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The ‘New Anti-Semitism’Neve Gordon
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Vol. 40 No. 1 · 4 January 2018

The ‘New Anti-Semitism’

Neve Gordon

1436 words

Not long​ after the eruption of the Second Intifada in September 2000, I became active in a Jewish-Palestinian political movement called Ta’ayush, which conducts non-violent direct action against Israel’s military siege of the West Bank and Gaza. Its objective isn’t merely to protest against Israel’s violation of human rights but to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination. For a number of years, I spent most weekends with Ta’ayush in the West Bank; during the week I would write about our activities for the local and international press. My pieces caught the eye of a professor from Haifa University, who wrote a series of articles accusing me first of being a traitor and a supporter of terrorism, then later a ‘Judenrat wannabe’ and an anti-Semite. The charges began to circulate on right-wing websites; I received death threats and scores of hate messages by email; administrators at my university received letters, some from big donors, demanding that I be fired.

I mention this personal experience because although people within Israel and abroad have expressed concern for my wellbeing and offered their support, my feeling is that in their genuine alarm about my safety, they have missed something very important about the charge of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ and whom, ultimately, its target is.

The ‘new anti-Semitism’, we are told, takes the form of criticism of Zionism and of the actions and policies of Israel, and is often manifested in campaigns holding the Israeli government accountable to international law, a recent instance being the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In this it is different from ‘traditional’ anti-Semitism, understood as hatred of Jews per se, the idea that Jews are naturally inferior, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy or in the Jewish control of capitalism etc. The ‘new anti-Semitism’ also differs from the traditional form in the political affinities of its alleged culprits: where we are used to thinking that anti-Semites come from the political right, the new anti-Semites are, in the eyes of the accusers, primarily on the political left.

The logic of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ can be formulated as a syllogism: i) anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews; ii) to be Jewish is to be Zionist; iii) therefore anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. The error has to do with the second proposition. The claims that Zionism is identical to Jewishness, or that a seamless equation can be made between the State of Israel and the Jewish people, are false. Many Jews are not Zionists. And Zionism has numerous traits that are in no way embedded in or characteristic of Jewishness, but rather emerged from nationalist and settler colonial ideologies over the last three hundred years. Criticism of Zionism or of Israel is not necessarily the product of an animus towards Jews; conversely, hatred of Jews does not necessarily entail anti-Zionism.

Not only that, but it is possible to be both a Zionist and an anti-Semite. Evidence of this is supplied by the statements of white supremacists in the US and extreme right-wing politicians across Europe. Richard Spencer, a leading figure in the American alt-right, has no trouble characterising himself as a ‘white Zionist’ (‘As an Israeli citizen,’ he explained to his interviewer on Israel’s Channel 2 News, ‘who has a sense of nationhood and peoplehood, and the history and experience of the Jewish people, you should respect someone like me, who has analogous feelings about whites … I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves. Just like you want a secure homeland in Israel’), while also believing that ‘Jews are vastly over-represented in what you could call “the establishment”.’ Gianfranco Fini of the Italian National Alliance and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, have also professed their admiration of Zionism and the ‘white’ ethnocracy of the state of Israel, while on other occasions making their anti-Semitic views plain. Three things that draw these anti-Semites towards Israel are, first, the state’s ethnocratic character; second, an Islamophobia they assume Israel shares with them; and, third, Israel’s unapologetically harsh policies towards black migrants from Africa (in the latest of a series of measures designed to coerce Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to leave Israel, rules were introduced earlier this year requiring asylum seekers to deposit 20 per cent of their earnings in a fund, to be repaid to them only if, and when, they leave the country).

If Zionism and anti-Semitism can coincide, then – according to the law of contradiction – anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not reducible one to the other. Of course it’s true that in certain instances anti-Zionism can and does overlap with anti-Semitism, but this in itself doesn’t tell us much, since a variety of views and ideologies can coincide with anti-Semitism. You can be a capitalist, or a socialist or a libertarian, and still be an anti-Semite, but the fact that anti-Semitism can be aligned with such diverse ideologies as well as with anti-Zionism tells us practically nothing about it or them. Yet, despite the clear distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, several governments, as well as think tanks and non-governmental organisations, now insist on the notion that anti-Zionism is necessarily a form of anti-Semitism. The definition adopted by the current UK government offers 11 examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which involve criticism of Israel – a concrete manifestation of the way in which the new understanding of anti-Semitism has become the accepted view. Any reproach directed towards the state of Israel now assumes the taint of anti-Semitism.

One idiosyncratic but telling instance of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ took place in 2005 during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. When soldiers came to evacuate the eight thousand Jewish settlers who lived in the region, some of the settlers protested by wearing yellow stars and insisting they would not ‘go like sheep to the slaughter’. Shaul Magid, the chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, points out that by doing so, the settlers cast the Israeli government and the Israeli military as anti-Semitic. In their eyes, the government and soldiers deserved to be called anti-Semites not because they hate Jews, but because they were implementing an anti-Zionist policy, undermining the project of settling the so-called greater Israel. This representation of decolonialisation as anti-Semitic is the key to a proper understanding of what is at stake when people are accused of the ‘new anti-Semitism’. When the professor from Haifa University branded me an anti-Semite, I wasn’t his real target. People like me are attacked on a regular basis, but we are considered human shields by the ‘new anti-Semitism’ machine. Its real target is the Palestinians.

There is an irony here. Historically, the fight against anti-Semitism has sought to advance the equal rights and emancipation of Jews. Those who denounce the ‘new anti-Semitism’ seek to legitimate the discrimination against and subjugation of Palestinians. In the first case, someone who wishes to oppress, dominate and exterminate Jews is branded an anti-Semite; in the second, someone who wishes to take part in the struggle for liberation from colonial rule is branded an anti-Semite. In this way, Judith Butler has observed, ‘a passion for justice’ is ‘renamed as anti-Semitism’.*

The Israeli government needs the ‘new anti-Semitism’ to justify its actions and to protect it from international and domestic condemnation. Anti-Semitism is effectively weaponised, not only to stifle speech – ‘It does not matter if the accusation is true,’ Butler writes; its purpose is ‘to cause pain, to produce shame, and to reduce the accused to silence’ – but also to suppress a politics of liberation. The non-violent BDS campaign against Israel’s colonial project and rights abuses is labelled anti-Semitic not because the proponents of BDS hate Jews, but because it denounces the subjugation of the Palestinian people. This highlights a further disturbing aspect of the ‘new anti-Semitism’. Conventionally, to call someone ‘anti-Semitic’ is to expose and condemn their racism; in the new case, the charge ‘anti-Semite’ is used to defend racism, and to sustain a regime that implements racist policies.

The question today is how to preserve a notion of anti-anti-Semitism that rejects the hatred of Jews, but does not promote injustice and dispossession in Palestinian territories or anywhere else. There is a way out of the quandary. We can oppose two injustices at once. We can condemn hate speech and crimes against Jews, like the ones witnessed recently in the US, or the anti-Semitism of far-right European political parties, at the same time as we denounce Israel’s colonial project and support Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination. But in order to carry out these tasks concurrently, the equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must first be rejected.

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Vol. 40 No. 3 · 8 February 2018

Neve Gordon mentions the definition of anti-Semitism ‘adopted by the current UK government’ and its accompanying list of examples (LRB, 4 January). I’d like to add a word about its origins.

In 2005 a working party of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an EU institution, produced a forty-word ‘working definition’:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

It was followed by a series of examples, of unknown authorship, which, depending on their context, might constitute acts of anti-Semitism. Of the 11 examples, seven referred to Israel rather than to Jews. But both the definition and the illustrations were rejected by the EUMC, and in 2013 its successor, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), removed the entire text from its website as part of a clear-out of non-official documents.

In May 2016 the same text was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (the IHRA), a Berlin-based association of 31 states, at its meeting in Bucharest. To it were added, in the IHRA’s press release, the list of 11 examples. I wrote about this composite text in the LRB of 4 May 2017, because the definition seemed to me clumsy and open-ended, and a number of the illustrations, by seeking to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, slanted.

What I did not appreciate then was, first, that the IHRA text was not original but had been retrieved from the files of two other bodies which had never adopted it; second, that the ‘examples’ had been added to the adopted text; and, third, that the content of the versions adopted by UK institutions and bodies (and by governments such as those of Austria and Romania) has itself been variable.

In December 2016, a press release from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the prime minister’s office announced that the UK had ‘formally’ adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism, setting out the forty-word definition without any of the associated examples. It is not known what ‘formal’ adoption means in constitutional terms: either a text has to take legislative form, with all that this entails, or it remains simply a policy. On the same day Jeremy Corbyn announced that the Labour Party was adopting the definition.

In neither of these announcements were the tendentious illustrations included. But central government has cited them as grounds for rejecting the advice of the Home Affairs Committee that the ‘definition’ should be qualified by spelling out that in the absence of additional evidence of anti-Semitic intent, it is not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel’s government, to hold it to the same standards as other liberal democracies or to take a particular interest in its policies or actions. A number of municipalities, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, have adopted the list wholesale – London, among others, using a version which omits the proviso that the listed examples depend on their context.

What is at issue is suggested by the prime minister’s contemporaneous speech, quoted in the government’s press release: ‘Israel guarantees the rights of people of all religions, races and sexualities, and it wants to enable everyone to flourish.’ From this it isn’t far to the first of the ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism: ‘Manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.’ Leaving aside the difference between targeting and criticism, one asks: conceived by whom? The world at large, millions of Jews included, conceives of Israel as a state with the same rights and obligations as any other state, including an obligation not to extend its territory by incremental colonisation or to occupy and administer the land of others under military law. It is hardline Zionism and hardline jihadism which coincide, as extremes tend to do, in regarding Israel as a ‘Jewish collectivity’ – jihadism by seeking to identify Israel with all Jews (making every Jew a legitimate terrorist target), Zionism by seeking to identify all Jews with Israel (whence the description of Israel’s Jewish critics as ‘self-hating’).

None of this is addressed by a definition which sets the bar needlessly high by stipulating hatred rather than simple hostility as the defining characteristic of anti-Semitism, nor by tendentious examples which look to immunise Israel from sharp criticism. Those who seek to make use of such material in the UK should perhaps remember that public authorities are bound by the Human Rights Act to give effect to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right of free expression subject only to restrictions prescribed by law – which the IHRA definition is not.

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

Neve Gordon, instead of going to such lengths to prove the separability of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, might have considered how anti-Zionism can be used as cover for more sinister beliefs. One way this happens is through what David Hirsh calls the ‘Livingstone formulation’, named after the former London mayor, whereby anti-Semitic remarks unconnected with Israel are justified as legitimate anti-Zionism. To take just one example, a representative of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, reacting to the Grenfell Tower fire, blamed the ‘murder’ on ‘Zionist supporters of the Tory Party’.

Another way in which anti-Zionism is used to conceal anti-Semitism is through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Gordon favours. Jackie Walker, who in autumn 2016 was suspended from the Labour Party and removed from her position as vice-chair of Momentum after making critical remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day, is now boycotting moisturiser made by a US company because an Israeli actress is used to promote it. An American Jewish musician had a gig cancelled by a Spanish promoter when he failed to produce a politically acceptable statement on Palestine (he was ‘seen to represent Israel’). Meanwhile, as a pro-Palestinian academic, I am constantly enjoined to boycott like-minded Israeli colleagues. It is unclear what any of this has to do with a ‘passion for justice’ or the ‘struggle for self-determination’.

I would be more inclined to respect the bona fides of the BDS movement if it were equally exercised about China, Morocco, Turkey or any other country engaged in long-term illegal occupations – or, for that matter, war in Syria, torture in Egypt or suppression of dissent in Iran. But the Jewish state is judged by a different standard, which is precisely the phenomenon described by the concept of the ‘new anti-Semitism’.

Richard Carver
Oxford Brookes University

Vol. 40 No. 4 · 22 February 2018

Richard Carver’s strictures against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement demand a response (Letters, 8 February). He writes that Jackie Walker – a black Jewish woman – is ‘boycotting moisturiser made by a US company because an Israeli actress is used to promote it’. That actress is also an enthusiastic member and supporter of the IDF and has promoted its support of the illegal occupation. Carver also mentions an American Jewish musician who had a gig cancelled ‘when he failed to produce a politically acceptable statement on Palestine’. That musician is a proud and vocal apologist for the Israeli army and its illegal activities; he declined to support Palestinian human rights when the promoters put the question to him. Neither instance had anything to do with anti-Semitism; both were responses to Israel’s flagrant violations of human rights.

BDS is a campaign directed at institutions, not individuals, unless an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution, or has been commissioned or recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to ‘rebrand’ itself. BDS originated in a call from Palestinian civil society to address the violence, terror and racism intrinsic to Israel’s pursuit of hegemony in the territory it occupies. Carver demands to know why BDS supporters aren’t ‘equally exercised about China, Morocco, Turkey or any other country engaged in long-term illegal occupations’. If other oppressed groups made the demand, as the blacks of apartheid South Africa once did, there would indeed be an argument for boycotts elsewhere.

Diana Neslen
Ilford, Essex

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