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Jews know what legitimate criticism of Israel looks like and what antisemitism looks like

    John Mann MP at the rally in Parliament Square
    John Mann MP at the rally in Parliament Square (Sarah Ebner)

    The claim from leftist activists is always the same: Jews are deliberately conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism to undermine the Corbyn agenda.

    When we speak out against Israel, say these activists, we’re not expressing any hostility towards Jews; we are simply stating our opposition to a colonialist, racist, murderous state in the Middle East. That’s not antisemitism, they say. That’s legitimate political discourse.

    I understand Jews who get exercised by this accusation on the grounds that it’s plain nasty. They are right to do so. But my anger about it comes from an additional place.

    It’s not just nasty. It’s empirically wrong. Jews know what legitimate criticism of Israel looks like, and Jews know what antisemitism looks like. And most importantly, the vast majority can tell the difference between the two.

    Only a very small minority of Jews — 6 per cent of us — describe any criticism of Israel whatsoever as “definitely antisemitic.”

    The remainder understands that the Israeli government can and indeed should be criticised where appropriate. In fact, a considerably larger proportion of us — 23 per cent — argues that simple criticism of Israel is definitely not antisemitic.

    The rest — seven in ten — adopts a “sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t” position, although two-thirds of this group tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, arguing that simple criticism is “probably not” antisemitic in most cases.

    These are the results of the only serious empirical investigation of this topic, based on data gathered by an international consortium of Jewish social scientists working for JPR and Ipsos MORI under the auspices of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2012.

    However, Jewish attitudes shift when particular types of criticism are investigated. For example, 34 per cent of us believe that support for boycotts of Israeli goods and products is “definitely antisemitic,” compared to just ten per cent who maintain that it is definitely not. The remainder — over half — is less certain, although most are inclined to think that an element of antisemitism is probably involved.

    Attitudes shift further still when critics start to draw comparisons between Israelis and Nazis. 47 per cent of us consider this to be “definitely antisemitic” and a further 30 per cent “probably” so. Only 6 per cent maintain such a parallel is “definitely not” antisemitic.

    Together, these findings show that for many British Jews, the lines between antisemitism and anti-Israelism are not always clear, and that we tend to draw them in slightly different places.

    Yet more importantly in the context of the community’s dispute with the far-left, they reveal something that needs to be pointed out over and over again: most Jews do not consider simple criticism of Israel to be antisemitic.

    However, they maintain that it becomes so when it manifests itself as particularly hostile slurs, or indeed downright lies. In short, criticism of Israel is fine, but the moment it starts to draw on prejudicial ideas, it clearly veers into antisemitic territory.

    But, claim the leftists, we can’t possibly be antisemitic — we are vehemently anti-racist. We are leftists, and anti-racism is a cornerstone of leftist ideals. Well, that may be so, but I’m afraid it doesn’t prevent some leftists from being antisemites. Indeed, evidence gathered just last year in JPR and the CST’s groundbreaking study of attitudes towards Jews and Israel, demonstrates that those who self-identify as “very left-wing” are no less likely to hold anti-Jewish prejudices than those on any other part of the political spectrum, with the single exception of the far-right.

    Moreover, the far-left are statistically more likely than any other group on the political spectrum, including the far-right, to hold the types of anti-Israel views that most Jews consider to be prejudicial.

    Indeed, four in five of those on the far-left hold at least one such view, which includes statements such as “Israel is deliberately trying to wipe out the Palestinian population” or “Israel is the cause of all the troubles in the Middle East.” And critically, the more likely those on the far-left are to hold ardently hostile anti-Israel views, the more likely they are to also hold more traditional anti-Jewish views.

    In sum, the cries of foul play from the hard left in this country are not only offensive, but patently false.

    Sound empirical assessments demonstrate that antisemitism is alive and well on the left, in its traditional forms, in its extreme anti-Israel forms, and in too many cases, in both.

     

    Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)

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