. It is people who demonise the very existence of Israel as colonialist, racist, apartheid, and who relate to the Jews who don’t agree as though they were responsible.  It is the councillors who say that the Jews were behind the slave trade or who troll Israeli footballers telling them they’re like Hitler. 

Brave and intelligent men and women have been making the argument against anti-Semitism in the Labour movement, on the campuses, and in the Unions for years. They have been debating, explaining and educating. Young Jews in the Union of Jewish Students have fought bravely, with great spirit and with knowledge and intelligence against the rise of Israel-hate in the student movement. 

But Melanie and the others who say that support for a two-state solution is anti-Semitic are undermining that work.

There are millions of engaged intelligent people in this country who know almost nothing about anti-Semitism.  They have not been educated in the very basics of its history and how to recognise it. We cannot give up on those millions of people. We will not change the minds of the hard core anti-Zionists, but we need to influence those who would be influenced by them.

I was worried last night by the many people in that audience who would have been incapable of, for example, sitting down with Naz Shah, taking her apology in good faith, and having a conversation with her about Zionism and anti-Semitism. They would not have been able to say anything to her which she would have had any chance of embracing or taking back to Bradford. They would not have been able to win her over. They would not be able to go onto campus to engage with Ilan Pappe or Norman Finkelstein. They would not know what to say and they would not know how to show an audience what was wrong with the anti-Zionist positions. 

The line that Barack Obama, Tzipi Livni and David Cameron are all anti-Semitic because they hope for a two state solution is wrong, and most people could see easily that it was wrong. It could have no traction in turning around the current anti-Semitism threat. 

To say that opposing the settlement programme is anti-Semitic is to fail to make the distinction between criticism and anti-Semitism.

On both extremes of the anti-Semitism divide in Britain there are people who refuse to make this distinction. We need to bring discussion back into the realm of the democratic and the rational. We need to teach people how to make the judgment and how to distinguish between legitimate criticism on the one hand and demonisation, Jew-baiting, or anti-Semitism on the other.

About the Author
David Hirsh, Sociology Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London Author of the new book: 'Contemporary Left Antisemitism'.
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