The Jewish community needs to talk about antisemitism with one voice

As a historically oppressed minority, we must be able to define for ourselves what antisemitism is. However, that means that we need a common standard.

After recent high profile incidents many of us have accused non-Jews of defining antisemitism for us. As Jonathan Freedland stated, it is our right as a minority group to define the hate we receive, and to suggest that Jews cannot do that for themselves is clearly offensive and wrong. However, our community is not on the same page. For some, everything is antisemitic, and for others, nothing is. 

Let me be clear: it is not antisemitic to criticise the State of Israel for its actions. You can address racism in many areas of Israeli society, especially in the context of troubling contemporary attitudes to African migrants, Arab citizens and Palestinians, without being antisemitic. 

Comparatively, some take this criticism too far and believe that there is a clean separation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. 

Indeed, they suggest that levels of anti-Semitism are negligible and that criticism of the Labour leadership is part of a campaign to discredit it. There are elements of truth here, and the Conservative Party is hardly concerned at the political damage being inflicted on Labour. However, to suggest this is a conspiracy of the right is to whitewash the dangerous antisemitism that is widely prevalent.

With these widely diverging positions, how can we accuse people of explaining antisemitism to us when our community cannot do it for itself?

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism: an intimate relationship

Let’s be clear about definitions. Anti-Zionism opposes the belief that Jews have a right to a state in the land of Israel. However, many ‘anti-Zionists’ do not understand the ramifications of that statement. They conflate being ‘anti-Israel’ – a broad term that ranges from criticism of the government to denying Israel’s existence – and anti-Zionism. Jews do this too, and often say we should distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

However, antisemitism and anti-Zionism are intimately linked. If you oppose the Jewish state on the basis of its treatment of the Palestinians, then that is problematic because a two-state-solution allows both parties to have a state of their own. Similarly, judging Israel to be illegitimate because of the violence of its birth in 1948, while ignoring the systematic violence inherent in the creation of other states, is a double standard.

Further, if you think no state should be influenced or governed by religion, but just focus on the Jewish state then clearly there is an issue. As IBT columnist James Bloodworth argued, if you are truly anti-Zionist, you should be equally as scathing about other movements for national, ethnic or religious self-determination. As such, if you deplore terrorism everywhere, include terrorism against Israeli citizens. If you don’t, you are part of the problem. 

Yet, calling out antisemitism gets even trickier when people are generally ‘anti-Israel’.

This is because antisemitism isn’t always obvious. It lies in the shadows of language. It leads people to say things that cause discomfort, in what I call ‘the hunch’: when something is not quite right but you find it difficult to prove. 

It is therefore difficult to be overtly antisemitic, but easy to reproduce antisemitic assumptions, tropes, and understandings in discussions involving Jews, like Israel. This form of hate is so entrenched and historical that it has become structural, as it is the result of centuries of oppression. As Fathom’s Alan Johnson eloquently articulated,

“that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment”

Hence why the word ‘Zionist’ has become so troubling. Intrinsically, it is separate from ‘Jewish’, but switch them and similar messages are communicated. Indeed, Zionism has become an abusive term.

For example, NUS President Malia Bouattia said she takes issue with “Zionist politics”, which she considers to be separate from antisemitism. It is a troubling phrase, because to take issue with “Zionist politics” is to take issue with anyone who believes that the Jewish people should have a homeland. To me, that is frightening. It has led to Ms Bouattia criticising a “Zionist-led media” and referring to Birmingham Jewish Society as a “Zionist outpost”. There are shades of grey here because she is not being overtly antisemitic, but is talking in a language imbued with flavours of antisemitism. 

Anti-Semitism is therefore not just about saying, for example, that Hitler was right. It is about a language, and a way of phrasing arguments. Often what is antisemitic is not what is said, but how it is presented. Sometimes, it is what is not said. 

Talking as one

As a community, we must not make the mistake of calling all criticism of Israel antisemitic because it provides ammunition to those who seek to frame antisemitism as a politically-motivated accusation. There are also many legitimate criticisms to make.

Conversely, we must recognise that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are intimately related, and that questioning the existence of a Jewish state is often informed by a centuries-long discourse of prejudice.

Therefore, our community must talk about anti-Semitism with one voice, and identify it accurately – and appropriately – when it appears. If we cannot, then no one will. 

About the Author
Joel Salmon is the Parliamentary Officer at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He writes here in a personal capacity.
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