Israel and antisemitism, again

There’s been a bit of commentary around on how Donald Trump’s defeat is bad news for authoritarian leaders (whether in office or aspiring) in other parts of the world. Here’s Cas Mudde, for example, as quoted in the Guardian:

I doubt most far-right leaders will feel their electoral success is going to be impacted by Trump’s defeat. Neither will it really change their access to the White House, which was limited under Trump too. … What they mainly worry about is what [Viktor] Orbán has called “liberal imperialism” – having the US criticise democratic erosion and the abuse of human rights around the world again.

But as usual, there’s one far-right head of government that the pundits are afraid to mention in the same breath with Orbán and the rest – yet he is the one with perhaps the most to lose from the new administration in the US. I speak, of course, of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

So step forward Yair Wallach at +972 Magazine with a clear and concise explanation of Netanyahu’s worldview, framed around the difference between the political outlook of American and Israeli Jews.

In the US, Jewish voters continue to vote solidly Democrat; they are appalled by Trump’s bigotry in general and his flirtation with antisemitic themes in particular. But Netanyahu, backed by the majority of the Jewish electorate in Israel, sees Trump as a kindred spirit and has aligned his politics closely with Trump’s agenda.

In Wallach’s words:

Israel has sought in the last decade to position itself as a strategic ally of the rising global authoritarian, revanchist, and Islamophobic right, headed by Jair Bolsanaro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and, of course, Trump. For now, this alliance appears to be working in Israel’s interests, in an increasingly illiberal world. Israeli right-wing commentators supportive of Trump have adopted alt-right rhetoric, and have spoken in disparaging and even antisemitic terms about U.S. Jews’ support for liberal values. …

For Israel, the global hard right is now a natural and perhaps inevitable choice. Israel’s preference for a Trumpist GOP is therefore a logical conclusion, while for most American Jews, Trumpism is an anathema and a threat.

As victims of persecution over many centuries, Jews in most parts of the world have an acute sense of the dangers of authoritarian government and the need for strong mechanisms to protect human rights. Secure in Israel, however, far too many seem to have forgotten that lesson. Netanyahu, whether from conviction or expediency, fans the flames of entho-nationalism and therefore finds allies among the far right worldwide, despite their barely concealed antisemitism.

Which all throws an interesting light on the British debate over antisemitism, back in the news this week. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the party last month after minimising the importance of antisemitism, despite a report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission that found Labour had failed badly in dealing with the issue under his leadership.

The suspension has now been lifted, but Corbyn remains excluded from the parliamentary party. New leader Keir Starmer is clearly using his willingness to address antisemitism as a defining feature to contrast him with his predecessor.

I haven’t read the EHRC report, but I think the issue that it’s dealing with is very real. There’s no doubt that in recent years substantial elements of the hard left have allowed their opposition to Zionism or to particular Israeli policies to drift into a more general animus towards Jews. That’s not something that a progressive party can afford to tolerate.

Nonetheless, there’s also an element of truth in what Corbyn says, namely that the issue has been seized on by his political opponents in a thoroughly disingenuous manner – and particularly by the Israeli far right and its allies, whose goal is to paint all anti-Zionism as necessarily and inherently antisemitic. And since exactly what counts as “Zionism” is endlessly debatable, what they really mean is that any criticism of them is an attack on Jews in general.

That’s not a new rhetorical move, but the recent drift of Netanyahu’s geopolitical stance makes it more absurd than ever. Someone who now speaks out against antisemitism in Poland or Hungary, for example, would be speaking against Netanyahu’s foreign policy interests, and therefore, by his logic, undermining the state of Israel: which, according to his allies, is itself proof of antisemitism!

Something here has gone badly wrong. But until Israeli voters are willing to step back from the virulent nationalism that their prime minister has been peddling, the problem isn’t going to go away.

5 thoughts on “Israel and antisemitism, again

  1. This odd convergence is caused by parallax error. or put another way, by failing to discern which of several is the correct motive, intent or rationale to justify a particular policy.
    Eg, “[X group] are getting less than they deserve,and should receive more” is a stance that can be shared by:
    (1) members of X group itself, who can be further subdivided between
    (1.1) liberal neutralist members of X group who are opposed to injustice in general, but who feel themselves to be particularly well-placed to speak out about injustice to themselves and their own, because they genuinely believe their group is being treated harshly
    (1.2) supremacist members of X group, who believe that X group is divinely ordained to rule the world (or some especially holy portion thereof, typically defined by rivers), who are especially incensed if X group can be seen as subjugated or oppressed, but who would continue to demand more for X group even if it was no longer the underdog.
    (2) non-members of X group – almost by definition they have the same motive as sub-group 1.1 above (“I’m not an X but I think they have been shabbily treated so I support their cause”) since non-members of X Group are highly unlikely to be X Group supremacists (except for the anomalous case of Christian Zionists who think non-Christian Jews should have supremacy over Palestinians, many of whom are Christian – partly because that’s how the holy book stacks up in their reading, partly because they expect Jews to eventually convert to Christianity, partly because American Protestants consider iconoclastic Judaism a purer creed than the henothenistic Catholicism/ Orthodoxy of the Middle East, and partly because any Palestinians who aren’t Catholic/ Orthodox are Muslim and even more culturally and theologically distant than Jews.
    So, as a result, on the Left you’ll see a rally against Islamophobia where impeccably anti-racist secular liberals and socialists make common cause with fundamentalist Muslims. (Officially the policy of groups like International Socialist Workers since l’affaire Rushdie in 1989 is to support Muslims “unconditionally but not uncritically”, ie backing their protests against discrimination while challenging them about their theocratic beliefs. Am curious to hear how well this project has been succeeding).
    On the Right, the equivalent is a sort of “cuius regio, eius religio” at global level where the conservative nationalists in each country acknowledge the right of the (historically) majority religion and culture within each country to dominate the public square within that country. So, right-wing Protestant Americans who want the King James Bible in government schools can go along with Modi favouring Hinduism, Netanyahu favouring Jews and Judaism, and Orban favouring Catholicism as a quid pro quo. There will be some friction around the edges – over Christian missionaries in India, over Israel refusing to recognise Messianic Jews as qualifying under the Law of Return – but these can be ironed over. Moreover, they can all agree on Islam and Muslims as their common enemy.

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  2. On the specific issue of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party:
    The problem of anti-Semitism in the Conservative Party is worse than the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The problem of anti-Semitism in British society generally is worse than the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party specifically. It is false to suggest that the Labour Party is one of the most anti-Semitic elements of British society; if anything, the reverse is closer to the truth. The attacks on the Labour Party made by its enemies inside and outside the Conservative Party–the ones that treat it as being exceptionally anti-Semitic–are hypocritical cynicism.
    Nevertheless, if the Labour Party genuinely aspires to achieve anything in the struggle against the (worse) problem of anti-Semitism in British society generally, it has no choice but to begin by tackling the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party specifically, and it should use the EHRC report for whatever value it has as a guide in that task.

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  3. Anti-Semitism stands out more in the UK Labour Party precise because that Party has otherwise had such a solid historic commitment to anti-racism. (Nothing like the ALP’s support for White Australia before 1961, or the US Democrats’ embrace of segregationists through the 1970s). Someone who wrote or tweeted “the Irish/ the Muslims/ the Sikhs are terrorists” would be expelled quickly; protestations that they were only alluding to the IRA, al Qaeda or the Khalistan movement would get short shrift. So when a UK Labour member, councillor, activist, etc says or tweets something about “the Zionists murdering children”, and Labour officialdom shuffles its feet and says “well, it’s just a poetic way of expressing criticisms with actions by the armed forces of the state of Israel”, the contrast stands out. True, conservatives are fine with Boris Johnson (or Prince Phillip) trafficking in jolly racial stereotypes straight out of Sax Rohmer, but that side of politics set a much lower bar for themselves.

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  4. I agree.
    When Labour Party members and supporters judge the Labour Party by standards more stringent than the ones by which Conservatives and conservatives judge the Conservative Party, it is to their credit. When Conservatives and conservatives judge the Labour Party by standards more stringent than those by which they judge the Conservative Party, it is fraud.

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  5. (1) A very on-target comment here https://fredrikdeboer.com/2021/02/19/of-course-israel-is-different/ by dissident leftwinger Freddie deBoer.
    (2) Another factor that the Star of David is both (a) a centuries-old symbol of Judaism and Jewish people worldwide and (b) the flag of a Middle Eastern state whose soldiers frequently kill people (often in self-defence, sometimes unprovoked). Which means that cartoons, placards, etc showing a blood-soaked Star of David – a frequent meme – may well be *intended* to say “the politicians and soldiers of the State of Israel are recklessly indifferent to Arab lives, even by the standards of a war zone” but they are very easily *understood* to mean, “Jews everywhere are out to murder non-Jews”.,

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