How Blindness to Antisemitism Threatens Parties and Movements
The following article has been published in Newsweek by ECAJ co-CEO Alex Ryvchin.
Keir Starmer, the post-Jeremy Corbyn leader of Britain’s Labour Party, acted swiftly to demote a member of Parliament who tweeted an article containing a paragraph linking Israel to the killing of George Floyd. In truth, when Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey tweeted the interview with the actress Maxine Peake in which she made the appalling and unfounded claim, Long-Bailey may have had no sinister intentions. Indeed, she may have missed the offending paragraph altogether. So common has the obsession with Israel become in the left fringes of social-democratic parties, so accustomed must Long-Bailey be to hearing Israel blamed for all of the world’s ills at branch meetings and in her social media feed, that a casual reference to the Jewish state masterminding violence on the other side of the world would hardly raise an eyebrow. Instead, Long-Bailey tweeted out the article with no caveats or qualifications, intervening only to opine that the actress who made the accusation was an “absolute diamond.”
The allegation that Israel trains American officers to kneel on the necks of suspects is the sort of half-baked musing one might overhear on a university library lawn. But while such theories often originate on campuses or in the disturbed minds of people like Roger Waters—the musician made the identical claim in a recent interview with a Hamas-affiliated news agency—they rarely stay there. Such theories now have a voice in the U.S. Congress and in national legislatures throughout the world.
This can partly be attributed to the nature of modern communications, which means that fanatical political ideas and prejudices no longer reside in pamphlets that no one outside the movement reads, but are now manufactured into compelling content, entirely stripped of context or truth, and instantly transmitted into the eyeballs of millions. It is also a symptom of the mainstreaming of once-fringe elements who have shifted from micro-parties and, occasionally, the back-benches, into the corridors of power. More than that, it shows how society, stricken by pandemic, discord and fatigue, has embraced conspiratorial thinking.
A common feature of all conspiracies is the belief that something is concealed, that the truth is known only to an enlightened few and that all our misfortunes are the cause of someone else—some unseen hand that rests upon the levers of financial, governmental or media power. Historically, these delusions have found the Jew to be a suitable enemy. Until the mid-20th century, the Jews were a stateless people, scattered throughout the world, lacking a cohesiveness and a national center, and therefore both physically vulnerable and uniquely suited to being cast as a mysterious arch-villain in the fantasies of both the far-Left and the far-Right. Jewish survival in the face of unparalleled calamities and the ability of Jews to revive their ancient tongue as a language of everyday use, rebuild scorched communities and contribute beyond their numbers to the societies in which they live only fed the belief that the Jews constituted some phantasmic, supernatural presence. They were feared and hated in equal measure.
The Jewish national movement, Zionism, was supposed to render all that irrelevant. By being rescued from exile and restored to a national home approximating the territories they controlled in ancient times, the Jews should have attained equality with other peoples who had homelands, flags, distinct languages, national traditions and so forth. But so deeply ingrained was the characterization of the Jews, and so compelling is the desire to blame a despised other for our own failings, that the return of the Jews to their homeland nearly two millennia after their expulsion by the Romans, an event unprecedented in human history, was not universally greeted with wonder and admiration. Rather, it spawned new feelings of loathing and hardened the perception that Jews were bound up in something suspiciously extraordinary—even supernatural.
In fact, far from curing anti-Semitism and the conspiracy theories that so often give effect to it, Zionism and the state of Israel offered a new medium through which to express irrational feelings towards the Jews. As Nazi-era race theories about immutable Jewish inferiority were completely discredited and older religious-based contempt for the Jews diminished, Zionism and Israel became the new outlets for those driven to apoplexy by Jewish assertiveness, perceived success and a stubborn refusal to submit and disappear. Pseudo-political accusations of genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and collective punishment replaced classical accusations of ritual murder, bloodlust, a cunning malevolence and a people standing in the way of a better world.
It is this modern politicization of anti-Semitism that ensured that Rebecca Long-Bailey, who would have been instantly awake to a racist jibe directed at any other minority group, could mistake the anti-Semitism in the interview for benign criticism of a state she doesn’t much care for.
The belief that every injustice can be traced to Israeli evil was perhaps best demonstrated by another British Labour politician (now mercifully retired), Clare Short, who claimed during a pro-Palestinian conference in Brussels in 2007 that not only was Israel “much worse than the original apartheid state,” but that it “undermines the international community’s reaction to global warming.” Given Short’s conclusion that global warming could “end the human race,” one can readily connect the dots about how loathsome and threatening Israel must be, and what should be done with it. For good measure, Israel has also been accused of causing domestic violence in Gaza.
More recently, Black Lives Matter, a group ostensibly formed to combat racism, adopted in 2016 a manifesto that, amidst the discourse on incarceration rates, police conduct and racial profiling, also accuses Israel of being an “apartheid state” and committing “genocide” of the Palestinians—whose population throughout the Holy Land has undergone a continuous and spectacular increase since the advent of modern Zionism in the 19th century. The British arm of the movement then paused its tweets on black lives in order to shoot off an anti-Israel medley, including offering its weighty legal opinion that Israel is in breach of international law and lamenting the “gagging” of attacks on Zionism.
The campaign to attach Zionism to every grievance and injustice has its origins in Stalin’s deteriorating mind during the last years of his reign. It became the basis for official Soviet anti-Zionism and remains as a vestige in far-left political movements today. But in a sense, it runs even deeper than that. It is the hallmark of an irrational, fanatical mind, incapable of grasping the nuance and complexity of life. Just as traditional anti-Semitism brought ruin and misery, anti-Zionism will corrupt noble movements and worthy causes unless it is finally stamped out.
Alex Ryvchin is the author of Zionism—The Concise History and is the co-chief executive officer of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.