When Is An Anti-Semite Not An Anti-Semite?


Once again, the so-called pro-Israel lobby has shown how it feels about debate on Israel.

The latest major episode is the Jeff Halper affair. The Australian Jewish News (AJN) refused to publicise the times and venues of Halper’s talks, and urged the Temple Emanuel to cancel its invitation of him. This was because Halper not only opposes house demolitions, but is "a hardline detractor of Israel", who believes that the state "courts ‘apartheid’".

In a sense, this is a useful demonstration of the sorts of views "supporters of Israel" think the Jewish community should be protected from. Yet, most of these major organisations do not identify as pro-Israel, but as simply Jewish. The Executive Council for Australian Jewry (ECAJ), with all of its underlying Jewish bodies, the AJN, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) are all presented as Jewish organisations, but they are all committed to strongly partisan positions on Israel.

This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they claim to speak on behalf of the Jewish community, even though political opinions by a community organisation are unlikely to ever be entirely representative. Consequently, these organisations often say things that members of the Jewish community — such as myself — strongly disagree with.

Two years ago, a group of prominent Australian Jews, and over 100 fellow travellers (so to speak), released a mild statement on the matter. They thought that their concerns about "uncritical allegiance to Israeli Government policy … should be met by reasoned argument rather than vilification". The signatories were concerned that "the Jewish establishment does not represent the full range of Jewish opinion".

In a sense, this was long overdue. Outside the Jewish community, critics of Israeli policy have long complained that they have not been allowed a fair hearing. One of their specific complaints is that leading Jewish organisations have unfairly accused them of anti-Semitism.

This accusation, by slandering the critic and shifting the debate, prevents honest discussion of the issues, and creates a chilling effect. Those who are willing to criticise Israeli policies run a serious risk of being treated this way, argued these critics. And further, if the leading Jewish organisations would not permit a fair hearing of grievances against Israel within the Jewish community either, then the issues could go entirely undiscussed.

In an immediate response to that mild statement, the Jewish organisations swung into action. As one, they denounced the petition and its signatories. They also arranged a counter-petition, in which they solemnly declared that Australian Jewish "communal roof bodies include a wide range of opinions".

Of course, the "wide range of opinions" plainly does not include someone who compares Israel’s occupation to apartheid. So, what are the uttermost fringes of permissible discussion of Israel within the Jewish community?

Consider the case of Philip Mendes. According to the Jewish News, Mendes was one of the co-writers of the counter-petition. Mendes is a useful example, because he represents the left-most fringe of what is considered acceptable in the leading Jewish organisations. For example, when Antony Loewenstein criticised the AJN on Crikey, its editor suggested Crikey should have asked Mendes to write on the topic instead. Mendes is for the Jewish establishment the "good leftist", who they can point to with pride, as the diversity they are happy to have in their discussions of Israel.

As the fringe left of the Jewish establishment, he is the perfect illustration of the primary concern expressed in the IAJV‘s petition, "that Jewish organisations do not represent the full range of Jewish opinion". Indeed, what is striking is that not so many years ago, he felt able to write that "the ECAJ, state boards and community councils can reasonably claim to represent the entire spectrum of Jewish political and religious positions".

And exactly what are these views of Mendes’s — this furthest "extreme" that the establishment will tolerate or acknowledge within the Jewish community? On Tuesday, Mendes gave a presentation to a Labor Party forum on when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism. He says — as he has said in the past — that there are basically three left wing perspectives on Israel. The first "supports moderates" and condemns extremists on all sides. In his presentation, Mendes gave an example: Julia Gillard defending Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza. This is the only perspective on the left Mendes doesn’t criticise — presumably it’s his view. Israel killing some 1400 Palestinians, and suffering all of 13 casualties in its onslaught is apparently "self defence" in Mendes’ world. The Palestinian right to self-defence, of course, went unmentioned.

The second perspective is also one Mendes thinks someone can legitimately hold. This is one that holds Israel, and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, primarily responsible for continued violence. Mendes graciously permits this camp to raise concerns about aspects of the occupation, discrimination against Palestinians within Israel and the issue of the refugees. While Mendes thinks such people cannot simply be dismissed as anti-Semites, he believes that at least some of them "may reasonably be characterised as unbalanced and naïve at best". Their concerns fall within what Mendes calls "legitimate non anti-Semitic political debate".

However, in the Mendes structure there is a third perspective, which is when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism. These anti-Zionists portray Israelis and their Jewish supporters as "inherently evil oppressors". Manifestations of this anti-Semitism include the view that in the Hanan Ashrawi affair, members of the Jewish community exerted "undue financial and political influence". Believing in the wealth and influence of Jewish organisations (which Mendes calls "alleged") is a sign of this anti-Semitism. These third-perspective anti-Semites often favour a boycott, which he sees as being based on ethnic stereotyping of all Israelis.

Indeed, comparisons and references to Nazis are also a typical manifestation of anti-Semitism according to Mendes. While he hedges this part of his definition, Mendes thinks he’s able to identify someone as anti-Semitic if they make comparisons between Israel’s conduct and the Nazis.

For example, John Pilger is supposedly anti-Semitic, because he is said to have made eight comparisons between Israel and the Nazi Holocaust in an article about the Gaza massacre. While Pilger may sometimes use overly dramatic language, in making these comparisons and assertions of genocide, he was mostly citing other people. The UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine Richard Falk, for example, compared Israel’s siege on Gaza to a Nazi "collective atrocity". Isn’t this a fairly significant comment, worth reporting? By the Mendes standard, it is, a priori, anti-Semitic, and doesn’t warrant consideration.

Socialist Alliance uses "Stop the Holocaust in Gaza" placards. Mendes assumes that they are anti-Semites too. John Docker and Ned Curthoys advocate an academic boycott of Israel, so they’re anti-Semites too. That’s right, even Jews can be anti-Semites if they go outside what Mendes considers the correct margins for debate.

That is the striking part of the Mendes margins. He’s willing to consider the "extent to which the creation of the state of Israel contributed to the historical injustice that has befallen the indigenous Palestinians". However, if someone concludes that this means the endeavour to create a Jewish state was illegitimate, such a person is an "anti-Zionist fundamentalist", and so presumably falls outside Mendes’ room for debate. Mendes allows people to reflect on a resolution of the "refugee tragedy". However, those who advocate a right of return would plainly bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and so we can assume Mendes considers them anti-Semites too.

Consider now what is left of Mendes’ idea of legitimate debate. Everything is open for discussion, until someone disagrees with Mendes’s conclusions, at which point they are anti-Semitic.

Empirically, what Mendes asserts is broadly under-informed. For example, Israeli political discourse has long been accustomed to rash comparisons to Nazis, including comparisons made by and about Israel’s own founding fathers. One may find this language insensitive, but that doesn’t mean it’s anti-Semitic. And what are we to say of Israelis who openly mimic Nazis, painting slogans like "Arabs to the Gas Chambers"?

Another argument these third-perspective anti-Zionists use which in Mendes’s book qualifies them as anti-Semites is mentioning that Zionist Jews collaborated with the Nazis. Yet historian Benny Morris is among those who have noted the attempt by the Zionist LEHI organisation to "establish an anti-British alliance with Germany" during World War II (see his book Righteous Victims, 2001, p 174). Is Benny Morris an anti-Semite too?

If Mendes disagrees with someone, he should not respond by calling them anti-Semitic. He should seek to prove that they are mistaken. He holds, for example, that Socialist Alliance shouldn’t have made placards saying "Stop the Holocaust in Gaza". I agree. I also disapprove of Socialist Alliance’s ongoing devotion to Lenin and Trotsky. The appropriate response to these disagreements is seeking to prove one’s case, using things like evidence and argument.

Mendes thinks Israel should not be considered a racist state founded upon settler colonialism. If he wants others to hold this view, he should seek to prove it, rather than smearing those he disagrees with as anti-Semites. It is about time all aspects of Zionism can be debated in good faith, without resorting to outrageous slurs to obscure the issues.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.