Anti-semitism is one of the oldest forms of bigotry. Its long and ignoble history includes some of Western civilisation's darkest moments. From Edward the First's expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 to the Russian pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, irrational, unrelenting and vicious hatred of the Jews is a tragic and repeating pattern in history. Too often it has been fostered by Western religious and political leaders and enthusiastically adopted by their propaganda-soaked populations.
Its resurgence in public discourse in modern Europe — after a four-decade hiatus — along with crude Holocaust denials from Iran's leaders, is good cause for anxiety. That anxiety must not be confined to the Jewish people.
Some will therefore be surprised by our decision to not sign the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism.
Drafted at a February 2009 meeting of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (ICCA) held in London, the Declaration contains a number of laudable commitments to stamp out any resurgence of hatred against a people who have historically suffered more than most.
The document however wrongly conflates valid criticism of the state of Israel with anti-semitism.
This is an unacceptable slander on those of us who speak up for the rights of the Palestinians. Criticism of the state of Israel that is motivated by a hatred of the Jews is contemptible. By contrast, criticism that is motivated by concern for a people dispossessed of their land, the consequences of a state that is founded on a religion or ethnicity or the actions of a government that ignores UN resolutions, is a valid contribution to public discourse.
The London Declaration deploys the same tactics that a number of Zionist organisations have relied on in their push to delegitimise political opposition to the expansion of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and the crippling blockade of Gaza.
The Declaration thus excludes many reasoned and fair-minded members of parliament who are deeply appalled by anti-semitism.
The first clause of the Declaration, under the heading “Challenging Antisemitism” calls on Parliamentarians to “expose, challenge, and isolate political actors who engage in hate against Jews and target the State of Israel as a Jewish collectivity.”
Of course, every elected official should expose those who engage in hate against the Jews, as both of us have and will continue to do. However, signing the declaration turns MPs into vigilantes against anyone who raises concerns about the fact that Israel is unashamedly based on a religious or ethnic identity. Using this rationale, critics of Iran, who reject its extremist religious theocracy, would be open to criticism under such a clause. Such concerns are not anti-semitic, nor are they racist. In fact, they are the opposite.
We question why this clause was drafted in this fashion. If the intent was to expose the genuinely anti-semitic critics of Israel, whose sole motivation is to prosecute a hatred of the Jews by targeting Israel, then the clause could readily have accommodated this. We would have gladly signed a declaration that consistently focused on a call to Parliamentarians to “expose, challenge, and isolate political actors who engage in hate against Jews and target any organisation or entity specifically because of its Jewish identity or association”.
A similar problem arises at clause 6 which calls for governments and the UN to ensure that "never again will the institutions of the international community and the dialogue of nation states be abused to try to establish any legitimacy for anti-semitism". This is a strong and entirely supportable aim but then the clause proceeds with "including the singling out of Israel for discriminatory treatment in the international arena".
Critics of Indonesia for its treatment of West Papuans, China for its treatment of the Uighurs and the Tibetans or North Korea for its abuse of its entire civilian population are constantly "singling out" those states "for discriminatory treatment in the international arena".
Boycotts against Burma and Apartheid South Africa were by their nature discriminatory but they were highly effective in facilitating the demise of brutal regimes.
Those of us who refused to purchase South African produce or park our savings with banks that had investments in the Apartheid state were not acting out of malice towards white South Africans. Those of us who successfully called for sanctions against the brutal military regime in Burma were not bigots. But we were arguing for discriminatory treatment of these states. We were singling these nations out for special treatment because their abhorrent actions demanded a response. The same applies to Israel’s unrelenting, and escalating, abuse of the rights of Palestinians.
The same clause in the Declaration also demands that "we will never witness – or be party to – another gathering like the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and other related Intolerances in Durban in 2001".
That meeting, chaired by former Irish President Mary Robinson, was marked by sharp divisions over the impacts and resolution of historical ill-treatment of one group against another. Along with the dispossession of the Palestinians, the conference agenda (pdf) ranged from "reparations for slavery and colonialism, caste discrimination in South Asia, equal rights for ethnic minorities, migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and people afflicted with HIV/AIDS, to self-determination for indigenous peoples".
Discussion of the proposition that "Zionism is racism" resulted in the Israeli and US delegations walking out and the ongoing antipathy of the Zionist movement toward the conference and its successors. The neo-conservative right in both these nations has since worked hard to extend this criticism to the whole of the UN.
Whilst there are some interpretations of Zionism that are compatible with a peaceful, multi-ethnic and religious state, in its name Palestinian homes have been demolished, the granting of Israeli citizenship has been granted based on the grounds of race and religion and illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank have been constructed.
The Durban conference was seen by most observers to have been ineffectual, mostly because it was unable to resolve the slavery reparations issue. Many Africans were left angry and frustrated by the failure of European states to understand and take responsibility for the consequences of slavery.
People who are genuinely opposed to racism would want to see progress on almost every issue raised in the conference's agenda. Many of the matters aired in Durban have become more pronounced and their impacts more damaging in the succeeding decade, including the practices of the Israeli state in the name of Zionism. The fact that a number of long-standing and sometimes bitter divisions regarding race and history were discussed at Durban is not a reason to condemn it. The better course is to learn from both its successes and shortcomings and continue an international dialogue on all these issues.
The London Declaration also attempts to label any move for boycotts as anti-semitic. Clause 24 calls on education authorities to "ensure that freedom of speech is upheld within the law and to protect students and staff from illegal anti-semitic discourse and a hostile environment in whatever form it takes including calls for boycotts".
This is not an isolated attempt to suggest that calls for boycotts of businesses that have links to the illegal settlements or that support the Israeli military are anti-semitic. They are not.
The supporters of Israel have tried to emotionally link the Boycott Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement to Hitler's "Judenboykott" of 1 April 1933. There is absolutely no similarity, just as there is no connection between trade sanctions against Burma and the disgusting behaviour of the Nazis.
The BDS movement focuses on the Israeli connections of a business, not the religious affiliation or ethnicity of its proprietors. Many Zionists and their newly-found conservative Christian supporters refuse to acknowledge there is a difference. However, there most certainly is in the minds of the overwhelming majority of consumer boycott participants. Nobel laureate and physicist Stephen Hawking who is no longer visiting Israel for academic conferences, is not doing so because Israel is a Jewish state but because he can no longer lend his support to the repression of the Palestinian people.
It is a tragedy that the London Declaration is a flawed document. The fundamental intent – to combat and end irrational hatred against a people – is too important to be subverted by the political objectives of Zionism.
Efforts to combat genuine and threatening anti-semitism are undermined by labelling any criticism of the state of Israel and its government as anti-semitic. There are some international actors, with Iran as an outstanding example, who go beyond legitimate critiquing of Israel's policies to what can only be considered outright anti-semitism. This is unacceptable and is rightly the subject of international condemnation.
However, the label of “anti-semitism” must not become the universal response to the growing number of critics of Israel’s human rights abuses. When people of goodwill express their opposition to Israeli soldiers routinely humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints, the construction of an apartheid-style segregation wall through the West Bank or the brutal use of Israeli military force against civilians in Gaza, their motivation is not to denigrate the Jewish people but to highlight injustices perpetrated on the Palestinian people.
Thankfully, for most of the world anti-semitism remains a hateful thing that must be combatted. But there are real dangers in the Zionist strategy. If the tag “anti-semitic” is continually used as a blanket response to all of Israel’s critics, it will lose its potency and its power.
In the long run there is nothing to be gained for either the Jewish or Palestinian people by erecting a barrier to genuine critique of the state of Israel. There are even greater dangers in degrading the battle against anti-semitism in this effort.