Let’s be honest about Britain’s obsession with “anti-Semitism”
|Tony Greenstein 26 June 2019|
Cries of “anti-Semitism” are the charges every supporter of the Palestinians has to face. I doubt that there is a single Palestine solidarity activist who hasn’t been accused of anti-Semitism.
The rationale for these accusations include the suggestion that we are operating “double standards” in singling out Israel for criticism. We are alleged to criticize Israel because it is a “Jewish” state. Israel is the “targeted collective Jew among the nations,” Irwin Cotler, a former government minister in Canada, has written.
Today, a different, more subtle argument is developing: Israel and Zionism are an integral part of Jewish identity. That is why opposition to Zionism and Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.
This argument was tested earlier this decade in an employment tribunal which assessed allegations that Britain’s University and College Union was anti-Semitic because it supports BDS – the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Ronnie Fraser, the pro-Israel campaigner who had taken legal action against the union, argued that Zionism was an integral part of Jewish identity.
That argument was rejected by the tribunal’s judges in 2013. The tribunal concluded that “a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel” was “not intrinsically a part of Jewishness.”
Another variant of this argument is to suggest that as Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, opposition to it must be anti-Semitic. Since there are Islamic and Christian states, opposition to Israel cannot be other than anti-Semitic. However this is to obscure the fact that Israel is unique because it is the only ethno-religious state in the world.
Defining ethnicity and nationality in terms of religion means a state will be inherently racist.
Being Jewish in Israel is not a religious but a racial identity. Jews have privileges that are not accorded to non-Jews.
As a Jew in Israel, you have access to 93 percent of “national” land controlled or owned by the Jewish National Fund. Imagine that in Britain, which is nominally a Christian state, I was unable to rent a flat because it was Christian national land.
How would that not be anti-Semitic?
The Islamic states of the Middle East are certainly backward and regressive political formations. However they do not systematically grant Muslims special privileges.
On the contrary, the Islamic nature of the Iranian or Saudi states operates to legitimize the oppression and persecution of Muslims. Arguably Jews in Iran are better off than Muslims.
The French Revolution, which ushered in the emancipation of the Jews, also introduced the separation of religion from the state. This is why Zionism was based on a rejection of emancipation which it saw as leading to the “assimilation” of Jews to non-Jews.
When France’s Constituent Assembly convened in September 1789 to discuss the Jewish question, the civil liberties advocate Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre declared that “Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”
Anti-Semitism was widespread in the ethno-religious and nationalist Christian states of Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. These states proved receptive to the Nazis.
The savagery of the Holocaust in Romania was too much even for Hans Frank, a leading Nazi lawyer. He contended that some of the massacres committed in Romania were much worse than Nazi violence in Germany, where “we use the art of surgery, not of butchery.”
In Romania, the fascist Iron Guard was also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael. Christianity was an essential part of Hungary’s fascist Iron Cross. And Slovakia’s Hlinka Guard – which deported Jews to Auschwitz – was led by a Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso.
The British political establishment, including much of the leadership of the Labour Party, has been in the grip of a form of mass hysteria, a moral panic about anti-Semitism. The mere denial of the existence of anti-Semitism is proof that you are an anti-Semite.
The situation resembles that other example of mass hysteria, the Salem witch trials. The historian Elizabeth Reis writes about the dilemmas that faced the women in these trials: “During examinations, accused women were damned if they did and damned if they did not. If they confessed to witchcraft charges, their admissions would prove the cases against them; if they denied the charges, their very intractability, construed as the refusal to admit to sin more generally, might mark them as sinners and hence allies of the devil.”
What is this “anti-Semitism” that is so all-pervasive? In many respects, it resembles the allegations of being sympathetic toward communism made in the West during the Cold War.
Among the theoreticians of this “new anti-communism” is Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with The Guardian. In 2016, he argued that “93 percent [of British Jews] who told a 2015 survey that Israel forms some part of their identity as Jews can take criticism of Israeli governments and of Israeli policy” but not anti-Zionism.
It should be noted that Freedland was concealing the full picture. The same survey asked British Jews whether they identified as Zionists – 59 percent said “yes” and 31 percent said “no.” The proportion identifying themselves as Zionist dropped by 13 percent since a previous survey was conducted in 2010.
A similar claim was made earlier this year by Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement – a pro-Israel lobby group. Katz was referring to a comment by the Labour lawmaker Richard Burgon who described Zionism as “the enemy of peace.”
The comment had been made at a 2014 meeting but a video of Burgon’s speech was only published this April. When the video was circulated online, Katz stated that Zionism is “a core part of their [British Jews’] identity.”
In other words, criticism of Zionism, the ideology and the movement, as opposed to the government of Israel, is intrinsically anti-Semitic because you are attacking the identity of most Jews. This argument is unsustainable on a number of levels.
First, the identity of Jews has changed repeatedly.
Before World War II, most Jews were anti-Zionist. To say that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism is to say that Polish Jews, 90 percent of whom died in the war, were anti-Semitic on the basis that – in Warsaw – they voted overwhelmingly during 1938 elections for the anti-Zionist Jewish Bund.
Secondly, the reasons for the change in Jewish attitudes to Zionism is primarily a product of socio-economic changes which has driven them to the right.
And thirdly, the argument that it is racist to criticize or oppose a group’s identity is flawed and illogical. It has extremely reactionary implications.
When I was a child I used to visit relatives in London’s East End. We would go to eat in Bloom’s, the Jewish restaurant in Whitechapel. We would have to queue to get a place at lunchtime.
In 1996 Bloom’s closed, the reason being that the Jews had moved out of the East End to be replaced by Bengalis and other immigrant communities.
The Jews of the East End have migrated to the London suburb of Golders Green and elsewhere.
During the first half of the 20th century, Britain’s Jews were predominantly working class and prominent in the trade unions. When Phil Piratin, England’s only Communist Party member of parliament, won the constituency of Mile End in East London during a 1945 election, it is estimated that half of his vote came from Jews.
Jews formed an identifiable part of Britain’s working class and its most politically conscious part. Jews led the anti-fascist movement. At one time there were more than 30 Jewish trade unions.
Today, there is no Jewish working class. Jews have climbed the socio-economic ladder and – in many cases – moved rightwards politically. When it is argued that “anti-Semitism” under current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has led to the loss of Jewish support for the party, that is simply untrue.
According to a poll in April 2015, 69 percent of Jews were planning to vote Conservative in the following month’s general election and only 22 percent for Labour. That was despite the fact that Labour was then led by Ed Miliband, its first Jewish leader.
William Rubinstein, a historian, wrote in the 1980s about “the rise of Western Jewry to unparalleled affluence and high status.” That rise “has led to the near-disappearance of a Jewish proletariat of any size; indeed, the Jews may become the first ethnic group in history without a working class of any size.”
As the Jews changed, so too did anti-Semitism. State-sponsored anti-Semitism disappeared in Britain to be replaced by racism against Black and Asian people.
Rubinstein’s conclusion was that the change in Jews’ socio-economic position “has rendered obsolete (and rarely heard) the type of anti-Semitism which has its basis in fears of the swamping of the native population.” It has made “Marxism, and other radical doctrines, irrelevant to the socio-economic bases of Western Jewry, and increasingly unattractive to most Jews.”
Geoffrey Alderman, a Jewish Chronicle columnist and right-wing Zionist, wrote in a 1983 book that by 1961, “over 40 percent of Anglo-Jewry was located in the upper two social classes, whereas these categories accounted for less than 20 percent of the general population.”
Alderman shows that British Jews frequently became much more conservative than the rest of the British population.
That is illustrated by the March 1978 by-election which took place in the Ilford North area of Greater London. Labour had previously held this seat by just 778 votes. By-elections are held in Britain when a parliamentary seat becomes vacant, usually due to a death or resignation.
During the 1978 by-election Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s svengali, came to the constituency to make a blatantly racist anti-immigration speech.
One might expect that Jewish voters of all people would react against this. Not a bit of it. The Conservatives gained the seat on a swing of 6.9 percent but among Jewish voters there was a swing of 11.2 percent.
As Jews move to the right, they become more sympathetic to Zionism, British foreign policy and US imperialism. That has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
The argument that opposition to a group’s identity is racist is part of the poisonous legacy of identity politics which eliminates the distinction between oppressed and oppressor. That legacy would have one believe that even the powerful and privileged have an identity and their claims have equal validity to those they exploit.
In the absence of class and race, identity politics become a justification for the status quo.
Of course, it is true that racists will disguise an attack on a particular ethnic or racial group by attacking its religion.
When right-wing firebrand Robert Spencer attacks Islam as “warfare against unbelievers” or his colleague Pamela Geller writes that “the Quran is war propaganda,” then that is racism, not a critique of religion. But when someone defends Salman Rushdie because he published The Satanic Verses, that is a defense of reason against religious bigotry.
The same applies to Zionism. If someone attacks Israel because it is a Jewish state, then that is anti-Semitic. But 99 percent of cases criticism of Israel have nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
On the contrary, it is anti-Semites – from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Steve Bannon in the US – who use support for Israel to disguise their anti-Semitism.
Opposition to a particular identity is not racist.
In Afghanistan many, if not most, people consider the burka an integral part of Islam. Is it seriously suggested that it is intrinsically racist and anti-Muslim to oppose the burka, even when such opposition comes from Muslim women?
In many countries in Africa female genital mutilation is part of the identity of those living there. Is opposition to FGM racist?
There are many religious practices that are reactionary, medieval and barbaric. Opposition to them is not racist.
The same is true with the Jewish community. Although there is no doubt that most Jews in Britain are more liberal than the Jewish leaders and the Board of Deputies, there is no doubt that the majority are supporters of Zionism. It is also arguable that a majority of Jews do not realize the extent of Israeli racism and how Zionism mandates a form of apartheid.
However it is a fact that a Jewish ethno-nationalist state in Israel cannot be other than a racist apartheid state. The argument that it is anti-Semitic to oppose an identity that is itself based on support for racism is untenable.
If indeed the majority of Jews do support a Zionism that mandates the demolition of Palestinian villages such as Umm al-Hiran in order to build Jewish towns in their place, then that is clearly a racist identity. If the majority of British Jews support a state where the chief rabbi of Safed issues an edict that non-Jews cannot rent property from Jews, then how is that not racist?
The idea that opposition to religious identity is, in itself, a form of racism is a type of blackmail.
Both apartheid in South Africa and slavery in the US were justified by particular interpretations of the Bible. Was opposition to the identity of white planters or West Indian slave owners racist?
Tony Greenstein is a founding member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the author of The Fight Against Fascism in Brighton and the South Coast.