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Issue #1651      August 13, 2014

It is not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel for its Gaza crimes

In demanding equality and freedom for all the residents of historic Palestine, it is the opponents of Israel, not its supporters, who carry the torch of history’s noble anti-racist struggles.

The old ones are always the best. That, at least, seems to be the thinking from Israel’s defenders, who are increasingly seeking to revive the claim that those appalled by Israeli violence are mostly cunningly disguised anti-Semites.

This is less an argument than an effort to shut down argument. Its intended effect is to render criticism of Israel socially unacceptable even as Amnesty International accuses it of deliberately targeting and killing six health workers.

The equivalent would be for Vladimir Putin to accuse those angered by his crackdown on LGBTQ rights of being driven by nothing but anti-Russian racism. Claims like this are significant because they shift the terms of debate – rather than asking whether Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is justified, Israel’s supporters wish to place that question beyond the scope of legitimate discussion. In order to defend human rights effectively, it is therefore important that we are all able to respond to these claims, which take two main forms:

“Lots of countries are awful. You single out Israel’s violence because you hate Jews”.

This often repeated claim is doubly flawed. First, it is simply untrue that the majority of those appalled by Israel’s attack on Gaza are zombie-like automatons with no involvement in politics but who dramatically arise from their life of slumber every time Israel kills children. Most are involved in a range of political campaigns; at a recent Stop the War volunteers’ meeting about Gaza, campaigners handed out flyers advertising everything from anti-fracking protests to a socialist film co-operative.

Secondly, Israel is sufficiently unique to justify a particular focus on its crimes. There is no other country today premised on ethno-religious discrimination. In the West Bank every aspect of life is different for Jewish settlers to Palestinians, from how much water people can drink, to how freely they can move and which courts judge them if they are accused of a crime.

In Gaza, Palestinians are besieged so that Israelis may live in safety. A large chunk of Gaza’s population is made up of internal refugees and their descendants, forced to flee their homes in 1948 to make way for the creation of the Jewish state. Israel privileges one ethnic group while impoverishing and imprisoning another.

History is not without parallels. Apartheid South Africa elicited a special horror from people all over the world even though many of its neighbours were also brutal regimes, because in South Africa suffering was deliberately perpetuated along racial lines.

Corruption, inequality and tyranny are all as appalling as they are widespread, but people find states constructed on the basis of racism particularly disturbing.

If France invaded Spain and proceeded to construct a network of settlements with special privileges for French settlers while blockading those Spaniards who fought that status quo, restricting their access to food and building materials, it is not hard to imagine that the occupied and marginalised people of Spain would receive at least as much sympathy and support as is currently shown to the Palestinians.

If Israel is singled out, it is usually because people hate occupation and discrimination, not because they hate Jews. If Israel’s friends want to query this singling out, they should ask why people are more disgusted by racism than by other injustices (which might be a reasonable question, but could hardly be more different from the question they currently ask).

Moreover, we in the West focus on Israel because our governments are implicated in its crimes. Israel is America’s outpost in the Middle East, the two of them deeply intertwined in a common project of hostility to those who challenge their shared geopolitical interests. Hence Israel has received more American aid than any other country since World War II.

Britain all but gave Israel its birth certificate and continues to fund its military machine. Our obligation as citizens to oppose the use of our taxes to kill Palestinians combines with Israel’s uniqueness as a racially defined occupying power to explain the anger its violence generates.

“You say you’re an anti-Zionist? Why should Jews be the only people denied their right to self-determination?”

Even if they acknowledge that opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its de facto occupation of Gaza need not be motivated by anti-Semitism, supporters of Israel often insist that taking offence at the crimes of 1948, rather than those of 1967, implies a hatred of Jews.

In fact, the above question suffers from historical amnesia. As recently as the early 1990s, activists were opposing the principle of self-determination for another ethnic group – white South Africans. It is noteworthy that FW De Klerk’s defence of the principle of Apartheid has involved a comparison to Israel; Afrikaners wanted only the national self-determination sought by Israeli Jews, he says. The cases are analogous because both peoples sought national rights based on dispossessing another population.

Jewish self-determination in Palestine is therefore not comparable to, say, the right of people who live north of the English Channel to self-determination in a country called Britain. Rather, the hypothetically similar case would be if one section of the British population asserted a divine right to control part or all of the country, with a flag, an anthem and a constitution declaring the state to be the property of that group. It should come as no surprise that Israel cannot countenance permitting the children of 1948, Palestinian refugees, to return to their homes since that would endanger the Jewish majority crucial to securing Israel’s future as a Jewish state. Jewish self-determination is bound up with the denial of Palestinian rights.

Israel is exceptional because it proffers a racially defined conception of national sovereignty. Those of us who demand an equal and common right to self-determination for all the inhabitants of the area regardless of their religion have learnt our lessons from Nelson Mandela rather than from Apartheid. As Mandela knew too well, dismantling the infrastructure of a racially constituted state is no easy task but justice for its victims dictates that we do so.

Among we Jewish opponents of Zionism, some would oppose it even if former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir had been right when she claimed, “the Palestinians do not exist”. We are opposed in principle to the separatist idea that the solution to the historic oppression of Jews is for Jews to withdraw from cosmopolitan societies and embrace their categorisation as racial Others by anti-Semites.

Likewise we do not believe that the solution to sexism is the building of a nation-state exclusively for women. Standing in the long tradition of Jewish radicalism, we see the solution to anti-Semitism in the struggle to build societies free of racism, just as we should fight sexism rather than abandoning that fight and encouraging women to pack their bags for a land free of men. Opposing Jewish nationalism by no means entails supporting the persecution of Jews.

There is a lunatic fringe of people who oppose Israel out of a hatred of Jews, but the state’s daily crimes – the UN now estimates that it kills a child every hour in Gaza – provide the much more common reason for protesting against it. In demanding equality and freedom for all the residents of historic Palestine, it is the opponents of Israel, not its supporters, who carry the torch of history’s noble anti-racist struggles.

Next article – “A Letter to the Thing I Wish I Had Written”

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