What anti-Semites just don't get

In a nutshell, it's their failure to distinguish between Israel and the Israeli government

epa09203317 A member of Neturei Karta (Orthodox Jews United Against Zionism) poses as People attend a protest in support of Palestine in the 73rd anniversary of Nakba Day, in Washington, DC, USA, 15 May 2021. The protest was held in support of Palestinians during the ongoing violent confrontations with Israeli security forces that has left at least 140 people killed in Gaza and seven in Israel, according to local authorities. 'Nakba,' or 'catastrophe, which is marked on 15 May refers to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent expulsion and displacement of Palestinians from their land. Palestinians keep old fashioned keys as a symbol of the homes they left behind and one day want to return to, many families still have the keys to their old homes from 1948.  EPA/GAMAL DIAB
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After the devastation of Gaza, international sympathy for the Palestinian cause has probably never been higher, and that is to be welcomed. There is a serious caveat, though: and that is that well-meaning solidarity for a people who have suffered discrimination, dispossession and death cannot be allowed to justify vicious hatred of Israel or of Jewish people around the world. This should not need to be spelt out. Genuine advocates for Palestine are implacable in their rejection of anti-Semitism and have no need to defend themselves against any such charge.

But there has been an alarming rise in anti-Semitic incidents by perpetrators who, however falsely, drape themselves in the Palestinian flag. In north London, a convoy of cars covered in just such flags drove through areas with many Jewish inhabitants, blasting out unprintable threats. According to the Community Service Trust, a UK charity, there has been a 500 per cent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the past few weeks. In America there has been a similar spike, with the words "Free Palestine" and "Die Jew" often horribly linked. After a series of unprovoked physical attacks on men wearing yarmulkes in the US and in Europe – one thought he was going to be killed – it is clear that it is not safe for people to wear clothing identified as Jewish in public. This is appalling.

It may be said that these crimes were committed by bad actors who were misusing the Palestinian cause. That may be true. But what about the tolerance of anti-Semitic words and imagery at demonstrations? At a mass gathering in London on Saturday, one placard bore a picture of Jesus carrying the cross, with the words “Do not let them do the same thing today again”. Why did no one nearby insist that such anti-Jewish propaganda, along with all the signs mentioning “Hitler” and “the Nazis”, be removed and destroyed?

epa09205160 Participants of a vigil against anti-Semitism gather in front of the Synagogue in Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany, 16 May 2021.  An initiative against anti-Semitism in Berlin has called for the vigil to show solidarity with the Jewish community. On 14 May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned antisemitic incidents against synagogues in Germany motivated by the current violence in Israel and Gaza.  EPA/FILIP SINGER
Participants of a vigil against anti-Semitism gather in front of the Synagogue in Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany this week. EPA

Similarly, I heard no one interrupt the speaker who called on the crowd to “march on Marks and Spencer". What could be more quintessentially British than dear old M&S, which supplies me with home comforts such as sultana scones and hot cross buns even in my home in Kuala Lumpur? But no. To this speaker, because the firm’s founders were Jewish, it is “like the Israeli embassy on the high street” and should be boycotted and picketed. It takes a particularly circuitous logic to see how threatening the livelihoods of ordinary Britons would improve the lot of Palestinians one bit.

As a child in the Britain of the 1970s, it seemed to me that anti-Semitism belonged in the past, with a history so abhorrent that it could never be revived. Jewish people, I thought, had become just another minority like my fellow Catholics of Irish descent. Later, as a student, I became aware that it lived on, but more as a nasty little prejudice often among the upper and upper-middle classes, and rarely mentioned except in company assumed to share this vice.

Today, however, it is obvious that a virulent anti-Semitism is thriving all too well, and finding fertile ground in a section of the anti-imperialist left. There could be many explanations for this, but I have my own theory about why people who ostensibly vehemently oppose racism of every kind may be susceptible to this.

Part of the problem may be that it has been so long since there was an Israeli government that appeared properly committed to a two-state peace process, that the distinction between “Israel” and an Israeli government has been lost. Many of those angry with successive administrations now see the country as a whole as the issue. And they don’t just dislike it. They loathe it.

In this context, I don't believe it's useful to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa, even though two respectable organisations, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem and Human Rights Watch in the US, have now done so. (I exempt from this anyone who is Israeli, as they certainly have the right to call their country whatever they want.)

epa09202186 Participants rally as they gather on 'Day of the Naqba' at Heumarkt in Cologne, Germany, 15 May 2021. Nakba means catastrophe, referring to the flight and expulsion of Arab people from the British Mandate territory of Palestine until the 1949 armistice following the Palestine War, which was waged by six Arab states against the state of Israel, founded on 14 May 1948. The escalated Middle East conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians is also echoing in North Rhine-Westphalia. Pro-Palestine demonstrations and rallies against anti-Semitism have been registered throughout Germany.  EPA/SASCHA STEINBACH
Participants rally as they gather on 'Day of the Naqba' at Heumarkt in Cologne, Germany. By painting Israel as an apartheid state, one fails to recognise that there are all sorts of shades of opinion in that country. EPA
A virulent anti-Semitism is finding fertile ground in a section of the anti-imperialist left

This is because South Africa was different. It was a pariah state by the end. The world wanted the white supremacist regime to be overturned, and it was. If Israel, on the other hand, were to treat its Palestinian citizens equally and negotiate the birth of an independent state on its 1967 borders, it could still – just conceivably – end up electing Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. This would not be an outcome that would sufficiently satisfy hardline critics of Israel.

Moreover, it must be recognised that there are all sorts of shades of opinion in Israel, which painting it as nothing more than an apartheid state does not. There was a time, it should be remembered, in the 1960s and 70s when it was much admired as a country where social democracy had succeeded triumphantly.

Treating Israel like apartheid-era South Africa risks demonising it as uniquely evil. If you believe that, it is not a big step to ascribe the same sins to all who support or identify with the country in any way. And if you are not an anti-Semite by then – because many Jewish people unsurprisingly have a special place in their hearts for Israel, even as a romanticised ideal and not the compromised reality of the past few decades – you may have had a narrow escape.

This may be an overly charitable explanation for why some have drifted into an anti-Semitism they themselves cannot acknowledge. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe, instead, many have fallen prey to a grotesque but ancient bigotry that I have never been able to understand.

What is crucial, however, is to maintain the distinctions between the actions of an Israeli government; a populace that contains multitudes – as does the Jewish diaspora; and a state that has the right to exist just as surely as Palestinians deserve their own. So cheer the outpouring of support for Palestine. But be sickened – yes, be shocked to your core – that Jewish people around the world once again fear for their safety, and possibly their lives, for no reason but they are Jewish.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National