Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev and Former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind headlined a discussion on the line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism at the Jewish community centre JW3 last Tuesday evening.
The discussion - in front of a mainly elderly audience - also featured Kiki Hausdorff, the former head of the Oxford University Israel Forum, and was chaired by distinguished historian Trudy Gold.
The discussion was structured in two-parts: Sir Malcolm and Ms Hausdorff debated and fielded questions, before Ms Gold interviewed Mr Regev, who also took questions.
Sir Malcolm, whose soft Edinburgh lilt occasionally came through as he spoke, after outlining a brief history of Zionism, called for those discussing the relationship anti-Zionism and antisemitism to distinguish between “Zionism as a concept, an ideal, a strategy” and “how that vision of Zionism has actually been implemented in practice”.
Sir Malcolm, who is Jewish and served as Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary under Sir John Major, argued that those who denied “the vision” or “reasonableness” of “the Jewish people wanting to have a Jewish nation-state are consciously or perhaps unconsciously being antisemitic”.
However, he stressed that those who are “uneasy, worried or disturbed” by the manner in which “Israel has expanded its control over the original Palestinian territory” were not straying into antisemitism, and that Zionism in practice had necessarily involved an element of “injustice”.
He explained that “the overwhelming majority” of such critics were “responsible citizens who happen to take the view that Israel is in the wrong in the way that it has pursued these matters".
Kiki Hausdorff, who spoke and debated confidently with a clipped accent, disagreed and argued that anti-Zionism was antisemitic – the only exception being when “if you believe that no people have a right to self-determination.”
Ms Hausdorff argued that antisemitism and anti-Zionism “go hand in hand, they feed off of each other. When someone is engaging in anti-Zionism it is only a small step to propagate antisemitism directed against Israel, and then only a small step to directing it against Jews”.
According to Ms Hausdorff, who described what she considered to be an antisemitic incident that occurred involving a fellow Jew while she was on Birthright’s ‘Israel Tour’, said that Zionist Jews needed to face up to “our young Jewish community”.
Ms Hausdorff said: “Jews don’t realise what Zionism truly is. They are not educated about it. They can’t recognise antisemitism when it takes an anti-Zionist form. That means that classic antisemitism is permeating the Jewish community itself."
Sir Malcolm, who often euphemistically referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the “Israeli-Palestinian controversy”, disagreed with Ms Hausdorff’s black-and-white descriptions of double standards as always antisemitic.
He argued that “the early Zionists and right up to this day think of Israel as a beacon of Western civilisation” and that “therefore they are judged by those criteria”.
When asked whether they implied that some anti-Zionist Chasidic dynasties, which support the disestablishment of the State of Israel were antisemitic, Ms Hausdorff said she did.
Some Chasidic groups, such as the Satmar and Belz, refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the State of Israel as they believe that only the Messiah can re-establish a Jewish state.
“As far as I am concerned, they are antisemitic,” she said, adding that anti-Zionist Chasidic groups applied a double standard by seeking only Israel’s disestablishment.
“I don’t think you have to believe that you are antisemite to be an antisemite,” she explained, “I think the intentions of those positions manifest in what is in practice an antisemitic position”.
Sir Malcolm fervently disagreed, arguing that it would be a “misuse of language” to describe such groups as antisemitic “in the normal meaning that that phrase entails”.
Mark Regev, the youthful Australian-accented new Israeli ambassador, joked that many in that many in the audience must have seen him many times before due to his many appearances on British television during his stint as spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.
Mr Regev, to a sea of nodding white hair, said: “I believe anti-Zionism is the modern manifestation of antisemitism”, and posited that some people “have a problem with Zionism” because Jews are “no longer the little boy with his hands in the air”, referring to an iconic image of a Jewish child being led out of a house in the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers.
Telegenic and surprisingly soft-spoken, My Regev ranged widely and sought to outline the “success of Zionism” by telling personal stories that seemed to endear him to the audience.
Discussing his nephew’s return to Israel from Canada, Mr Regev said, “Is this not the ultimate victory of Zionism? That people can go and live in Israel not because they are Zionists, but because it is a good place to live. That’s the victory.”
Contemporary politics figured only tangentially in the discussion. Sir Malcolm, who as Foreign Secretary committed the United Kingdom for the first time to supporting a two-state solution, made one of the only explicit references to current developments in the Middle East when he told the audience that he believed that the “way to reconcile” Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms was a two-state solution.
“We have to be careful when we talk about a two-state solution, it can be meaningful only if the Palestinian state that is created is a real state – not a phoney one,” he continued.
Alluding to President Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ that was unveiled in January, he said that “it cannot just be a patchwork of little enclaves that is called Palestine, but which has no real independence of its own”.
When Sir Malcolm asked Mr Regev whether Israel was "gradually becoming more typical” of the Middle East, the ambassador replied: “I would like to see the region look at a bit more like Israel than the region look more like the Israel. The region is not in a particularly good place, yes?”