Sholto Byrnes discusses what has become a difficult topic
Legitimate criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism
Barack Obama has been trying to finalise the details of the largest-ever package of military aid that America has ever delivered to another country. If you knew that this package was for Israel, but that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the hurdle standing in the way of its completion – because he reckoned that $40 billion (Dh147bn) over 10 years wasn’t good enough – your reaction might well be one of outrage.
If so, would that constitute one or more of the following: anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism or criticism of the current Israeli government and its policies and attitudes? It might be suggested that Mr Netanyahu is an undiplomatic warmonger who White House officials have reportedly described over the years as “recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous and ‘aspergery’,” according to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.
Outside of a small but influential right-wing coterie, he is regarded as an impediment to any peace process with the Palestinians, and a leader who, quite improperly, involved himself in the last American presidential election. Who cares under what category disagreement with him falls?
But such distinctions do matter, very much, as the former London mayor Ken Livingstone found out last week, when he was suspended from the Labour Party over some seriously ill-advised comments about Hitler and Zionism.
A row has now engulfed Britain’s official opposition – a party long dedicated to fighting racism and discrimination of any kind – over whether it is riven with anti-Semitism. And this is a charge that, with the European conscience forever seared by its complicity with the Holocaust, could hardly be more serious.
This brings us back to Mr Netanyahu. I would argue that criticism of the man should be construed as no more than disgust at the arrogance and bad decisions of a politician who brings the government of Israel into disrepute. There is no logical follow-on that someone holding that view (like me) is anti-Zionist – opposed to the creation and continued existence of a Jewish state or anti-Semitic – hostile and prejudiced towards Jewish people.
But subtly or not so subtly, there are plenty who have been trying to elide all three. Few go so far as the Jerusalem Post opinion writer who wrote: “Yes, all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!” – because “the historical circumstances under which Israel and the Jews exist in the world today render any non anti-Semitic criticism of Israel impossible.”
I would salute him at least for his honesty; except his explanation of those circumstances – “a large portion of the world, West and East, has come to believe that Arabs and Muslims have earned the right to murder Jews” – is so preposterous and offensive that one fears for the writer’s state of mind.
Anti-Zionism is a political position – one held both by some ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe that a Jewish state will only be set up after the coming of the Messiah, and by those who feel that the land of another people, the Palestinians, should not have been given to another to create the new state of Israel.
One can concede the point made by the prominent British rabbi, Julia Neuberger, that this stance has the effect of denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination (in what they see as their historic homeland, at any rate), while still insisting that the injustice done to the Palestinian people must be acknowledged. Indeed, there are Jewish Israelis such as the historian Ilan Pappe who are anti-Zionist. Mr Pappe, one of the influential “New Historians”, wrote a book titled The Ethnic Cleansing of the Palestinians and has declared Zionism to be a danger to the Middle East.
There may well be anti-Zionists who are also anti-Semitic, and the way the repulsive shorthand “Zio” appears to have been bandied round some student unions in Britain may well be an instance of this. But the two are not the same. Still more distinct is criticism of the current Israeli government. To state that Mr Netanyahu and other leading Israeli politicians for too long have given the impression that they have been doing their utmost to lose friends and alienate people is a cause of dismay. It is not an expression of anti-Semitism.
I have written before that many share the nostalgia of the Argentine-Israeli conductor and peace advocate, Daniel Barenboim, for the old social democratic, secular Israel that, tragically, barely seems to exist any more. If that were to return, attacks on Israel would dramatically decrease; which would not reflect a sudden outbreak of philo-Semitism, but relief at the removal of the bellicose exceptionalism that so wearies those who wish all the peoples and states of the Middle East well.
This leads me to a point often made by those who wish to blur the distinctions between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and critics of Mr Netanyahu: that Israel is unfairly singled out. Why isn’t it treated like every other country? Firstly, I would hope that any country that purposefully targets civilians, as Amnesty said the Israeli armed forces did during a 2014 assault on Gaza, would be held to account.
But secondly, it is not clear that Israel and its most strident allies actually desire such non-exceptional status. There is a very odd sentence on the website of the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent US lobbying organisation, which states “it is undeniable that criticism of Israel is considered socially acceptable”. The clear suggestion is that this is regrettable. But why should any country be beyond criticism?
Anti-Semitism is rising, as is Islamophobia, in Europe. Both are utterly to be condemned. But let no one elide legitimate criticism with the vile and rightly socially unacceptable racist worldview that led, ultimately, to the extermination of six million Jews in the Second World War.
To do so runs the risk of provoking an incubation of the very scourge the eliders wish to dispel.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia