The danger of conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism

I still remember the shock I felt when, at the age of 12, my teacher told me the word “joo” I had just spoken, which I had thought to mean to lie or cheat, was actually “Jew” and was anti-Semitic. Throughout my British childhood, I had used that word casually and frequently, without ever knowing what it really meant. I start with this example to make a simple point: anti-Semitism is so entrenched in our society, so depressingly persistent, that to trivialise it is to trivialise the blueprint of prejudice itself. It is a barometer of moral cowardice: when someone doesn’t want to take responsibility for their own faults or problems, they blame the Jews. 

At the moment, two phenomena are taking place in UK politics. For the first time in nearly 40 years, a politician with seriously left-wing ideas, and pro-Palestinian sympathies, is approaching political power. Over the past two years, that same politician’s party has been going through a series of anti-Semitism allegations so comprehensive and systematic that we may employ the term “blanket coverage”.

There is definitely a long-overdue debate that needs to be had over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party – but the current barrage of media attention is not that debate. There are definitely some voices who claim to support the Labour Party, and who allow their anti-Zionism to spill over mindlessly into anti-Semitism. What we are witnessing in the UK media, however, is a near-complete evaporation of critical debate. So many aspects of this coverage are disturbing: the widespread assumption among TV hosts and commentators that anti-semitism is a problem exclusive to the Labour Party (polling suggests it is clearly not); the alarming paucity of any evidence or statistics, so that the sentence “anti-Semitism in the Labour Party”, repeated ad nauseam, becomes its own self-generating fact; the frankly ridiculous allegations of anti-Semitism levelled at the leader Jeremy Corbyn himself (Alan Sugar, one of the most famous faces in British business, tweeted a photo of the Labour leader sitting next to Hitler); the unconditional authority and respect given to voices who have been widely criticised elsewhere for bias – the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, for example, whose unreserved equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism drew a letter of protest from 88 Jewish celebrities; the lack of journalistic professionalism in giving any sense of proportion to the actual problem (the membership of the British Labour Party is 570,000 – the number of cases pending for expulsion from the party for anti-Semitism, the Guardian reported this week, is 70). Media coverage has been so appalling that, earlier in the summer, a group of 40 senior British academics accused the media of relying for its sources on a handful of “well-known political opponents of Corbyn himself”.

In particular, the Labour Party is being called “anti-Semitic” because it has refused to recognise the entirety of a disputed definition of “anti-Semitism” – the code of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), repeatedly described in the media as an “internationally recognised” definition, but in reality is a highly controversial one. The IHRA code considers any description of the Israeli State as a “racist” institution to be anti-Semitic – the Labour Party’s rejection of this clause has been portrayed as a rejection of the UN bill of human rights. In reality, the IHRA code has not only been challenged by groups such as the ACLU and Jewish Voice for Peace, but was even queried by an all-party Select Committee for the UK Parliament earlier this year. Absolutely none of this nuance makes the mainstream media.

In a way, this really leads us to the heart of the problem – and the heart of Labour’s problem. I will choose my next words as carefully as possible, fully aware that the quarter of a million British Jews in the UK are in no way accountable, nor should ever be held accountable, for the actions of an aggressive Israeli state.

There is a basic level of ignorance in British society – partly wilful ignorance, partly genuine misinformation, partly flat-out denial – about how the Israeli state actually came to be. There seems to be in Britain – in TV commentators, in mainstream academics, in ordinary public opinion – a deep reluctance to acknowledge how, in 1948, three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs were forcibly evicted, with British backing, off their own land. To recognise this as racist, in the words of the IHRA code, would be “anti-semitic”. A large part of the mainstream media anger towards the Labour Party for refusing the “internationally recognised” code is an establishment anger against a political party for refusing to accept the post-war narrative – a narrative, moreover, which has been successfully disseminated and internalised among many people in the UK since 1948. This is the scale of the British Labour Party’s problem – if it is to go through with this, it has to ask a large segment of the UK population to unlearn their history.

On the BBC programme Newsweek last week, we saw a visible example of this. The presenter (Emily Maitlis) asked a British Labour campaigner for Palestine whether he thought the Israeli state was a “racist endeavour”. The premise of the question itself betrayed how little the presenter knew about how the Israeli state was actually established. The activist avoided the question (he clearly thought it was), even after she repeated it – because to declare, on a BBC programme, that the Israeli state was an act of settler colonialism is, in the present climate, simply unspeakable. 

If the mainstream media wins and Labour has to re-formulate its definition of anti-Semitism to fit the one currently used by the government, I see two dangers emerging, one for each side. For pro-Palestinian campaigners, any serious attempt to call Israel “racist” or revise its history will be criminalised. This is not hyperbole: organisers at the University of Birmingham a few years ago asked panellists not to use the word “apartheid” in a debate on Israel and Palestine. Within the Labour Party, the pro-Israeli, right-wingers will have won a subtle victory – a chance to purge the party of Corbyn-supporters under the guise of “extremism”.

For the Jewish community, a much more long-term danger emerges. By enfolding criticism of Israel within the definition of anti-semitism, a cherished goal of the Israeli Right will have finally been realised. There is a subtle mechanism here – British Jews critical of Israel (and there are many) will be involuntarily yoked together with Israel itself within such a definition, ironically mirroring the anti-Semitic logic of the mindless idiots who lump all Jews together in the first place. It might not be exaggerated to say that the result of all this, ultimately, will be the death of the term “anti-Semitism” itself as a meaningful word.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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