The Fine Line Between Criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism

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Einat Wilf arrived in London last week, preparing for what she called on her Facebook page "The war of ideas, words and images waged against Israel." She was not to be disappointed.

Wilf, a media-savvy former Knesset member (who left Labor together with Ehud Barak in January 2011 and was left without a party earlier this year when Barak retired from public life) eager to be involved in Israeli politics again, has made it her duty in recent months, while being employed as a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem, to be a one-woman hasbara machine. She will soon be releasing a paper on how the European left has recycled old anti-Semitic tropes and is now using them against Israel. And London was to provide her with additional research material.

There are no transcripts yet from the Global Diplomatic Forum round-table event at the House of Commons where Wilf spoke, but what was said by one of the participants, Jack Straw, a Labor member of parliament and former foreign secretary, is not disputed. Straw spoke of what in his opinion are the obstacles to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians: Israel's construction of West Bank settlements, which are illegal according to official British policy (Straw branded them as "theft" of Palestinian land); the fact that the European Union has failed in the past to formulate a joint position regarding the occupation, partly due to Germany's reluctance to pressure Israel (according to Wilf, he used the term "Germany's obsession with Israel"); and the influence of the pro-Israel lobby over U.S. foreign policy due to American laws that allow lobby groups to use large sums to back political candidates that support their goals.

Following the session, Wilf wrote a caustic comment on her Facebook page: I nearly fell off my rickety British chair today when former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke at the Round Table Global Diplomatic Forum in the British House of Commons. Listing the greatest obstacles to peace, he said 'unlimited' funds available to Jewish organizations and AIPAC in the U.S. are used to control and divert American policy in the region and that Germany's 'obsession' with defending Israel were the problems. I guess he neglected to mention Jewish control of the media....

Normally, that would have been it. A once senior and now almost retired British politician voices severe criticism of Israel, a self-appointed Israeli hasbarist reacts angrily on social media and the world continues to turn. The forum was neither heavily-attended nor were its proceedings reported anywhere in the media. But Wilf decided not to leave it there and on Sunday, a number of Israeli newspapers and websites interviewed her and published stories on the former foreign minister's "anti-Semitic tirade," saying that he had accused "Jewish money" of perverting American foreign policy.

Straw probably didn't believe his ears when he was told what Israeli newspapers were writing about him; no British paper thought there was anything worth reporting. Finally on Monday, his office released a statement where Straw insisted: "I am not remotely anti-Semitic. Quite the reverse. I have all my life strongly supported the state of Israel, and its right to live in peace and security," and reiterated the points he had made in the debate. In conclusion he wrote, "none of this is 'anti-Semitic.' There are plenty of people in Israel who take a similar view to me – not least (as I do) because they believe that the current approach of the Government of Israel will weaken the position of the state of Israel in the medium and long-term."

So why did Wilf accuse him of anti-Semitism? I asked her that on Tuesday (after being told by Straw's office that he would not be saying anything in addition to his statement). At first she said that "his statement is about three levels less than what he actually said." I pressed her as to what she meant exactly and she said that "he spoke of Germany's obsession to defend Israel in a very negative way."

In what way was it negative? "If he had said Germany's commitment to Israel, I would understand. But obsession is another thing."

Still that hardly makes him an anti-Semite, I said. "I just wrote the post on Facebook," she answered.

I asked, did Straw say the words "Jewish money"? She confirmed that he did not and said she was not responsible for the newspapers writing it.

So do you think Straw is an anti-Semite? I tried to get a yes or a no. Here she launched on the topic of her upcoming report. "There is a symptom today in the European left that they take anti-Semitic messages and make them anti-Israel. These messages are exactly in the style of the old anti-Semitism."

What messages for example? Here she brought an example from what she remembers Straw saying – "unlimited funds available to Jewish organizations and AIPAC being used to divert American policy and intimidate candidates [Straw pretty much wrote in his statement that is what he said]. That is a classic anti-Semitic image."

But what is the problem with AIPAC and other Jewish organizations donating large sums of money to pro-Israeli candidates? I asked her. After all, that is what political lobbies do in the U.S. Why is it anti-Semitic to say so? Here Wilf was less clear, though she said "all the lobbies do it. So what?" Exactly, I said, and Israeli newspapers talk very freely of Israel's influence in the U.S., and I have even heard advisors to Israel's prime minister talk about it off the record, so why is Straw in your opinion peddling a classic image of anti-Semitism? "That's different," she said. "It's like two black men calling each other 'nigger' which is not right but it's not racism."

So apparently, according to Wilf, only Jews are allowed to speak of the effect lobbying and political donations have on U.S. policy in the Middle East. If a foreign politician (even one with a Jewish great-grand-parent like Jack Straw) mentions it, he is dabbling in anti-Semitism.

Straw has been critical of Israel in the past but he was also foreign secretary under Tony Blair, a man generally regarded as the most pro-Israel prime minister in British history. Straw's views may not be welcome to many Israelis but they are certainly within the realm of legitimate discourse, somewhere in the middle of Meretz. Unlike a handful of British MPs, he has not compared Israel to Nazi Germany or called for a boycott or in any way questioned its legitimacy. Calling him an anti-Semite cheapens the term and harms any honest fight against the hatred of Jews. Straw will be leaving parliament in 2015, after 36 years in politics. Einat Wilf's political career has obviously barely started.

Former Knesset Member Einat Wilf.Credit: Emil Salman
British Labor MP Jack Straw in 2011.Credit: AP

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