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Time to debate Israel

This article is over 17 years, 2 months old
Recent moves to define criticism of Israel as antisemitic have their roots in the growing questioning of the state among Jews, writes John Rose
Issue 2047
 (Pic: Tim Sanders)
(Pic: Tim Sanders)

An angry debate at the recent conference of the National Union of Students (NUS) failed to stop delegates adopting a dangerously misleading definition of antisemitism promoted by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).

The part of the EUMC definition that declares antisemitism as the expression of hatred towards Jews, their property and Jewish community institutions and religious facilities was not in question.

The problem was with the EUMC’s inclusion that “such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”.

This decision follows a similar one by the authors of the re cent All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism.

MPs here also used an EUMC definition of antisemitism which includes the clause, “Denying Jewish people their right to self determination, by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

Ruqayyah Collector, the NUS black students’ officer, told the Guardian that she was worried now that real debate would be stifled. She may be right.

These “legalistic” and authoritarian manoeuvres need to be understood in the context of the mounting crisis of legitimacy for the Israeli state.

Its defeat by Hizbollah in Lebanon last summer has shaken to the core Israeli public confidence in its army.

In addition, because the cynical encouragement of Israeli terror in Lebanon by George Bush and Tony Blair was given such unusually stark media exposure, Israel’s role as a militaristic tool of Western interests is far more widely understood.

At the same time, even Israel’s traditional liberal supporters doubt its seriousness to conclude a lasting and just peace with the Palestinians.

A book by former US president Jimmy Carter attacking Israel’s increasingly “apartheid” style regime is a bestseller in the US.

International financier George Soros is part of an independent, high-powered US initiative calling for pressure to force Israel to start proper talks with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Serious splits are opening up in the Jewish communities. In Britain, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) is backed by some of Britain’s top intellectuals and artists, such as Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Pinter.

The IJV is challenging the traditional leadership of the Jewish community, the Board of Deputies, and its craven support for Israel.

In the last two weeks a very public brawl has broken out between the Jewish Chronicle newspaper’s top columnists, Jonathan Freedland and the ultra-neoconservative Melanie Phillips.

Freedland has launched a blistering and well deserved attack on Phillips for renaming the IJV group as “Jews for Genocide” and her remark that while “individual Palestinians may deserve compassion, their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project”.

The Union of Jewish Students may have put on a brave united front over Israel at the NUS conference, but the disarray among young Jews is, if anything, even greater.

I was recently a guest speaker at a brilliant event, organised in disused rail tunnels underneath London Bridge station by Jewdas, in their words a “rootless cosmopolitan youth movement”.

Jewdas first hit the headlines when Jewish community leaders called the police to remove them from Trafalgar Square during a recent “Celebrate Israel” rally!

The problem for the Zionists (supporters of Israel) is that far too much truth is now in the public arena and they have to resort to illiberal means to stop it.

The recent publication of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappé, Israel’s leading anti-Zionist scholar, illustrates this point.

Pappé documents, Arab village by Arab village, the extreme violence used by Zionist militias in 1948 to “cleanse” the new Israeli state of its Palestinian Arab majority.

Pappé’s concluding argument is that peace in the region depends upon Israelis confronting the racist roots of their state. But the pro-Israeli Jewish community leaderships are concluding instead that laws must be used, and changed if necessary, to silence critics like Pappé.

Traditions of honest and democratic debate demand that those independent Jewish voices such as the radical US Jewish theologian Marc Ellis continue to speak out.

Ellis has written of a “civil war of conscience” over Israel, simmering under the apparent smooth surface of Jewish communities. As the surface breaks, the left must intervene.

Particularly on the campuses, we should not assume that the view of Israel held by leadership of the Union of Jewish Students is dominant among all Jewish students. It is not.

Many if not most of the thousands of Jewish students start their first year in university with very confused attitudes about Israel. What is required is a sensitive but sustained strategy of political and intellectual engagement with these students.

In every generation, a minority of Jews questions the narrow, pessimistic and bleak conservatism of the organised community’s leadership. We need to provide answers to those questions.

John Rose is the author of The Myths of Zionism, available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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