Note to Malia Bouattia: how to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic

April 25, 2016 at 3:16 pm (anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, Middle East, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism, students, zionism)


Above: Ms Bouattia’s version of “anti-Zionism”

Newly-elected NUS president Malia Bouattia claims to have been misunderstood and/or misrepresented regarding her comments about “Zionism”. She is now rowing back on what she said about Zionists controlling the media, amongst other things.

If she is honestly and genuinely concerned about being misunderstood, she should read and learn from this:

  • If you’ve spent any time discussing or reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I guarantee you’ve heard some variation of this statement:

    OMG, Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic! 

    In the interests of this post, I’m going to assume that the people who express such sentiments are acting in good faith and really don’t mean to cause pain to or problems for Diaspora Jewry.  For those good-faith people, I present some guidelines for staying on the good side of that admittedly murky line, along with the reasoning why the actions I list are problematic.  (And bad-faith people, you can no longer plead ignorance if you engage in any of these no-nos.  Consider yourselves warned.)  In no particular order:

    1. Don’t use the terms “bloodthirsty,” “lust for Palestinian blood,” or similar.  Historically, Jews have been massacred in the belief that we use the blood of non-Jews (particularly of children) in our religious rituals.  This belief still persists in large portions of the Arab world (largely because white Europeans deliberately spread the belief among Arabs) and even in parts of the Western world.  Murderous, inhumane, cruel, vicious–fine.  But blood…just don’t go there.  Depicting Israel/Israelis/Israeli leaders eating children is also a no-no, for the same reason.
    2. Don’t use crucifixion imagery. Another huge, driving motivation behind anti-Semitism historically has been the belief that the Jews, rather than the Romans, crucified Jesus.  As in #1, this belief still persists.  There are plenty of other ways to depict suffering that don’t call back to ancient libels.
    3. Don’t demand that Jews publicly repudiate the actions of settlers and extremists.  People who make this demand are assuming that Jews are terrible people or undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jews’ standards.  (It’s not okay to demand Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted/trusted, either.)
    4. Don’t say “the Jews” when you mean Israel.  I think this should be pretty clear.  The people in power in Israel are Jews, but not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders).
    5. Don’t say “Zionists” when you mean Israel. Zionism is no more a dirty word than feminism.  It is simply the belief that the Jews should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the anti-Semitism and persecution they face everywhere else.  It does not mean a belief that Jews have a right to grab land from others, a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews, or any other such tripe, any more than feminism means hating men.  Unless you believe that Israel should entirely cease to exist, you are yourself Zionist.  Furthermore, using “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful.  The word “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution and pretty much none of whom have any influence on Israel’s policies) and is used to justify anti-Semitic attacks outside Israel (i.e., they brought it on themselves by being Zionists).  And many of the Jews IN Israel who are most violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist–they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law).  Be careful with the labels you use.
    6. Don’t call Jews you agree with “the good Jews.”  Imposing your values on another group is not okay.  Tokenizing is not okay.  Appointing yourself the judge of what other groups can or should believe is not okay.
    7. Don’t use your Jewish friends or Jews who agree with you as shields.  (AKA, “I can’t be anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends!” or “Well, Jew X agrees with me, so you’re wrong.”)  Again, this behavior is tokenizing and essentially amounts to you as a non-Jew appointing yourself arbiter over what Jews can/should feel or believe.  You don’t get to do that.
    8. Don’t claim that Jews are ethnically European.  Jews come in many colors–white is only one.  Besides, the fact that many of us have some genetic mixing with the peoples who tried to force us to assimilate (be they German, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian…) doesn’t change the fact that all our common ancestral roots go back to Israel.
    9. Don’t claim that Jews “aren’t the TRUE/REAL Jews.”  Enough said.
    10. Don’t claim that Jews have no real historical connection to Israel/the Temple Mount.  Archaeology and the historical record both establish that this is false.
    11. Don’t accuse Diasporan Jews of dual loyalties or treason.  This is another charge that historically has been used to justify persecution and murder of Jews.  Having a connection to our ancestral homeland is natural.  Having a connection to our co-religionists who live there is natural.  It is no more treasonous for a Jew to consider the well-being of Israel when casting a vote than for a Muslim to consider the well-being of Islamic countries when voting.  (Tangent: fuck drone strikes.  End tangent.)
    12. Don’t claim that the Jews control the media/banks/country that isn’t Israel.  Yet another historical anti-Semitic claim is that Jews as a group intend to control the world and try to achieve this aim through shadowy, sinister channels.  There are many prominent Jews in the media and in the banking industry, yes, but they aren’t engaged in any kind of organized conspiracy to take over those industries, they simply work in those industries.  The phrase “the Jews control” should never be heard in a debate/discussion of Israel.
    13. Don’t depict the Magen David (Star of David) as an equivalent to the Nazi swastika.  The Magen David represents all Jews–not just Israelis, not just people who are violent against Palestinians, ALL JEWS.  When you do this, you are painting all Jews as violent, genocidal racists.  DON’T.
    14. Don’t use the Holocaust/Nazism/Hitler as a rhetorical prop.  The Jews who were murdered didn’t set foot in what was then Palestine, let alone take part in Israeli politics or policies.  It is wrong and appropriative to try to use their deaths to score political points.  Genocide, racism, occupation, murder, extermination–go ahead and use those terms, but leave the Holocaust out of it.
    15. In visual depictions (i.e., political cartoons and such), don’t depict Israel/Israelis as Jewish stereotypes.  Don’t show them in Chassidic, black-hat garb.  Don’t show them with exaggerated noses or frizzled red hair or payus (earlocks).  Don’t show them with horns or depict them as the Devil.  Don’t show them cackling over/hoarding money.  Don’t show them drinking blood or eating children (see #1).  Don’t show them raping non-Jewish women.  The Nazis didn’t invent the tropes they used in their propaganda–all of these have been anti-Semitic tropes going back centuries.  (The red hair trope, for instance, goes back to early depictions of Judas Iscariot as a redhead, and the horns trope stems from the belief that Jews are the Devil’s children, sent to destroy the world as best we can for our “father.”)
    16. Don’t use the phrase “the chosen people” to deride or as proof of Jewish racism.  When Jews say we are the chosen people, we don’t mean that we are biologically superior to others or that God loves us more than other groups.  Judaism in fact teaches that everyone is capable of being a righteous, Godly person, that Jews have obligations to be ethical and decent to “the stranger in our midst,” and that non-Jews don’t get sent to some kind of damnation for believing in another faith.  When we say we’re the chosen people, we mean that, according to our faith, God gave us extra responsibilities and codes of behavior that other groups aren’t burdened with, in the form of the Torah.  That’s all it means.
    17. Don’t claim that anti-Semitism is eradicated or negligible.  It isn’t.  In fact, according to international watchdog groups, it’s sharply on the rise.  (Which sadly isn’t surprising–anti-Semitism historically surges during economic downturns, thanks to the belief that Jews control the banks.)  This sort of statement is extremely dismissive and accuses us of lying about our own experiences.
    18. Don’t say that since Palestinians are Semites, Jews/Israelis are anti-Semitic, too.  You do not get to redefine the oppressions of others, nor do you get to police how they refer to that oppression.  This also often ties into #8.  Don’t do it.  Anti-Semitism has exclusively meant anti-Jewish bigotry for a good century plus now.  Coin your own word for anti-Palestinian oppression, or just call it what it is: racism mixed with Islamophobia.
    19. Don’t blow off Jews telling you that what you’re saying is anti-Semitic with some variant of the statement at the top of this post.  Not all anti-Israel speech is anti-Semitic (a lot of it is valid, much-deserved criticism), but some certainly is.  Actually give the accusation your consideration and hear the accuser out.  If they fail to convince you, that’s fine.  But at least hear them out (without talking over them) before you decide that.

    I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it covers all the hard-and-fast rules I can think of.  (I welcome input for improving it.)

    But wait!  Why should I care about any of this?  I’m standing up for people who are suffering!

    You should care because nonsense like the above makes Jews sympathetic to the Palestinian plight wary and afraid of joining your cause.  You should care because, unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has correlated to an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks around the world, attacks on Jews who have no say in Israeli politics, and this kind of behavior merely aggravates that, whether you intend it to or not.

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a real minefield in that it’s a clash between oppressed people of color and an ethnoreligious group that is dominant in Israel but marginalized and brutalized elsewhere (often nowadays on the exact grounds that they share ethnoreligious ties with the people of Israel), so it’s damned hard to toe the line of being socially aware and sensitive to both groups.  I get that.  But I think it is possible to toe that line, and I hope this post helps with that.  (And if a Palestinian makes a similar list of problematic arguments they hear targeted at them, I’d be happy to reblog it, too.)

    So, Malia:

    1. Do go ahead and criticize Israel.
    2. Don’t use anti-Semitic stereotypes or tropes.
    3. Don’t use overly expansive language that covers Jews as a whole and not just Israel.
    4. Don’t use lies to boost your claims.
    5. Do engage Jews in conversation on the issues of Israel and of anti-Semitism, rather than simply shutting them down for disagreeing.
    6. Do try to be sensitive to the fact that, fair or not, many people take verbal or violent revenge for the actions of Israelis on Diasporan Jews, and Diasporan Jews are understandably frightened and upset by this.

    May there be peace in our days.

15 Comments

  1. Steven Johnston said,

    Are we able to say that their religion is irrational and inhibits class consciousness, so from a socialist point of view it’s a very, very bad thing.

    • Ben said,

      Yes, you can claim that. But you’d be factually wrong.

      Jewish law (the word “religion” does not exist in Hebrew) protects the interests and rights of workers, and was one of the first codes in the history of civilization to do so. By making compulsory a weekly day of rest, and requiring that a fair wage be paid for work, and mandating welfare and aid for the poor, Jewish law is socially progressive. The majority of religious Jews are very poor, since they study Torah and Talmud rather than work, and it is the social conscience and solidarity of other Jews that provides them with the means to feed, clothe, and educate their families and have a roof over their head and health care when needed.

      From a socialist point of view that is a very, very good thing.

  2. Joe in Australia said,

    I think you didn’t read the article, particularly point four.

  3. Steven Johnston said,

    But my attack on Israel would be the same as an attack on any other capitalist state. Unworthy of the support of the working class.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Steven, If you consider all the genocide and dispersal of people from various countries over centuries the emphasise on Israel seems rather disproportionate in my opinion. Should we demand that the natives of South America and North America are given back their lands!
      I am convinced it is down to Judism and anti semitism.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        Well as this a thread on Israel and the jewish faith just giving my opinons on that. Judiasm is vile and reactionary religion that does not help the workers of the World. What can one say about a faith that practices genital mutilation on infant baby boys? In that it is not alone and I don’t single the jewish faith out for being vile, they all are. As socialists religion deserves nothing but contempt from us. But I agree, we should not be selective in our anger.

      • Glasgow Working Class said,

        Steven, some religious people say they are socialists! Is that possible?

  4. Glasgow Working Class said,

    The woman in question was on chanel 4 news earlier. Watch and make up your mind!

  5. Ben said,

    “Murderous, inhumane, cruel, vicious–fine”

    No, that is not criticism, that is defamation and hate propaganda.

  6. Ben said,

    “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a real minefield in that it’s a clash between oppressed people of color and an ethnoreligious group that is dominant in Israel but marginalized and brutalized elsewhere”

    Most Israelis are as dark-skinned as Palestine Arabs, and some are much, much darker. And to describe the recent historical situation of Europe’s Jews, whom Zionism was primarily concerned with rescuing, as “marginalization and brutalization” is to engage in Holocaust trivialization of a particularly nefarious kind.

    • Joe in Australia said,

      Yes, the term “person of colour” is not helpful in this context, because Jews in Europe were identified as non-White, and Jews in the Arab Middle East were (are) a subordinated group, albeit not necessarily on the basis of colour.

  7. jschulman said,

    Re: “Zionism.” As an AWL member notes, the word can really have only one meaning today: “Israeli nationalism.” See: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/26554

    I’m in favor of an equitable two-state settlement if that’s the best that can be hoped for (a bi-national state makes more sense to me but that seems even less likely). But no, Jim, that doesn’t make me a Zionist. All Zionists, from Herzl to Borochov, were wrong to advocate what they advocated. The Zionist colonization movement has not been retroactively justified. And if we’re Marxists we can’t support anyone’s nationalist ideology. It really is that simple.

    • Jim Denham said,

      But we do support their *right* to national self determination (unless we’re Luxemburgists), which a lot of people on the left don’t.

    • Joe in Australia said,

      All Zionists, from Herzl to Borochov, were wrong to advocate what they advocated.

      Herzl became a Zionist advocate after he recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-semitism. If the people who deplored Zionism had spent half as much time combating Jew-hatred there would never have been the need for a Jewish state. In fact, if people would start seriously combating antisemitism today then some sort of fraternal confederation in the Middle East would one day be achievable.

  8. jschulman said,

    Of course I’m not advocating the old PLO version of the “one-state solution.” Of course Israel-born Jews constitute a nationality. But that has nothing to do with Zionism as an ideology or a political movement. That’s just a “fact on the ground.”

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