Israel and the European Left

The use of Nazi metaphors is a form of verbal terrorism that must not be allowed to take root in the debate concerning Israel and anti-Semitism

European Union flags in Brussels 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
European Union flags in Brussels 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Today, at Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Colin Shindler, professor of Israel Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London will deliver a lecture on the topic of his new book, Israel and the European Left.
Traditional anti-Semitism and anti- Zionism have come from the far Right in Europe, particularly the fascist and racist movements, from the Hitlerist supporters of Oswald Mosley back in the 1930s through to the National Front movements of John Tyndall in the UK, Marie le Penn in France, and neighboring European countries.
While these sentiments have never been absent from some groups, it is fair to say that the period from the 1950s through to the 1980s were relatively calm, not least because of a post-World War II revulsion for everything that had occurred in the name of the Third Reich.
The fascist movements have not disappeared, and there has even been a renaissance of right-wing hatred, focused more on anti-immigrant xenophobia than on the Jews, but they are well monitored by local police and community authorities, and do not pose a major threat for the Jewish communities in these countries.
But what has emerged during the past two decades has been an outburst of anti-Israel sentiment associated with the intellectual Left, those groups who in the past identified with Israel as an embattled minority and who identified with the suffering of the Jews during the first generation after the end of the war.
This has changed dramatically in recent years, and while the focus is on Israel, as contrasted with the wider Jewish community, it is not always easy to distinguish or define a clear borderline between the two.
Shindler’s new book looks at the struggle between Communism and Zionism from the October Revolution to today. He attempts to understand the extent to which such antagonism is a result of opposition to the policies of successive Israeli governments or due to a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
His answer is much more complex, arguing that the new generation of the European Left was more influenced by the decolonization movement than by wartime experiences, which led it to favor the Palestinian cause in the post- 1967 period. Thus the Israeli drive to settle the West Bank after the Six Day War enhanced an already existing attitude, but did not cause it.
This ties in with another important book which was published a year ago by leading British lawyer, Anthony Julius, entitled: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England. This magnum opus on the history of anti-Semitism in Britain goes far back, well beyond the recent activities of the “new” anti-Semites or those of the mid-20th-century fascist movements.
He traces the roots of anti-Semitism back to the aristocratic culture of the 18th and 19th centuries (where a great deal of latent anti-Semitism still has its roots) and discusses the way that this has played out over the centuries through popular culture, literature, politics and in other walks of life.
The major difference between anti- Semitism then and anti-Semitism of now is, of course, the association with the State of Israel. It is far too easy to associate all forms of anti-Israelism with an inbred anti-Semitism. Too easy and too false.
There is real and legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies in relation to the continuation of occupation, the construction of settlements and the refusal to move towards a peace agreement which would grant the Palestinians the same rights of sovereignty and independence that the Jewish state enjoys. And, as hard as it is for so many Israelis to accept, there are many critics of the Israeli government, in fact the majority, who can in no way be labeled as anti-Semitic and who are adopting positions which are shared by at least half of the Israeli population itself.
Equally however, one cannot ignore the fact that criticism of Israel has provided an opportunity for many latent anti-Semites, those who felt uncomfortable at expressing their racist sentiments during the immediate post-War decades, of coming out of the woodwork and latching on to popular anti- Israel sentiment as a convenient, and “more acceptable,” means of expressing their loathsome views.
What is particularly disturbing in this debate, when it gets completely out of control, is when the protagonists begin to invoke metaphors relating to the Third Reich and the Nazi regime to express their sentiments. This has occurred on the extreme Left, including among some intellectual circles, with comparisons between the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the treatment of Jews during World War II.
Even more disturbing has been use of “Nazi,” “Judenrat” and “Capo” epithets by some of the more extreme elements among the settler movement, the hilltop youth and some of their supporters from outside Israel to describe and curse the Israeli army, when the latter are sent by the Israeli government to evacuate illegal settlements.
Anyone using such metaphors, be it from the Right or the Left, has crossed the line of legitimate discourse, debate or criticism. The European Left, themselves the past target of German persecution during that dark period, should know better than to make such an equation.
The use of such terms by right-wing extremists, many of whose parents and grandparents were themselves survivors of the Holocaust period, only serves to besmirch and cheapen the memory of the Holocaust, especially when they are used against the IDF. It is little wonder that some of the settlement leaders and rabbis finally came out with a strong condemnation of such behavior after last week’s events in the West Bank.
The use of “Nazi” slur terminology has also been used as a means of delegitimizing legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies. Just this past week, an Israeli emigrant to the UK, Prof. Efraim Karsh of Kings College at the University of London, used the right-wing, pseudoacademic journal Middle East Forum to attribute such remarks, falsely, to the writer of this column.
The article by Karsh is a pathetic attempt to falsify facts and portray the intellectual Left, be it in Israel or elsewhere, as rabidly anti-Semitic and thus to shut down the debate on any form of legitimate debate and discourse concerning the situation in Israel.
It is therefore refreshing to hear serious scholars such as Shindler and Julius present their findings in a rational and balanced way, without resorting to the disgraceful language of the extremist groups. In this highly emotive debate, there are borders which must not be transgressed, and the use of Nazi metaphors, regardless of whether they are used by the Right or the Left, or even the attempt to falsely attribute the use of Nazi metaphors to critics with whom one does not agree, is well beyond the pale and effectively removes such people from being part of any serious debate.
And when it emanates from “patriotic supporters” of Israel who sit in the safety of their Diaspora homes in the USA or London, it is not only disgraceful, it is outright laughable. It is a form of verbal terrorism which must not be allowed to take root in the debate concerning Israel and anti-Semitism. The issue is simply too serious for that.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.  The views expressed are his alone.