Supporting The Palestinian Cause Also Means Standing Against Anti-Semitism


Since Israel began its latest round of bombing Gaza in July, there have been appalling outbursts of anti-Semitic violence and hatred in Western countries.

The instance that I personally found most disturbing was a mob of Germans chanting menacingly “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come on out and fight on your own”.

Whilst there was a strong outpouring of condemnation of anti-Semitism in Germany, this does not mean the issue has been resolved.

In Australia, there have similarly been anti-Semitic outbursts. In one instance, a group of white teenagers got on board a school bus, yelling “Heil Hitler”, threatening to kill the Jewish children on board, and, for whatever reason, bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into their abuse.

There have been other instances of Jews threatened and attacked in Australia, reported on in the Jewish News.

Rallies in support of Gaza have also included elements that have troubled the Jewish community.

The Magen David (Star of David) is a Jewish symbol. It also features on the Israeli flag. Protests on the attack on Gaza have included signs equating the Magen David with the swastika. Signs that equate Jews with Nazism – even if the sign makers think they are merely equating Israel with Nazism – are extremely offensive and hurtful.

Socialist Alliance has incorporated the Holocaust into its rhetoric since at least 2009, when it produced signs saying “Stop the Holocaust in Gaza”.

Some have claimed that all comparisons of Israel to the Nazis or the Holocaust are anti-Semitic. I think this may not be a helpful way of explaining why Jews often take exception to these comparisons and regard them as offensive.

To give an analogy, suppose Ms A survived a brutal rape, and Mr B was a fanatical supporter of action on climate change. When Mr B meets Ms A’s intransigence and lack of concern on the subject, would anyone regard it as a witty retort for Mr B to say ‘Your continued carbon pollution is a rape of the earth, similar to the guy who raped you?’

It’s conceivable that there might be someone out there who would think that that was a good way to appeal to Ms A’s humanity. But I imagine most reasonable people would not require extended argument to understand that that kind of glib remark is, in fact, astonishingly insensitive, and that Mr B is, to put not too fine a point on it, being an arsehole.

At the Gaza rallies, there have been signs with Jews portrayed as Nazis, signs with swastikas, and denunciations of “holocausts” (different words can obviously be used by those who believe that a genocide is occurring in Palestine, which I don’t).

I also don’t think it should require extended argument to explain why these signs are inappropriate, and I imagine many Jews regard it as draining to try to explain why they make us uncomfortable.

Even so, I think signs based in ignorance and insensitivity can be distinguished from those who are less abashed about their distaste towards Jews. For example, the reactionary Islamists of Hizb ut-Tahrir held a rally outside the Egyptian embassy. Wassim Dourehi gave a speech where he claimed that most Israeli Jews carry two passports: “You are migrants, who have come to colonise and to subjugate on the back of your Western masters who paved the way for you”.

He advised Israeli Jews to “return to the lands from which you emigrated, to do so peacefully before you will do so forcefully”.

Earlier, he had explained that this is actually a “civilisational struggle, a conflict between the forces of kuffar, of darkness, and the forces of Islam”. The struggle is actually one to “reinstate Islamic rule”.

Whatever can be said about such ravings, they have little in common with those who seek to improve the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine.

It should also be noted – most Israeli Jews are not of European background, but are Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ethiopian Jews. I am not sure if Mr Dourehi would be in favour of Jews returning to countries like Iraq, or where he thinks Jews who have lived in Israel long before Zionism was invented should go.

A speech in Arabic by a Hizb ut-Tahrir speaker similarly argued that Jews should leave Palestine – they are all occupiers and legitimate targets for jihad. He went on to explain the flaws of Jews, and the many evils in the world he attributes to us (with thanks to my anonymous Arabic translator).

So far as I’m aware, none of the major protests for Gaza have included speeches by Hizb ut-Tahrir. However, when protests for Gaza include people waving the black flag of jihad, or even the flag of Hezbollah, and they chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, it is unlikely that they, or other Islamist contingents, do so in the hope that there will one day be a secular democracy in historic Palestine.

There are presumably leftists who join in these chants, in the hope of an eventual secular communist utopia in Palestine and beyond.

However, at least some protesters chanting this may be expected to share Hizb ut-Tahrir’s agenda, which is for a Palestine which is free: free of Jews.

There may be some who think that this is needless squabbling: the real issue is how Israel treats the Palestinians, and other issues, like anti-Semitism in Australia and abroad, are trivial, or a side-issue.

Those people are wrong. Anti-Semitism is not okay. I do not consider myself as sharing a common agenda with those who want justice and freedom for Palestinians, but not for Jews. If I have readers who harbour animus towards Jews, or who think that we should be expelled from yet another country, all I can say is that I find such views repulsive and unacceptable.

Jean Paul Sartre once wrote that “for the purposes of the anti-Semite, I am a Jew”. I am Jewish – just as proudly Jewish as any right-wing Zionist – and I happily stand in solidarity with Jews against anti-Semites.

Whilst I do not accept justifications for anti-Semitism, it is worth trying to understand why it has increased lately. Deborah Stone from the Anti-Defamation Commission wrote that “There is a documented increase in anti-Semitic attacks at times of increased conflict in Israel.”

Why does this occur? She acknowledged freely: “The Jewish community is facing increased opposition and attacks fuelled by opposition to Israel…. An image of Israel as a violent, oppressive regime has now become mainstream…. Particularly on university campuses, there is a growing antipathy to Israel which flows through to an antipathy towards Australian Jews."

Supposing that Ms Stone is correct – and her thesis is certainly plausible – the questions that arise are why there is an image of Israel as a “violent, oppressive regime”, and why does this perception results in hostility to Jews.

A Jewish News editorial answered the first question by blaming Fairfax and 60 Minutes in Australia. They complained that in a climate of anti-Semitism, Australian media responded “First, by fuelling the fire of anti-Israel sentiment through unbalanced and misleading reporting, and second, by fanning the flames of anti-Semitism”.

This is one possible approach. Hostility to Jews, because of hostility to Israel, is the fault of the media misrepresenting how amazing and perfect Israel is. Yet this approach poses a problem: if Israel really is a “violent, oppressive regime”, isn’t it inevitable that people are going to discover this fact? And if that is indeed a fact, shouldn’t people of conscience oppose violence and oppression?

The second aspect mentioned above typically escapes scrutiny. That is, if Israel is a “violent, oppressive regime”, why are Jews in other countries blamed for this fact? Here, the answer is not so difficult to understand.

Every major Jewish communal organisation wholeheartedly stands behind the Israeli government, even as it commits yet another savage assault on the Palestinians.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and so on – they all support the Israeli government and the Israeli army.

This includes the private lobby group AIJAC, the only major Jewish newspaper in Australia, and all of its columnists.

One of the rallies held in support of Israel was held in a synagogue. If there had been a counter-demonstration, in support of Gaza, it would have been regarded as anti-Semitic.

It cannot be denied that such efforts serve to conflate Jews and Jewish organisations with the actions of the Israeli government.

I specifically say the Israeli government, because that is what they stand by. When I spoke at Limmud Oz last year, Yair Miller, President of the JBD, admitted in his speech on my panel that he, like those in similar organisations, received talking points from the Israeli government during times of conflict.

This is why they all seem to say the same thing: because they all get their “information” from the same source. Not unlike Paul Sheehan, who had to issue a “clarification” for mindlessly reciting as fact the claims of the Israeli army, before issuing a correction because the Israeli army had made an error.

The “clarification” noted that his claim was “based on information provided by the Israel Defence Forces”.

There are Jews who have registered their opposition to Israel’s attack on Gaza – over 150 signed a petition to this effect. Yet our voices have been excluded both from the op ed pages of the Jewish News, and the rest of the Fairfax and Murdoch media.

Most Australians are unlikely to have any idea that there are Jews who oppose what is being said and done in our name, and that we feel shame and anger at this fact.

And it should also be noted: the leaders and representatives of the Jewish community, and their handful of lackeys in academia, do their best to ensure that our views are regarded as trivial, irrelevant, awful, and unworthy of any attention or respect, and that we’re not really Jewish, or not really Jewish in a meaningful way.

The latest example is MP Michael Danby dismissing the contrary views of “the Uncle Toms of the so called Jewish Democratic Society” (sic).

It would cost these organisations and leaders nothing to say that they represent most Jews, but that some Jews vehemently disagree with them. However, they are more concerned with providing propaganda services to the Israeli government than they are with representing the entire spectrum of Jewish opinion on Israel and Palestine.

And they are evidently not concerned enough about anti-Semitism to make the simple point that Jews should not all be identified with the Israeli government, because not all Jews hold the same views as AIJAC et al, which is essentially the perspective of whichever Israeli government is in power.

Furthermore, the devotees of the Israeli government are not content to try to prevent criticisms of Israel merely in the corporate media, like Fairfax. A group of academics wrote to Overland to complain about it printing critics of the Israeli government (they singled out my “particular contribution” as “both embarrassing and shameful to Overland”).

Similarly, the Anti-Defamation Commission complained privately and then publicly about New Matilda running criticism of Israel, and Danby voiced similar complaints, directed at New Matilda and Crikey.

Evidently, some harbour the thought that no-one is to criticise Israel, even Jews.

If their efforts were more successful, virtually no Australians would be aware of any Jewish dissent on Israel.

I should stress: none of this is to defend or justify anti-Semitism, or those who would trivialise it. The latter I have found disturbingly prevalent on Facebook, and it can be found elsewhere. Take, for example, the puerile comments of Martin Hirst on the subject.

After defending section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act from those who would want to abolish or reform it, Hirst decided to explain Jewish identity: ‘“Jewish” is a religious identity, it is not an ethnicity and it is not a nationality, despite attempts by the Zionists (supporters of a “Jewish” “homeland” in Palestine) to fudge an answer, or dodge the question entirely.”

Given his enthusiasm for the hate speech laws, it is interesting that he is unaware that the Federal Court of Australia has repeatedly held that “Jews in Australia are a group of people with a common "ethnic origin" within the meaning of s 18c of the RDA”.

If only “Zionists” deny his claims, one wonders how he accounts for the rulings of the Federal Court. Crypto-Zionism?

Hirst reaches greater intellectual heights, by concluding that Arabs are “also Semitic people”, and therefore anti-Semitism (etc etc – this is an old and tired argument).

Seeing as how Dr Hirst cites the authority of “Dr Google”, perhaps he can consult “Dr Google” on Wilhelm Marr, the inventor of the term “anti-Semitism”, who invented it to describe his hatred of Jews.

Jews did not invent the term because of our desire to privilege our “Semitism” over others – it is a term used by those who hate us to describe their hatred of us.

It is a curious – and I think, callous revisionism, that would seek to reclaim the word from those who have been victimised in its name, purely for the sake of a glib retort.

The National Inquiry into Racist Violence in 1991 agreed with Lipski’s comment that the experience of Jews in Australia has been “overwhelmingly positive… this is not Europe”.

However, it also recorded anti-Semitic attacks, such as “arson attacks on the Temple Emanuel Kindergarten in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood (26 January 1991), the Sephardi Synagogue in Woollahra (26 February 1991) and the Bankstown War Memorial Synagogue (5 March 1991). Later in March, the Arncliffe Synagogue was the target of arsonists. In Melbourne, the Jewish War Memorial kindergarten in Doncaster was also attacked in late January.”

In short, there is a reason that Jewish schools and synagogues have security guards.

There is no reason that one cannot oppose both the Israeli government and anti-Semitism equally.

Edward Said was perhaps the most revered Palestinian intellectual of the 20th century. He wrote eloquently of his horror at the Holocaust, and the need to understand the effect is has had on Jews today:

The sheer enormity of what took place between 1933 and 1945 beggars our powers of description and understanding.

The more one studies this period and its excesses the more one must conclude that for any decent human being the slaughter of so many millions of innocents must, and indeed should, weigh heavily on subsequent generations, Jewish and non-Jewish.

However much we may concur, say, with Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million, that Israel exploited the Holocaust for political purposes, there can be little doubt that the tragedy's collective memory and the burden of fear it places on all Jews today is not to be minimized… there is no reason at all, in my opinion, not to submit oneself in horror and awe to the special tragedy besetting the Jewish people.

Said went on to observe that:

There is a link to be made between what happened to Jews in World War II and the catastrophe of the Palestinian people, but it cannot be made only rhetorically, or as an argument to demolish or diminish the true content both of the Holocaust and of 1948.

Neither is equal to the other; similarly neither one nor the other excuses present violence; and finally, neither one nor the other must be minimized.

Similarly, in Australia, Palestinians like Samah Sabawi, and Fahad Ali in the Guardian have strongly denounced anti-Semitism.

Palestinian author Randa Abdel-Fattah responded to the abuse of the Jewish children on the bus by writing:

Those who think you can fight racism with racism are not only deluded and morally bankrupt, but they have NO place in the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Keep your Hitler and Nazi references and anti-semitic bile away from the Palestinian cause.

I say this not because it will damage the cause. How crude.

I say this because I am opposed to anti-semitism. My father- a dispossessed Palestinian- made me watch Fiddler on the Roof when I was a child before he spoke to us about the conflict, because he always wanted us to separate the issue of Zionism from Judaism (and yes I realise FOTR is full of stereotypes but we were kids and musicals were a hit with us).

To be the daughter of a dispossessed Palestinian because of the racism of Zionism means it is incumbent on me to oppose racism in and of itself, not because it will hurt my agenda.

One day the Palestinians might have their own state or, and I think this is more likely, there will be one state for both peoples.

I will never allow the racism of my people's occupier to change my moral core.

If you think this is about a 'Jewish pathology' then shame on you for not understanding this cause.

If you want to advocate for a free Palestine, then you have a moral duty to educate yourself on what this conflict is about.

If you're not prepared to do that, you are morally impoverished and you don't belong in this movement for justice, dignity and freedom for ALL.'

Samah and Randa are probably the two most prominent Palestinian intellectuals in Australia. It may be said that Palestinian solidarity organisations can go further, and institutionalise opposition to anti-Semitism in their mandates and actions.

But none of us should accept the moral blackmail that opposing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is a form of anti-Semitism.

Such an argument is based on the premise that the rights of Jews in the West is somehow more important than the rights of Palestinians under occupation.

There is no reason that one cannot support the rights of Jews and Palestinians equally, and this should be the position of everyone.

I would like to conclude with the words of Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher was a Polish Jew, who was expelled from the communist party for warning of the dangers of Nazism.

Though he fled Poland to England, the rest of his family was exterminated.

While he undoubtedly bore in mind the horrors inflicted on the Jewish people, the lessons he took from this were universal moral ones. In one penetrating essay, he asked what a Jew was. He replied:

Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.

Deutscher did not think that anti-Semitism was a spent force, and warned that under certain circumstances, like a recession, it could revive.

That is why I think that the role of the intellectuals – Jews and non-Jews alike – of those who are aware of the depth of the Jewish tragedy and of the menace of its recurrence, is to remain eternal protesters: to maintain the opposition to the powers that be, to militate against the taboos and conventions, to struggle for a society in which nationalism and racialism will at last lose their hold on the human mind.

Like Deutscher, I am an atheist and an internationalist. But to this important message, I say: amen.

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.