Here’s an experiment. When you read about the systematic persecution of the Uyghurs in China, what’s your reaction? Do you think it’s acceptable to tweet that the Chinese, as a people, are Nazis? And when you read about the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, do you believe it’s a legitimate response to comment on social media that the Burmese, as a people, are genocidal racists? We don’t see Buddhist temples daubed with swastikas in Europe as a reaction to discrimination against the Rohingya (although Buddhist temples have been attacked in racist incidents believed to be triggered by coronavirus). But we are seeing synagogues in Europe (including a synagogue in Norwich) defaced and attacked following the current violence in Israel and Palestine. It is the Jews, as a people, who are considered guilty. Not just Jews in Israel, Jews everywhere.
Israel is an ethnic state. Zionism was a nationalist movement, its claim to Palestine based on the historical roots of the Jewish people. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 resulted in the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians. Since the Six Day War, Israel has occupied territory illegally; since Oslo, it has expanded settlements and ensured that a two-state solution is unviable. The international community (Arab states as well as the US and Europe) has, shamefully, allowed this to happen. But is it acceptable for the actions of a state (currently resulting in the deaths of innocent men, women and children) to lead to racist abuse against a people?
Not all Jews are Zionists. And there are Zionists, too, who want equality for Palestinians. If you read the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, you will regularly find vociferous condemnation and criticism of the state (from Palestinian as well as Israeli writers). When Netanyahu was moving towards annexation of the West Bank last year, public figures from the left and the centre in Israel signed a petition published in Ha’aretz condemning the action as apartheid. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem declared Israel’s actions to be apartheid months before Human Rights Watch did the same. There are Jewish grassroots movements inside and outside Israel fighting for justice for the Palestinian people.
Yet it is Jews as a people who are guilty. Israel’s actions regularly trigger familiar antisemitic tropes: cartoons of hook-nosed Israeli soldiers dripping with blood who look like Nazi caricatures or claims of a Zionist conspiracy that echo the old accusation that the Jews are seeking to control the world. This kind of expression is not political commentary on the abuses of the Israeli state and not speech that should be protected – it is a racist attack on all Jews. Four men were arrested at the weekend, following an incident in London where antisemitic abuse that incited violence was broadcast from a convoy of cars emblazoned with Palestinian flags (the image at the top of this article is from a video of the incident). According to the Community Security Trust, there has been a fourfold increase in antisemitic incidents since the escalation of the current conflict.
It is a reservoir of prejudice that runs deep. European antisemitism has repeatedly cast the Jews, victims of racism throughout the history of modern Europe, as victimisers – a group that seeks to cause harm and is secretly plotting to do so. It is a chilling inversion of victimhood that characterises much of antisemitism. The Israeli state’s actions play into this narrative, confirming the now ancient prejudice of Jews as oppressors.
We are currently witnessing supremacist nationalism in Israel and a prime minister clinging on to power who has cosied up to the most extreme elements in society. Let’s call it what it is – without resorting to racist abuse. It’s high time for the Palestinians to have their own state and it’s also time for Europeans to let go of a prejudice that rots political discourse and endangers Jews.