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The dangers of weaponising anti-Semitism

Why automatically equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is unproductive

An illustration of two silhouetted individuals shaking hands and a Ilhan Omar's Twitter profile Artwork by Ludmilla Nunell

In 1973 Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban declared, “one of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is not a distinction at all.” The following year, officials from the Anti Defamation League (ADL) published a book called The New Anti-Semitism. These arguments were based on the idea that whilst we can identify and understand what Hitlerite white supremacist, anti-Semitism looks like, there was a new and dangerous anti-Semitism threatening us Jews on a global scale — the criticism of Israel.

This position is predicated on the notion that Judaism is Zionism, or at the very least that the two are so inextricably linked that they cannot be separated from one another. This is a falsehood. Judaism is a 3,500 year old religion, Zionism is a modern colonial movement, which has been resisted by many Jews since it began. I would go so far as to argue that Zionism as a political project constitutes a radical departure from Judaism.

Nonetheless, over forty years after Eban’s statement, we find ourselves in a position where the argument that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism has become firmly embedded within the ‘gentile world’. Indeed, so much so, that even minor criticisms of Israeli policy, such as the establishment of Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, are often labelled as anti-Semitic.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently described anti-Zionism as “a reinvented form of anti-Semitism.” In the U.S, the entire weight of the American establishment recently descended on Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar for her criticism of Israel, labelling her as an anti-Semite for drawing attention to the influence that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has on American policy.

One cannot deny that traditional anti-Semitic tropes focus on money, behind the scenes dealing and the notion that Jews have a dual loyalty. However, one can wholeheartedly condemn this conspiratorial mythology, and also recognise the obvious impact that money has on politics, which Omar did, as she also drew attention to other powerful lobbies, such as the National Rifle Association and the fossil fuel industry.

Of course it would be a mistake to mythologise the Israel lobby (which is sometimes done, and should be condemned) in such a way so as to make it seem like an all powerful force, in that its aims are always met. For example, AIPAC went all out to stop the Iran Nuclear Deal under President Obama, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Naturally, no decent person wants to be branded as an anti-Semite. It is for this reason that the weaponisation of anti-Semitism has wide reaching and dangerous implications. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, it works to delegitimise criticism of Israel within the public square by branding critical voices as anti-Semitic, and therefore motivated by Jew hatred, rather than genuine concern.

By natural extension, people who espouse views which are critical of Israel are less likely to continue to express their views on the topic once they’ve been characterised as an anti-Semite. This may even extend to other contentious political issues — if one is an anti-Semite, how is one to be taken seriously on other issues?

There are of course many critics of Israel who are Jewish. Weaponising anti-Semitism continues in this case, albeit instead of being labelled an anti-Semite, one is branded a self-hating Jew or not a real Jew.

This is an extremely effective tactic insofar as it functionally denies Jewishness to Jews who hold non or anti-Zionist views, and practically serves to push Jews out of  Jewish institutions and spaces, be it  synagogues, schools or campus based Jewish groups so as to continue centering Zionism within these structures. Perhaps the crudest recent example of this was when a German bank was tasked with deciding whether a German Jewish peace group which comprised Israelis and the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors was anti-Semitic because of their views on Israel.

Finally, and perhaps less immediately obvious, weaponising anti-Semitism in order to shield Israel from legitimate criticism takes up necessary space within the discussion on anti-Semitism, and ultimately curbs organising efforts against genuine anti-Semitism, which is on the rise as an emboldened global far-right movement continues to grow.

In 2017, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’. Counter demonstrator Heather Heyer was run over by a neo-Nazi, and President Trump laid the blame on “both sides,” and argued some white nationalists are “very fine people.” The same year, 60,000 nationalists marched in Warsaw, Poland expressing anti-Semitic and Islamophobic messages.

Last year, eleven Jews were massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Senator Fraser Anning recently invoked the Nazi ‘final solution’ term in his maiden speech to Parliament, and a few days ago Poles in New York took part in an anti-Semitic protest against Holocaust restitution. Even Israel has been increasingly aligning itself with anti-Semitic leaders and parties in Europe.

When Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley drew Christian Republican Meghan McCain crying crocodile tears over Ilhan Omar’s alleged anti-Semitism, McCain decried his cartoon as “one of the most anti-Semitic things [she’s] ever seen.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, had she never seen the infamous photo of her father John McCain standing next to Ukranian neo-Nazi Oleh Tyahnybok, who has been photographed doing a sieg heil?