Many Jewish zionists argue it is anti-semitic to criticise Israel because Israel is central to their identity as Jews. It is, of course, a non-sequitur. Identifying with Israel will be important for many Jews, and many anti-semites will criticise Israel, but it does not follow that criticising Israel is anti-semitic.
Conflation of anti-semitism and criticism of Israel is, at best, a misguided emotional response by those who are psychologically invested in zionism. Criticism of Israel highlights unsavoury aspects of their identity they would prefer to ignore. The logic goes something like this; ‘I am a moral person and Israel is important to my concept of self. The state of Israel, therefore, cannot be an immoral endeavour. People who criticise Israel must have an irrational hatred of people like me.’ It is easier to blame the other than acknowledge the truth.
To say that criticism of Israel by a few genuinely anti-semitic people implies that all criticism of Israel is anti-semitic is false. Unfortunately the false association of legitimate criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews is often used to silence support for Palestinian rights in a most disingenuous way. In particular, misrepresenting criticism of Israel as a ‘new anti-semitism’ has very serious implications for freedom of speech and representative democracy, as we have seen recently in Australia, USA and UK.
Defending the indefensible, even to oneself, is a tough job. Jonathan Cook explores the twisted logic of political zionism and anti-semitism.
British comedian David Schneider has become one of the more influential public figures on social media seeking to arbitrate what constitutes anti-semitism. Compared to TV show host Rachel Riley, or even Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, Schneider is an exemplar of moderation and rationality. But, to be honest, the bar has been set pretty low in recent years.
Schneider has now published a guide in the Independent newspaper on “how to talk about Israel without sliding into antisemitism”. Although there are elements to his guide I can agree with, most of his advice is – to put it charitably – simplistic, misleading or downright unhelpful.
Given how polarised public discourse has grown on the issue of anti-semitism, and the degree to which it has been weaponised by those – Jews and non-Jews alike – opposed to a new kind of insurgency politics in the UK and US demanding the right to speak out unequivocally in support of Palestinian rights, Schneider’s blindspots need highlighting.
He rightly notes that the phrase “legitimate criticism of Israel” has become clichéd. But it is more than just a cliché; it has come to serve as a ringfence, ensuring that “legitimate” criticism relates only to Netanyahu and the Israeli right.
Many of us, however, want to point out that there would still be major problems with Israel even if Netanyahu had been replaced at last month’s election by the rival party of generals led by Benny Gantz or if the Israeli Labour party ever managed to revive itself from terminal decline. We want to talk about why Israel was a very problematic kind of state long before anyone had heard of Netanyahu, during a time when a supposed Israeli left ruled the country.
So here I offer an addendum meant to clarify and counter the arguments made in Schneider’s seven-point guide.
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