Debate: Anti-Israel or anti-Jewish?

Egyptians burn an Israeli flag. Photo / AP
Egyptians burn an Israeli flag. Photo / AP

A British Labour MP's Facebook post has sparked debate about when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism. Donna Miles-Mojab and Juliet Moses express differing views.

Donna Miles-Mojab

Accusations of pervasive anti-Semitism within the British Labour Party have led to heated discussions about when legitimate criticisms of Israel blur into anti-Semitism.

Bradford West Labour MP Naz Shah reposted an image that showed the map of Israel superimposed over the map of the US with a caption: "Solution for Israel-Palestine Conflict - Relocate Israel into United States".

Shah reportedly took the image from the website of the American Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein, a leading critic of Israel and author of The Holocaust Industry. Apart from his parents, every member of Finkelstein's family, on both sides, was exterminated in the Nazi Holocaust. Finkelstein believes the image Shah used is an "innocuous cartoon making a little joke about how Israel is in thrall to the US, or vice versa".

False anti-Semitic accusations are often used to silence Israel's critics. British journalist Jonathan Freedman, in his column for the Guardian, acknowledged the mistreatment of Palestinians and the creation of Israel through the forcible dispossession of Palestinians. Despite this admission, Freedman went on to suggest the loathing of Israel for the manner of its birth and opposition to its existence, is unique and therefore anti-Semitic.

Freedman writes, "The US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and countless others were hardly born through acts of immaculate conception. Those nations were forged in great bloodshed. Yet Israel alone is deemed to have its right to exist nullified by the circumstances of its birth."

Freedman uses anti-Semitism to distract us from valid criticisms and dislike of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. His argument, like many Zionist arguments of its type, is designed to focus our attention on Israel as a victim.

Yes, it is true many colonial countries of today were also created through the pillage of their indigenous people, but none portrayed themselves as the oppressed and deserving of protection the way Israel still does.

As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy says, "There was never in the history of occupation, an occupation where the occupier presented himself as the victim, not only the victim but the only victim around."

Countries and people can of course change. Today, Germany, once seen as one of the most racist and militant countries on earth, is regarded as having the most beneficial impacts on world affairs.

Israel's fate is not set in stone but if Israel wants to relegate its painful past to the past, it must take the necessary steps to formally acknowledge the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians that started in 1948 and accept the terms ratified by international law and endorsed by the entire international community except the US.

But the trouble with Israel is that instead of moving towards peace and reconciliation, it continues its illegal settlements and oppression of Palestinians with complete impunity.

Israel also systematically dehumanises Palestinians in order to deny them the most basic of human rights, namely the freedom to live freely on their own land and have the right to self-determination.

As Israel's oppression continues, Palestinians look to the outside world for help in ending the occupation and dismantling the Israeli apartheid regime. Many Palestinian solidarity networks, including here in New Zealand, have been set up to encourage activism and promote Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) against Israel.

As someone interested in discussions on Israeli-Palestinian issues, I can testify that, like Islamophobia, anti-Semitism is alive and kicking and constant vigil is needed to stamp it out. The anti-Semitic views I have encountered are driven from the ignorant view that confuses Jews with the state of Israel's policies and holds all Jews responsible for the mistreatment of Palestinians.

There is no doubt that anti-Semitic and racist views run contrary to any justice movement and should not be tolerated. Anti-Semitic views are particularly harmful to the Palestinian cause because they play into the hands of Zionists and their agenda to portray Israel, with one of the world's most powerful militaries, as a victim deserving special treatment and exemption from international laws.

I stand with all victims of anti-Semitism but believe labelling criticisms of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic undermines the battle against structural anti-Semitism.

Donna Miles-Mojab is a British-born Iranian New Zealander living in Christchurch.

Juliet Moses

British MP Naz Shah defends the anti-Israeli social media post that got her suspended from the Labour Party. Photo / AP
British MP Naz Shah defends the anti-Israeli social media post that got her suspended from the Labour Party. Photo / AP

When is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic? This vexed question has been brought into focus after the suspensions of several high-profile UK Labour Party officials.

Criticism of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic. Nobody claims Israel, New Zealand, or any other state is perfect. Indeed, some of the harshest criticism of Israel comes from within Israel. That is to be expected of a liberal democracy with a Parliament that represents wide-ranging political views, a vibrant media and a robust judicial system, and it should be celebrated.

Israel should be scrutinised in the same way - no more, no less - as any other state. Criticism involves facts, context, analysis and judgment - in, for example, expressing reasoned disapproval of the comments of the Israeli Prime Minister or of settlement policy in the West Bank.

But when Israel is demonised, delegitimised and discriminated against, as it frequently is, that has gone beyond criticism into something else altogether. Can it be right that this could never be anti-Semitism? That anti-Semitism could never express itself as antipathy towards Israel?

Anti-Semitism, or Jew-hatred, does not necessarily have a shaven head and daub itself with swastikas; it is not the monopoly of the far right. It is insidious. Called the oldest hatred, it has mutated over time. Once it was religious-based, then racial. These days, it often masquerades as visceral vilification of Israel. It may be found lurking in those on the left-wing, even though as avowed anti-racists, who may even have Jewish friends, they would be appalled to be considered anti-Semitic.

Anti-Israel anti-Semitism can take the form of anti-Zionism. Zionism is the belief in the right of self-determination of the Jewish people in their historic homeland. Anti-Zionists (like New Zealand's Kia Ora Gaza) support the destruction or dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. Anti-Zionists believe in the right of other people, such as the Palestinians, to self-determination, but forbid it of only one people, the Jews. It is anti-Zionist to deny that Jews are a people, and to deny the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, despite all historical, archaeological, and genetic evidence to the contrary. Proposing to ethnically cleanse Israel of all Jews - as did Naz Shah, the now-suspended UK Labour party MP - is anti-Zionism, as is claiming that Israel is a racist endeavour. There is no other country in the world whose very right to exist is called into question.

Often, anti-Semitism manifests itself by falsely accusing Israel of crimes against humanity. It claims Israel commits genocide - despite the fact that the Palestinian population is rapidly increasing. It labels Israel an apartheid state - despite its two million Arab citizens enjoying more rights than in any neighbouring state and participating in every aspect of civil society including in its Parliament, as judges, and in the defence forces. It manifests itself in Holocaust inversion, where the Israelis are the Nazis and the Palestinians the new Jews - such a grotesque distortion that even rebutting it risks giving it unwarranted validity. A 2014 anti-Israel protest in Auckland featured swastikas and a sign reading "Hitler would be proud".

Sometimes, anti-Semitism finds form in using the dehumanising tropes and conspiracy theories of classic anti-Semitism against Israel or "Zionists". When an Israeli team assisted in earthquake-torn Haiti, there was speculation that it was harvesting organs; social media is awash with claims that Zionists control the world banking system and the media.

Anti-Semitism arises when Israel is held to a standard that no other nation is held to. It exists when a person refuses to criticise Hamas for using human shields but excoriates Israel for the 2014 Gaza war, ignoring the High Level Military Group's report that Israel far exceeded the standards of the Geneva Convention. It's there when China's and Saudi Arabia's egregious human rights records are ignored, while Israel receives disproportionate opprobrium. It exists when a person never allows praise of Israel - for example, its proud tradition on gay rights is dismissed as "pink-washing". It arises when Israel's "occupation" of the West Bank arouses hysteria and hyperbole, but no other occupation anywhere rates a mention.

Anti-Semitism is not reasoned debate and substantiated political comment about Israel. It is hypocritical hostility towards the state of Israel, the living embodiment of the Jewish people, the Jew amongst the nations.

The good news? For too long anti-Semitism has hidden in plain sight in polite society. The recent events in the UK have brought these issues out into the open. Credible commentators across the political spectrum are now discussing them sensitively and intelligently. The Jewish story did not end with the Holocaust; it is one of self-determination, hope and renewal. That is a message that resonates as much today as ever.

Juliet Moses is an Auckland-based lawyer and member of the NZ Jewish Council.

- NZ Herald

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