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Anti-Semitism and its useful idiots

Members of Orthodox Jews hold banners during a protest to celebrate UN decision to condemn Israeli settlements outside the United Nations headquarters [Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency]
Members of Orthodox Jews hold banners during a protest to celebrate UN decision to condemn Israeli settlements outside the United Nations headquarters [Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency]

All over the world, people who challenge Zionism are being accused of anti-Semitism. You might imagine that the one group of dissidents who are safe from this kind of delegitimisation are the Israeli Jews, but you’d be wrong; we are not. This cruel irony, when exposed, may actually play a productive role in decoupling anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. As actual anti-Semites take positions of power in the US government while maintaining a pro-Israel stance, the need to oppose the false accusations of anti-Semitism becomes ever more vital.

I was recently accused of anti-Semitism for an article I wrote about resistance to Israeli apartheid in the Jordan Valley. At first I was perplexed; could I have said something anti-Semitic? Surely I’m not immune to bigotry just because I am a Jew whose grandmother fled Nazi Germany to find refuge in British Mandate Palestine with her parents losing their entire livelihood in the process. After a close reading of the accusations, though, I reached the conclusion that my critic is the one being racist and anti-Semitic. The “evidence” for my “anti-Semitism” is, apparently, my citation of reliable UN sources indicating that a process of ethnic cleansing has been ongoing in the Jordan Valley since 1967, with no shred of compassion for the Palestinians whose situation I try to make visible. The critics see the Israeli soldiers and bureaucrats whose actions I condemn as representatives of the Jewish people as a whole, as if we Jews are all one in a like-minded monolithic group. In this logic, however incoherently framed, anyone who criticises Israel could be accused of anti-Semitism. This empties the term of any meaning, which is a very dangerous prospect when the Nazi salute is being performed just minutes away from the White House to celebrate an actual bigot’s presidency.

Zionism and anti-Semitism are long-time bedfellows, and not strange at that. They’ve been consistent in sharing the cause of emptying Europe of Jews and transplanting them in Palestine. Theodore Herzl, the founder of colonial Zionism, stated very clearly in his Diaries, “The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” This alliance continues to this day as the burgeoning extreme right aims to have a Jew-free white America while maintaining staunch support for Israel. Trump’s friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is emblematic of this tendency.

Zionists like to think of themselves as the saviours of the Jews, as if Jews were compliant lambs until the Zionists came along and put pitchforks and guns in our hands. This way, Zionism attempts to overshadow Judaism’s important contribution to legacies of struggle. In my own life, Judaism informs my resistance to the Israeli state (and to all states, for that matter). I lit the Hanukkiya last week commemorating the Jewish rebellion against Hellenistic imperialism almost 2,200 years ago. I cherish the legacy of the ZOB (the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, Jewish Combat Organisation), which led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and wrote: “All people are equal brothers… To separate peoples, colours, races – is but an act of cheating!”

If I felt anxiety at the sight of my own picture flagging the word “anti-Semite” and thought I may need to choose my words more carefully next time, I can imagine it might be quite daunting for non-Jews who feel compelled to support the Palestinian call for equality. Indeed, international groups I speak to often say that fear of the “anti-Semitism accusation” is the biggest challenge they face as activists. We need to be crystal clear about the illegitimacy of this invocation: to support the Palestinian call for equality and freedom is not anti-Semitic. It is not a call against Jewish people, but against the dehumanising policies of a state. Opposing Israel is not opposing Jewish people (on the contrary, I would argue). The following are five reasons why such accusations should be opposed and discredited:

  1. The Jewish people are not a single monolithic group. Zionism and the State of Israel do not represent all Jews. To consider opposition to Israel as opposition to all Jews makes the assumption that Jews are all represented by the Israeli State; this is a racist assumption. (A similar argument is often made by Omar Barghouti.)
  2. The Zionist idea that Jewish people have a birth-given right to colonise Palestine comes out of a nineteenth century white European notion that Ashkenazi Jews are not Europeans, but “strange Asiatics” who come from the Middle East and therefore must all “return” to it. This is an unfounded and anti-Semitic argument. (Authoritatively articulated by Joseph Massad and others.)
  3. Accusing people who oppose the State of Israel of anti-Semitism is an equation that works both ways; it creates a false image of anti-Semites as people who uphold Palestinian rights. It is therefore an accusation which strengthens actual fascists, as it puts them in a positive light. (Drawing from an article by Michael Lesher.)
  4. Zionists accuse people of anti-Semitism in order to silence resistance to Israeli crimes.
  5. At a time in which fascism is being strengthened globally, the groundless allegation of anti-Semitism drains the term itself of meaning, making it incoherent and irrelevant, allowing racists who support Israel, such as Donald Trump or his chief strategist Steve Bannon, to disguise their anti-Semitism.

Profiling activists as anti-Semites, whether those with Holocaust survival in our family history or those without, is not only rhetorically dangerous, but may also actually put people at risk. Right now Palestinian solidarity efforts are being criminalised the world over. However, fearing these kinds of accusations and limiting ourselves to a false political correctness which avoids the prospect of hurting anyone’s feelings only leaves a void to be filled by authoritarian politics. Zionists have too many useful idiots distorting and misusing the term anti-Semitism; it’s time for us to call it for what it is. The recuperation of anti-racist politics as a whole is at stake.

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