The Palestinian justice movement must take extremely seriously any accusations of discrimination or racism within its ranks; this kind of behaviour stands anathema to any of its core values. In recent weeks, this problem has reared its ugly head within the ranks of Labour. Accusations of antisemitism, including the expulsion of two party members, has rightly caused concern that not enough is being done to combat unwelcome views within the party, or that even more worryingly, in some circles these views might even actually be welcome. In the most recent disturbing incidents, Gerry Downing (since expelled from the Labour party) published an article titled ‘We must address the Jewish Question’, while Vicki Kirby (also now expelled) tweeted that Jews have “got big noses and support spurs lol”. Alarmingly, both connected these horrible and very public statements to the movement for Palestinian justice.
Johnathon Freedland has written a problematic comment piece on this subject. He rightfully argues, as I have done, that we should reject antisemitism, and that allegations of discrimination in the Labour party must be taken extremely seriously. He wants to reject outright the possibility that the “real purpose in raising the subject of antisemitism is to stifle criticism of Israel”. No doubt, every accusation must be assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine its validity, and certainly no accusation of antisemitism should be unquestioningly “dismissed as mere Israel-boosting propaganda”. As we have seen from the cases of Downing and Kirby, antisemitism is very real, and no-one could be justified in arguing that the label was being unfairly used to smear these individuals.
Nevertheless, one of the key reasons this issue is so fraught is precisely because Israel frequently throws accusations of antisemitism at critics, and this must not be ignored; Freedland is wrong to dismiss this notion outright. In fact, the unjustified bandying around of the antisemitism label by the Israeli government and its supporters is partly to blame for why accusations of antisemitism are not sometimes treated as seriously as they should be; they have systematically been undermining the seriousness of the term through its inappropriate and hysterical use for cynical political purposes. Jewish Voice for Peace have written a large and detailed report documenting this problem and its impact on silencing both Jews and non-Jews opposed to Israeli policies.
So how do we fight against the unfair labelling of activists as antisemites? By rejecting antisemitism wherever and whenever we find it. It really is as simple as that. We must also look beyond simply expelling the most vocal antisemites, the ones who make the newspapers or shout the loudest or are the most politically embarrassing. This problem must be fought at the roots, and the permissibility of behaviour must be banished from movements and fought wherever it can be found. The resignation of Alex Chalmers from the Oxford Labour club, who accused fellow members of organising to follow around a student shouting ‘filthy Zionist’, shows that the potential for ugly ideas and actions to permeate social groups is something that shouldn’t be ignored.
As is similar with Islam and its links to terrorism, the problem lies not with the extreme fringes where people are easily labelled, but in the grey areas where these problems become blurred and views are more ambiguous. Freedland criticises the left for wanting “to make things neat and simple by saying that Israel and Zionism have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism… that they can deplore the former even while they protect and show solidarity with the latter.” But this is why precisely these things must be separated. To use the Islam example, those who support terror must be criticised, no matter how strong or weak their support is, but in the constant recognition that those are the views of an individual, not an entire religious group. A Jewish person must be criticised for holding any view that supports Palestinian oppression, in the understanding that there is not something intrinsically and universally Jewish about these views; they are in fact specifically rejected by many other Jewish groups. Freedland seems to think we must lay off criticism of Israel because “it’s inconvenient” that Jews don’t experience criticism of Israel as being totally separate to antisemitism, regardless of whether it actually is. But this is woefully incorrect. To return to my example of Islam, would you ever find a comment piece in a national British newspaper arguing the same point about criticism of Saudi Arabia, or Sharia law, or Islamic fundamentalism?
The tragic and miserable history of antisemitism makes this a fraught issue for everyone involved, but Freedland’s approach is the wrong one. Criticisms of Israel’s apartheid policies are legitimate, but those who use antisemitism to level these challenges must be immediately stopped in their tracks. But those who want to see human rights prosper in the Middle East must not be frightened to continue making legitimate criticisms of Israel until Palestinians, like all oppressed peoples, have achieved justice. Jews are right to question the motivation of the Palestinian justice lobby; for too long we have let them down by ignoring the minority of voices espousing antisemitism that have been tolerated within our ranks. These people are a poison who must be flushed out. We mustn’t quieten our legitimate demands of the Israeli state; demands for human rights, justice and equality. Indeed, there are many Jews within our cause who have already been convinced that at its heart the Palestinian justice movement is not antisemitic. I have stood shoulder to shoulder with these activists in the fight for human rights for all people, and hold a deep admiration for their dedication to this cause. But for Jews who have yet to be convinced that our movement is not an antisemitic one, we must make our demands louder, strong and better. Removing the poison of antisemitism from the Palestinian rights movement is the first step in strengthening our global message. It is a challenge we must not shy away from.