It is vital to define terms

September 18, 2014 13:01

Not long after the Gaza troubles started up again, I noticed something odd about some of the people attaching my name to tweets attacking Israel. They seemed to be strangers, but I'd come across them before. Then I realised where. It had been during the recent debates about child abuse. There was a group of people who linked Jews, Israel and paedophiles.

But it was all done very carefully. Really ugly pictures of Jews, say, but the captions by themselves weren't antisemitic. And virulent attacks on Zionism which simply swapped Zionist for Jew. It was (is) horrible but also frustrating because, the moment one complained of antisemitism, back came the response that we have all heard: it isn't antisemitic to criticise Israel. Which, of course, it isn't.

One response to this is obvious. Just very carefully distinguish between antisemitism and criticism of Israel and then take the plunge. It is not easy to do this. Sometimes, conspiracy theories about Israel reflect antisemitic ideas of which the person advancing the theory isn't fully conscious. Sometimes it is merely the concentration upon Israel, rather than the criticisms, that display an unhealthy attitude towards Jews. In these cases, it can be difficult to make the accusation stick even if it is screamingly obvious that it is true.

Yet this is not the only problem. I have come to believe that the bigger problem with this approach is that it cedes the argument. It fails to defend Zionism.

It is reasonable to criticise Israel's policy. Israelis do it all the time. The correct approach even to fundamental criticisms of Israeli policy is to listen, to reflect, to try and learn and to see how to address the problems raised.

We can smoke out criticisms of Israel's policy that in fact criticise its existence

This is not, however, the correct approach to anti-Zionism. Being anti-Zionist is not the same as criticising Israel. Being anti-Zionist is criticising the existence of Israel, an entirely different thing. Being anti-Zionist is being against a two-state solution.

Arguing that anti-Zionism is antisemitism has allowed the idea to spread that it's fine to be anti-Zionist. It has allowed Zionism to be demonised so that it becomes embarrassing even for friends of Israel to say that they are Zionists.

The reason for this embarrassment is that our opponents have succeeded in making the label "Zionism" stand, absurdly, for the idea of trying to conquer the Middle East and the world's financial system. As well, of course, as the world's media. They don't, therefore, need to use direct antisemitism. The word "Zionism" does the work for them.

Which leaves us only two options: to abandon the word, or to fight for it. And the former of those is completely impossible even if we were minded to.

Fortunately, fighting for the word "Zionism" allows us to start the argument about Israel in the right place. It allows us to start the argument with the case for Israel's creation. It also allows us to finish the argument in the right place. Where are the opponents suggesting the people of Israel should go to?

We need to argue robustly for the simple meaning of Zionism and challenge those who say they are not Zionists to explain why they wouldn't use the term. We should vigorously resist the attempt to collapse together the ideas of criticising Israel's policy and the idea of criticising Israel's existence.

Having this argument allows us to smoke out criticisms of Israel's behaviour that are, in fact, opposition to the state ever having been created.

The most important thing is that this fight would allow us to engage directly with the arguments rather than shadow boxing over the question of motivation. I don't suggest we ignore obvious antisemitic remarks. But I do think we have to directly respond to the attempt to demonise Israel as if that were much better or more acceptable than demonising Jews as a whole.

The Sainsbury's affair, I think, brings this home. We were all shocked by the kosher fridge incident. But actually it was the overall attempt to block Israeli goods that was an outrage. And not one we should be diverted from.

September 18, 2014 13:01

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