Many believe anti-Semitism is weaponised by Israel to silence its critics. But that shouldn’t make the Palestinian solidarity movement blind to anti-Semitism when it rears its head, say progressive Jewish voices.
In a CNN interview that went viral last month after he attended a special UN General Assembly session on Palestine, Pakistan’s top diplomat Shah Mahmoud Qureshi found himself in a bind after comments he made about Israel were condemned as anti-Semitic.
The controversy erupted when Qureshi told anchor Bianna Golodryga that Israel was losing “the media war, despite their connections,” to which Golodryga asked the Pakistani foreign minister what he meant by “connections.”
Qureshi laughed, then said: “Deep pockets.” When pushed again, he replied, “Well they [Israel] are very influential people. I mean, they control media.”
Golodryga responded saying, “I would call that an antisemitic remark.”
As Alexander Reid Ross points out, tropes around Jews controlling the media “are part of a long standing antisemitic tradition that claims Jews are controlling the minds of gentiles [non-Jews].”
“Antisemitism is not just a simple case of prejudice against Jews. It’s rooted in an entire worldview,” says Ross, fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and author of Against the Fascist Creep.
The debate around anti-Semitism and how it relates to Israel is one that has been fraught ever since its inception in 1948. And in 2021, it remains contested between the pro-Israel side who charge their detractors as being overt or covert anti-Semites, and those supporting the Palestinian cause who often see it used as an opportunistic tactic to silence criticism.
Can anti-Semitic intention be linguistically discerned or is it vague enough to be infinitely instrumentalised?
Indeed, there is ample evidence for how assertions of anti-Semitism are deployed to attack any form of solidarity and organising around Palestine.
31 US states have legislation in effect that are designed to curb the speech of Palestinian rights activists. The controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates any criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism as de facto anti-Semitic, has been adopted by six governments and calls have been made for social media companies to adopt the definition as well.
As leading figures of the Palestinian movement have pointed out, the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is a deliberate attempt to intimidate and silence the movement for Palestinian rights around the world. It is built on the false assumption that Zionism is synonymous with Judaism, and that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a religious movement, as opposed to a settler-colonial project.
With recent interventions like The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, scholars have worked to illuminate these distinctions between what language constitutes criticism of Israel and what ends up veering into anti-Semitism.
“To be anti-Zionist is not anti-Semitic,” says Alon-Lee Green, who is the director of Standing Together, a grassroots movement in Israel that organises Jews and Arabs around campaigns of social justice and peace.
“It is perfectly legitimate to criticise the Israeli government and the actions of a political movement,” he told TRT World.
We were back in Sheikh Jarrah today — Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis — and we’ll be back every week until we stop the displacement and dispossession of Palestinian families that settler organizations are trying to achieve.#SaveSheikhJarrah #SaveSilwan pic.twitter.com/meP1JMIq7d— עומדים ביחד نقف معًا Standing Together🟣 (@omdimbeyachad) May 28, 2021
Green added it would be unwise to ignore the joint struggle of Jews and Palestinians in Israel to change their political reality, and blur the lines between the Israeli people and its government.
“We should not identify all Jews and Israelis with the occupation. That’s what the [Israeli] right-wing wants.”
Much like there has been a dissenting tradition within Judaism constituted by heretical thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx and Sigmond Freud who forwarded powerful critiques of society, there has been a robust Jewish tradition when it comes to criticism of Israel.
Ideological opposition to Zionism as a movement emanated from four sources: Reform and Orthodox Jews on religious grounds; Jews who feared it would contradict their citizenship rights in existing homelands; liberal assimilated Jews who viewed it as separating them from non-Jews; and Jewish socialists who opposed it as a reactionary diversion from fighting anti-Semitism and defending the Jewish diaspora.
In recent times, among the strongest critics have been left-wing Jews like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Illan Pappe, who have regularly called out Israeli crimes against Palestinians by framing it as a political issue related to human rights, not religion.
And in the face of a long running campaign to cast the struggle against Israeli apartheid as a threat to Jews worldwide, a growing number in the diaspora are refusing to accept Israeli oppression against Palestinians in their name.
“The Jewish community has an inherited trauma of persecution, and anti-Semitism is on the rise globally, and both of these truths are played on to construct a discourse that suggests one must choose either Palestinian or Jewish freedom,” Em Hilton, a Jewish leftist activist, wrote last month.
While Hilton says there will be some who weaponise the Palestinian solidarity movement for anti-Semitic means, “we cannot let concern about hatred among a small minority overshadow this important opportunity for resistance and mobilization for Palestinian liberation.”
For Palestinians, Zionism is seen as an ongoing history of dispossession and cleansing from their land. Calling out Israel’s project of settler colonialism and apartheid, as described by international and Israeli human rights organisations alike, have given an even stronger legitimacy to the Palestinian movement.
However, calls by some to label Israel a “white supremacist” settler-colonial state falls short of being analytically useful. While it is true that white racists have long made common cause with Zionism, particularly the Christian-Zionist bloc in the US, this does not mean that Israel is a white supremacist state.
As Palestine Solidarity Campaign founding member Tony Greenstein countered, the major division within Israeli society is not between black and white, but between Jewish and non-Jewish.
Seeing Israel as a white colony in the Middle East is equally a reductive view, according to Yair Wallach, Senior Lecturer in Israeli Studies at SOAS, University of London.
“Settler colonialism is important to the analysis, but it is not the same as Canada or New Zealand. Over half the Israeli population does not come from Europe.”
Green observes attempts to paint Israel’s existence as illegitimate and that its citizens should go back to Europe, as counterproductive in the fight for equality between Israelis and Palestinians.
“My family doesn’t come from Poland or Ukraine,” he says. “I am not going anywhere, and neither are my friends and family. We were born in Israel; this is our only home. Palestinians are not going anywhere either.”
“This is not to say there were no historical injustices that took place against Palestinians. But we are here now to correct them.”
Green supports boycotting products from the illegal settlements, which the right-wing Israeli government has branded anti-Semitic. He believes the correct approach is to separate the issue of settlements from being connected with the whole Israeli population – which is what the ultranationalists want.
“It’s not a Jewish interest to occupy Palestine. Not all Jews think the same.”
Speaking to TRT World, Wallach makes it clear that it's absolutely legitimate to be critical of Zionism as a historical and political movement in terms of its justification and how it unfolded, and stand against it on that basis.
But he also questions whether applying that historic lens of anti-Zionism is useful moving forward. As the ideology underpinning the Israeli state, Zionism today can appear convoluted and lacking in specificity, Wallach notes.
For example, right-wing orthodox Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank don’t refer to themselves as Zionists, and Israel’s Nation State law – which codifies Jewish supremacy – doesn’t mention Zionism either.
Right vs Left anti-Semitism
For many Jews who advocate for Palestinian rights, the question of anti-Semitism is historically and politically complex, and a failure to adequately grapple with that complexity can end up being detrimental to the Palestinian cause.
It then becomes important to grasp the historic incarnations of anti-Semitism, what makes it different from other forms of racism, and how it continues to manifest in contemporary social and political life.
While there is overlap with other forms of bigotry like anti-Blackness or Islamophobia, anti-Semitism possesses a distinctive historical expression and functions in fundamentally different ways.
For centuries, (European) anti-Semitism has demonised the Jew as a conspiratorial and manipulative outsider, one primed with amorphous powers and posing a civilisational threat.
“It’s a complex geopolitical assumption where the Jews have connived a leading role in the destruction of the world,” Ross told TRT World.
'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', a fabricated text printed in Russia in the early 1900s that became a key part of Nazi propaganda, purports to document a meeting of Jewish leaders hatching plans for world domination through control over the media and subjugation of non-Jews.
It is how you get the trope of a single Jewish banking family, the Rothschilds, managing to exert power to control world events; one which finds new-age currency in the figure of billionaire Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, who is intertwined with racist discourses around refugees as the central figure orchestrating a “great replacement” of the white race.
Right-wing expressions of anti-Semitism are the most recognisable strain in global consciousness. For the far-right, Jews function as a racial and religious outsider, a parasite leaching on the national body politic; in the case of the Nazis, a problem that necessitated a “final solution” leading to a project of industrial extermination.
While the scapegoating of Jews to redirect popular anger by offering a simple explanation to a range of social or political phenomena is most organically rooted in far-right nationalism, parallel conspiratorial worldviews can appear across the political spectrum.
On the left, anti-Semitism has historically taken two forms.
The first is linked to early critiques of capitalism, where Jews were associated with finance. During the tectonic economic and social transformations brought about by industrialisation in 19th century Europe, the abstract yet disruptive forces of modern capitalist society became personified as the Jew, as argued by the Marxist theorist Moishe Postone.
This sort of fetishisation generated what Postone referred to as a “pseudo-emancipatory” form of anti-capitalism, which blamed the problems of capitalism not on its structure but on a shadowy Jewish plot instead.
A more contemporaneous strain of anti-Semitism on the left can also be expressed through a professed anti-Zionism.
As writer and filmmaker Shane Burley argues in his essay ‘Socialism of Fools’, while anti-Zionism itself is not inherently anti-Semitic, “the way in which anti-Zionism often plays out, the types of strategies it utilizes, the language it is comprised of, and the way it can place double standards on Jews, can certainly be.”
It’s a history that goes back to the USSR after the creation of Israel, which the Soviets saw as an imperialist beachhead in the Levant. Absorbed under a Stalinist geopolitical framework, any form of opposition to Israel was then affirmed as progressive.
Ross views it as a complicated matter, and one which can end up having questionable strategic outcomes like allying with regimes that peddle in Holocaust denial like Iran, or the Assad regime which pays lip service to the Palestinian cause while depopulating 160,000 Palestinians from its Yarmouk Camp in Damascus.
“You sometimes see anti-Semites will go a step further and claim that Israel is running an Anglo-imperialist alliance and is at the heart of a Jewish cabal bent on global domination, and we must be in solidarity with the so-called Axis of Resistance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas,” he says.
It is this crude anti-imperialism that is a red flag for Ross and can compromise anti-Zionism by leaving it open to charges of anti-Semitism.
“If people are one-sided on an issue insofar as they decry human rights violations by Israel, but refuse to decry human rights violations in Iran or Syria, then there is something unique about that worldview which makes it damning.”
Fundamentally, Ross says, it comes down to a question of solidarity. “Does solidarity with Palestinians mean solidarity with regimes that claim solidarity with Palestinians?”
Burley argues that anti-Semitism is often difficult to identify because it can get wrapped up with political narratives that are common within anti-Zionist discourse, where caricatures, assertions and conspiracy theories all compete for oxygen alongside legitimate criticism of the Israeli state.
Wallach refers to it as a “reservoir”; an underlying cultural heritage of anti-Semitism is particularly written into European societies, and so hardly surprising when it resurfaces even in progressive and liberation movements.
In Arab and Muslim countries, much of the motifs and language of anti-Semitism was imported from Europe during the late nineteenth century, says Wallach.
“While there were forms of anti-Jewish discrimination in Islamic history, it’s quite different from European anti-Semitism. It is superimposed with the legacy of colonialism, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the exodus of Jewish communities from the Arab world.”
As a result, Jews are “imaginary” in the Arab world and not part of the lived experience for these societies anymore, apart from a residual nostalgia.
Inoculating the Palestinian movement
Distinguishing between real and disingenuous accusations of anti-Semitism can be confusing, especially when there is a cottage industry of right-wing Israeli nationalist outfits like the Zionist Organization of America that smear people as anti-Semites upon any criticism of Israeli policy.
Furthermore, it can have the damaging effect of forcing pro-Palestinian organisations and activists to adopt a defensive culture and inadvertently provide cover for anti-Semitism under the cloak of cynicism, ultimately desensitising themselves to honest complaints says Burley.
“In many of our discussions about Israel, antisemitism is only examined as a diversionary claim in defense of Israeli atrocities, never as a sincere and accurate description,” he writes.
“When discussing an oppressive nationalist regime like Israel there can still be antisemitism, just as when Islamophobia clearly plays into condemnations of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.”
Wallach says the problem with anti-Semitic tropes like “Zionists control the media” is that it eschews “real politics or historical analysis like settler colonialism or apartheid” and instead views Israel through the lens of conspiracy.
“First, it misses the problem. Second, it's positioned in a context that contains risks to Jewish communities worldwide, rather than strictly on the Israeli state,” he explains.
As witnessed over the last month, large-scale protests in support of Palestine unfolded across the US and the world in response to Israel’s deadly aggression in Gaza, which left over 200 dead, including 61 children.
This included Jewish groups like Na’amod (British Jews Against Occupation) that have mobilised in solidarity with Palestinians across the diaspora and in Israel.
Tonight hundreds of British Jews rallied across the country to demand Freedom from Occupation and Freedom from Violence for all in Israel-Palestine.— Na'amod: British Jews Against Occupation 🐘 (@NaamodUK) May 19, 2021
This is unprecedented. Change is coming. #EndTheOccupation
Check out our nationwide protests ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/uyDcZ7iGrc
It also coincided an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, with threatening slurs yelled in a Jewish neighbourhood in London, Jewish patrons assaulted by demonstrators and synagogues vandalised in American cities.
The majority of leaders and organisations involved in Palestine solidarity demonstrations issued stark condemnations, highlighting the distinction between the Israeli government and Zionism in contrast to Jews and Judaism.
Certain anti-Semitic imagery and caricatures present at many protests were swiftly called out by pro-Palestinian Jewish activists too. Wallach mentioned that when anti-Semitism in the Palestine activism scene appears in the West, it almost never comes from Palestinians but from non-Palestinian activists.
Among the common tropes that are found were classical Christian anti-Semitic imagery of Jews as Christ-killers and blood libel.
Another provocative message often seen in the demonstrations, and popular on social media, revolved around the idea that Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them.
Example 3: Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them.— Ben Reiff (@bentreyf) May 23, 2021
There’s a lot that can be said about this. Firstly, that there are no shortage of other historical analogies to draw from besides the one that saw the industrialised murder of 6 million Jews... pic.twitter.com/0oIAyF0UeO
Wallach deconstructs this historical analogy as an attempt to sell revisionist narratives on the Holocaust. “If you flip the coin and say that the Jews are the Nazis, it takes the burden of guilt from Europe onto the Jew and relativises the Holocaust,” he says.
“It’s a suggestion that the Jews should have learned a lesson from the Holocaust, which doesn’t make any sense. Being a victim of a genocide isn’t an educational experience.”
Ultimately, the comparison with Nazism is a maneuver that is not really interested in Palestinians, but more so with Jews and how to compare them to “absolute evil”.
Given the legacy of the Holocaust looms large in global Jewish consciousness, Wallach says it’s important to unpack how post-traumatic attitudes can guide Israeli nationalists to justify the state of Israel as a guarantee against annihilation, a sentiment captured in historian Isaac Deutscher’s metaphor of Israel being a “lifeboat” in the wake of the Holocaust.
April Rosenblum believes it is incumbent upon anti-Zionists to productively engage with that legacy to prevent it from being hijacked by pro-Israel forces.
“Every time Jews experience danger in the world, it serves to justify Israel saying that all its actions are necessary to provide a safe place for the world’s Jews,” says Rosenblum, an Ashkenazi Jewish leftist raised in the US and author of a pamphlet on resisting anti-Semitism in progressive movements.
“That makes it a truly radical action when activists demand that Jews be made welcome and safe in all countries and that Jewish safety be a public priority of all Left movements,” she told TRT World.
An anti-Zionism without anti-Semitism, she adds, requires pro-Palestinian solidarity movements to link what Palestinians are experiencing with other international struggles and “call attention to imperialism and colonialism in every nation where it occurs.”
Jewish organiser Sophie Ellman-Golan said that “Jewish safety & Palestinian freedom are not opposing causes,” and that only the Right benefits from “pitting the causes of Palestinian freedom and Jewish safety against each other.”
In a similar vein, Palestinian activist Yousef Munayyer wrote, “what separates our struggle for freedom from Zionism is it is about securing our rights by not denying them to others. Anyone in solidarity with us must model that.”