The Problem with British anti-Semitism

I want you to imagine two circles. In the first circle, we’re going to put all the unfair criticisms that make up the rhetorical assault on Israel that we’ve come to term ‘delegitimisation.’ Apartheid state? Of course. Disproportionate response?  Absolutely. War crimes, racism, land grabs – if it’s untrue, and sounds like it’s only a hashtag away from bookending a tweet by Haneen Zoabi, it goes in the pot.

In the second circle, I want you to put in everything that makes up the oldest hatred – anti-Semitism. Lies, discrimination, conspiracy theories, stereotypes;  yes, they ought to be confined to the dustbin of history, but failing that they’re going into circle number two.

Perhaps the most important question for the diaspora today is: what is the relationship between these two circles? Or, to put in more fancy, technical language – if we were to create a Venn Diagram, what would be the overlap between the two?

For some, there is no distinction between them, with hostility towards the practices and principles of the Jewish state being indistinguishable from common or garden anti-Semitism. Our Venn diagram therefore looks like the number ‘zero’ or the letter ‘oh’ – in other words, there is perfect overlap between the two.

For others the diagram looks at best like a horizontal number eight – the two circles might come close and even touch, but they are still completely separate issues.

The reality is that it’s a combination of both, with some degree of overlap between the two. And it’s the size and contents of that cross-hatched zone in the middle where our problem lies.

As the Chairman of the ZF, the leading Israel advocacy organisation in the UK, I should only have to deal with the first circle. Standing up for Israel, educating her supporters, challenging her opponents – that’s the work we do, and with the recent vote in Parliament calling on the UK Government to recognise a Palestinian state, that’s been more than enough recently.

And there are a variety of Jewish community organisations that deal with monitoring and combating the contents of the second circle, whether it appears online or on the streets. Increasingly though, our respective briefs have begun to look more and more alike.

I understand that, like in the rest of the world, there is a battle in the UK between two different narratives surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On one hand, there is the Palestinian David facing up to the Zionist Goliath. And on the other, there is the Israeli David squaring off against an Islamic giant.(No prizes for guessing which viewpoint I lean towards.)

But you would think that it would be possible to have this debate without sinking to the promotion of hatred against a minority group. If the case against Israel is as strong as its detractors claim it is, why can’t it be made without resorting to flat-out, age-old racism? In England, the country of fair play that gave us the Queensbury Rules, why are our opponents allowed to get away with so many low blows?

Like anywhere else, England has never been immune to prejudice against Jews – this is the land responsible for Shylock, Fagin and even the Blood Libel, after all  – but for the most part nowadays anti-Semitism is recognised and condemned for the vile nonsense that it is.

Yes, we saw a large spike during Operation Protective Edge, but that spike produced exactly the right response – a sense of national shock, expressions of disgust from politicians, and serious discussions in the media. There was almost a sense of distaste over the naked hatred on display over the summer, as if this sort of frenzied bigotry was the kind of hysterical over-reaction best left to uncivilised foreigners.

And only last week, a twitterer was sentenced to 4 weeks in jail for targeting Luciana Berger, a Jewish MP, with nasty 140 character-long hate crimes. It’s hard to say that anti-Semitism is being ignored or white-washed when a man has just been locked up for threatening a woman online – and yet, if only he’d had the foresight to wrap his musings in a metaphorical Palestinian flag, or the luck to be part of the establishment rather than a troll, he might well be free today.

Consider the following three recent cases.

First: The Reverend Stephen Sizer, an Anglican priest who has in the past been put on notice for promoting anti-Semitic material, flew over to Iran to participate in the ‘New Horizon’ conference. Despite its modernist title, the conference largely serves up servings of the oldest hatred. It was here, after all, that noted academic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously stated in 2012 that Israel would be wiped off the map, and topics for discussion this year included Mossad’s apparent role in 9/11.

Sizer was part of a medley of experts, each discussing the pernicious role of The Israel Lobby in his or her home country.  (A bit like the United Nations then, but with every member bashing Zionism instead of…no wait, that is the UN.) Given that Sizer is a pro-Palestinian campaigner who has received little more than a slap on the wrist about his online posting habits, it would be nice to think that he stated that the claim that Jewish power stifles debate is both false and racist, but I doubt it.

Second: Jeremy Corbyn, Member of Parliament for the Labour Party and stalwart supporter of the Palestinians, hosted an event with Max Blumenthal in Parliament. Blumenthal, who has made a career out of arguing how evil Israel is, was speaking on the findings of the Russell Tribunal – a kangaroo court whose impartial legal eagles included musician Roger Waters and film-maker Ken Loach. (They found Israel guilty of war crimes during Protective Edge, obviously.)

But Blumenthal wasn’t the only one given a platform at the event. David Thring, fan of KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and supporter of professional Holocaust Denier David Irving, was also invited to speak. It’s hard to imagine any other scenario where a neo-Nazi would be given a platform in Parliament. The right-wing UKIP party is currently getting a grilling for partnering with a European party that is led by a man with similarly foul views on the Shoah – which makes the silence over Thring more conspicuous.

Third: Shlomo Sand, Israeli academic, merited a big feature in The Guardian – “the world’s leading liberal voice.” Sand, whose professional expertise had hitherto been solely focused on French cinema, has made a bit of a name for himself by authoring books about the ‘invention’ of Israel and the Jewish people; intellectual cat-nip if you’re convinced that Zionism is a foreign transplant in the Middle East. Sand’s article was expounding on a theme straight out of circle one: the innate and total racism of Israeli society towards its minorities. But the title was pure circle two: “I wish to resign from being a Jew.”

Not Israeli. Not Zionist. Jew. Is there any other minority that would be treated in such a fashion, where individuals are essentially held responsible for the apparent transgressions of their co-sinners? Can you imagine the controversy if the Guardian had celebrated a Muslim or Arab solely for denouncing his race or religion due to the barbarities of ISIS et al? The disgust of championing someone who, after reflecting on the multiple problems in Africa, had decided he could no longer in all good conscience remain black?

Disgusting though the tweets were that landed Berger’s harasser in jail, they will have far less impact and symbolism in terms of legimitizing anti-Jewish prejudice than the three recent cases above.

Church. Politics. Media. All three instances have passed largely without comment or repercussions, since they fall conveniently into our intersection between circles one and two; this black hole, Room 101, or Bermuda Non-Triangular Shape into which almost anything can be placed.

And most galling of all is the fact that if anyone calls them out over it, they will immediately be accused of using anti-Semitism as a distraction from the ‘real’ issue of Israel’s actions.

Is our Venn Diagram like a zero, or an eight? It’s neither. Instead, it looks like a partial eclipse, with the overlap of anti-Israelism now obscuring the anti-semitism that lies directly beneath it.

About the Author
Paul Charney is chairman of the ZF (the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland). The ZF is the UK’s grass roots activist organisation for Israel. Each year the ZF initiates events, ranging from lobbies of Parliament to events on campuses to empower Jewish students to stand up for Israel in hostile environments. As Israel is constantly subjected to campaigns in the press to delegitimize its existence, the Zionist Federation continues to stand at the forefront to ensure the dynamic future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
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