A timely piece on the furore in Britain over Ken Livingstone, Israel and antisemitism by David Landy and Ronit Lentin which appeared in Saturday’s Irish Times:
The recent calls to expel former London mayor Ken Livingstone from the British Labour Party have created a worrying alliance between those who use accusations of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israel and those who use them to attack supporters of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The calls for his expulsion came after Livingstone said in a BBC interview that Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. The claim itself was clumsy but based on historical fact – Hitler originally sought to expel rather than exterminate European Jews. As part of this, he negotiated the Haavara Agreement with Zionist organisations which allowed some Jews to escape to Palestine with some of their property in return for Zionist opposition to the global boycott of German goods. This was hardly “support for Zionism”, but Livingstone’s critics went further with fellow Labour MPs accusing him of anti-Semitism.
In response, Livingstone cautioned against “confusing criticism of the Israeli government policy with anti-Semitism”, and defended Corbyn, who had been accused of not taking firm enough action against anti-Semitism in the party, which, he said, was part of a smear campaign against the party leader.
Europeans need to face their history of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust. Ireland has its own part in that history, the Irish government only admitted 60 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1946. Anti-Semitic sentiments continue – this was clear during the attack on the Hyper Casher supermarket in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo murders.
Israel vs Jews
However, supporters of Israel have sought to widen the definition of anti-Semitism to include those who call themselves anti-Zionist and most recently, those who support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In this, they use an obsolete formulation from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) which includes as a possible sign of anti-Semitism: “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”. The EUMC has since abandoned this wording as it was being used to launch attacks on critics of Israel, rather than to tackle real anti-Semitism.
Such efforts to equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism follow the state of Israel in conflating Jews with Zionists, even though not all Jews are Zionists or Israel supporters. Growing numbers of Jewish people in and outside Israel – international groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, as well as Israeli groups such as Boycott from Within – oppose Israeli policies, do not define themselves as Zionists and support the BDS movement. The growing accusations of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel are aimed primarily at discrediting the successful BDS movement.
Israel has announced a $26 million investment in an anti-BDS campaign. Accusing its non-Jewish critics of anti-Semitism and its Jewish critics of being “self-hating Jews” is a central element of this campaign.
Accusations as weapons
Returning to the Labour Party, the Jewish Socialist Group has attacked the “weaponising” of accusations of anti-Semitism by forces intent on undermining the leadership of Corbyn. Likewise the group Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods worries that “the pro-Zionist lobby – Jewish and non-Jewish – deliberately and maliciously seeks to associate Jew-hatred with criticism of Israel in the public mind”, despite the insistence by Corbyn’s team that “anti-Semitism is a vile prejudice that is not permitted in the Labour Party” and its pledge to expel anyone found guilty of it.
The expulsions have taken on the character of a witch hunt. For instance, Jewish activist Tony Greenstein who has long campaigned against anti-Semitism in Palestine solidarity circles, has been accused of anti-Semitism and suspended from the Labour Party. The collection of scalps has emboldened supporters of Israel with the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre seeking to whip up animosity and tweeting followers to “save your pitch fork for Corbyn”.
Such cynical political acts cheapen the grave charge of anti-Semitism. In this atmosphere where such allegations are used to silence political opponents, it is tempting to reject any and all accusations of anti-Semitism. This too must be guarded against – anti-Semitism needs to be tackled wherever it exists. In this battle, there is an urgent need to resist conflating opposition to Israel with anti-Jewish racism.
David Landy is an assistant professor of sociology and Ronit Lentin is a retired associate professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin