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Walking into the guns: proposing that anti-Zionism is antisemitism

In June, I took part in an Intelligence Squared debate in London in which I proposed the motion “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism” before a largely hostile audience. My seconder was the Israeli former member of Knesset Einat Wilf, and we were opposed by the expatriate Israeli anti-Zionist Ilan Pappé and the journalist Mehdi Hasan.

You can watch the video of the event below. Underneath the video, you can read a written version of my opening remarks.

Anti-Zionism is antisemitism: speech for the proposition

I never visited Israel at all until the year 2000 and never wanted to go there. It didn’t sound the kind of place which had anything to offer me. So when in 2000 I objected as a matter of rationality and justice that, while Israelis were being blown to bits in buses and cafes they were being called Nazis for dealing with the perpetrators, I was astounded to be immediately attacked as a Jew. I was accused of dual loyalty, of being “too Jewish” and “waving the shroud of the Holocaust to sanitise the crimes of Israel”.

You can see the same pattern in today’s Labour Party crisis over antisemitism, where antisemitic motifs about Jewish global conspiracies are conflated with attacks on Israel.

  • At a meeting, Jeremy Corbyn noted of two “Zionist” opponents in the audience that despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, they don’t understand English irony”, using the smear that as British Jews they didn’t actually belong.
  • The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is riddled with antisemitic comments, such as the Paris Bataclan massacre was a “false flag” operation to increase support for Israel, or Kristallnacht was instigated by communist and Freemason Jews to promote war against Germany.
  • A German neo-Nazi group has linked to the BDS movement, noting with approval its efforts “to isolate the Zionist aggressor state” in defence of “the rights of the Palestinian people.” The language of BDS and the far right is interchangeable.

Those who say anti-Zionism is not antisemitism would have us believe all this is simply a coincidence. I say it’s not, and anti-Zionism is weaponising antisemitism. This is why.

First let’s define what we’re talking about. What is Zionism? The self determination of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.

What is antisemitism? Delusional hatred and fear of Jews, Judaism or the Jewish people. But antisemitism isn’t like other prejudices. It has unique characteristics applied to no other group, people or cause. Such as an obsessional and unhinged narrative based entirely on lies; accusing Jews of crimes of which they are not only innocent but the victims; holding them to standards expected of no-one else; depicting them as a global conspiracy of unique malice and power.

Anti-Zionism has exactly the same characteristics. Criticism of Israel’s policies is entirely legitimate. Anti-Zionism is quite different. It demonises, dehumanises and delegitimises Israel in order to bring about its destruction.

You may hear some of this slander from our opponents.

  • The lie that Israel’s an apartheid state, when Israeli Arabs have equal civil and religious rights.
  • The lie of ethnic cleansing, when the Arab population in the disputed territories has more than quadrupled since Israel’s rebirth in 1948.
  • The lie that the Israelis are wilful child-killers, when they go to unique lengths to avoid killing civilians in their defensive wars and the ratio of civilians to fights that they kill is at least three or four times better than any other country.
  • The lie of Israel’s human rights violations, when it’s the only country in the ME where Arab Muslims and Christians, women and gays, can live in freedom and safety.

Anti-Zionism is based on the Big Lie that the Jews seized and occupied another people’s land. But history and law show that’s totally untrue. The Jews are the only extant indigenous people of the land.

Israel was their kingdom more than 3000 years ago. Driven out when it was occupied, they maintained a continuous presence under the waves of colonialism – Assyrian, Roman, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman, the British. They fought off Arab colonialists to re-establish their state in 1948, and are still fighting against Arab colonialism.

The Palestine Mandate of 1922, which parcelled out the former Ottoman empire, enshrined their right to settle throughout that land, a right that remains unaltered in international law. That law also entitles Israel to hold onto land seized from its attackers while that land remains the launchpad for attacks.

The Jews are therefore fully entitled to live in both Israel and the disputed territories, even though they have always agreed to share it with the Arabs who also lay a claim to it. But the Palestinians have always refused to share it, and have responded to such repeated offers with terrorism and war.

Israel is the only place where Jewish peoplehood makes sense. But anti-Zionism singles out the Jewish people alone as having no right to their homeland.

Of course, many groups aspire to a homeland. But Israel is not an aspiration. Israel is a country. No other country is singled out for destruction and the mass murder that would inescapably follow. No one tells the Kurds or Catalans their aspiration to a homeland is illegitimate and racist.

But people say Zionism is racism because of the big lie that the Jews stole the land. Anti-Zionism thus writes the Jews uniquely out of their own history. It is an anti-Jewish calumny.

People say anti-Zionism can’t be antisemitism because some Jews are anti-Zionist. In fact there have always been Jewish antisemites: Karl Marx, for example, who wrote: “the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.”

Yes, a small fringe of ultra-orthodox Jews campaigns against the State of Israel. But they nevertheless pray every day that the Jews should return to live in Zion free of foreign rule. Their beef with the State of Israel is that they think the return is premature and should happen under different conditions. So their issue is basically just a matter of timing. What they do not believe is the core doctrine of anti-Zionism, that the Jews have no right to the land of Israel.

There’s an important distinction to be made between antisemites and antisemitism. Many decent people believe these lies about Israel out of ignorance. That doesn’t make them necessarily antisemites. But the discourse they endorse is still antisemitism’s current mutation.

By supporting Palestinianism, moreover, they are supporting not just anti-Zionism but antisemitism.

The Palestinians’ real agenda, not two states but exterminating Israel and replacing it by Palestine as they have repeatedly told us over the years, is based on anti-Jewish animus.

The evidence of this is all around: Mahmoud Abbas’s doctorate in Holocaust denial; his hero worship of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the thirties, Haj Amin al Husseini, who made a pact with Hitler to exterminate every Jew in the entire Middle East; the grotesque Nazi-style imagery of PA propaganda such as the PA sermon claiming Jews are “the fabricators of history, who dance and live on the body parts of others, and on the blood of others…there is no global corruption that their rabbis did not allow…”; Palestinian claims that the Jews were behind 9/11 and that the Jews control the world’s media, finance and US foreign policy.

This unhinged, murderous antisemitism drives the Palestinian cause. Does anyone seriously suggest that the claims made by people here who support this cause, that the Jews were behind 9/11 and control the world’s media, finance and US foreign policy, really are just a coincidence?

And if our opponents really do believe anti-Zionism is free from antisemitism, will they denounce this Palestinian agenda of genocidal, Nazi-style Jew-hatred?

This is not an academic debate. When I grew up in London, antisemitism was confined to a few nutters on the fringes who were treated as pariahs. Now it has been legitimised.

Not surprisingly, antisemitic attacks are running at record levels. Even worse, what is so distressing is to hear our right to our own peoplehood being singled out as illegitimate and to hear the unhinged and obsessional lies and distortions about Israel become the default position of fashionable conversation.

And then to be told that the claim that these are antisemitic conspiracy theories is a conspiracy got up by the Israel embassy. And it’s supposed to be we Jews who have no sense of English irony.

Antisemitism always attacks Jews as a collective. First it attacked us as a religion. Then it attacked us as a race of people. Now it attacks us as a people, as the collective Jew in Israel, with exactly the same characteristics as Jew-hatred through the centuries.

The aim to be free of Jews now takes the form of the aim to be free of the Jewish state. Anti-Zionists treat Israel as the Jew among nations, to be uniquely vilified, slandered and exterminated. That is why anti-Zionism is the new antisemitism.

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