By equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, freedom of expression is inhibited, and the results could eventually damage the very communities they seek to protect.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week he would introduce legislation to broaden the definition of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism.
"Our country, and for that matter all of Europe and most Western democracies, seems to be facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II," Macron said, addressing the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) after some yellow vest protestors made anti-Semitic comments. Of course, Macron was quick to blame it on “radical Islamists” in the poor neighbourhoods of France, besides the yellow vests.
Macron’s government will adopt the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which states that anti-Semitism includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
In May 2016, the IHRA adopted a legally non-binding working definition of anti-Semitism which had been approved by some states including Germany and Britain in 2016. The European Union, however, adopted a softer tone in 2018, calling the IHRA definition a “guidance tool” amid concerns from some member states that it could restrict freedom of speech regarding Israeli policies, particularly those related to Palestinians.
Anti-Zionism: a form of Anti-Semitism?
The attempt to link anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism brought much controversy and criticism by observers, some of them Jewish, who are legitimately concerned that freedom of speech would be at stake and that the Israeli government could manipulate these legislations to silence any voice criticising its violations and behaviour.
Linking criticism or even the essential rejection of Zionism, a political ideology based on settler-colonialism formulated mainly by the Austro-Hungarian Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century, to anti-Zionism is almost impossible to justify. What about the millions of Jews who don’t subscribe to Zionism or are anti-Zionist, would this make them anti-Semitic? A Zionist isn’t equivalent to a Jew, and neither does the Zionist need to be Jewish.
Zionism is an ideology that promoted the immigration of Jewish people, mainly from Europe, into Palestine through the help of the great powers of the day. However, because the land was inhabited by Palestinian Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, a comprehensive policy of forcing out the Palestinians was born, as was a legal framework for those who remained not to interrupt the Jewishness of the state.
The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), launched a report in March 2017 labelling Israel an apartheid state through the four-fold legal framework imposed on the Palestinians to ensure racial dominance. After immense pressure was put on the executive secretary of ESCWA, she resigned, and the report was eventually taken off the ESCWA website.
Besides the ESCWA, the UN General Assembly (UNGA), theoretically the world’s parliament, passed the UNGA Resolution 3379 in 1975 equating Zionism to racism and stating that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
It wasn’t until 1991 that it was revoked under direct pressure from George HW Bush when Israel had made the revocation of Resolution 3379 a condition for its participation in the Madrid peace talks. Two years earlier, the UNGA passed Resolution 3151 (XXVIII) that condemned, inter alia, the collusion between “the apartheid regime and Zionism”.
Anti-Semitism laws were introduced to protect Jewish communities from the severe discrimination they suffered. The intent of these laws for decades was never to protect certain Jews more than others.
What about the non-Zionist Jews, or those described as anti-Zionist? Of course, labels such as a “self-hating Jew” are ready and waiting on the shelf, but would they be considered as anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish? Would not that be similar to Daesh-minded people calling Muslims who do not subscribe to their version of Islam as disbelievers? Zionism is by no means an equivalent of Judaism, how else could we explain that there are non-Jewish Zionists?
Freedom of expression is at stake
Western democracies had a long and sometimes difficult march to democracy and upholding human rights, at the top of which lies freedom of expression; a pillar of democracy and a form of insurance to allow self-criticism in democratic societies. Taking freedom of expression for granted, or dealing with it over-selectively would risk opening the door for more and more restrictions that could eventually lead to a crippled democracy, where whatever someone might say could lead to them being tried and convicted in a ‘democratic’ judicial process.
Knowing that ‘any one’s freedom stops where that of another begins’, those who drafted the different conventions on civil and political rights placed necessary restrictions on those rights, including the right to freedom of expression. These restrictions were minimal, however, as they needed to be in the spirit of the purpose of these conventions.
Linking Zionism, or any political reflection of it, such as Israel, in any way to anti-Semitism, would have dire consequences on anyone’s freedom of expression, including academic freedom.
When Robert Faurisson questioned the use of gas in the Holocaust, he was tried and convicted for violating the Gayssot Act designed to prevent denial of crimes against humanity, and when he resorted to the Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Robert Faurisson v. France, Communication No. 550/1993) the Committee, though with some differing opinions, found that France did not violate Faurisson’s freedom of expression as, inter alia, it could be presumed “necessary in a democratic society” for the purpose of protecting the reputation of the Holocaust survivors and their ancestors, as well as maintaining respect for the Nuremberg Tribunal.
Having read that, we could think: how is opposing a human-made ideology equivalent to denying a crime against humanity? And then is preventing anyone from criticising committing a crime against humanity, a violation of the Gayssot Act, or at least its spirit?
When a Muslim organisation filed a case against Charlie Hebdo accusing it of abusing its freedom of expression and putting Muslim minorities’ freedom of religion (all protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights) at risk, the French court ruled against them and ascertained that the magazine was acting within the limits of their freedom of expression. So how are we supposed to reconcile this ruling with the above mentioned?
There are those who argue that those who attack Israeli policies or Zionism do it in the intention of harming Jewish communities and hence it should be considered as a first step of falling into anti-Semitism.
Assuming that is true, this argument is legally and rationally profoundly flawed. Again, Zionism is no synonym for Judaism. Legally, a crime has two elements; mens rea (the intent) and actus reus (the act, or external element).
So are we supposed to believe that crime can take place simply by the thought or the intent without the act?
For Macron, a president facing an existential challenge to his rule following the mass yellow vests protests, one could say diverting the attention from that, or labelling the protests as anti-Semitic would help him gain more legitimacy. But the context is much broader I believe.
After around seven decades of the establishment of Israel with the pressure on its successive governments to reach a political solution with the Palestinians, the rules of the game have changed. Palestinians stand all alone with no negotiating power, whereas Israel stands as the only stable country in the middle of a troubled region, with the world’s superpower as its guardian.
This is a perfect equation for Netanyahu and his far-right coalition. Now, a solution could be reached with the Palestinians, but also without the Palestinians.
Within Palestine, more starvation, followed by a temporary softening of the siege on Gaza, along with containing the efforts of Abbas, helps. Outside Palestine, cracking down on any voice that poses real support for Palestinian rights or disturbs Netanyahu’s peace of mind seems to be an interesting choice. Lately, we have heard of a wave of legislation against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement across the US, violating the constitutionally protected freedom of expression, and we have listened to voices wanting to export this solution to Europe.
Eventually, who pays the price?
It is quite obvious that the pro-Palestinian rights activists would be the first to be negatively affected by such laws that would undermine their freedom of expression and reluctant to advance their cause. Free speech activists could be partially affected too.
On the other side of the equation, contrary to expectations, this approach would certainly harm Jewish communities worldwide, particularly in democratic societies. Going too far in restricting freedom of expression and cracking down on pro-Palestinian activists would in the long run severely backfire.
First, linking criticism of Israel to Jews would, wrongly, be translated by many as connecting its violations (that no legally orchestrated monitoring system could hide) to Jewish communities too. If it keeps going that far, we might one day hear voices asking Jews to apologise for Israeli behaviour and have Jews trying to deny their relations to Israel in a way that would remind us of how Muslim minorities, in the same shoes too, were asked to apologise for Daesh.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance seems to have been, justifiably, concerned about that when they drafted the text to include as a form of anti-semitism: “[A]ccusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group.”
Moreover, it would dangerously reinforce anti-Semitic hatred and indirectly provide material for those who want to question the loyalty of Jewish communities. It would reinforce the notion that Jews are exceptional people who need special laws for them, that might clash with other people’s rights; freedom of expression in this context.
Finally, broadening the definition would make it lose its value and respect among people who would certainly find no reason why they cannot criticise an illegal behaviour by a particular state or a specific ideology.
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