Anti-Semitism Must Not Be Fought With Bigotry

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In the last weeks anti-Semitism has been in the headlines for a number of reasons. The most obvious was the Daily Mail’s smear campaign against the Miliband family, in which Labor leader Ed Miliband was attacked indirectly by questioning the loyalties of his father, Ralph Miliband, a Marxist philosopher and Jewish immigrant who had served in the British army during World War Two. Most serious commentators, like Jonathan Freedland, have made clear how ugly the attacks on Ed Miliband and his father were, and how thinly disguised the anti-Semitic subtext is.

The second event was the publication of the annual report of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights that was timed to coincide with the commemoration of 75 years after the Kristallnacht. It was devoted to the experience of anti-Semitism of European Jews, which showed that an unsettling percentage of Jews in Europe feel threatened by anti-Semitism, were victimized in anti-Semitic events or know Jews who have had such experiences.

Another event commemorating the Kristallnacht was a conference about anti-Semitism held at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The keynote speaker was Oxford philosopher Brian Klug. A remarkable number of Jewish publicists and professors condemned the choice of Klug, in some case using vitriolic language. The reasons given were that Klug is one of the founders of Jewish Independent Voices, an association of British Jews who defend the right of British Jews to voice criticism of Israeli policies, and that in a 2004 article in The Nation he had questioned the thesis that criticism of Israel shows a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism.

A lot can be learned from these three events. The despicable attack on the Miliband family exemplifies beyond any doubt that anti-Semitic sentiment has certainly not disappeared. It is not just to be found in the rabid forms of the Hamas Charter that makes use of the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' one of history’s most notorious anti-Semitic forgeries, but also, more subtly, in a mainstream publication of the British press like the Daily Mail.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights' report shows that most of Europe - including the governance agencies of the EU - are well aware of the depth of anti-Semitism, and that they do what they can to call attention to it and propose steps to combat it. Most European countries by no means deny that anti-Semitism exists and that it should not be brushed asides as trivial, irrelevant or unworthy of our attention.

The sustained criticism of the choice of Brian Klug to speak at the Berlin Jewish Museum’s conference on anti-Semitism shows that many of Israel’s well-meaning friends, mostly Jews from the political right, still have not realized that they are choosing a disastrous way of combating anti-Semitism: they conflate between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policies, and they do so by applying stereotypes to everybody who disagrees with these policies. In other words: they use bigotry to combat anti-Semitism.

I originally came to know Klug when I participated together with him and Steven Rose, one of the initiators of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign against Israel, in a written discussion about Israel, the occupation and the BDS campaign on occasion of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary on The Guardian’s website. As opposed to Rose, who cannot find a good word to say about Israel and supports boycotting Israel’s academia, Klug’s position was warm and differentiated. Brian Klug is deeply attached to Israel, and he is profoundly worried about the impact of Israel’s occupation and settlement policies on Israel’s future.

Why then the outcry about the choice of Brian Klug? The reason, I think, is that Klug has been a vocal advocate for pluralism in Jewish debates about Israel. Klug has always argued that it is unhealthy if a collective tries to impose a unified party line.

Specifically he thinks that Jews, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, should not be expected to support policies by Israeli governments that run against their values. In addition he has made a strong argument that dissent and vigorous discussion is an essential element of Jewish tradition, and that shutting up dissent ianti-s not only undemocratic but also profoundly un-Jewish.

I agree wholeheartedly with Brian Klug on this matter. I think that delemilibandgitimizing dissent is indeed profoundly un-Jewish. But in addition it is the wrong way to combat anti-Semitism. Let me make it clear: I take anti-Semitism very seriously. It is one of the most lethal manifestations of one of humankind’s ugliest traits: bigotry. Unfortunately xenophobia is hardwired into our genetic heritage. The hate of members of other groups is deeply engrained in our nature, as anthropologist Jared Diamond has shown in his seminal The Third Chimpanzee.

As Jews, we have unfortunately come to know the lethal power of hatred of the other all too well. As Jews and human beings we must fight bigotry, racism and the violation of human rights wherever it is found. But we must never fight anti-Semitism by making use of the very trait that we are combating: bigotry. I closely know many gentiles who are genuine friends of Israel, but are deeply concerned by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the continued expansion of settlements. They are deeply offended when they are accused of anti-Semitism for voicing their criticism of these policies and their concern that Israel is undermining its future as the democratic homeland of the Jews by deepening Israel’s hold on Palestinian territory. Such accusations do nothing but alienate genuine friends of Israel.

Similarly, Jewish critics of Israeli policies must not be delegitimized by applying a whole range of stereotypes falsely, as Gerald Steinberg, Founder and Chair of NGO monitor, does in calling Brian Klug “an immoral anti-Zionist who seeks to deny the Jewish people sovereign equality and the right to self-determination,” none of which is true and makes use of inflammatory language.

Fighting anti-Semitism through bigotry is self-defeating. It is certainly true that anti-Semitism motivates some criticism of Israel. I have studied the sources of global terrorism for a decade, and I am deeply concerned by the depth of anti-Semitism to be found in many forms of radical Islam, and I take any form of anti-Semitism very seriously. But over-generalizing this concern by claiming that all criticism of Israeli politics is motivated by anti-Semitism is intellectually shallow, morally wrong and politically unwise because it weakens our case against anti-Semitism by over-using the term.

Hungarian MP Balazs Lenhardt, left, formerly member of Jobbik party, burns an Israeli flag during a demonstration in Budapest, Hungary. Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.Credit: AP