Seeking inspiration from the past

The story of Pessah exhorts us to resolutely protect our freedom from oppression.

April 4, 2010 20:22
A poster for Israeli Apartheid Week.

israel apartheid week 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)

A posting on the UN Human Rights Council’s Web site, accusing Israeli physicians and the IDF of harvesting the internal organs of Palestinians, is one of the more outrageous and intrinsically pernicious calumnies that have sought to demonize Israel recently. But even more ominous is the proximity of this report to the Pessah holiday, thus more than coincidentally invoking the age-old libel that charges Jews, at this time of year, with ritual murder in order to use human blood to prepare matzot.

Sadly, the specter of the blood libel – the very archetype of anti-Semitism – is but one among a long string of slurs and distortions that are used with increasing frequency and mounting vehemence against both Israel and Jews in general. All of this conspires to drive wedges between Diaspora communities and their host nations and strikes at the core of Jewish peoplehood by seeking to denigrate a fundamental tenet that binds us one to another and links us collectively to the land of Israel – Zionism.

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During Pessah it is of course pertinent for us to reflect on our history and our identity, to look back as we seek precedents that will help us to move forward. The story of Pessah, at once a celebration of our release from servitude and, even more importantly, the first testimony to our right of nationhood, speaks to a duality that has great resonance in today’s world. It exhorts us to resolutely protect our freedom from oppression and to preserve the Jewish collectivity that binds us by culture, tradition, religion – and homeland. Such constructs, though perhaps variably expressed, depending on place and circumstance, are inextricably bound and provide the cornerstones of what defines us as a people.

Anti-Semitism, as broadly perceived, has manifested both openly and in various disguises for hundreds of years. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines this oldest hatred as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews” while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary characterizes it as “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic or racial group.” Such descriptions, while still valid and universally applicable, fail to incorporate any references to the targeted, and systemic, delegitimization of Israel, which has come to be accepted as the principle element of contemporary, or the so-called “new,” anti-Semitism.

It has been left to the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) to include examples of how singling out Israel or Israelis in particular ways meets accepted criteria for ant-Semitism.

SEVERAL YEARS ago, Natan Sharansky began to formulate the new anti-Semitism through what he called his “3D Test,” positing this as a way to help us determine when reasonable criticism of Israeli policies and practices crosses the line into evident anti-Semitism. Sharansky’s first “D” is the test of demonization, his second, the test of double standards (i.e. when criticism of Israel is applied selectively while countries which are obvious human rights abusers escape scrutiny), and his third, the test of delegitimization, when Israel’s inalienable right to exist is denied, “alone among all peoples of the world.”

International human rights lawyer and Canada’s former Minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, provides further clarification of the distinctions between the “old” and the “new” anti-Semitism. “In the past,” he comments, “the most dangerous anti-Semites were those who wanted to make the world Judenrein, “free of Jews,” while “today,” he continues, “the most dangerous anti-Semites are those who want to make the world Judenstaatrein, “free of a Jewish state.”

In a landmark working paper titled “Global Antisemitism: Assault on Human Rights,” he gives form and substance to the defining concepts of contemporary anti-Semitism, with comprehensive proposals that are geared towards properly identifying this innately odious phenomenon, and then examining, uncovering and combating it.

But inasmuch as a framework for expanding the definition of anti-Semitism has become part of the vocabulary that identifies intimidatory, racist and discriminatory practices against Jews (with Israel as “the new Jew”), there is little to suggest that such an articulation has done anything to staunch the anti-Zionist onslaught that remains so evident and so ferocious not only in international forums like the UN and its Human Rights Council, but with permeation also through government bureaucracies, NGOs and universities and colleges across the globe.

As reinforced in a recent review out of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, groups that seek to discredit Israel do so with the aim of isolating the country, demonizing it and ultimately turning it into a pariah state. Their tactics, among others, include the promotion of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns and instigating legal actions against the state and its citizens (the notion of so-called ‘lawfare’).

IN MY MILIEU, a Canadian university campus, we were, during early March, subjected yet again to that perfidious exercise in quintessential Israel-bashing that flies under the banner of so-called “Israeli apartheid week” (IAW). This now annual assault on the sensibilities of Jewish students and faculty has been variously described as a platform for racism, a festival of bigotry and an assault on truth. It is all of these and much more.

In many ways, IAW serves as a microcosm for the broader threats that confront us as a Jewish people. Branding Israel as a state that practices apartheid – akin to South Africa between 1948 and 1994 – carries with it an attribution of criminality since apartheid itself has been defined as a criminal act both by the UN and by the International Criminal Court, through its Rome Statute. By extrapolation, those who are seen to support such a state can be similarly labeled. The intimidating, marginalizing, and possibly dehumanizing consequences that are implicit in such slander should not be ignored. Then add to this the potentially existential connotations inherent in lawfare and BDS campaigns – which were central themes in IAW events this year – and what emerges is a highly toxic brew of both overt and insidious bigotry that strikes at the very essence of the Jewish collectivity.

During Pessah we’re asked to reflect not only on the passage of our ancestors from their slavery in Egypt, but also on the serial oppression of the Jewish people throughout history and into the modern age. With each threat to our existence, whether large or small, we have survived – sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger – but always with the tenacity and strength of purpose to re-assert ourselves and move forward. This ethos is as relevant today as it ever was.

The message of Pessah, a celebration of our identity, should serve as our inspiration to push back against those who wish us harm, whose words and actions – whether scrutinized according to the paradigms of classic anti-Semitism or cloaked in the nuances of its newer iteration – need to be recognized for what they are and addressed accordingly.

The refrain of ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ even if not taken literally, should nonetheless serve as a constant reminder to us of where we’re anchored as a Jewish particularity and what our epicenter should be as we stand in defense of our often fragile peoplehood, linked as it is, inexorably, with the land of Israel.

The writer is a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He chairs McMaster’s Jewish Faculty Association.

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