Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, began his program in July 2014 with a segment discussing the Israel-Gaza Conflict. In the art of satire, his correspondents immediately surrounded him, yelling incomprehensibly in parody of American political rhetoric, resulting with him settling on discussing the ‘lighter’ topic of Crimea’s annexation from the Ukraine.
While comedy and late night shows often get discredited due to their political bias and satirical element, there was something fascinatingly poignant about this Israel piece. Few can argue - though exaggerated for comical reasons - that it acted out a real and problematic issue in society. A debate on anti-semitism is certainly happening, and has been happening for a while. This debate is usually a melange of whether Israel has the right to exist, the intense focus on Israeli affairs compared to other world issues, whether Zionism is inherently linked to the racism or if that implication is itself anti-semitic and so on. All of these count as framing the discussion of what is considered anti-semitic in today’s society. And though all debates require a division of opinion, none attract as much anger and noise and inability to progress through issues quite like the 21st century debate on Israel, Jewish integration into society, and anti-semitism.
In what is promoted by both sides as a highly emotional disagreement, a thorough understanding of these issues gets lost amongst the passion. Once the noise dies down, a contextualised, academic reflection on them is possible, but this is rarely offered and rarely available to us. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party might well have an ‘anti-semitic problem’, but what does the word itself mean? Would a better understanding of it mean criticism of Israeli policy can be better acknowledged? Who is taking offense? On what grounds is that offense caused? Who are offending Jews deliberately? How do you navigate the conversation properly to discuss actual political matters? Are we actually having a debate about anti-semitism, or about something else?
The Debate We Are Having.
I generously title this section as a ‘debate’, but I do so with a loose understanding of the term. Jon Stewart’s segment correctly identified the lack of a genuine debate on Israel's policies in the media, and no matter how important the issues which we are discussing are, to describe them as a ‘thoughtful debate’ is perhaps not accurate.
The contemporary issue is Corbyn and the Labour Party. The debate specifically is ‘do they have a problem with anti-semitism?’ In certain corners of the public space the question might even be ‘are they anti-semitic?’ In Dave Rich’s take on the ‘Left’s Jewish Problem’, he begins by stating that ‘these trends on the left long predate Corbyn’s leadership and stretch well beyond the Labour Party’. The crisis - as Rich calls it - is due to the contradiction of a political stance which describes itself as anti-racist, yet whose default position has become a strong opposition to Israel and Zionism. Corbyn himself has come under fire for showing support for the creator of an anti semitic mural in 2012. Various Jewish groups have accused him of ‘siding with anti semites’, a call back to questions he received upon becoming leader.
The accusations have strong legitimacy in their concerns, especially to the Jewish community, and to understand this we must consider Rich’s assertion that ‘most British Jews feel a personal, emotional or spiritual connection to Israel’. Acknowledging this allows us to identify why they feel so aggrieved. Corbyn has accepted multiple links to documented anti semites and holds passionate views on Palestinian rights as well as being a vocal critic of the state of Israel. In addition to this, a number of high profile Labour MPs, councillors and members have been accused of clear cases of using anti semitic language. In March, Corbyn apologised for the ‘pain caused by the surfacing of anti-semitism in the Labour Party’, and acknowledged on behalf of the party that he had been too slow in condemning, and stamping out those issues.
To deny that many of these matters are clear examples of anti-semitism, such as Alan Bull, former Labour candidate for Peterborough who was suspended for sharing a Facebook post declaring the Holocaust was a hoax - is an example of refusing to engage on the subject of what anti-semitism is, even in the face of a passionate and justifiable support for Palestinian rights. Some actions are beyond the pale.
But these examples of clear anti-semitism are not what this article is about. I am going to move forward with the assumption that anybody reading this is aware that Holocaust denial, or describing the Jewish community using Nazi propaganda imagery are examples of rhetoric which is simply unacceptable in today’s society.
This article is about the conversation we are not having. As according to reports, anti semitic incidents are rising, and if the Chakrabarti report is correct in suggesting that there is ‘too much clear evidence of ignorant attitudes’ in the Labour party which lead to anti-semitism (a suggestion which could easily be spread to society in general), it might be necessary to now engage in that conversation.
The Debate We Are Not Having.
Let's agree on what we disagree
Shortly following Ken Livingstone’s suspension from the Labour party in April 2016, BBC’s flagship debate program The Big Question decided to air an extremely relevant episode titled ‘Is anti-Zionism anti-semitic?’ Unfortunately, the entire episode became a disagreement about issues masked as definitions, without once actually discussing the different definitions themselves. This is systematic of similar debates, where the conversation can never effectively begin because both parties engage in a semantic debate without touching on the semantics themselves.
Anthony Ostrin, committee member for inter-faith matters at West Hampstead Synagogue in London, told me what Zionism means to him. ‘It is the support of a Jewish state, run by Jews for the benefit of Jews. However, I think that Zionism, achieved its aim by the state of Israel being set up in 1948’. Anthony describes himself as ‘an average Jew’ and not ‘somebody of authority’. It is an interesting analysis of our society today that we look to certain individuals to inform us on public opinion, rather than value the opinion of the public themselves. Despite there being many high profile Jewish voices in politics and the media, the voice of ‘the average Jew’ is often hard to find.
Take for example, the rhetoric of Israeli president, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, only a few years ago stated: "The state of Israel [...] is the nation state of one people only – the Jewish people – and of no other people.’ Such a stance, and the connotations it brings regarding the Palestinian people, lights the match for a firework of pointless debate. Anthony’s definition of Zionism presents us with an opportunity for a progressive discussion, where Jewish identity and political discourse have linked, but identifiable different paths. This was strongly supported by a report in 2015 of British Jews, detailing that 93% of people polled said they support Israel’s right to exist, while 64% considered they ‘have the right to judge Israel and its policies’. Such a point is surely a better place to start the discussion.
On the other side of what, from afar, looks like a raging shouting contest, are those who maintain a firm anti-Zionist approach in support of the Palestinian people. What Rich describes as a broadly ‘mainstream left-wing [movement]’, it is a position largely supported in the UK, with a poll last year showing 53% of people polled believed the UK should recognise Palestine as a state. Oliver Vargas, co-chair of Sheffield University Palestinian Society does not fit the pantomime shouting role you might expect having tuned into The Big Questions. Passionate, but calm and composed, he points me in the direction of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance website for their definition of anti-semitism, one he broadly agrees with. The definition is as follows:
“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The definition extends to include insinuations of Jews conspiring to harm humanity, employing sinister stereotypes and negative character traits. Oliver also adds that, to his understanding, ‘a lot of this isn’t actually simply saying I hate x’, a lot of it is more tropes, use of stereotypes, which there are many people who also haven’t had an education in’. This opinion is supported by the Chakrabarti report as well as many accused on using anti-semitic language citing ‘ignorance’ as their explanation.
Though in a debate we naturally try to remain focused on how we’re different, it’s important to note how some issues go further than a binary black and white disagreement. Oliver regards zionism as ‘a political ideology’, something which suggests the term cannot exist outside it’s political significance, but it is interesting to draw a link to what many of the Jewish community could agree with, that Zionist rhetoric can be politicised. A lot depends on delivery, so declaring Zionism to be ‘a colonialist ideology’ might be immediately offensive to Jews, though exploring the question with more thoughtfulness might yield different results. Anthony initially rejected the colonialism comparison, but after a pause, suggested ‘In Britain, the mandate it had between 1917 and 1948, I suppose to a point, in that time, it could be considered as colonialism. But now, if the state want us [the diaspora] to go there to help make up the numbers - that then becomes an Israeli political issue. I don’t believe that is the same as saying Zionism itself can be used for political means’.
The voices of the monopoly, and the nutters.
Shortly before Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, the Jewish Chronicle ran a piece which began with the following text:
The JC rarely claims to speak for anyone other than ourselves. We are just a newspaper. But in this rare instance we are certain that we speak for the vast majority of British Jews in expressing deep foreboding at the prospect of Mr Corbyn’s election as Labour leader.
Though a separate debate could establish if the points raised in the article were justifiable concerns or not, it is interesting to note how the JC felt comfortable to suggest they speak for the ‘vast majority of British Jews’. Certainly, election results show that Corbyn is unpopular among the Jewish community, (the 2017 election figure as low as 14%) but such a phrase can likely reject any indication that there might be different set of Jewish voices to listen to too. It does not seem an exaggeration to describe the JC as a monopoly of Jewish opinion in the UK media, seeing as a 2014 report showed that it was regularly read by 156,000 people, equivalent to 67% of UK Jews. It was therefore telling that in April, when Corbyn spent passover with a local left-wing Jewish group Jewdas, that mainstream media outlets attacked the group, led by the Daily Mail describing them as ‘a hate-filled group that mocks Judaism’ and Andrew Neil calling them ‘nutters’. The implication was that there is such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ type of Jew, and that a group which had radical views and which supported Corbyn belonged in the latter category.
Jewdas released a furious response to such suggestions, stating that ‘Then our communal leaders will rally together and tell all the Jews who disagree to shut up [...] and proclaim all the Jews who still disagree are not really Jews. [...] Already now, the Chronicle is flipping its lid that a politician has acknowledged the existence of a Jewish group that isn’t on their list of ‘correctly Jewish’ organisations.’ Once again, whether Jewdas’ stance on issues are deemed correct or not is another journalist’s problem. The key takeaway from this is despite the reality of a diverse community, we’re encouraged to view them all as the same, with the same opinions and the same fears. A healthier debate - while still weighed appropriately according to opinion - would surely show both the Jewish and the wider community that British Jews hold as diverse views as the rest of us.
This is a recurring issue within the Jewish community, with zionism and the validity of the state of Israel proving to be the biggest division amongst them. Anti-Zionist Jews have been criticised and discredited by fellow Jews, as well as by the extreme right. Valerie Cocks, the former head of Labour Friends of Israel, called Jon Lansman ‘the worst anti semitic Jew I have ever seen,’ and that “the Jewish enemies” are always worse. In 2005, Israeli professor Ilan Pappe was forced to resign from his post at Haifa University for endorsing the international academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The Jerusalem Post declared that Bernie Sanders ‘hates Israel’ due to comments he made in the 2016 U.S. election about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is equally correct to point out that the rhetoric used by anti-Zionists can often creep into anti-semitism territory, such as using ‘Stop the Holocaust in Gaza’ placards. A 2017 article in The Forward asked 25 American Rabbis What is one thing Jews need to stop doing? ‘Infighting’ came out on top.
At the same time, the intensity to which both the Jewish and the mainstream media covered the Labour party pointed to a different problem. When I asked Anthony for his thoughts on the subject he stated that ‘At the moment I think it’s being very well reported to be quite frank. Incidents of anti-semitism are reported when they haven’t been so in the past. The press needn’t have reported anything at all and just left it alone. We know these things are happening, but it is usually very hard to fight for them unless other people are hearing about them’. A valid counter-argument would be why, when such incidents in other political parties occur, they are not reported with as much ferocity? Incidents such as when Tory MP Aidan Burley dressed up as a Nazi for a stag party in 2011. It is an important question about how anti-semitism is being reported on the whole, not a use of whataboutery, but this still shouldn’t take away from the fact that highlighting the issue is important, especially seeing that hate incidents against Jewish people is rising.
The Political Lines We Cross
So now it is clear that there are two thought processes to consider if we are going to enter into a thoughtful debate. The first is understanding what the terms we use mean and navigating the discussion without offending a whole community, and second is - having done that - clearly identifying political points if we have any and if they are relevant.
The current issue is a fascinating example. A discussion which should run alongside the criticism of the Labour Party - alongside, and not instead of - is if there is any political background for such an onslaught of investigative reporting? In April, 42 senior academics signed a letter complaining what they saw as an ‘anti-Corbyn bias’ in the media coverage over the anti-semitism issue. They concluded that ‘the debate on anti-semitism has been framed in such a way as to mystify the real sources of anti-Jewish bigotry and instead to weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections’. The points they raise are worthy of consideration, stating how major outlets have reported the story in such a way as to suggest that anti-semitism is a bigger problem within the Labour party than as a country as a whole (whereas reports contradict this), that there is a distinct lack of Jewish voices reported who support Corbyn, a lack of relevant context explaining possible motivations for his political critics and that the media does not spend any time discussing the rise of anti-semitism in Europe, especially places like Hungary. It is important to highlight these points, because if the desire is to effectively combat the rise of anti-semitic attitudes, why have the daily number of published stories on the subject rarely, if ever touched on this? With this in mind, what is the political benefit of such a collaboration of partisan suspect media?
The slippery slope that a discussion of politics invites however, is a comparison with one of the most common forms of anti-semitism; the conspiracy of Jews controlling aspects of society. This leads back to extreme examples of anti-semitism, spefifically The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1903 text describing how the Jewish people had a plan for global domination. The Protocols and linked texts have been used by many people to validate persecution of Jews including the Soviets under Stalin and the Nazis. It is a serious link to make and alarm bells rightly should ring when anybody starts to go down that road. Similarly, Holocaust Denial is another certain indication that the person in question is in the same category of thought. These are points often agreed on all sides, from Anthony to Oliver, to Netanyahu, to Noam Chomsky.
Bearing these points strongly in mind, the question to ask is why do many Palestinian supporters step over the line deliberately, link the Holocaust and conspiracy ideas to the Palestinian cause, resulting in offence and enragement for many in the Jewish community?
There are three possible explanations for the use of Holocaust comparisons. The first, simply, is that they mean it. The possibility should never be absent from any suspicion, and educated, deliberate anti-semitism is by no means a rarity. The second, is that the speakers see a validating point to the comparison. In 2002, Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago suggested that Israel were ‘evoking the spirit of Auschwitz’ in its West Bank policies. In December 2016, Ecuadorian official made the same point, saying that there is 'nothing more similar' to Nazis than Israel policy towards Palestinians. Reduced to its simplicity, the route of this argument lies in the joining of both issues under the notion of ‘ethnic cleansing’. However, as the anti-Zionist Professor Moshé Machover remarks in the Big Questions episode, such a comparison is ‘needlessly hyperbole, and unnecessarily provocative’. There is a strong argument to be made on the Israeli government’s position in this matter, one that many Jews actually are critical of too, but this argument is lost immediately when, taken upfront, comes across as nothing more than blatant anti-semitism. The third is when they know it is not a valid comparison, but know doing so will have a shock value. Controversial American Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein explains the tactic: ‘you make the analogy with the Nazis, because that was the only thing that resonated for Jews. If you compared the Palestinians to Native Americans, nobody would give a darn.’
A similar breakdown can work on the subject of ‘the conspiracy of Jews’. There are some who genuinely believe there’s an international conspiracy of Jews intent on global domination. Others, attempt to make sensible points but ruin them with suggestions of Jews running world order, comments which are either disturbingly ignorant or deliberate, both can easily be seen as anti semitic. Using such language is a woeful contributor to the debate, as there are important political points to be raised here. The Israeli lobby in the United States has long been accepted as a a wielder of significant influence in Congress, and similar criticisms have been made about its role and influence in British politics. When these points are careless in their construction, it becomes easy to dismiss them as anti-semitic. It is also a tactic which supporters of Israeli policy often exploit to limit conversation, Oliver suggesting that they ‘take advantage of and cast a massively wide net’, reducing the ability to criticise.
A Consideration of Sensitivities
The last point to consider, is perhaps the most important one. Why is it that such accusations offend many in the Jewish community so much that debate is lost before it has had a chance to begin?
‘We have a background of persecution. We’re aware all the time of potential persecution. We are forever conscious of it due to our history’. There is no panic or worry displayed by Anthony as he tells me this, he remains as calm and composed as he has done throughout the interview, but there is a deep seriousness in his voice here, an implication that these words are a reality that he has had to carry with him throughout his life.
A study from New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 2015 suggested how Holocaust survivors had passed the trauma of the experience down to their children. Even though the study has its critics due to its attempt to use epigenetics to explain transgenerational trauma, it is difficult to not recognise how being part of a minority group (0.5% of the UK population) which has been persecuted for centuries would not affect subsequent generations. Peter Wilby of The New Statesman wrote in 2002: ‘They no longer routinely suffer gross or violent discrimination; indeed, in the US and Europe at least, Jews today are probably safer than most minorities. But the Holocaust remains within living memory, as do the language and the iconography used by the Nazis to prepare the way for it. We have a special duty of care not to revive them.’
Holocaust education is now a legal requirement in the English National Curriculum. Before the 1980s this was not the case, and as Rich explains ‘until this time, there was little or no education in schools and universities about the Holocaust, and public commemoration, even by the Jewish community, was on a small scale’. It is therefore a fair point to make, that an understanding of the Jewish trauma might be slightly less evident to those not well educated in the subject, but this has become an increasingly limited defence with the multitude of commemorations, museums and films in the last twenty years.
It is a clear conclusion, based on the motivation for this entire article, that the significance of the Holocaust or the understanding behind the Jewish community’s fear of persecution should not be an automatic obstacle to a progressive and fruitful debate on important, contemporary subjects. But a consideration of sensitivities, of history, of semantics, and a well-structured argument respectful of these issues are crucial points to adopt in pursuit of such a conversation. It is hard to predict if this debate is possible, though considering the lack of reporting on the rise of anti-semitism in Eastern Europe and an extremely vocal American government in support of one side, it’s future looks problematic at best. In the meantime, while duped into believing we’re engaging in a useful debate on the subject, the plurality of voices have become binary. It is our duty as conversational framers to reverse this, and start listening to and understanding one another.
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