Borderline Views: Smoke screen strategies

Borderline Views Smoke

Under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry, the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism will have a two-day conference in Jerusalem this week. Participants will include many Jewish community leaders from throughout the world who are actively involved in fighting anti-Semitism, along with a number of parliamentarians from other countries. Most notable among these is the Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament, former Canadian attorney-general Irwin Cotler, and the Labor member of the British Parliament who chairs the cross-parliamentary forum on anti-Semitism, John Mann. Empirical evidence shows clearly that there has been a growth in incidents of anti-Semitism in the Western world in recent years - in both Europe and North America. This is reflected in the daubing of swastikas on synagogues, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and, more significantly, an increase in the public discourse - be it in the media, conferences or public lectures - questioning the citizenship rights of Jews and their potential dual loyalties. Vast amounts of money have been devoted to strengthening existing community organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in North America, or in creating new community watchdogs, such as the Community Security Trust (CST) in the UK. But there are some major differences between much of the contemporary anti-Semitism and that which was rampant 50 and 60 years ago. WHILE THE main focus for anti-Semitism in the past emanated from the the right-wing fascist and neo-Nazi movements, much of the contemporary anti-Semitism, often coined as constituting the "new" anti-Semitism, is seen as having its roots in a combination of left-wing intellectual circles and/or Muslim communities who have taken up residence in Western societies. The neo-Nazis have not disappeared - just look at the growth of the British National Party - but they play a relatively small role in the contemporary discourse of anti-Semitism. A major problem in coming to grips with contemporary anti-Semitism is the inability, or perhaps unwillingness, of many community leaders to distinguish between critique of Israel and the policies of its government with that of anti-Semitic behavior. For many, the two have become synonymous. Not only is this erroneous in many cases, but it also cheapens the use of anti-Semitism as a legitimate argument when real cases occur (discrimination against Jews for being Jews) and often weakens the effective response to such incidents. The lines between being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel are becoming increasingly blurred and difficult to distinguish. Much of the anti-Israel discourse is indeed responsible for opening the back door for the real anti-Semites to walk in and manipulate the situation for their own objectives, especially when criticism of Israel - legitimate or otherwise - is a one-sided rather than balanced discourse. But it is essential that we do make this distinction, if we are to combat non-Israel related anti-Semitism when and where it occurs. Linking anti-Israel criticism with anti-Semitism has also, unfortunately, become part of the battle between right and left wings in Israel. While extremist right-wing criticism of Israel, like that which took place following Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement of the 10-month settlement freeze last week, is seen as being no more than an overzealous form of patriotism, left-wing criticism of government policy is immediately portrayed as being the anti-Semitic rantings of "self-hating Jews." The use of the term anti-Semites by West Bank settlers to describe the government officials who had been sent to ensure that last week's construction freeze was being carried out was nothing less than reprehensible. The anti-Semitism argument is increasingly being used by the right to delegitimize any left-wing critique and, as such, is endangering Israel's democracy as well as shutting down the open debate concerning Israel's policies in Jewish communities throughout the world. IT IS perhaps ironic that it is the Foreign Ministry that is hosting this week's important event, under the auspices of its Department for Combatting Anti-Semitism. By continuing to present itself as a country under siege and facing potential extinction, much of the raison d'etre for Israel's existence is a continuation of the anti-Semitism discourse - always threatened, always in danger. This contrasts strongly with Israel's real position as a strong and vibrant country, independent, able to hold its own and a home for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the free world who did not necessarily flee the threat of discrimination and persecution. It would be false to suggest that Israel promotes anti-Semitism. It would be an erroneous and callous policy were it to do so. But equally, many policy makers are not entirely unhappy with the way in which the anti-Semitism argument is used as a smoke screen for their inability to deal with criticism of Israeli policies. It is much easier to garner world support against anti-Semitism than it is against the policies of a state, especially as some of this criticism is shared by large sections of the Jewish community both inside and outside Israel. The continual focus on anti-Semitism is also used as a means of persuading larger number of Jews to come on aliya for all the wrong reasons, the lowest common denominator - fleeing the threat (sometimes real, sometimes perceived, often exaggerated) rather than coming for the positive reasons and thinking of what they can contribute to this dynamic society. And then there are those leaders, both here and in the Diaspora, who simply do not know how to deal with a situation in which a threat - be it to Israel or be it to Jews - is not at the core of their communal activism. For many, their entire raison d'etre for becoming involved is to stand up for the besieged and the threatened. I often encounter members of local communities standing outside synagogues and other communal events checking people as they enter, but who would never dream of setting foot inside the building to listen to the lecture, or take part in the prayer service, once their security duty was over. If and when the threat were to disappear, would these people have any form of positive cultural or religious means of identifying with their people? Would they be able to attain the same positions of leadership and prominence in promoting education and ethics, rather than fighting racism and threat? It's a hard one to unravel. The lines are blurred. But it is to be hoped that this week's gathering of world Jewish leaders and community activists will take time out to rethink the way in which the anti-Semitism argument is used as a means of combatting xenophobia and racism, rather than as an excuse for simply opting out of the hard political debate which surrounds Israel and its place in the community of nations. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.