Much of the ongoing acrimonious and toxic debate in Britain about allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party centers on expressions of opposition to Israeli laws, policies, ideologies, actions and declarations.
No thinking person, for example, is expected to believe that descriptions of Jews as engaging in a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization,” as Winston Churchill accused “international Jews” of doing in the Sunday Herald in 1920, are not anti-Semitic.
Similarly no thinking person is expected to believe that statements describing the immigration of East European Jews to Britain as causing “undoubted evils,” as Lord Arthur Balfour warned in 1905, are not anti-Semitic (both Churchill and Balfour were key and powerful supporters of the Zionist movement).
The ongoing fight in Britain is fundamentally not over those few marginal racists who still believe in some Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, but over whether labeling Israel as a colonial-settler state is anti-Semitic, or whether anti-colonial resistance to Israeli settler-colonialism and racist laws constitutes anti-Semitism, or whether questioning the legal and institutional religious, racial and colonial privileges accorded to Israeli Jews over the indigenous Palestinians constitutes anti-Semitism.
This is a most perplexing debate for any political observer, as it is Israel that claims to be “the Jewish state,” and that it represents the Jews of the world, even though a majority of them are not Israeli citizens.
Having it both ways
The contradiction that informs this British debate (or its French, German or US equivalents) is that the pro-Israel side is the side that invites people to believe, alongside Israel’s leaders and ideologues, that Israeli actions are in fact Jewish actions, and that Israel represents the Jewish people.
Note that the Zionist movement chose to name its state “Israel,” which is the name accorded by the Torah to Jacob, wherein the children of Israel, or Bnei Yisrael, become the Jewish people. Thus “Israel” in fact meant and means “the Jewish people.”
In naming its state “the Jewish people,” the Zionist movement conflated and conflates its colonial project with all Jews, even when the majority of world Jewry did not support the movement and continues to refuse to live in, and become citizens of, Israel.
Therefore, it is imperative to emphasize that it is Israel and its supporters who conflate Israel with all Jews, and then claim that condemning Israel, its laws, policies, actions and ideology amounts to condemning the Jewish people. What is elided is that the most anti-Semitic of claims in this debate are in fact those precise claims advanced by the Israeli government and its British supporters.
The majority of those in Britain and outside it who condemn Israeli laws, policies and actions, condemn Israel’s colonial-settler policies and actions and its dozens of racist discriminatory laws – including the Jewish “nation-state” law passed only last month – and not its Jewishness.
However, the nation-state law reaffirms yet again that Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people” and not of Israeli citizens of all ethnicities and religions, and that “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”
Supporters of Israel cannot have it both ways: They cannot claim that the Zionist movement has a right to colonize the land of the Palestinians in the name of Jews, and that the movement has the right to privilege Jews and to oppress and discriminate against the Palestinian people in the name of Jewish people, and that it has the right to pass racist laws in the name of Jews, and that it has a right to name its state “the Jewish people” for whom it speaks, and then after all that advance the claim that those who condemn Israel are condemning Jews.
A proper definition
Ironically, it is the majority of Israel’s critics, in contrast to the majority of its supporters, who reject Israeli claims that Israel represents all Jews and insist that Israeli racist laws and colonial policies represent the Israeli government and not the Jewish people. When Palestinians resist Israeli colonialism and racism, they are not resisting the “Jewish” character of Israel but its racist and colonial nature.
Critics of Israel in Britain and elsewhere must assiduously and vociferously condemn Israel’s leadership and its supporters in Britain and elsewhere for pushing this anti-Semitic line, at the same time as these critics condemn Israeli settler-colonialism and racist laws and practices.
If there should be a definition of anti-Semitism to be adopted by the Labour Party (or any other political party or institution) in Britain today, it should include the condemnation of anti-Semitic and colonial expressions such as: “Israel is the Jewish state,” or “Israel is the state of the Jewish people” or Israel “speaks for Jews,” or colonizing the land of the Palestinians is a “Jewish value.”
It is these anti-Semitic claims that tarnish Jewish communities around the world, and not opposition to Israeli colonialism and racism.
Joseph Massad is professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. His most recent book is Islam in Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015).