The smart way to fight British anti-Semitism

Link it to the larger anti-racist struggle, but don’t try to defend indefensible Israeli policies.

By DAVID HIRSH
November 1, 2005 02:45

 
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Isi Leibler's op-ed "Stop Whispering" (UpFront, October 21) represents one important school of thought about how Jewish communities around the world should oppose anti-Semitism. He begins with extravagant claims about the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the UK and contrasts them with a picture of a Jewish community in apparently terminal decline. He criticizes the leaders of the community for timidity, giving as an example its reluctance to organize pro-Israel demonstrations in London. He says that most anti-Semitism originates from the indigenous British community and that "the vast majority of Muslims" support the extremists or are, at least, afraid to oppose them. "If Jews will not fight back," he finishes, they "should consider encouraging their children to make aliya." Leibler says that Henry Grunwald, is "less than heroic" - as if only a hero would do, in such times, as the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He is affronted by Grunwald's comment, "Why must one shout when a whisper can be heard?" "Stop the whispering!" demands Leibler, heroically. BUT IN fact Jews are not so much whispering as muttering and grumbling. British Jewry is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Jews in the UK are worried by two things. Firstly, they are aware of the rise in anti-Semitism. But it is not "soaring" as Leibler claims; neither are Jews in the UK "now regarded as pariahs like their antecedents in the 1930s." But there is a gradual and worrying bubbling up of anti-Semitism. Leibler is exaggerating when he says that the atmosphere in the universities is "awful" yet many Jewish academics and students are aware of the gradual entrenchment of certain orthodoxies that demonize Jews and Zionism on campus. Leibler says that the boycott of Israel was "narrowly reversed." In fact, after open and democratic debate in AUT branches up and down the country, academics overwhelmingly rejected the boycott campaign. But the second thing that many British Jews are increasingly worried about, and the thing that renders them more comfortable grumbling than speaking out clearly, is the fact that the Israeli government has, since the collapse of the peace process, been acting in an indefensible way in its relations with Palestinians. No wonder then, that the Board of Deputies was reluctant to respond to the increase in anti-Semitism, that nearly always comes packaged as anti-Zionism, with a demonstration offering uncritical support to the Israeli government. When such a demonstration was organized, many British Jews did turn out to wave their Israeli flags. But the rhetoric that they heard from Binyamin Netanyahu did not offer them a useful lead in the fight against anti-Semitism. And neither has the official leadership of the Jewish community shown any enthusiasm for Leibler's strategy. And they are quite right. Demonizing Arabs or Palestinians or Muslims is not the best way to oppose the demonization of Israel and Jews. Most British Jews feel this, on one level or another. And so they grumble. They tell each other stories of what they heard somebody say; they feel unease when Ken Livingstone fetes the anti-Semitic Karadawi at City Hall; they feel the academic boycott campaign as an attack; they shake their heads in disbelief when they meet liberal anti-racists who think that George Galloway is a plucky little British hero. And then they hit their foreheads in exasperation when they read that Israel has sent another missile into an apartment block or into a car full of people in what it calls targeted assassinations, or when they are confronted by Israeli plans to build a Jewish-only road network across the West Bank; or when a journalist is shot dead by an Israeli sniper or when an ISM peace activist is run over by an armored bulldozer or when a Palestinian is forced to play his violin at an Israeli checkpoint. I THINK that the reason British Jews do not speak with a clear and loud voice in their own defense is that they don't really know what to say. Many want to criticize Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but they don't want to be disloyal to Israel. They want to oppose anti-Semitism but they don't know how to do this when it comes in a form that seems to defend the underdog and appears to tell the truth about what Israel is doing. British Jews know, in general, that anti-Zionists talk dangerous, unfair rubbish, but many are not skilled in deconstructing their stories. Barking back that Israel is a democracy, that its violence is only defensive, that the Arabs are worse, doesn't feel like it will do the trick. Leibler says that "Jewish youngsters living in a hostile environment" are dissuaded by the cringing leadership of their community from defending themselves publicly. But the truth is not that they are dissuaded, rather that they don't know how to do it effectively. The one thing they do know is that Leibler's way, to respond to self-righteous and bombastic demonization in kind, is not right and will not work. Academics found a different way to respond to the boycotters' one-sided, twisted and racist rhetoric. They did not defend the indefensible. They did not peddle one-sided nationalist myths. What they did was to back peace rather than war in the Middle East and at the same time to reject both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic politics here in the UK. Anti-Semitism is wrong because it is a form of racism. Jews need to make alliances with others who are fighting against racism, not try to wriggle out of trouble by pointing the racists toward another scapegoat. This is easier said than done. It is true that virulent anti-Semitism has begun to spread among some sections of the Muslim community, as well as among some Left and liberal anti-racists. But it is also true that Muslim Bengalis who live in the very same streets in London's East End that the Jews moved on from two generations ago, face a racist threat that has so many striking similarities to those that have been, and are, faced by Jews. I am arguing that the political basis on which the Jewish community has to learn to combat anti-Semitism is one of understanding its fight as an anti-racist one. This is both principled and pragmatic. It is using this framework that Jews are most likely to win difficult arguments about the nature of contemporary anti-Semitism, about the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israel and about the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The only way to fill Leibler's "Jewish youngsters" with a self-confident ability to stand up against anti-Semitism is to give them something positive to argue, about which they can be proud and confident. And it is the tradition of opposing racism that is the key to this, more than the nationalist tradition of "my country right or wrong." The writer is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He was an organizer of the winning campaign against the academic boycott in AUT.

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