Leo Baeck 1


Apr 2006 Journal

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Point of View

Antisemites and anti-Zionists

Antisemitism is a word that should be used sparingly. It is tempting to say 'Everyone in the world hates us', but most of the world's 6,000 million inhabitants have not heard of, or are indifferent to, us. On the other hand, to claim negligible antisemitic activity in the UK, as does Tony Lerman, the director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, shows only that he has not been in a university environment recently and has not seen the recent Populus survey or noticed the Anglican Church's antics.

We should beware of accusing organisations of being antisemitic unless hostility to Jews is stated as one of their aims. The BBC cannot be accused of antisemitism or even anti-Zionism. It has 25,000 employees who scarcely share any views at all. Some of them, perhaps in positions to influence news broadcasts, may be biased against Jews or Israel, but in that case one should attack the individuals concerned, about whom something might possibly be done.

Jews have been hated for a variety of reasons. The Romans were angry that the Jews would not install their gods in the Holy of Holies. Jews have been accused of killing Jesus, of being racially inferior, of being capitalists or Bolsheviks or, most recently, racists and oppressors of the Palestinian Arabs. The current mantra is 'We are not antisemites, we are anti-Zionists.' How far is such a distinction valid? We have no way of knowing the contents of people's minds; hence we need clear definitions. In a joint letter to The Times, Archbishop Rowan Williams; Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and the Chief Rabbi wrote: 'Criticism of government policy in Israel, as elsewhere, is a legitimate part of democratic debate. However, such criticism should never be inspired by antisemitic attitudes, extend to a denial of Israel's right to exist, or serve as justification for attacks against Jewish people around the world.' That's good enough for me.

I suggest that antisemitic critics of Israel advocate the policies (e.g. boycott and divestment) that are designed not to help the Palestinians but to harm the Jews. At the extreme, one has the overt antisemites, who quote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; they believe the Jews are in league with the Freemasons to dominate the world and use gentile blood at the seder. This approach can be dressed up: when Clare Short says that American support for Israel is the biggest single factor in global violence, she is echoing the Protocols. When the authors of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network accuse Israel of 'polluting the waterways', this is merely an update of the medieval accusation that Jews were poisoning the wells. These accusations are instant indicators of antisemitism. More ambivalent are the anti-Zionists who attack Israel by proposing policies that would lead to its destruction, such as the right of return of the descendants of all refugees.

Non-antisemitic critics of Israel would associate themselves with Israeli organisations that oppose the government, such as B'Tselem or Meretz. They would send humanitarian aid to the West Bank or Gaza. They would criticise the halachically indefensible chopping down of olive trees by extremist settlers. They would applaud the opportunities offered by Israeli universities to Arab students and the appointment of Majid al-Haj as dean of research at Haifa University. They would demand to know why Israeli politicians never say a kind word about Israeli Arabs, who have remained remarkably loyal during the intifada (and if they haven't, it is even more important to reassure them of their place in Israeli society).

A guide to whether critics are genuinely anti-Zionist rather than antisemitic is the specificity of their attacks. If people mention Iran or Burma or the Darfur massacres or Angola or Algeria or China or Ruanda or Zimbabwe, then one might claim that their charges against Israel are misguided (but not in all cases - Israel isn't perfect either). It would be foolish to describe Robert Fisk - who apparently hates everybody! - as antisemitic. It is the pretence that all the world's problems stem from Israel that betrays antisemites, and this, together with antisemitic language, forms a diagnostic test for the disease.
Bryan Reuben

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