How Alan Johnson responded to Norman Finkelstein at King's College Israel debate


Alan Johnson, Bicom's senior research fellow, was allowed five minutes to respond to anti-Zionist academic Norman Finkelstein at a debate at King's College, London. Here is what he said:

Look, the Community Security Trust is the organisation in the UK which works with the police, and which monitors anti-Semitic incidents. They logged a doubling of incidents in 2014, the highest figure ever recorded, some 1500. The noted that assaults were up to around 80. In France, there has been a wave of anti-Semitism.

Children and their teachers in schools in Toulouse were murdered for being Jews. Eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego was held by the hair and shot in the head. Ilan Halimi was taken off the street and tortured over many days, his body dumped. These are facts.

The "new antisemitism" was an expression used by the French prime minister in a great speech - now subtitled on YouTube - after four Jews were murdered at the Kosher supermarket in Paris. The killer asked if they were Jews before he shot them. The one woman killed by the Charlie Hebdo killers was a Jewess. They spared all the women in that assault. All bar one, the Jewish woman, who they murdered.

What is this notion of a new antisemitism getting at?

It is reminding us that anti-Semitism is very protean hatred, very changeable as a prejudice. It morphs from society to society, century to century. Usually, it emerges when societies – or parts of society - are feeling particularly threatened or in crisis.

The idea of a new antisemitism is saying that the way in which we now talk about Jews, and talk about Israel, has left the terrain of simply criticism of this or that Israeli policy, and become something else, something darker.

If you imagine anti-Israelism and antisemitism to be two circles, how should we understand the relationship between them? I think, there are two mistakes to make. One is to simply drop one circle right on top of the other until you can see no difference between them. In other words, viewing any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.

I think that is a mistake. It is obviously not true. The other mistake is to say, ‘one circle is over there, and one circle is over here – anti-Semitism is over there, and the way in which we talk about Israel is over here – and the two circles never touch.’ That is a mistake too.

I think it is much more useful to think about the two circles in this way: there is an emerging overlap between them. Something is going on in that overlap area. There is a kind of mash-up happening – ‘Anti-Zionism Ft anti-Semitism’, you might say. It’s that mash-up that the concept ‘new antisemitism’ is trying to get at.

There used to be the expression in Nazi Germany that ‘the Jew is our misfortune’. When the Nazis grew in influence towns put up street signs saying ‘The Jew is our misfortune’. Those people who are trying to talk about a ‘new anti-Semitism’ are trying to raise this question with you: is the way in which we now talk about ‘Zionism’ and ‘Israel’ an updated version of that? Is it now a case that in some places, and among some people, ‘The Zionist is our misfortune!’ and ‘Israel is our misfortune!’? Has criticism gone beyond criticism and become demonisation and dehumanisation?

For example, is the new demonising construct of ‘The Zionists’ or ‘Israel’ now playing a similar role to the old demonising construct of ‘The Jew’? In classic anti-Semitic discourse, ‘the Jew’ had a particular role. The question is: has ‘Israel’ or ‘Zionism’ now been handed the part?

For example, both ‘The Jew’ and ‘The Zionist’ are seen as cosmically powerful, able to bend governments to their will, able to control, for instance, the foreign policy of the United States of America.

Both are thought able to start wars; the figure of ‘the Jew’ in classic anti-Semitism was always able to start wars and ‘send off our gentile boys to fight the wars for the Jews’.

Both are called ‘baby killers. ’ The old blood libel is reborn. The demonstrations in London in the summer saw enormous banners that just simply said ‘baby killers’ across a Star of David.

Both involve the notion that a shadowy force – ‘the Jew’ or ‘the Zionist’ is lurking behind the scenes, pulling strings that you can’t see. And conspiritorialism is most certainly back. In the demonstrations in Summer 2014 - photographs exist of this, just go online - banners being held up that simply read, ‘Read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ The Protocols were an anti-Semitic myth, a fraud depicting a non-existent world Jewish conspiracy. They were a warrant for genocide. Doesn’t the current obsession with a ‘Jewish Lobby’ play a similar role today?

And think about the place of the Holocaust in contemporary ‘criticism’ of Israel. What does it tell us if people systematically talk of the Israeli Defence Forces as the new SS, Netanyahu as the new Hitler, Jenin as the new Warsaw Ghetto?

In one of Norman Finkelstein’s books he says that ‘it might be true that Iran’s leadership has directed inflammatory (if ambiguous) rhetoric at Israel.’ But there is no ‘might’ about it! And it is not at all ‘ambiguous’. Listen to the Iranian Supreme Leader: ‘This barbaric wolf like and infanticidal regime of Israel, which spares no crime, has no cure but to be annihilated.’ That’s not ‘criticism of Israel.’ And that is what the concept of ‘the new antisemitism’ is alerting you to, this new demented, demonising, dehumanising way of talking about Israel. It’s a mash-up, a new smash hit, ‘Antisemitism Ft. Antizionism’.

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