What does anti-semitism mean?

 

We would all agree that hatred or dislike based on something fundamental that individuals are unable to change is always unacceptable – whether it be skin colour or some form of disability or any other characteristic outside their control. None of the allegations about anti-Semitism in the labour party fall into this category.

 

The problem with religious discrimination is that it involves criticism not of what someone is, but of what they believe – and in the interests of free speech, we need to stress that the right to criticise the beliefs of others is legitimate and should be protected. The alleged cases of anti-Semitism do not take this form either.

 

We are instead dealing with Labour party members expressing views about the policy and conduct of the state of Israel, both within it’s own borders and, more particularly, within the territories that it has illegally occupied since 1967. We are all presumably in agreement that the policies and practices of the Government of Israel must be a legitimate field of debate within a national political party that has to articulate policy positions on all current international and national questions.

 

The accusation of anti-Semitism thus derives from the fact that Israel is the only majority jewish state, and that for many jews the state of Israel as a homeland for jewish people is a core component of their jewish identity. This dual identity inevitably leads to the potential for confusion when the behaviour of the state attracts criticism.

 

The issue then comes down to questions about how individual party members have chosen to prosecute the discussion. There is a spectrum:-

i. Open and civilised debate of the issues is presumably acceptable to all of us, using facts and analysis that are open to challenge.

ii. Deliberate lies and mis-representation are clearly not acceptable, though they are all too typical of the current level of political discourse in the UK. Where facts are contested of course it can be difficult to distinguish case i from case ii.

iii. Social intimidation of those holding different views should never be acceptable. We may dislike what others have to say, but should protect their right to say it.

iv.The more extreme ends of the spectrum of discrimination, involving physical assault or worse have not been alleged, although it could perhaps be argued that a discriminatory environment dangerously lowers the taboos and barriers that protect individuals from the risk of assault.

 

If we apply this framework to the three cases that have recently attracted most attention, they seem to fall into the category of legitimate discussion of the policies of the Israeli state.

 

In the case of Naz Shah, there are two separate facebook allegations, neither of them in my view straying outside the bounds of legitimate political debate.

 

The post which was the proximate cause of her resignation showed a picture of Israel superimposed over the United States, with the comment: “Problem solved and save you bank charges for the £3bn you transfer yearly.” In comments below, Shah said she would tweet Barack Obama and David Cameron with the suggestion and said it would “save them some pocket money”.

It is obvious that this was not intended as a serious political suggestion. It was a satirical comment on the close US-Israel relationship, and the financial support that enables Israel to continue to be militarily dominant in the region. Critics of Israel would argue that it is US financial support that has enabled Israel to ignore all pressure to negotiate a settlement. It is not necessary to agree with this view to accept that it is legitimate to hold it. The original post that Shah was re-tweeting did not come from some jew hating extremist site, but from Professor Norman Finkelstein. He is described in Wikipedia as “an American political scientist, activist, professor, and author. His primary fields of research are the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust, an interest motivated by the experiences of his parents who were Jewish Holocaust survivors.”

 

It may be a poor joke, but it is hardly anti-semitic, and nobody was harmed by her comments. Had it been a serious suggestion to forcibly transport the inhabitants of Israel to the US it would of course have been offensive, but it was clearly no such thing.

 

Other re-posts and comments by Naz Shah make the following points:-

 

  1. “The reality is that through its historical and current colonial project the Zionist apparatus in Tel Aviv and globally continues to enact policies and practices that are deeply inhumane, that are unequal and have created physical realities that have left the mantra of Tony Blair precisely what it was meant to be an ‘(un)viable two state solution’.”
  2. During the Gaza conflict, Ms Shah posted a link on Facebook to a newspaper poll asking whether Israel had committed war crimes. She wrote: “The Jews are rallying to the poll.” And then called on people to vote “yes”.

iii. Naz Shah claimed that no Israeli children had been killed by stone throwing Palestinians.

 

The first point is certainly well within the realms of legitimate political debate. There is widespread agreement in the academic literature that the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements has resulted in a reality on the ground that makes a two state solution now unviable.

 

The argument that Israel committed war crimes is also hardly controversial. During the Second Intifada, the UN Commission on Human Rights reported “widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the Israeli occupying power, in particular mass killings and collective punishments, such as demolition of houses and closure of the Palestinian territories, measures which constitute war crimes, flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity.”[138] In 2014 Amnesty released a report with similar findings, criticizing Israel for excessive and reckless use of force for which Israeli soldiers are not held accountable. Amnesty said characteristics of the violence suggested it was employed as a matter of policy, and that there was evidence some killings amounted to war crimes.[171]

 

The third point could be argued to be a case of mis-representation by Ms Shah, as there does appear to have been one such case. However, even if true, the critical point (as Ken Livingstone pointed out) is the enormous disparity in the body count with far more Palestinians killed than Israelis.

 

Were any of her tweets or comments anti-semitic?

 

I would say they are not. It was perhaps careless to refer to ‘the jews’ voting in support of Israel rather than more precisely suggesting that Israeli supporters were highly motivated to vote. However, all of the comments are concerned with the conduct of the Israeli state, and have nothing to do with personal hatred of jews. If anyone is guilty of deliberate mis-representation it is those who are making the accusations of anti-semitism.

 

The deliberate identification of an opposition to the Zionist project with anti-semitism is made explicit in comments by Joan Ryan, Labour Friends of Israel chair, who said: “This incident underlines yet again the need for the Labour Party to take urgent action to combat antisemitism and anti-Zionism in all its forms.” The two are however clearly quite different things. Zionism was a political movement to establish a homeland for the jewish people. It was a legitimate aim, but aspects of the way in which it was in practice carried out, with expulsions of Arabs without compensation or right of return, continue to be problematic, as does the continued expansion of illegal settlements.

 

The second case relates to Oxford University Labour Club. A decision by the club to support Israeli Apartheid Week, which seeks to highlight Israel’s “ongoing settler-colonial project and apartheid policies over the Palestinian people”, has angered some Labour MPs, who have called for the party to dissociate itself from OULC. Louise Ellman, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said: “I am deeply disturbed by the news that Oxford University Labour Club has decided to support Israeli Apartheid Week and by the revelations from Alex Chalmers about the troubling tone of the discourse in which this debate appears to have been conducted.” She said comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa were “a grotesque smear and the Labour party should dissociate itself from them”.

 

The allegedly ‘grotesque smear’ has a prestigious pedigree.Israeli treatment of non-Israelis in territories occupied by Israel for nearly fifty years, has been compared to South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during the apartheid era by the Congress of South African Trade Unions,[148], by former US President Jimmy Carter,[149], by archbishop Desmond Tutu and by Michael Ben-Yair, attorney-general of Israel.[150] In 2009, South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council released a 300-page study that concluded that Israel practiced colonialism and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.[151]The accusation of anti-semitism appears to be unfounded unless all of these prestigious individuals and bodies are also guilty of it.

 

The final case is that of Ken Livingstone. The most annoying thing about his intervention is that it kept a damaging debate going and escalated it at a time when efforts should have been focused on the coming elections. However, for what it is worth, he appears to be factually largely correct in what he says, and again it is difficult to see how his comments can be taken as evidence of anti-semitism. He said that Hitler initially wanted to expel the jews because he hated them and that his officials held discussions with the Zionists to that end. He did not suggest that the Zionists supported Hitler, nor did he suggest that Hitler was anything but repugnant in his attitude to the jews. His comments were in answer to a question, and were largely irrelevant to the debate on anti-semitism.

 

His other points were to draw attention to Israeli brutality towards Palestinians including the gross disparity in the body count, and the tendency of the pro-Israel lobby to label anyone criticising Israel as anti semitic. All of which is fair comment.

 

My conclusion is that there may have been some unguarded language used at times, but the cases that have received such publicity and had dire consequences for the individuals were of startling triviality and were not evidence of anti-semitism. They are explained perhaps by common cause among those wishing to damage Jeremy Corbyn, and those wishing to deflect all criticism of Israel.

 

The startling thing is that the ‘Labour Friends of Israel’ receive so little criticism for their support of a regime that has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and of imposing unacceptable levels of suffering on the inhabitants of the occupied territories. As a labour party member, I am hurt and offended by labour party members appearing to defend the indefensible, and bringing my party into disrepute by associating it with a regime that has a long history of oppressing the rights of the Palestinian people. That is the real issue. A little mild upset or irritation experienced by some party members because of strongly worded criticism of the conduct of a foreign power seems utterly trivial in comparison with the lethal and discriminatory behaviour by Israel that her critics seek to highlight.. The accusations of anti-Semitism seem to be contrived in my view to stifle a debate that needs to be brought into the open. There are indeed examples of unacceptable bullying within the labour party, but they are not coming from those now accused of anti-Semitism, but from those who are making the accusations to silence necessary debate.

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