In the small, American Jewish community where I grew up, I never heard criticisms of Israel, or experienced anti-Semitism. And yet I was frequently reminded by my Hebrew and Sunday school teachers of the anti-Semitic hatred that Jews had endured throughout the ages, and especially during the holocaust. My grandmother explained, sometimes tearfully, how her family had lost touch with cousins, aunts and uncles in the “old country” during the Second World War, never to hear from them again.
But the narrative did not end there. Israel, I was told, was the only country that Jews could truly regard as safe. Indeed, Jews had a “birth-right” to return to the “Land of Israel”. Based on vague, biblical justifications I was told that we were the “chosen people”.
As a teenager, I found the claim of Israel to be the Jewish ancestral homeland very strange and unconvincing, particularly as my parents had been active in the anti-racist civil rights movement. This feeling was strengthened after I traveled to Israel-Palestine in the mid-1980s. On the eve of what became known as the first Palestinian uprising against settler-colonial domination, I observed widespread fear and blatant discrimination directed against those who were not Jewish, while I simultaneously experienced the touching hospitality of Palestinians. Later, as a young lawyer, working in apartheid South Africa in the early 1990s I again observed widespread fear and discrimination, directed against those who were not white, which reminded me of what I had experienced in Israel-Palestine.
After this last experience, I found the Zionist claim to justifiably dominate another people on the basis of Jewish suffering to echo the claim by white Nationalists in South Africa, who justified racial apartheid in South Africa on the basis of Afrikaaner suffering.
Accompanying the Zionist narrative, a further pro-Israel claim emerged in the late 1990s; referred to as the “new anti-Semitism”, it was argued that criticisms of Israel were a new form of expressing hatred against the Jews. This claim persists, maintained by an assortment of lawfare organisations and Israel-lobby groups, even though it is now strongly questioned by many Jews, including the Israeli film-maker Yoav Shamir who produced an award-winning documentary on this topic.
As I will discuss in this article, which complements another recent article in Mondoweiss by Jonathan Cook, both claims are not only appallingly hypocritical; they also serve as a shameless defence of Israeli apartheid.
Conflating criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism
The claim that criticisms of Israel amount to anti-Semitism is not new, but as Cook also observed, this most recently makes reference to a so-called “Working Definition of Antisemitism”. Drafted in 2016, this definition emanates from a group called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), including vague and far-reaching conflations between criticisms of Israel and references to the holocaust.
The IHRA definition has emboldened Zionist organizations like Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Chronicle to equate criticisms of Israel as explicitly “Jew hate”. These groups have gone to such lengths as to smear Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, after he spoke at a Labour party rally where he made comparisons between the Nazi regime – that he had witnessed first-hand – and his observations of Israeli policies.
Two recent incidents clearly highlight the danger of equating criticisms of Israel with hatred of Jews.
The departure of Labour party members
The first incident is the departure by members of the UK Labour party, led by Luciana Berger, amidst allegations that the party has somehow become “institutionally anti-Semitic”. This claim is almost exclusively related to the party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s well-aimed criticisms of the Israeli government and military.
Astonishingly, it has hardly been mentioned in any article that the seven Labour Party members who have decided to leave are all closely tied with Labour Friends of Israel, an avowedly pro-Israel organisation. Berger is its former director.
Finkielkraut and the yellow vests
The second incident is more complicated, concerning alleged ‘anti-Semitic abuse’ levied by ‘some’ members of the gilet jaunes (yellow vests) movement in France against the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. While the majority of newspapers reported that Finkielkraut was derided as a “Dirty Zionist”, the Jerusalem Post decided to report that he had in fact been called a “Dirty Jew”.
French president Emmanuel Macron has never wavered in condemning the yellow vests as anti-Semitic. Setting aside the political convenience for Macron of explicitly siding against the yellow vest movement, the claims of anti-Semitism and the unprofessional reporting of the Finkielkraut incident are striking.
First of all, the seamless way in which reporters of the Jerusalem Post equated hatred for a “Zionist” as hatred for “Jews” went largely unnoticed. This is not to deny that criticism of Israel or its supporters can potentially be anti-Semitic as well, but for the Post reporters to misappropriate language in this way was both unprofessional and highly inflammatory.
Another striking aspect has been the absence of references, both in Israeli and in international media sources, to Finkielkraut’s frequently-expressed, bigoted views. This is highly relevant since Finkielkraut had – after for some time supporting the yellow vest movement for economic justice – all of a sudden decided to denounce it. Finkielkraut’s expressions of bigotry are very consistent with his record of posturing and highly-selective views of who matters and who doesn’t.
Hardly any reporters have noted the French philosopher’s positions as being simultaneously pro-Israel and Islamophobic. Speaking of the “problem of Islam”, Finkielkraut has argued that, due to an increase in Muslim immigrants, France has been “disintegrating in front of our eyes”. In the same interview, he claimed that “what holds us all together as Jews” is common to all political persuasions: “the secular, the religious, the Peace Now crowd, the Greater Land of Israel crowd”.
In addition to his Islamophobia and passionate support of Israel, Finkielkraut is overtly racist. In 2005, there were nationwide protests in poor, mainly-immigrant neighbourhoods of Paris. Finkielkraut, in an interview with the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, dismissed the legitimacy of the protests as being anti-France. He expressed his derision at the national soccer team of France for being “black-black-black”. He even claimed to be “colour blind”, yet argued colonialism had brought “civilization to the savages”.
Clearly there is a problem of anti-Semitism in Europe. One need look no further than the desecration of Jewish graves with swastikas. However, why do politicians all of a sudden care so much about anti-Semitism? Could it be that the true aim of vacuous, yet highly damaging allegations of anti-Semitism is to avoid a critical dialogue on Israel’s policies of apartheid against Palestinians?
The many forms of apartheid Israel
While there is still widespread ignorance among most people in the West, as most readers of Mondoweiss will know by now, apartheid in Israel takes many forms. One more obvious form it takes is in the overt racism enshrined in Israel’s 2018 “Nation-State law” that discontinued Arabic as an official language and that is now being challenged in Court. Another obvious form is Israel’s continued blockade and frequent bombing of the trapped residents of Gaza (since 2005). That treatment is currently the subject of a preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court and has also been investigated by the United Nations, which has called for criminal investigations into the killings of protestors at the Gaza border beginning last March.
As explained by human rights organisations such as Al-Haq and Palestinian Center for Human Rights, further argued by international law scholars John Dugard and John Reynolds and elaborated in a UN report, apartheid also takes the form of literally hundreds of insidious Israeli military orders. This includes Order 101 that has been specifically condemned by Amnesty International as making it impossible for Palestinians to legally protest. Israeli regulations make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to build a home. This is due to the fact that Israel’s land and zoning regulations are, according to Israel’s Basic Law, oriented around “preserving” the land for Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.
But the most insidious manifestations of Israeli apartheid are the decades-long, everyday experiences of Palestinians. Farmers have to stand in long lines to reach their sheep in the agricultural village of Qalandia (that is surrounded by a high, concrete wall). Schoolchildren in Hebron cannot walk to school without being stopped daily by soldiers at a military checkpoint to check the contents of their schoolbags. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has heard numerous cases of official abuse against Palestinian women, including a seven-month pregnant woman assaulted at a checkpoint.
So again, why are these widely-reported examples of Israeli apartheid being ignored?
One plausible explanation for why Israeli apartheid is being ignored is due to numerous strange alliances that have been forming between Israel and an assortment of hate groups worldwide (who have no problem with apartheid).
Israel’s strange alliances have matched the rise of progressive Jewish organisations based on principles of equality and dignity, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which amplify a growing trend of Jewish communities worldwide who are speaking out against Israel.
Faced with withering support among Jewish communities, Israel and its supporters have sought out alliances with groups traditionally professing anti-Semitic views, a pattern that is, indeed, consistent with Finkielkraut’s own Islamophobic and racist views.
Oddly paralleling the emergence of the “new anti-Semitism” mantra, Israel has found support among an assortment of far-right, anti-immigration, Islamophobic organisations throughout Europe. These include the Party of Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, an ethno-nationalist party founded by its Islamophobic leader, Geert Wilders, which has declared its unconditional support for Israel. The membership of the Front National in France have long cultivated anti-Semitic views, but the party has re-branded itself as a supporter of Israel under the leadership of Marine Le Pen (the daughter of Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen).
Support for Israel as a Jewish State also comes from millions of Christian evangelicals worldwide, who promote a narrative of rapture in the holy land. The rapture narrative represents a profound hatred of Jews, and it is proselytised by politically well-connected pastors such as Robert Jefress, who claim that Jews are “going to hell” along with other non-born-again Christians. Support from Christian evangelical groups is particularly important for Israel in countries such as the Netherlands where evangelism is the fastest growing religious group.
Meanwhile, Israel has been busy courting Hungary and other East-European nations. This is particularly astonishing. How can it be that a country, ostensibly dedicated to the interests of Jews, aligns itself with the likes of Hungarian President Victor Orban, who has not only referred to refugees as “Muslim invaders”, but has also routinely uttered anti-Semitic slogans against George Soros for political gain?
And finally, there are ostensibly-liberal groups with respectable-sounding names, such as Labour Friends of Israel in the UK, Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) in the Netherlands, IHRA and others. These groups are all the more insidious because of their claim to liberal values and their professed support for a two-state solution. Like many liberal groups in Israel, they maintain strict silence on Israel’s apartheid regime.
At the heart of these groups’ complicity of silence — whether that entails maintaining a racist assumption that Jews are more deserving of the land of Israel than its indigenous inhabitants or in assuming the need for an alliance between Israel and Christian evangelicals, not to mention echoing the views of right-wing ethno-nationalist groups and other racist regimes — is maintaining support for a country that is unabashedly committed to apartheid.
The shameless political opportunism of Berger, Macron and of the Israeli government must be exposed. By preventing a critical dialogue on apartheid in Israel and falsely equating criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism, Israel and its supporters – including Labour Friends of Israel – are not addressing anti-Semitism. They are actively fueling it.
Just like those who turned a blind eye for decades to apartheid in South Africa, the efforts of IHRA, Labour Friends of Israel, CIDI and other groups in Europe to cover-up, rather than condemn Israeli apartheid will place them all on the wrong side of history.