The Left must confront its unintentional anti-Semitism

While the aims of many pro-Palestinian campaigners are admirable, the left must look at the wider context of Israel and Palestine today

While the aims of many pro-Palestinian campaigners are admirable, the left must look at the wider context of Israel and Palestine today

Peace negotiations have failed and violence on the Gaza strip has resumed once again. As this happens the left and the wider pro-Palestinian movement needs to think hard about how the next intensification of campaigning can avoid contributing to a rise in anti-semitic sentiment.

Many will read that paragraph and immediately react with hostility. A recurrent feature of the last few weeks has been the forceful claims by the pro-Palestinian left that it is not anti-semitic to criticise Israel’s actions in Gaza. Some commentators have also been conscientious in combining their critique of Israel with strong condemnations of those who have used the situation to make overtly anti-semitic attacks.

However, to believe that such arguments and qualifications means the left is now excused of any culpability is to engage in a denial for which the left itself regularly criticises others. 

Left-leaning thinkers and movements have argued for many years that racism and sexism need not be overt to exist. Racist and sexist values are so deeply ingrained into much of our thinking and behaviour that it is quite possible for someone to unintentionally exclude or denigrate black people or women even while actively proclaiming themselves an anti-racist or feminist.

Unfortunately the left is at risk of becoming the bastion of unintentional anti-semitism just as individuals and organisations across the political spectrum purvey unintentional racism and sexism.

The way many rushed to the defence of the cultural venues which took decisions leading to the cancellation of events with Israeli links is a case in point. I have no doubt that the trustees and staff of those venues along with their supporters are deeply hostile to anti-semitism and are as troubled as anyone by the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic activity. It is also to the credit of one of those venues that they have now rescinded the decision to require the organisers of the event to cut their links with Israel.

However, to support an organisation that makes such demands and then claim you are not acting in a way that will leave many Jews feeling deeply uncomfortable is to reveal an ignorance of how central Israel is to the identity, culture and religion of the Jewish people.

Imagine if a venue decided it would not allow a Catholic cultural event to go ahead unless the organisers cut their links to the Vatican because of the poor record of the church on challenging paedophilia within its ranks. No doubt many would feel an immediate pang of sympathy with the venue. After all the history of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is truly shocking and has created enormous misery.

But we would soon recognise that such a demand is impossible for a Catholic organisation to meet given the absolutely central role the Vatican plays in Catholic identity and practice. If the theatre’s boycott were to catch on, we would be in a situation where a well-meaning protest against sexual abuse had rapidly turned in to an effective exclusion of Catholic people and organisations from the cultural life of the country. No-one will have deliberately set out to be anti-Catholic but that will have been the outcome.

The situation is no different for Jews yet demands for a much wider boycott of Israel and Israeli goods is now a staple of the pro-Palestinian movement. Whether intentional or not, the idea that Jews and Jewish organisations could be excluded from the economic, cultural and wider public life of the country because of their inevitably close links to Israel should cause grave concern to anyone who knows the long and violent history of anti-Jewish prejudice which regularly used boycotts as a tool of oppression.

And as recent events have shown, those demanding a boycott could well end up preventing Jews having access to the products (as well as wider cultural and religious institutions in Israel) which are central to the practice of their culture and faith.

Similar concerns should also extend to the political goals of pro-Palestinian campaigners. The ultimate aim of much of the movement and its left-wing supporters is admirable: a long-term negotiated settlement leading to peaceful two-state co-existence. However, under current political circumstances that would require the Israeli Government, its citizens and the Jewish people around the world to accept negotiations with Hamas: an organisation whose founding document quotes the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as though it were genuine, claims Jews run a secret global conspiracy to control the world through organisations such as the Freemasons and blames the Jewish people for instigating both world wars for their own material gain.

Hamas spokespeople have distanced themselves from the Charter since its publication in 1988 but frankly this is not good enough. Any right-thinking person would expect an organisation to make every effort to formally reject such a pernicious document if it were really serious about avoiding anti-semitism. Because Hamas has taken no such action, Israel is being asked to seek friendly relations with a body which is founded upon and promotes ideas which only seventy years ago led directly to the murder of six million Jewish men, women and children.

To dismiss or ignore such concerns, as many in the pro-Palestinian movement do, is again to fail to think through the implications of their own demands for the justifiable fears of Jewish people. If the Hamas Charter had included numerous references to the inferiority of black people, one cannot help but wonder if the left would be quite so willing to close their ears to the complaints.

Claims of unintentional racism and sexism have been used in the past to silence debate and have, on occasion, reached absurd levels leading to accusations of racist or sexist behavior where none exists. No reasonable person would want a situation where awareness of unintentional anti-semitism made it impossible to criticise Israel because it undoubtedly does need criticising. However, it is very important for the pro-Palestinian movement and its supporters on the left to be clear that just because you distance yourself from those using the Gaza conflict to make overt attacks on Jews, you are not excused from thinking far more deeply about the consequences of your actions and demands for the well-being and liberty of the Jewish people.


Adam Lent is on Twitter here

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