BIG READ: When words lose their meaning, truth is not the only victim
Anti-Semitism is no longer hatred of Jews; it is now failure to accept the biases of Europe’s elites
Over the past month, the liberal democracy that is meant to reign in Europe and North America has been under assault — from within. In countries that portray themselves as bastions of freedom at war against tyranny, protests have been banned, media have silenced voices that challenge the official view, and people have lost their jobs or suffered other sanctions purely because of the opinions they hold.
This self-inflicted flight from freedom is triggered by the West’s lockstep support for the Israeli state. It may surprise many, but its seeds were planted decades ago. They lie in a new ploy by people who harbour very old prejudices — it defends racial and religious prejudice by portraying its opponents as racial bigots. This stratagem, where it comes from and what it means, is the topic of my newly published book Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning.
The voices that are being suppressed in countries that claim to be free are critical of the Israeli state’s assault on Gaza and its refusal to recognise the rights of Palestinians. They are not muzzled for urging violence. Britain’s home secretary unwittingly acknowledged this when she wrote to the police insisting that the phrase “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” incited terrorism and was therefore a crime.
This silencing of views that are firmly within the range of permitted speech in any functioning democracy is justified by the claim that they encourage terrorism when they clearly do not (much as SA’s apartheid government once labelled as communist those who advocated nonracialism) or that they are anti-Semitic, which means that they express hatred towards Jewish people. This claim is particularly odd since many of the people labelled as anti-Jewish are Jews.
The anti-democratic reaction is not simply or even mainly an extreme response to the violence of October 7. The assault on free speech on Palestine was in full swing well before then. It is one reason violence racks the Middle East today.
Almost a half century ago (in 1974), two Americans, Arnold Foster and Benjamin Epstein, published a book titled The New Anti-Semitism. They claimed that the old forms of hatred against Jews had been replaced by something that looked benign but was as sinister as the older anti-Jewish bigotry. Over the next decades, a series of books by a range of authors made similar arguments.
The “new anti-Semitism” against which they railed was certainly new. But it was hard to see how it could be branded anti-Jewish. One of its sins, one book claimed, was to create a climate in which “war is getting a bad name and peace too favourable a press”. Among the opinions labelled anti-Semitic were campaigning for the end of America’s electoral college, urging cuts in its military budget or opposing nuclear power.
How could any of this be labelled anti-Jewish? A cursory reading of this writing revealed the answer. Anti-Semitism was no longer prejudice against Jews; it was now criticism of the Israeli state. The peddlers of the “new anti-Semitism” were interested in protecting not Jewish people but the Israeli state. Giving war “a bad name” meant criticising repeated Israeli state military actions. The electoral college was said to protect Israeli state interests (though it does not) and nuclear power was considered necessary to lessen Western dependence on oil and so limit “Arab influence”.
It is therefore not surprising that research shows that this “new anti-Semitism” was invented not by Americans but by the state whose interests it serves. Israeli scholars have shown that it was born in discussions within the Israeli government and then exported to the US.
The claim that opposing the Israeli state shows bias against Jews could itself be seen as anti-Jewish racism. There has always been Jewish opposition to building a state for Jews only when many of its inhabitants are not Jewish. To insist that all Jews support the Israeli state is much like saying that all whites supported apartheid when the SA state was for whites only. It is anti-Semitic because it assumes that all Jews support the actions of the Israeli state no matter how badly it behaves.
Despite its illogicality, labelling critics or opponents of the Israeli state as anti-Jewish racists has grown in influence over the decades. And it has been warmly embraced by the governments of Europe and North America despite its illiberal roots.
A core vehicle of this attempt to discredit anyone who opposes the Israeli state is the definition of anti-Semitism devised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which was established by Western governments and to which all the major Western countries belong. It labels as anti-Jewish racism criticism of and opposition to the Israeli state.
The definition has been used repeatedly to suppress free political expression in Western countries. It has inspired laws that restrict boycotts of the Israeli state even though the right to choose what to buy or not buy or whom to associate with is central to democracy. And it inspires a slew of actions by Western institutions to deny a people their jobs or prevent them being heard.
If anyone doubted that all this is designed to protect a state rather than a people, many of the people who are victims of the alliance’s definition are Jews — like 82-year-old Diana Neslen, a regular synagogue-goer and observer of Jewish dietary laws who was threatened with expulsion from the British Labour Party for tweeting opposition to the Israeli state. She is not alone. Jewish members of Labour are far more likely to be expelled for “anti-Semitism” than non-Jewish members.
As the weeks since October 7 have shown, giving the Israeli state a free pass while claiming to protect Jews — and targeting Jews in the process — has become standard fare in all major western states. As one of many examples, US President Joe Biden’s spokesperson labelled American Jews, including more than a few rabbis, who called for a ceasefire to end the Gaza violence “repugnant” and “disgraceful”. Jews are used to being labelled in this way by non-Jews. The difference now is that those who label them claim to be fighting anti-Semitism.
All this is deeply ironic since the people who are being labelled racist are, in reality, anti-racist. Their problem with the Israeli state is not that it is run by Jews (particularly since many are Jews). It is that it proclaims itself a state for one ethnic group only and so denies rights to people in the state’s territory who do not belong to that group. In 2019, the Israeli parliament passed a law declaring that the state belonged to Jews only, which is no different from declaring that a state belongs to whites only when many people in its territory are black. The people who are labelled also oppose the products of this denial of rights to others: the state’s refusal to negotiate with Palestinians and its constant use of violence.
By falsely labelling them peddlers of race hatred, Western governments are ensuring that the Israeli state does not need to account for its actions and so can act with total impunity. They also contribute to violence against Israelis and Palestinians. By closing off peaceful avenues of Palestinian expression, they strengthen those who insist that violence is the only way.
This has turned history on its head. Not long ago, the West did not fight anti-Semitism. Prejudices against Jews were then as central to the world view of decision-makers in Europe and the places where Europeans settled as blind support for the Israeli state is today.
Many Europeans and their descendants in other parts of the world still harbour anti-Jewish prejudices. But it is precisely these Europeans who are often the most vocal supporters of the Israeli state. When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol on January 6 2021, hoping to overturn his defeat at the polls, some of the demonstrators wore violently anti-Jewish T-shirts celebrating the Nazi genocide or complaining that not enough Jews had been killed. They also proudly carried the Israeli flag.
The demonstrators were white supremacists; Jews have always been one of their targets. But they admire a state that is used by one ethnic group to dominate others and routinely uses violence to remain in charge, but still enjoys the support of the West. They are comforted by the fact that, in at least one state, the old European order in which respectable people believed that one group had the right to always rule over others is still alive. That those who do the ruling are Jewish is forgiven in the enthusiasm for this replica of Europe’s past.
The Israeli state is also attractive to anti-Semites because it discourages Jews from living in their countries. Arthur Balfour, the British foreign minister who issued a declaration supporting a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, was an anti-Semite who warned of the “dangers” of Jewish immigration to the UK. Offering Jews a “home” in Palestine was presumably one “solution” to that problem.
This is why some of the firmest supporters of the Israeli state are white supremacists or right wingers who express very old prejudices against Jews. They include Trump, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Hungarian President Viktor Orban. Support for the Israeli state has become as central to the extreme right’s beliefs as doubting democracy or labelling immigrants.
But why does the Western mainstream give the Israeli state a blank cheque by smearing and trying to muzzle its (often Jewish) opponents? Part of the reason may be guilt about Europe’s role in spreading anti-Jewish hatred. There is, of course, much to be guilty about. But insisting that Palestinians should pay the price for Europe’s guilt is a deeply colonial view. And it is not the only such prejudice behind the attack on free speech.
The US-based Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, whose title inspired my book, tells us that Europe has two attitudes to war. When the war is between Europeans or their descendants elsewhere in the world, the “laws of war”, with their protection of civilians, should apply. When war is waged by Europeans against people who are not European, only the “laws of nature” apply — these insist that might is always right.
He argues that the Nazi genocide was not unacceptable to the West because millions of innocents were slaughtered. Europeans did precisely that in the Congo under King Leopold and in Namibia at the turn of the 20th century and virtually no-one in Europe cared. Only the “laws of nature” were in force. But the Nazis murdered people who lived in Europe and this was unforgivable.
If we doubt Mamdani’s analysis, we need only look at today’s headlines. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is recognised as a crime. But when the Israeli state does the same or worse to Palestinians, it is assisted with aid, weapons and a veto at the UN Security Council. Ukrainians are Europeans and so they are entitled to the “laws of war”. Palestinians are neither.
Until the Nazi mass murder, Jews were in Europe but not of it. Many Jews lived in Europe and that made them part of its reality, even if they were often discriminated against because they were not European enough. After World War 2, having seen what bigotry could do to other Europeans, Europe’s leaders accepted that Jews were now fully European and so entitled to Europe’s protection.
But something else was also at play. To understand this, we must look at the thinking behind the Israeli state. Zionism, the ideology that created the state, is often seen as the vehicle of Jews who are very proud to be Jewish. Jewish opponents of the state are, therefore, labelled “self-hating” because they don’t much like who they are. The opposite is true.
The founders of Zionism, such as Theodor Herzl and AD Gordon, or psychologist Sigmund Freud, who was sympathetic to the movement, didn’t much like Jews. They agreed with the anti-Semites of their time that Jews did not meet the “standards” of “civilised” Europe. The only difference between them was that the Zionists believed that Jews were not inferior by birth and so could become good Europeans if only they, too, had a state.
So, the state was not meant to be a place where Jews could be Jews. It would, rather, be one in which they could become Europeans. In Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, a novel in which he spelt out the details of the Jewish state he hoped to create, German is one of its official languages. Its Jewish citizens attend the opera in top hat and tails and engage in duelling because it adds “French refinement” to their lives. They have created a little Europe in the Middle East.
This is precisely what the Israeli state has become. It is often called “the only democracy in the Middle East”. It is hard to see why. Democracies don’t declare themselves the property of one ethnic group only. They do not deny millions of people under their control basic rights because they belong to the “wrong” group. They do not ignore election results when they disapprove of the winner. This is precisely what the Israeli state did when Hamas won the Palestinian elections two decades ago (which, with a constant refusal to heed Hamas requests to negotiate, is one reason for the horrors which began on October 7).
What those who make this claim really mean is that it is the only Western state in the Middle East, the only one governed by people who Europeans can recognise as “people like us” even if they were not that before the Nazi genocide. This tendency to confuse European-ness with democracy is why Western states had to be dragged kicking and screaming by their own citizens into opposing apartheid in this country. And it is why they will tolerate serial human rights violations by the Israeli state as long as it remains a European island in the Middle East.
Just as democracy’s meaning has been distorted by Europe’s biases, so too has anti-Semitism’s. It is no longer hatred of Jews — it is now failure to accept the biases of Europe’s elites. This explains why the term is being used to vilify people, many of them Jewish, who, unlike those elites, believe that all people are entitled to equal respect whether or not they are Western.
And it explains, too, why millions of Palestinians are, as this is written, bearing the costs imposed on them by Europe’s prejudices and their vehicle in the Middle East.
• Friedman is a public commentator, political scientist and research professor at the University of Johannesburg. His latest book is ‘Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning’ published by Wits University Press.