An edited version of this article appears in New Internationalist, October 2004
A couple of years ago it surprised and encouraged me to find other Jews in Britain who opposed the Israeli occupation in Palestine, and had the courage to speak out against the policies of the Sharon government. Through the strength of their Jewish identity and their commitment to peace and justice worldwide, they helped me to work through the pain and confusion of my own emotions around the issue, and find a voice to speak out and act clearly, without feeling that I was betraying my community or the history of my people. It has only been in recent months that I’ve found the courage to speak to some of my Jewish and gentile friends within the Palestine solidarity community, and the broader anti-globalisation/anti-war movement, about the difficulties I have experienced speaking and working, as a Jew, within that movement. And to name that experience: anti-Jewish racism, or Judeophobia.
The first time I joined the struggle for Palestinian rights was at a rally in Trafalgar square in 2002. Here was a place that I could be anonymous yet stand up in solidarity for what I believed in. I watched in horror, however, as the reactions unfolded to an Israeli-Jewish peace activist who took the platform. “The occupation is terror”, she said. “It breeds despair in the hearts of young Palestinian boys and girls. But the suicide bombings are not helping the Palestinian struggle. Whoever is sending these kids – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or Tanzim – plays into the hands of Sharon”. Perfectly reasonable sentiments, I thought. Not, it seems for a group of young Muslim fundamentalists, some of them with empty toilet rolls strapped around their stomachs like dynamite, surged forward throwing bottles at the podium and chanting “Scud Scud Israel, Gas Gas Tel Aviv” and – though only in Arabic – “Death to Jews”. What shocked me more, however, was to see that woman struggle on with her speech, unsupported. No one sitting on the platform raised a finger to challenge such blatant racism. When she stepped down, the Chair took the microphone from her commenting, “Well not all of us agree with the last speaker…”.
I hesitated for some time before approaching the issue again, utterly confused. I know many British Muslims deplore suicide bombings and support a peaceful solution, but maybe I was naïve to think that all social justice activists who support the Palestinian struggle, would condemn the violence on both sides, and be committed to challenge all forms of racism and oppression in society. The overwhelming feeling that I got from the mainstream British Left that day was not so much solidarity with the Palestinians as virulent hostility towards Israel, and by extension towards any Jew who didn’t express shame to be one, or utterly reject a Jewish state.
The notion of racism against the Jewish people has been so exclusively linked to the Holocaust that its more subtle and everyday manifestations often pass people by. Of course Jews are not being carted off to the gas chambers, and thankfully in Britain the actual incidents of racist attacks on people and buildings are rare. However, there are instances, especially around the Israel/Palestine issue, where attitudes and expressions of Judeophobia often surface. To clarify: criticism of Israeli policy is not Judeophobic. The way in which it is conducted, however, sometimes is. Judeophobia is present in careless and inflammatory language, in “black and white” attitudes that polarise the debate, in gross insensitivities to Jewish concerns and collective memory, in the level of hatred expressed towards Jews and Israelis and, on top of it all, in a blanket denial that the problem exists.
Perhaps predictably, a lot of the tensions revolve around the Holocaust, and the failure to realise how deep and unresolved a pain it is for my community. My grandfather tells vivid stories of how, as a young Jewish British seaman transporting Holocaust survivors from Odessa to Marseilles, he gave his coat to the starving and penniless Otto Frank, Auschwitz survivor and father of Anne Frank. Her diary was my companion in my own adolescence. This bright young woman, so enchanted and prescient about the world around her, died a horrible death of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp aged fifteen because she was Jewish. Of course I grew up thinking that if I had been born forty years earlier in Europe, that would have been me. Of course I get emotional when I feel disrespect around this very real pain.
In certain circles on the Left, talking about the Holocaust elicts nothing but groans and sighs – its called “Holocaust fatigue”. There are various ‘stock’ responses to any discussion on the Holocaust, which seem to dismiss the whole experience out of hand – “Yes it was terrible but, it was used by the Zionist leaders as an excuse for the foundation of the illegitimate Jewish state of Israel on land stolen from the Palestinians”. “How can you talk about the pogroms and Nazism when Palestinians being ritually humiliated and killed by Israeli soliders just because they are Palestinian?” Yet within those same circles, very deliberate comparisons are made between the current situation in Palestine and the Holocaust. A banner equating a Star of David with a Swastika. Cartoons of Israeli soldiers in SS uniforms.
I have been to Palestine several times over the last couple of years and seen the appalling situation with my own eyes. It is a massive over-simplication to say that the Israelis are repeating history and have “become the Nazis”, yet some Palestine Solidarity activists constantly make that comparison. It is as though the Jews, as a collectivity, must be punished for the behaviour of the Israeli state by the use of inflammatory symbols and language, and a widespread denial of our experience of persecution. It taps into a deep trauma that immediately and inevitably puts me on the defensive. This is ironic, because I really don’t want to be saying anything in defence of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.
Five million Jews live in Israel today, many have a deep emotional connection to the place they were born in and call home. This emotional connection to the “land of Israel” has been a profound part of our consciousness through history. A connection that I too have felt through my upbringing as a Reform Jew. I remember, as a 16 year old, feeling the weight of what it means to be Jewish, and my responsibility for the continuity of the Jewish people, when for the first time I put my palm on the cool stones of the Western Wall, all that remains of the second Temple in Jerusalem.
Whilst some people seem to find a simple solution to the conflict in arguing “all the Jews should leave Palestine and go home”, this taps into the same emotional defensiveness for me. Where exactly are my Israeli relatives supposed to go? There is no home for them in the Central and Eastern Europe that they fled. What about the 150,000 Iraqi Jews who fled to Israel to escape persecution from the 1940’s onward? They didn’t move to Israel to oppress the Palestinian people, they were displaced refugees fleeing persecution with nowhere else to go. They were, as much as the Palestinians, victims of the colonial and imperial interests that were driving the project behind their backs. The idea that they could all move to the USA is equally ludicrous – America doesn’t want the Jews in America, it wants them in the Middle East.
Does this mean I’m a Zionist? Many Jews that disagree with Sharon’s policies are Zionists. They disagree with the occupation and believe in a workable and just two state solution. The term, Zionist, has become so confused and contested on the Left, that its sometimes hard to know what others mean when they use it. For me Zionism has always meant Jewish nationalism: The belief that the only way in which Jews can ensure their survival in a hostile world, is through a Jewish homeland, essentially a Jewish state. In this sense, I am not a Zionist. Whilst I feel an historical and emotional connection to the land where the Israeli state exists, I want to see world in which Jews and all peoples can live securely anywhere and be celebrated for their culture without recourse to states. In a world full of states, however, Jews surely have as much right as any one else to self- determination. That’s why I find it extraordinary that for many on the Left the term “Zionism” drips from their lips like venom while they embrace the Palestinian flag. It seems that Zionism has become synonymous with arch-imperialism. If you are a Zionist (and “all Jews are Zionists”), it is implied that you are clearly a supporter of Bush and Blair and have some global imperialist agenda to control the world on behalf of the Jews. Not only is this untrue, but it implies that Zionists are worse than any other nationalist. Surely, if you believe that nationalism is problematic because it must be inherently racist, then we should be challenging all forms of nationalism and all colonial projects, not just singling out Zionism to special attention. Fear and Loathing on the Left
As a white, middle-class, able bodied British woman, I find it hard to think of myself as anything other privileged than in this society. In some people‚s eyes, I am even more privileged because I happen to be Jewish. British Jews don’t look like a typical oppressed minority, so it is easy to miss the genuine fear that we feel about our safety and security as Jews in this country. I grew up with rotas of parents standing guard whenever our synagogue was in use, and today, many Jewish institutions are guarded by barbed wire, CCTV and intercoms. I know also that I amnot the only Jew to have walked down Golders Green High Street and suddenly felt that flash of fear – “We are so vulnerable here to a hate attack”. I know that the racism experienced by asylum seekers and Muslims in this country is much more acute. But does this mean that my feelings and experiences of racism should be belittled or ignored? Yet for some groups on the Left, any talk of “anti-semitism” is automatically dismissed as a convenient and manipulative strategy to deflect criticism away from Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. And I agree, it sometimes is.Other times, when Jews claim they have experienced ‘anti-semitism’, there follows the predictable semantic debate about the term “anti-semitism” excluding Arabs (which is why I prefer to talk about “Judeophobia” to begin with), or a lecture about how the Jews are not the only victims of war and oppression.The only time I challenged someone directly for an anti-Jewish comment, she looked at me incredulously and said, “What are you talking about, you‚re the racist here”.
Of course, Judeophobia from the Left plays straight into the hands of the Likudniks and Jewish fundamentalist settlers on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who can take it as evidence that anyone who criticises Israeli policies obviously hates Israel and the Jews. It makes it easy for them to lump together everyone from George Galloway to the International Solidarity Movement and Jews for Justice for Palestinians (‘self-hating Jews’, in their book). The vicious circle continues when Jews, in their defensiveness, lash out against anyone who is remotely associated with criticism of Israel, which in turn fuels Judeophobic attitudes. Like the harrassment of a friend of a friend of mine who is the company secretary of an internet web-hosting company, one of whose sites ran an advert for boycotting Israeli products. She had nothing to do with the website content, but when right-wing British Jews began to make threatening phone calls to her out of the blue it was enough to turn her off any sympathy she might have had for Israel for good.
Being stuck in the middle of this complex debate which is simplified into good vs. evil is not an easy place to be, yet you begin to see that both ‘sides’, the pro-Occupation Jews and the “Anti- Zionists” operate in exactly the same way: not listening to each other, using emotive language, belittling each other’s pain, dehumanising each other, learning stock responses, being highly selective in the use of facts and making huge generalisations about “the Jews” or “the Palestinians”. I hear that at one point in Belfast, Catholic neighbourhoods sported Palestinian flags, and Protestant ones hung up Israeli flags. Some people use the imagery of a conflict that they know so little about in order to polarise their own. Somewhere in there you forget you are talking about real people – and that calling into question a people’s religion, history or identity is bound to cause deep pain, liable to result in a closing off and defensiveness rather than an openness to your ideas. I believe that this specific anti-Jewish racism from the Left will subside when the Israeli occupation of Palestine ends, and I am working and campaigning for this with all my energy. However, I also believe that the Occupation will only end when peace campaigners come to realise that the struggle for Jewish and Palestinian liberation are inexorably linked. As Jews we have been left with deep patterns of behaviour as a result of centuries of oppression including its most recent terrible manifestation in the Holocaust. These patterns include fear, defensiveness, anger and a determination not to be victims again. If we feel attacked for having these patterns, we will just retreat into them. If the Left fails to take Judeophobia seriously then the opportunity for countless potential allies in the fight for justice for the Palestinian people, will be lost. What’s more it will push us into the arms of false friends such as the Christian Zionists.
On the other hand, its surprising how far a small act of solidarity can go. I felt immense trust and relief on the February 15th 2003 anti-war march, when a gentile took down a Judeophobic banner. Suddenly fighting anti-Jewish racism wasn’t just my struggle any more. There is so much more to being Jewish than the Israel/Palestine conflict. When I hear people celebrating Jewish culture, my heart sings. For me, and for many other Jews, campaigning for a just peace in the Middle East, has re-awakened our Jewishness and our pride in our religion and the diversity of the Jewish identity: our music, food, art, literature, symbols and language. I look forward to the time when the society I live in also celebrates my Jewishness and doesn’t merely consider me a ‘good’ Jew for challenging the occupation.