Defining Antisemitism: Part II – In Defence of IHRA

The right is reactionary. Its propensity is to adopt resurrected older positions in a slightly new package. Hence, the antisemitism of the right most resembles traditional antisemitism based on stereotypes of Jews and recognizable tropes. The left is “progressive” dedicated to reinvention and creating new frontiers. These include new frontiers not only of social justice and the advancement of peace, but also reconstructing old hatreds in new forms. That is why Thomas Friedman anticipates that “Anti-semitism will flourish under the guise of anti-Zionism.”

To be anti-Zionist is not to be antisemitic. But anti-Zionism can be a cover for and a new way of expressing antisemitism. How can we tell the difference? We do know that when the bundists and communists fought against the Zionists for supremacy in the ideology of Jews, that was not antisemitic. When the ultra-Orthodox and Reform Jewish congregations opposed Zionism, they did not do so because they were antisemitic. Why then paint current leftist anti-Zionists with the antisemitic brush?

Reasons offered include:

  • The internecine fights within the Jewish community were precisely that – debates among Jews themselves and not attacks “from the outside”;
  • The ideological debates within the Jewish community were about the heart and soul of how the history of Jews was to be understood and constructed, what the current priorities should be and what the future of Jews should look like; in contrast, current leftist anti-Zionism – and to repeat ad nauseum, this is not to be confused with criticism of Israel which is fully legitimate – is about linking the current behaviour of the realized product of Zionism, that is, the Jewish state, with its illegitimacy;
  • The narrative constructed by the alleged antisemites wearing a mask of anti-Zionism has the same intention at the extreme in both cases – extermination, in the case of this form of anti-Zionism, the elimination from the face of the earth of what has emerged as the heart and soul of Jewish community solidarity with Israel;
  • The proposed narrative is not simply critical of Zionist behaviour but, like antisemitism, insists that this criticism goes much deeper into the core of the very nature of Zionism, just as the old antisemitism depicted that which justified hatred as inherent in the Jewish character;
  • The proposed narrative not only offers a very different historical tale, but it is one that depends on fundamental distortions and misrepresentations of what actually took place in history; these include:
  • Zionism not only benefitted from the protection of imperial and colonial regimes but was and remains at heart a colonial enterprise;
  • Representing Zionism as a return of an indigenous people to their homeland – a proposition that is at the heart of Zionism – is the real misrepresentation since:
  • Jews according to their own history have always been invaders of Palestine;
  • There is a gap between being indigenous and return after about two millenia;
  • Arabs have never objected to those Jews who were and remained in Palestine over those two millenia from staying in Palestine;
  • The invasion of Palestine by modern Zionists was not only at the expense of the local population, but all along intended to displace and replace that local population;
  • The eventual state that resulted is an apartheid state, that is, one dedicated to ensuring that the Jewish community not only remains separate from the rest of the population, but subject to a different set of laws, and, further, laws that ensured that Jews retain their superior authority and power;
  • The state of Israel is inherently expansionist;
  • The above mischaracterization flies beyond criticism and entails demonization.

What does Derek Penslar fail to recognize in the above critique? Derek wrote: “I have found it difficult to invoke the IHRA definition [when giving expert testimony] because of its strong implication that highly critical but factually accurate statements about Israel are antisemitic. A clear distinction between conspiratorial fantasy and demonstrable reality, between unhinged and fact-based (even if intemperate) language about Israel, would make it easier for me to demonstrate the presence of the former, which is actionable, and to set aside the latter, which is not.”

But this is precisely the issue. The IHRA definition provides absolutely no obstacle to presenting highly critical but accurate information in any forum. Where is the strong implication that it does? In fact, the implication is the reverse. Criticism not based in fantasy but in fact should and must be respected and welcomed. Not one example in the illustrations offered suggest that they are cases of “fact-based” criticisms.

Since antisemitism entails animus against Jews, which Derek takes to be the core of antisemitism, anti-Zionism must as well. But there is no necessary connection between the two. In fact, when antisemitism morphed into the new form of anti-Zionism, it left animosity for Jews as individuals behind and replaced it with animosity towards Jewish nationalism and not even just Jewish statehood. That is why, “There are a great many people in the world who bear no animus against Jews but are troubled by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.” But they are not just troubled by the treatment of Palestinians – I am myself, as are a majority of Israelis – and that does not make them anti-Zionist antisemites. The latter emerges when Zionism is characterized as inherently demanding the mistreatment of Palestinians. In any case, even antisemitism does not entail ascribing malice to the anti-Semites, only a result that may sometimes be a product of malice.

Further, even fact-based accounts can be antisemitic in both the traditional sense and the metamorphosis variety of anti-Zionism. As experts in communication will tell you, placing a factual tale in juxtaposition to another story will colour the other story. Thus, a colleague of mine who was a refugee from Chile analyzed a leading Chilean newspaper and its stories before he was forced to flee. A leading newspaper was a strong apologist for the junta government. My colleague showed that stories of violent crime were always juxtaposed with efforts of the opposition to modify the criminal law. The stories of the violent crime and the stories of campaigning for justice reform were both true, but the effect of the juxtaposition was to associate efforts at legal and prison reform with being “soft on violent crime.” This is true of antisemitic anti-Zionism. If stories of children killed as collateral damage in a war initiated by Hamas are juxtaposed with Israeli expansion of settlements in the West Bank, then the two become first associated and then identified, even though the first may be legal but very regrettable while the second can be illegal and doubly so because they are intentional and not just inadvertent acts.

Advocating boycotts and disinvestment is perfectly legitimate. However, doing so to characterize Israel as an illegitimate state and a product of a deformed and evil nationalism is not. On the latter grounds, one can expect a fierce and bitter battle against BDS, which would be far more modest in the case of many who adopt a boycott and divestment strategy to reinforce a message critical of Israeli behaviour. If anything, IHRA should be criticized as insufficient because it does not attend to BDS and does not make the above distinction. In fact, IHRA does not indicate which positions should be vehemently opposed since it exists for purposes of identification but also, contrary to Penslar, for policy formulation.

David Hirsh in a parallel list of criticisms made an additional interesting point that the defenders of the JD position were akin to the defenders of BDS. BDS in its original intention intended to use the BDS campaign not only as a way of criticizing Israe,l but as a way of delegitimizing Israel. But when commentary is used just to express criticism and not to demonize, that is proof that one should not oppose BDS even if its original intent, and much of its effort, had the goal of delegitimization. Derek employs the same illogic in reverse re IHRA. When IHRA criticizes surface appearances of critics of Zionists, its real intent is to expose such forms of criticism as illegitimate.

Hirsh wrote a book in 2017, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, that takes up the issue of having double standards that the IHRA definition raises, that Michael Walzer also criticizes but with which Derek takes issue. However, the problem is not, as Darek characterizes it, one of concentrating on the heinous behaviour of one form of nationalism, Zionism, while ignoring all others, but also that Zionist nationalism deserves extraordinary treatment, namely its elimination. The Fathom book, In Defence of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, in the David Rich essay, shows that the definition does nothing whatsoever to do away with legitimate criticism of Israel but merely points out illegitimate criticisms that skate on the thin ice of antisemitism.  

Thus, explosive issues emerge in the practical world of politics. For example, in Canada, the Green Party MP from New Brunswick, the only member of Parliament for the Greens east of British Columbia, Jenica Atwin, crossed the floor to join the Liberals. Why? Because Atkin challenged the Green Party leader, Anamie Paul, on her position on, of all issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I stand with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable airstrikes in Gaza. End Apartheid!” Atwin had written. On 11 May she tweeted that Ms. Paul’s statement on the battle between Israel and Hamas, which called for de-escalation and a return to dialogue, was “totally inadequate.” She added, “I stand with Palestine! There are no two sides to this conflict, only human-rights abuses! #EndApartheid.”

Given her views, why would she join the Liberals? Why would the Liberals accept her? That remains perplexing. As former Liberal MP Michael Levitt, current president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, commented, “I’m disappointed and concerned by the news that MP Jenica Atwin has crossed the floor to join the Liberal caucus, given her inflammatory one-sided and divisive rhetoric during the recent conflict between Israel and the terror group Hamas.”

But the consequences within the Green Party were not perplexing. Noah Zatzman, a senior advisor to Paul, responded three days after Atwin opined on the Gaza War expressing solidarity with Zionism. He accused Atwin of discrimination and antisemitism. For that position, Zatzman took a great deal of flak and had to back down from his position, especially following a petition from Quebec Green Party members. However, that is the crux of the matter. On the one side are those who would deny Jews the right of self-determination in Palestine. On the other side there are those who insist that such a position is not antisemitic, and could not be, since many Jews hold that position.

“Fatah spokesman and member of its Revolutionary Council Osama al-Qawasmi said that Israel should stop using the allegation of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism against the world criticism of the apartheid regime it imposes on the Palestinian people and its colonial occupation. He said in a statement that the majority of Jews in the US and other countries criticize and condemn the Israeli occupation and its apartheid regime. ‘Are those Jews also against Judaism and Semitism?’ he questioned.”

In contrast to that position, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar had asked Secretary of State Blinken about how there could be accountability for war crimes, committed by Israel or the US or even Hamas for that matter, if justice was not available within Israel and if the US did not support the ICC as an alternative route to obtaining justice. “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”

Nancy Pelosi rebuked Omar for equating the behaviour of Israel, Hamas and the Taliban. 12 House Democrats questioned Omar lumping Hamas in the same category as Israel and the US and put out a statement claiming that Omar was equating these groups. This behaviour was considered heinous. But they never went so far as to accuse her of antisemitism. Yet her director of communications tweeted, “If she mentions accountability for war crimes committed by Israel, she’s antisemitic.” The accusation of antisemitism, based on the evidence available, could not be supported. But the controversy did show that the term, antisemitism, could be weaponized not only by defenders of Israel, but inappropriately against those defenders.

These domestic conflicts that arise over Israel could be made clearer if we make a clear distinction between those who criticize Israel but support its legitimacy and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination versus those who seek to delegitimize Israel, demonize the country and, in the end, deny Jews the right to self-determination and right of Israel to exist.

The latter is the core of anti-Zionist antisemitism.


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