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Does Israel “cause” antisemitism?

"Hitler was right" slogan The great German socialist August Bebel once dubbed anti-semitism “the socialism of fools”. This oft-quoted aphorism referred specifically to the conspiracy-mongers of his day for whom capitalism was the front for international jewry. But could it be that anti-semitism is the delusion of the desperate too? This question was raised in the Lords last night. Ex-diplomat and crossbencher Lord Wright of Richmond mused whether there was a link between the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and Israel’s brutal assault on civilians in Gaza. He further suggested that its spread might be curbed in this country if the government acted resolutely against current operations, and pressured Israel to take the two state solution seriously by withdrawing from illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. This drew two sharp responses. One from Lord Winston, who argued that if such a link was tenable, then “the affairs in Syria would cause anti-Islamic feeling in this country”. Likewise, Lord Ahmed, “the Islamic faith is very clear – in such situations you should protect churches, you should protect cloisters, you should protect synagogues, you protect all innocent life.”

Let’s be clear about this. Israel doesn’t cause anti-semitism. Lest we forget, the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms and massacres precede it. Yet as a species of racism, anti-semitism as a jumble of prejudices and attitudes are no different from any other set of ideas: they form and cohere in the crucible of history, and their breadth and acceptance waxes and wanes according to specific historical conjunctures. No collection of ideas free-float. There isn’t an ideological grab bag from which perfectly rational beings pick and choose according to reasonable criteria. The notions, opinions, prejudices or otherwise each and every human being adheres to is done so because it speaks to their personal circumstances. There’s something about an idea that makes sense, that helps people understand their situation, that anchors them in the world. For example, conservative views of various stripes find a readier audience among business people because it speaks to and orders the social world for them as business people. Similarly, socialism has a greater reach in trade union circles because, again, it provides a coherent explanation of the issues confronting them.

Let’s explore this in relation to racism. When the BNP was on the rise during the last decade, where did this racist party find its wells of support? Here in Stoke it was almost-entirely white working class estates blighted by low pay, unemployment, and insecurity. Might there perhaps be a link? Or think about it in terms of a more pertinent analogy. After the September 11th terror attacks, British Muslims experienced greater press hostility, increased everyday racism, an epidemic of vandalism against mosques and an increase in physical attacks. Did Muslims “cause” the antipathy and violence they received? No. Was the increase in Islamophobia heavily conditioned by terrorist outrages and war in the Middle East? Undoubtedly. Does the context of war excuse racist abuse? Absolutely not. Understanding and explaining is not the same as justifying, apologising for, or accepting racism.

That brings us to anti-semitism now. Let’s think about it from a Gazan viewpoint. If your family had their land and property stolen by Israeli settlers at the point of a bayonet, if the sprawling slum you now called home groaned under the weight of an economic blockade, was subject to periodic attacks by the Israeli army and friends and family were lying injured and killed, might anti-semitism strike a chord? Might the idea that the Holocaust was a myth to justify Israel’s foundation find a ready audience? Could the stony silence of the West and, in some cases, their connivance with Israel’s slaughter in Gaza lead some to think they’re under Jerusalem’s sway? Might this go some way to explain the support for Hamas, an organisation that – until 2006 – was formally committed to Israel’s eradication? In Palestine itself where anti-semitism exists it is inseparable from the occupation and all that goes with it. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does help explain it.

What then of the West? Unfortunately, anti-semitism is on the rise. The electoral support enjoyed by the French Front National, for example, has nothing to do with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The explanatory axis there is secured in economic precarity and persistent mass unemployment. For long-term anti-semites in fascist parties and movements, Israel and Gaza is a pretext, not an impetus. And if some of their anti-semitic actions, like daubing the walls of synagogues and attacking Jewish cemeteries can be pinned on Arabs/Muslims, so much the better. What then of Muslim anti-semitism? Is Israel’s behaviour merely an excuse as per white racists? For some, undoubtedly. For others, it’s complex. Being a Muslim in the West is more “political” than perhaps any other religious identity, and it is an identity location that identifies more readily with co-religionists elsewhere. Palestine “speaks” to Western Muslims more because there, in its most extreme form, do you have the epitome of injustice to Muslims – all accepted without a qualm by Western governments. Their experience is identifiable, understandable. The anger and hate Palestinians feel is readily translatable to Muslim communities in the West. Anger against the occupation is shared, along with the hate. So when Israel continues the killing, so anti-semitism provides a simple, convenient but poisonous frame that, for some, makes sense.

Would the transformation of Israel from a belligerent warmonger to a paragon of peace make a difference to anti-semitism in Europe? Perhaps. Its actions can influence the ebbs and the flows. Ultimately, however, rooting out anti-semitism is a problem for politics here. Blaming Israel is easy. The hard work is putting into place policies that tackle the root causes of racism, whatever forms it assumes and from wherever it comes.

This article was first published at All that is Solid

4 Comments

  1. William Jones says:

    When I was discussing the with the well respected Stanley Cohen the recent violence in Gaza last night on Twitter,he remarked to me that he was “anti-himself”!

  2. swatantra says:

    Yes. I’ve even been accused of being anti-semetic! Me! People clearly don’t distinguish between anti-semitic and anti-zionist these days.
    In the same way that these islamists promote islamophobia.
    Lets see more ‘Jews against Israel and for Palestine’ and ‘Muslims against the Islamists’ out on our streets protesting and demonstarting and making it clear that its not all Jews and not all Muslims that are the problem. If they stay quiet, then they’ll only have themselves to blame.

  3. David Pavett says:

    I broadly agree with P B-C. I would only like to add that I think that it is not so much anti-Semitism that needs to be targeted as racism in general in whatever shape or form. Large numbers of people of all ethnic groups are ‘soft’ racists i.e. they harbour racist feelings but not to the extent that they openly profess racist views or would make offensive remarks. We need to target not just specific forms of racism but racism of whatever stripe.

    1. Robert says:

      Everyone has views some of them maybe a dislike of a certain group, I think immigration into the UK has moved away from need to a more type of equality we need more people into the UK who will vote labour.

      It’s not about being poor any more it’s whether polish people can get a job here, while doing that our young are not getting training places why train somebody when you have people ready made.

      But if you tried to get rid of racist and people who voted Tory or UKIP or BNP you’d have a bloody boring country.

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