Mondoweiss

Calling someone a ‘Zionist’ is anti-Semitic and abusive, say British lawmakers

Campaigners in support of Palestinians block traffic in London at a protest on October 17, 2015. (Photo: London Palestine Action/Facebook)

British lawmakers have said the word “Zionist” as a pejorative “has no place in a civilised society” and recommended considering a victim’s feelings when deciding if a criminal investigation into anti-Semitism should be launched, according to an annual report on anti-Semitism published last week by a cross-party group in Parliament.

While the report confirms there is no surge of anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom and most of the incidents are carried out by culprits adhering to extreme right-wing views, it chiefly focuses on the actions of the center-left Labour party and their efforts to squash internal anti-Semitism.

By Britain’s count, left-wing perpetrators account for less than 25 percent of anti-Semitic incidents.

However, the report found opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who ordered his own internal investigation into anti-Semitism in Labour earlier this year, was too soft on hate-speech. Parliamentarians blasted him for fostering a “‘safe space’ for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people.” A section of the report criticised Corbyn for his handling of a row in the spring of this year that ended in the suspension of Labour parliamentarian Naz Shah and ex-mayor of London Ron Livingstone. 

Both Shah and Livingstone have apologized for Shah’s 2014 circulating a meme on Facebook (before she was in office) where the state of Israel was pictured inside of an outline of the U.S. with the note “Solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, relocate Israel in the United States.”

In response to parliament’s latest accusations of welcoming anti-Semites into his party, Corbyn charged a double standard was at play. The report, issued annually, previously dealt with anti-Semites of all political stripes. Yet this one only discussed the actions of Labour, and was published a few months after Corbyn’s inquest was made public. 

This view seems to be shared by Brits during the report’s investigation period. In one survey included in the report, 55 percent of the British public “agreed with the notion that antisemitism is ‘not a serious problem at all, and is being hyped up to undermine Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, or to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel,’” the report noted.

Still, the poll also found 87 percent “believed that the Labour Party is too tolerant of antisemitism among its MPs, members and supporters.”

A prominent issue in contemporary anti-Semitism in Labour, the report said, has to do with the word “Zionist” as a slippery-slope for anti-Jewish speech. In particular, the word “Zionist” used in name-calling on Twitter.

One such example listed as anti-Semitism is the tweet made to a Jewish parliamentarian: “why don’t you admit you’re a Zionist”—a statement where if the word “Zionist” was replaced by “Jew” would clearly become anti-Semitic, thus the report confirmed this remark passed the threshold of hate speech.

“Zionist” as a pejorative, lawmakers said, “has no place in a civilised society. It has been tarnished by its repeated use in antisemitic and aggressive contexts.”

“If these individuals genuinely mean only to criticise the policies of the Government of Israel, and have no intention to offend British Jewish people, they should criticise ‘the Israeli Government’, and not “Zionists’,” the report recommended.

Yet, “‘Zionism’ as a concept remains a valid topic for academic and political debate, both within and outside Israel,” the report stated, although it did not make clear when it meets that standard.

If that test for online comments were applied to the academic works of the late Edward Said who wrote at length about the Palestinian view of Zionism, he would fail just as the internet troll did.

“Zionism was premised on the evacuation of Palestine by its majority native inhabitants,” Said wrote in Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims, “There is no minimising this stark truth, and every Zionist leader of note has faced it squarely.”

Campaigners for Palestinian rights have long opposed mixing the definitions of “Zionism” with “Israel” and “Zionist” with “Jew”– but reached the opposite conclusion to the British parliament, inasmuch as they advise using the word Zionism. 

The role of Zionism in anti-Semitism is an old conversation among campaigners for Palestinian rights. In a different report on guarding against anti-Semitism published last year by Jewish Voice for Peace, the human rights group advises institutions to “avoid policies that conflate the state of Israel with Judaism or the Jewish people.”

The group argued doing so “risks furthering the anti-Semitic claim that Israel and Zionism and Jews are one and the same and places Israel in a uniquely protected category as a state.”

This view contradicts the British parliament, which seeks to combine criticisms of “Zionists” and “Jews” into one.

British Jews seem to oppose that change. They view the terms “Zionists” and “Jews” as holding meaningful and different definitions. Parliament noted 41 percent who identified as Jewish do not identify as a Zionist.

An additional change to the legal definition of anti-Semitism in the UK recommended by lawmakers allows for a victim’s “perceptions” of events to be taken into consideration when determining if a criminal investigation should be launched.

“The perceptions of Jewish people—both collectively and individually, as an alleged victim—should be the starting point of any investigation into antisemitism,” the report said, qualifying for a conviction, “It also requires evidence, and it requires that someone other than the victim makes an objective interpretation of that evidence.”

Commentators in British publications have pointed out in hate-speech cases for other groups, the victim’s feelings have no legal weight, making this change unique to anti-Jewish hate speech cases.