Why is there a tidal wave of hate in Britain every time Israel is at war?
This weekend saw 100,000 people marching against Israel, a convoy of cars waving Palestinian flags, and an outpouring of anger all over social media. It also saw the Jewish community subjected to antisemitic abuse, threats and harassment, online and on the streets — as always at times like this. This response is unique: no other issue generates as much anger or as emotional a response.
None of the usual explanations for this add up. Is it because Israel is a Western ally or that the occupation has gone on so long? Is it a consequence of the legacy of colonialism or of the sheer imbalance of power in the conflict? Or is it because Israelis and Palestinians are divided by national identity, ethnicity and religion?
There are counter-examples that undermine all these explanations. Turkey is a member of NATO, buys a lot more arms from Britain than Israel does and has spent decades using its much larger army to brutally repress Kurdish statehood — but you don’t see 100,000 people march on the Turkish embassy in London. China is committing an actual genocide of Uighur Muslims, but the people who drove the length of the country for Palestine this weekend haven’t done the same for Xinjiang. And as Syrians have realised, even hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths do not get many people off the sofa and onto the streets.
No: the thing that makes Israel a different case is the eliminationist urge that drives the protests against it. This is a movement that fantasises about a world in which Israel does not exist. As their slogan makes clear, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”. No room for Israel.
The charge against Israel is not just that it occupies Palestinian land and kills Palestinian children, but that it is a colonial, apartheid state and Zionism is a form of white supremacism. It follows that Israel must not exist, because all racism and inequality must be eradicated as part of the struggle to create a better world.
This is an accusation that has been levelled at Jews since the earliest days of Christianity, and has become an important element in the way Western culture has imagined Jews and Judaism. Perhaps this is just a coincidence and the fact Israel is a Jewish state does not influence the way people relate to it. Maybe it is all subconscious anyway. But the land on which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out is the physical foundation of many of the religious beliefs and cultural assumptions that have shaped our world. Jerusalem matters to billions of people in a way that other places simply don’t: its churches and mosques, even the walls and roads resonate deeply in our culture and Christians, Muslims and Jews have been fighting over them for thousands of years.
This doesn’t mean that most anti-Israel activists are antisemitic. But it’s no surprise their movement attracts people who don’t like Jews: whether they are driving round Manchester shouting “Free Palestine” at Jewish pedestrians or marching through London chanting that “The Army of Muhammed will return” to kill Jews.
Maybe these are just the antisemitic fringes. But this is a movement that is rarely bothered about the antisemites in its midst or at its head. The speaker who got the biggest cheer of all on Saturday was Jeremy Corbyn, introduced as “the real leader of the opposition”. Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour unlawfully discriminated against Jews — literally the definition of antisemitism — but the anti-racists singing his name seemed not to mind.
It is not only on the streets of Britain that people imagine a world without Israel. Hamas is a radical Islamist movement that quotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in its founding charter. It is backed by Iran, whose Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is an antisemitic conspiracy theorist who believes “Zionist capitalists” control “all imperialist governments”. Iran’s main proxy, Hizbollah, destroyed the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 86 people, and invented the conspiracy theory that Israel was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The fact Israel is Jewish matters very much to them, and they are the ones actually trying to create this new, Zionism-free future.
Dr Dave Rich is Director of Policy at the CST
Security Trust and author of ‘The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism’