JfJfP submission to the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism
Jews for Justice for Palestinians has over one thousand Jewish signatories in Britain who want to ensure that Jewish opinions supportive of Palestinian rights – and therefore, inevitably critical of some Israeli policies – are heard here. We believe that this is important in its own right but that it also plays an important part in limiting the growth of antisemitism. It is the light of our experiences, as Zionists and non-Zionists, in pursuing such policies over the last four years that we would like to submit this statement to your inquiry.
œ As Jews we naturally stand implacably opposed to racism in any form and hence to antisemitism from whatever quarter it stems. We have had to contend with antisemitism in our own lives in a number of different manifestations and are acutely aware, through our family histories and our own sense of identity, of the horrific effects of racist ideology and action on Jewish people. We therefore welcome the establishment of your inquiry and the recognition that antisemitism is a problem that all anti-racists and not just Jews need contend with.
œ We believe that your committee must look critically at the background to some of the recent manifestations of antisemitism in Britain. Our experience of working with a number of British-based groups campaigning for the rights of Palestinians is highly relevant to your enquiry. It is over-simplistic to attribute every manifestation of the new antisemitism to Israeli human rights abuses; without doubt some is explicitly and overtly racist. But attempts to silence legitimate criticism with politically motivated charges of antisemitism may make matters worse. It can divert responsible public opposition into unacceptable acts of violence.
We have sought to make this point within the Jewish community in Britain, but do not think it is simply an issue for Jews to consider. It goes rather to the heart of the question of when it is legitimate to categorise statements and attitudes as antisemitic.
œ We would like to suggest that the committee adopts the position that criticism of Israel or its policies, similar to that levelled against any other country, cannot be regarded as antisemitic. This is contained within the European Union Monitoring Committee’s Working Definition of Antisemitism (a document we find unsatisfactory in other ways) and reflects the position held by most representative Jewish organisations in Britain, at least in principle.
In practice criticisms of the Israeli human-rights record in terms that are frequently made of other countries are taken to be anti-Zionist; and by virtue of being anti-Zionist are then considered potentially or actually antisemitic. To criticise Israel in these terms should not be taken to imply that Israel is being singled out as especially evil: there are many legitimate reasons for focussing on Israel. To do so is not anti-Zionist by definition.
œWe want the committee to be careful not to allow criticism of Israeli policies, made in good faith by people from all backgrounds, to feature in the assessment of the scale of antisemitism in Britain today.
œ Furthermore we regard the vilification and intimidation we have faced from other Jews as a result of criticising Israeli policies as relevant to your inquiry. At worse the vilification has taken the form of physical abuse of peaceful protestors and hate mail, suggesting for example ‘that the wrong Jews were killed in the Holocaust’. More frequently it takes the form of pulling up the drawbridge, of regarding those Jews who publicly criticise Israel as somehow beyond the pale. It forms part of the wider process by which any and all criticism of Israel can be labelled as anti-Semitic, irrespective of the range of Jewish views on the matter.
Some criticism of Israel is certainly anti-Zionist but there have always been strong anti-Zionist currents within the Jewish community – a majority of world Jewry was probably opposed to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Now, however, criticism of the state of Israel is frequently regarded as treason if it comes from other Jews. Suppressing alternative, possibly minority, views, undermines the wider recognition of diversity within the Jewish community and within the Zionist tradition itself and has deleterious effects on wider community relations. We are particularly opposed to the exaggeration of the existential threat faced by Israel and by implication the Jewish people worldwide. It is our view that this exaggeration actually contributes to the problem it claims to be diagnosing.
Of course generalised attacks on ‘ Zionists’ may lump all shades of Zionism together, unacceptably. We recognise how this Anti-Zionism is sometimes employed as a mask for antisemitism. But we would, following Brian Klug, point out that a mask is by definition not the same thing as the thing it is masking; that to determine whether there is conscious, or subconscious antisemitism, or ignorance, behind the words requires a deeper understanding of – and often some engagement with – those voicing anti-Zionist statements.
œIn our experience discussion and dialogue with those opposed to Israeli policies can be a fruitful way of diffusing potential antisemitism. Obviously we recognise there is some implacable antisemitism in all communities, not open to such an approach.
Quite often, the difficulty comes where people attribute antisemitism to others who may simply be confused, or ignorant. We have found that there is a genuine lack of understanding about how certain symbols are ‘read’ by different groups. We have addressed this in various ways, particularly where young Muslims have sported banners that link the Swastika with the Star of David. Finding this offensive we have spoken to various groups of Muslims to understand their standpoint and to explain ours to them and have generally met with a favourable response. We have also found that the diversity of the Jewish community in Britain –in terms of lifestyles, access to power and political views – is also not readily appreciated. Identifying as Jews who support Palestinian rights has sometimes enabled us to undermine various stereotypes of Jews, where labelling people as antisemitic might only have served to increase hostility, resentment and a sense of powerlessness.
œWe believe that the committee should consider in detail how to increase understanding of various groups in Britain of the sensitivities of other groups. In other words, a job of education and the encouragement of mutual recognition is required, not repression and condemnation as the first line of defence.
œFurthermore our experience suggests that the perhaps understandable tendency to react to criticism of Israelis policies by promoting an image of collective Jewish ‘unity’ and seeking to silence dissent is not only offensive and unenforceable, but actually counterproductive. Paradoxically, claiming that all Jews identify with Israel blurs the distinction between the Jewish community’s varying interests and those of Israel. It invites people to make no distinction between Jews and Israelis and encourages the translation of anti-Israeli sentiment or criticism into anti-Jewish sentimenti.e. with antisemitism.
Attempts to control the language of political debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (e.g. by claiming that the use of the word ‘apartheid’ to characterise Israel today) are potentially antisemitic, is counterproductive and intellectually unacceptable, even for those who find the analogy with apartheid misleading. In our view these debates must be allowed to take place and not be restricted in advance by allegations that they are antisemitic. Were there to be any genuine incitements to race hatred at such events, they would in any case be covered by British law. We would like the committee to consider how best to reconcile the need for freedom of expression, especially in relation to discussion of Israel-Palestine with genuine fears within the Jewish community of increasing antisemitism.
To sum up: Our experience is that attempts to deny the right to organise meetings and to publish material that criticises Israel fuels resentment and a sense of powerlessness. The fact that criticism might be mistaken and based on prejudice does not imply it should be curbed in advance. It is vital that there is a prima facie presumption that open debate and discussion is to be encouraged and protected and it should apply equally both to supporters and critics of Israel. Without condoning actions that are explicitly and/ or intentionally antisemitic, we believe strongly that there must be free speech within and across communities in our society.
Submitted 6th February 2006