The ongoing attacks on Congressional critics of Israeli policies like Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib for their alleged antisemitic remarks appear culled from the same playbook that Israel’s supporters in Great Britain have used to tarnish Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn over the past few years: continuously vilify the messenger in order to discredit the message. This tactic has also been widely used at the grassroots level in the United States where increasingly successful Palestinian rights activists have been subject to vitriolic personal criticism, including the frequent charge of antisemitism, for advocating for Palestinian rights or their criticism of Israel. In our continuing discussion of this issue (see our roundtable on the manufactured controversy over Ilhan Omar’s tweets) we asked two commentators from Great Britain and two from grassroots activism in the United States to respond and reflect on what is behind this tactic and why now it is being deployed in each context. A virulent antisemitism is clearly on the rise and must be confronted, but as the participants in this roundtable point out, conflating criticism of the Israeli government’s policies with antisemitism undermines the fight against actual antisemitism as well as the other forms of racism and bigotry with which it is intimately connected today.
Who’s Afraid of Jeremy Corbyn?
Neve Gordon is a professor at the school of law, Queen Mary University of London.
Since I moved to London two years ago, hardly a day has gone by without a new attack against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the British media. These attacks follow a familiar script: a fragment of some action, photo or errant remark from Corbyn’s past is unearthed and sensationally presented as fresh evidence of his sordid character—and this information is then mobilized to demonstrate that Labour’s leader is “antisemitic and pro-terrorist.”
While the hunting season on Corbyn spans the calendar year, last summer appeared particularly acrimonious. In mid-August 2018, for example, images of Corbyn laying a wreath in a Palestinian cemetery in Tunis during a 2014 visit suddenly made international headlines, with reports falsely claiming that the Labour leader was paying homage to the terrorists who carried out the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre.
Just as this issue began losing momentum, the Daily Telegraph published an exclusive report showing pictures and a video of Corbyn at a 2012 conference in Doha, Qatar, where he chaired a panel discussion about the plight of Palestinian refugees. It showed Corbyn sitting together with the head of Hamas’ political wing Khaled Mashal and with Dr. Abdul Aziz Umar, who was released by Israel in a prisoner exchange with Hamas after having been sentenced to life for being the operative behind a horrific suicide bombing at a Jerusalem café. The charge was that Labour’s leader is in collusion with terrorists.
And then at the end of August, a talk Corbyn gave in 2013 at the Palestinian Return Centre made headlines, with reports focusing upon how Corbyn reprimanded “Zionists” who had berated Manuel Hassassian the Palestinian ambassador to Britain following a talk he had delivered at the House of Commons. “They clearly have two problems,” Corbyn said. “One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.”
Corbyn’s claim that supporters of Zionist ideology fail to understand English irony is, of course, fatuous and his attempted clarification that he was using the term “Zionist” to signify “pro-Israeli” rather than as a “code for Jew” failed to address the problem—he should simply have apologized.
Nevertheless, while Corbyn—like every politician—has made mistakes and has at times misspoken, he is one of the few Members of Parliament (MPs) in Great Britain who has a consistent record—spanning several decades—of fighting against racism and for those whose rights have been violated and abused.
Indeed, the continuing sensationalistic allegations against Corbyn as poison, juvenile, stupid and antisemitic are being levelled at him not so much to shed new light on the man, but rather to delegitimize him in the eyes of prospective voters. Precisely as the conservative Tory party unravels due to its inability to reach a tenable Brexit deal, the possibility of Corbyn leading the next government is becoming more realistic. Not coincidentally, the frequency and intensity of the attacks against him have increased apace.
Considering that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitism in Great Britain is much lower than it is in other European countries—such as Greece, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Italy, and even France—it is crucial to ask a number of questions: Why has Corbyn been subject to such relentless personal attack, particularly regarding the charge of antisemitism? Who exactly is feeding these stories to the media? And, finally, what are the political objectives of such vicious and relentless attacks?
There are two apparent reasons.
First, Corbyn has a clear economic agenda and is not one to abandon his beliefs in the face of power. He has been a Labour MP since 1983 and precisely because he was unwilling to forfeit his principled socialist and anti-neoliberal agenda for three decades he was side-lined, most notably during the heyday of Tony Blair’s ten-year tenure as prime minister when the Labour Party made a turn to the economic right. Indeed, Corbyn has continuously called for a “new economic consensus to replace the broken neoliberal model, which has failed working class people, fuelled inequality and insecurity, and sucked wealth away from the majority to an elite few at the top.” Having put forth economic solutions that reveal the moral bankruptcy of the neoliberal agenda promoted by both Tories and Blairites (acolytes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s neoliberal New Labour), it is not surprising that extremely powerful economic forces fear Corbyn’s candidacy.
Second, if Corbyn’s bid in the next elections is successful he will be the first prime minister in British history, and indeed in the history of Western governments, that is pro-Palestinian. He is a member of the Palestinian Solidarity campaign and has called for an arms embargo on Israel. He even supports a targeted boycott against the settlements and Israeli cultural institutions. The Israeli government undoubtedly considers him a strategic threat and it is very likely that Israel is meddling with British politics in an effort to prevent him from entering 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the British Prime Minister.
This latter suspicion is not without some evidentiary support. In a 2016 sting operation, Al Jazeera uncovered how an Israeli diplomat plotted to “take down” Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan, who is a known supporter of a Palestinian state. While Israel’s ambassador immediately apologised, claiming that the diplomat’s position in no way reflects the views of the embassy or the government of Israel, to this day, it is unclear whether this was, in fact, an isolated incident or, rather, part of a well-orchestrated strategy on behalf of Israeli government to delegitimize the pro-Palestinian politician by presenting him as an antisemite.
Accusing Corbyn of antisemitism, one might add, also serves to divert attention from the closely-knit relation that the Israeli government itself has been fostering with vocal antisemites in Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who did not hesitate to use antisemitic tropes in his recent election bid, has recently visited Israel as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s honoured guest. Moreover, Netanyahu did not have a single bad word to say about Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who found himself rejecting his characterization as a Holocaust denier after apparently suggesting that Jews were partly responsible for their own extermination. The issue, then, is not only that these leaders have antisemitic proclivities, which Corbyn does not, but rather that they, unlike the Labour leader, are staunch supporters of Israel’s ethnocratic national model.
For neoliberals and the current Israeli government, the fear of Corbyn is probably well placed. The accusation of antisemitism, however, is a cheap if effective trick that merely deflects attention away from his anti-neoliberal economic agenda and pro-Palestinian stance, which are both urgently needed today.
Not unlike the firestorm that greeted newly elected Congresswoman (D-MN) Ilhan Omar, the attacks against Corbyn suggest that he has touched some nerves. Both Omar and Corbyn have been consistent in their pursuit of social justice, and when they witness social wrongs they have called them out, regardless of whose toes they might be stepping on. In both of their cases, as in several others, the minute Israel is criticized, the antisemitism accusation is wielded in an effort to delegitimise the criticism. Omar is a threat because she has uttered what so many politicians know but have been afraid to say. Corbyn is perhaps even a greater threat if only because he might be Great Britain’s next prime minister.
Antisemitism, the Left and the Labour Party in Great Britain
Lynne Segal is anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College, London.
Just before becoming British prime minister in 1997, Tony Blair joked: “You really don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over the Labour Party—I know everything that’s going on in his constituency.”
So do I. Corbyn is my member of parliament (MP). I helped get him selected, then elected, as our MP in Islington North in June 1983. Indeed, my house was the first Labour Party (LP) committee room chosen to oversee election day activities. Having run ourselves ragged getting people out to vote, Corbyn sought to calm our exhausted excitement that night by warning us: “You know there’s not a lot I’ll be able to do.”
Corbyn was referring to the fact that Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher was re-elected as prime minister that same night. Like her friend Ronald Reagan, who would become president of the United States the following year, Thatcher inaugurated the era of neoliberal economic and social policies: promoting absolute market hegemony, dismantling welfare provisions and privatizing public resources. These policies were not seriously challenged when Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997: They promoted “workfare” in place of welfare, failed to invest in social housing and encouraged private investment in public utilities.
Two long decades later, Labour’s old guard—and especially Blair’s New Labour—simply cannot accept that times do sometimes change. Not only is the once marginalised Jeremy Corbyn now leader of the LP (from September 2015), but he might actually become Britain’s next Prime Minister.
Those battling to prevent this possibility are ubiquitous, not least inside the Parliamentary LP (PLP). The battle to topple the Corbyn’s leadership, and its supporters, began the day of his victory. As Blair’s most trusted adviser Peter Mandelson later told the Jewish Chronicle: “I work every single day to bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure in office.”
The fundamental reason for this fierce opposition is obvious: Unlike many long-standing LP elite, neither Corbyn, nor his leading comrade John McDonnell, ever supported the last four decades of neoliberal economic policies that Thatcher initiated and New Labour largely accepted, which has led to a flattening of wages, an ever greater intrusion of market forces into the provision of state resources and social welfare increasingly harnessed for profit. The resulting grotesque escalation of inequality—falling living standards for many and mounting wealth of the mega-rich—is exactly what the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership aims to reverse, working for “a fundamental shift in wealth, power and control.”
Corbyn’s opponents at first utilized the routine ways of attacking the radical Left: Corbyn was “unrealistic,” “unpatriotic,” a supporter of “terrorism,” and he was condemned as weak, unprofessional and incompetent. One early study from media and communication scholars at the London School of Economics, for instance, reported that the British media had “systematically attacked” Corbyn over the past year “through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy,” largely ignoring what he actually said or distorting his words, resulting in “a failure to give the … public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.”
But while this line of attack has largely ceased, the chief accusation mobilized against Corbyn today, and the most injurious, is that he has presided over a party that has become “institutionally anti-Semitic” and “a cesspit of anti-Semitism,” among other variations on the same theme of antisemitism.
Why have charges of antisemitism have replaced standard anti-left forms of vilification? Corbyn may have been initially too slow to respond to accusations of antisemitism within the LP and has made verbal mistakes that could be seen as reflecting historic anti-Semitic tropes. But there are, however, other important factors at play. These include the increasingly conservative leanings within the British Jewish community itself, alongside redefinitions of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel. But above all, Corbyn’s long history of support for Palestinian rights to self-determination has helped to foster an opportunistic alliance between those in the LP opposed to Corbyn’s socialist agenda and the organized pro-Israel/anti-Palestinian forces in Great Britain.
Jews, Antisemitism and Shifting Class Dynamics
Great Britain today faces record levels of inequality, misery, homelessness, violence, suicide and knife crimes. However, these pressing social problems get smothered by the current alarm over whether and how Britain will leave the European Union (EU). Corbyn is often pilloried for inadequate resistance to the Brexit referendum results, however challenging it is for him to manoeuvre, given that 60 percent of Labour constituencies (unlike Labour members, overall) voted Leave.
Nevertheless, accusations about Corbyn’s and the Labour Party’s alleged antisemitism have proven the most intractable and enduring. In the summer of 2018, three Jewish newspapers united to declare Corbyn an “existential threat to ‘Jewish life’ in the UK,” followed by denunciations even within Israel’s more liberal press about “Why Corbynism Is a Threat to Jews Throughout the Western World.”
How do we make sense of and respond to the escalating severity of these charges of antisemitism against Corbyn?
The very mention of antisemitism now triggers panic and paranoia in Great Britain as elsewhere, where even trying to assess the situation accurately, or unpack its differing strands, places one in the line of fire, likely to be denounced as “part of the problem and not the solution.” The prevalence of this line of attack has now guaranteed a climate of intolerance, suspicion and fear within and outside Labour as well as Jewish communities themselves, leading to the bizarre situation where an increasing number of those being named and suspended from Labour for alleged antisemitism are themselves Jewish, often accused by non-Jews, even as those using hate speech to condemn Corbyn and his supporters do so with impunity.
Perhaps this should not surprise us. Antisemitism remains emblematic of all that was brutal over centuries, even millennia, of Judeophobia—it is rightly seen as an enduring stain in human history. We also know that even when and if collective hatreds and systemic discriminations fade, they leave their mark on the language and imagery of cultures that have harboured them—often all the more offensive when they slip into the unconscious. Who remembers Svengali and Fagin as Jews, even though we probably recall Shylock’s “tribal” allegiance: “Hath not a Jew eyes …?”
Opposition to antisemitism, however, once lay at the heart of antiracist politics, just as Jews were once at the centre of Left political arenas. The founder of the first Marxist Social Democratic Party of Germany, August Bebel, was clear that antisemitism is “the socialism of fools”; two Jews, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, went on to found the German Communist Party; while Lenin insistently opposed antisemitism: “To be against the Jews is to be for the Tsar!”
Jews were the backbone of the Left until the late twentieth century, joining the struggle against antisemitism with the battle for social justice and anti-racism. Jews were disproportionately attracted to the British Communist Party (CP) and the far-left generally throughout most of the twentieth century. The battle against the rise of fascism across Europe after the First World War involved large numbers of Jews, and they joined socialist volunteers fighting Franco in vast numbers.
Nevertheless, although many Jews found a political home on the left, antisemitism was also present in the ranks of the left from its inception, often identifying Jews with rich capitalists. Meanwhile, in the United States the combination of cold-war conservatism, laced with antisemitism, meant that when Joe McCarthy began hunting down alleged communist subversion in the 1950s, over 50 percent of people hauled before his House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were identifiable as Jews. Some of the best-known figures of the 1960’s Left were Jews. Herbert Marcuse, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were Jewish, as was that iconic student leader in Paris, May 1968, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
In the now contested LP, the number of Jewish MPs still significantly outnumbers the Jewish presence in the population at large. Indeed, between 1940 and 1973, 33 Jewish MPs were elected from within the LP (briefly, alongside one Jewish CP member), almost triple those from the Conservative Party.
The Jewish affiliation with Labour, however, began to reverse during the 1970s, along with formal patterns of discrimination against Western Jews. Since 2000 there have been twice as many Jewish MPs in the Tory Party as the Labour Party and Jews are twice as likely to vote Conservative as Labour, more in line with their shifting class positions. These voting patterns have nothing to do with greater Tory opposition to antisemitism within its ranks. On the contrary, YouGov polls from 2015 and 2017, reveal that Tory voters were significantly more likely to hold negative views about Jews (as obsessed with money), with such views declining faster amongst Labour voters within that same two-year period, which coincides exactly with Corbyn’s tenure as leader.
Until the past decade, the prevalence of antisemitism in British political parties has remained largely unexamined and unaddressed. Only in the last few years, under Corbyn, has Labour undertaken a set of complex and continuing investigations into antisemitism within the party. Tragically, these studies currently serve as much to confuse as enlighten people about this shifting yet enduring form of racism, fraught and contested as it has become.
Why the Charge of Antisemitism Now?
In addition to shifting class dynamics there are several other factors that must be considered to understand why the charge of antisemitism against the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn have become so prevalent today.
First, definitions of the term antisemitism have become entangled with political Zionism, the desire (and felt need) for a Jewish national homeland and, since 1948, the recognition of Israel as that national homeland. There have been and remain different forms of Zionism. But looming above all of them is the militant, expansionary and exclusionary version of Zionism that has characterized the Israeli state from its inception, responsible for the still ongoing Nakba—the displacement of Palestinians from homes that their forbears had occupied for millennia. Once, antisemitism referred to a hatred of Jews as Jews; alongside discrimination against and pernicious stereotyping of them. However, Israel and its contemporary supporters have successfully argued for the expansion of the meaning of the term to include any significant criticism of the ever expanding Jewish-nationalist project, one in which only Jews have exclusive rights within the biblical land of Israel, which Palestinians refer to as historic Palestine.
This new definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel was certainly behind the blast of accusations of antisemitism against the LP and Corbyn in the summer of 2018. The LP, although accepting the fuzzy International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) proposals to define antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred of Jews,” wished to clarify a few of the examples it gave to make sense of this imprecision, which mostly referenced criticising Israel, rather than attacking Jews.
In addition, an opportunistic alliance between those in the LP opposed to Corbyn’s socialist agenda and those claiming to represent the official Jewish attachment to Israel has emerged in the past decade, strongly backed by the mainstream media. The accusations of antisemitism against Corbyn and his defenders are clearly driven by Corbyn’s long history of open support for Palestinian resistance. This accompanied his historic engagement with anti-imperialist struggles and anti-war activism generally, beginning with his early defense of Nelson Mandela and his arrest for opposing South African apartheid.
While the majority of Jews today express some identification with Israel and its ongoing security, there are very significant disagreements between them over the practices of the Israeli state and the rights of Palestinians. Moreover, any identification of “Israel” with “Jews”—the insistence on confusing one for the other—is offensive for many Jews, myself included, who argue passionately for justice for Palestinians because of rather than despite our Jewish identity. It also silences Palestinian voices of resistance to a brutal occupation, which need to be heard if one is truly concerned about the future of Israel.
A Silencing Tactic
The fact is that few people are more supportive of Corbyn’s overall political project than many of the Jews in the LP who remain on the Left, as expressed in a recent statement of JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour): “We are Jews who are entirely comfortable in the Labour Party. But we are far from comfortable seeing the terrible history of the Jewish people exploited by those intent upon scuppering the best hope in decades for ordinary and vulnerable members of our society.” In my own ward, one of our two councillors is a practicing Jew, our chair person is Jewish, and I am the education officer. This is not so surprising or unusual—hardly evidence of alleged institutional antisemitism.
Moreover, over the years, Corbyn has had mutually supportive relations with the practicing Jewish community in his constituency, whether attending Shabbat dinners with the orthodox Chabad Rabbi, Mendy Korer, or community events with the progressive Liberal (Reform in the US) synagogue, Kehillah North London. Corbyn promoted the recent installation of a plaque on the synagogue site to celebrate Jewish life in Islington. Unlike most of his Blairite critics, Corbyn has unfailingly turned up to vote for motions addressing antisemitism in Parliament. As part of his tireless struggle against racism, Corbyn works with both the Jewish and Palestinian Left at his side.
As recent media research again corroborates, Corbyn has been facing “a hostile campaign of disinformation.” This was confirmed in the very latest analysis of media coverage by Justin Schlosberg and Laura Laker, in which they found, for instance, that two thirds of the television news coverage they sampled on antisemitism in the LP contained at least one inaccuracy or substantive distortion. Moreover, the complaints of antisemitism in the LP that were lodged over the last year of ferocious accusations against Corbyn concerned well under one percent of party members, with nearly 40 percent of complaints relating to non-Labour Party members, and over one third of the remaining ones were found to be “wildly exaggerated” or non-existent.
Every instance of antisemitism in the LP must certainly be addressed. But to do this we must have far greater clarity about what we are confronting.
This education must certainly include knowledge of the long history of Western antisemitism, with its blood libels, pogroms and patterns of prejudice and discrimination, culminating in the genocide of European Jews in Europe in the 1940s—which Western powers did so little to forestall or, for decades, seriously to acknowledge. This history lies behind the now flourishing existence of the state of Israel, and explains most Jews attachment to it as the symbolic site of Jewish security.
But it must also address the contemporary increase in traditional antisemitism, which is often quite distinct from any criticisms of Israel, indeed at times the very opposite. This increase is part of the contemporary rise of racism more generally, accompanying the significant growth of the far-right globally, fed by mounting economic inequality. These dangers were epitomized by the election of Donald Trump and, not long after, that of the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, both supporting and supported by the bellicose Zionism of Benjamin Netanyahu, the far-right leader of Israel. It is also important to note the current British Conservative Party’s connections with far-right anti-Semitic groups both in Great Britain and across the EU.
The partial and exclusive focus on antisemitism in the LP serves primarily as a diversion from the need to attend to the actual dangers in our threatening times, just as it works to silence criticisms of Israel as a pivot of dispossession and enduring conflict within and outside its borders. It deliberately deflects attention from the devastation’s of neoliberalism and the forms of racism that follow in its wake, exactly when we are witnessing the rise of a few radical leaders determined to try to confront them both, most prominently, Jeremy Corbyn.
Unpacking these tactics in Great Britain is all the more crucial when we see similar practices now occurring in the United States and across Europe, most recently in France. Such silencing tactics are now being deployed against Rep. Ilhan Omar in the US Congress, where she is accused of antisemitism by her own Democratic Party leaders because of her support for Palestinian resistance to occupation. Omar may not always choose her words as carefully as she could, but the silence of her accusers over her correct assessment of Israel’s racist laws and brutal occupation is what is truly shameful. Meanwhile, even as Omar daily encounters Islamophobic threats and abuse, Republicans are busy dispensing shocking anti-Semitic messages with impunity. This is no way to tackle antisemitism, or any other form of racism, which should make us all the more suspicious of any anti-left agenda that merges opportunistically with a pro-Israel stance in the name of antisemitism.
 Danny Dorling, Peak Inequality: Britain’s Ticking Time Bomb (Policy Press: 2018).
 Andrew Thorpe, “The Membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920- 1945,” The Historical Journal, 43 (2000), pp.777-800.
 Paul Buhle, “The Hollywood Blacklist and the Jew: An Exploration of Popular Culture,” Tikkun 10/5 (1995); Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds.), Secret Agents, The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism & Fifties America (New York: Routledge,1995).
Disarming the Weaponization of Antisemitism
Kristian Davis Bailey is a writer, activist and co-founder of Black for Palestine.
Apologists for Israel’s colonization of Palestine have long used allegations of antisemitism as a weapon to shut down criticism of Israel. Such allegations, aided by public smears and, increasingly, internet doxing (in which personal or private information is leaked onto the internet), intimidate people who might be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause into staying silent. Yet the recent experience around Rep. Ilhan Omar suggests that the effectiveness of weaponizing antisemitism may be waning.
It has often been sufficient for Israel’s defenders to merely allege antisemitism in order to marginalize advocates for justice in Palestine. This tactic has worked by representing anti-Jewish racism, and the Nazi Holocaust, as exceptional—hence non-comparable—phenomena. In this way, discussions of antisemitism have been largely separated from other forms of genocide, state-sanctioned violence and bigotry.
As a result, wide gaps have emerged between discussions of anti-Jewish racism, pogroms and genocide and discussions of the African slave trade, European colonial genocides in Africa, the Americas and Australia, as well as the Palestinian Nakba (when Zionist forces expelled the majority of indigenous Palestinians from historic Palestine in 1948) and the violence undertaken during the US-declared “war on terror” since 2001. The injustices inflicted upon Jews have become separated from these other histories, even though they often were intertwined. The exceptionalism of Jewish suffering in turn leads to the justification of Israel’s state violence against Palestinians. From this premise, Palestinians become subject to the particular terms and dynamics of Jewish history, rather than having the agency to narrate their own history in the context of anti-racism and anti-colonialism. The Palestinian struggle becomes annexed and subordinate to Jewish history.
Nonetheless, as the global interconnectedness of racism and colonialism has gained mainstream acceptance among academics and activists, these separations have become harder to maintain. When House Democrats attempted to censure Rep. Omar for her alleged use of antisemitic tropes, for example, activists forced the political establishment to concede that antisemitism is not wholly unique or separate from white supremacy or anti-Muslim bigotry and were compelled to pass a general condemnation of antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry rather than a resolution specific to antisemitism.
Despite this important victory, however, the political establishment wants these separations to remain. Congress, for example, has never censured President Trump for his white supremacist remarks. It has never addressed the epidemic of state violence against Black people in any meaningful way. It has remained largely silent on the spread of Islamophobic policy and rhetoric, both from above and below. When Congressional leaders finally took action on the subject of racism, they condemned the only Black Muslim woman representative, alleging antisemitism for her tweets about the financial power of the Israel lobby, which on closer inspection had nothing to do with antisemitism. Meanwhile, as this incident spawned Islamophobic attacks against Omar, including efforts to link her to the 9/11 attacks and calls for her assassination, Congressional leaders, including those in her own party publicly abandoned Omar.
Yet, despite establishment efforts to maintain the separation between antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, there are important signs of change and flux. Because of growing grassroots support for Palestinian rights and the widespread opposition to the charges against Rep. Omar, many elected officials are now being forced to take public stances more critical of Israel, or, at least, to hide their support for Israel—indicating that the power of the Israel lobby and its supporters on political discourse is weakening.
On the other hand, and perhaps because of its own recognition of its waning power, the Israel lobby has doubled down on its old strategy, using claims of “rampant campus antisemitism” to pass state and federal laws condemning or curtailing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The federal government is also considering adopting the Israel lobby’s definition of antisemitism, which includes the “three Ds”—demonization, double-standards and delegitimization—that refer to nearly any criticism of Israeli state policies as a form of antisemitism. If enacted, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would be used to justify investigations against Palestine activists on college campuses and encourage the Department of Education and university officials to infringe on constitutionally protected speech. This has the potential to chill Palestine-related organizing, as more than 50 percent of campus incidents that Palestine Legal responded to between 2014 and 2018 were related to false allegations of antisemitism.
As many Palestinians have pointed out, the uproar around Rep. Omar failed to center those who are experiencing the most violence of anyone in the context of her remarks: Palestinians. This is true whether they are Palestinians living under the 12-year siege in Gaza—where Israel commits war crimes against protesters and indiscriminately bombs civilian structures—or living in exile as refugees throughout the Middle East for the past 70 years (to whom the US recently cut off all aid)—or living under military occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nearly five million Palestinians live without citizenship or basic civil or political protections under the military control of Israel’s self-proclaimed Jewish-only state. Another 1.6 million Palestinians are citizens of a state that Israel’s Prime Minister has declared does not belong to them.
Yet in the backlash against Rep. Omar, Israel’s supporters were arguing that the alleged antisemitic words or sentiments of an individual matter more than the violent dispossession of and ongoing violence against an entire people.
There is a similar dynamic of separation at play when discussing antisemitism as it relates to other forms of racialized violence in the US. The US political establishment and media do not respond to violence against other populations in the US in the same way they do to antisemitism, even though these other forms of violence are more foundational, ongoing and deadly in the US context. This includes the colonization of Native land and genocide of Native people, the enslavement, dehumanization and execution of Black people, xenophobia against and exploitation of migrant workers, and warfare (military and economic) against populations abroad.
Stripped to its core aspect, Israel’s apologists are saying that no one has been oppressed like the Jewish people were during the Holocaust, and because of this trauma, they remain a people in perpetual self-defense whose violence against others may be excused. Zionists have positioned antisemitism above and beyond all other forms of oppression, even though antisemitism is connected to and integral to other forms of racialized oppression.
Europe’s worst outbreaks of antisemitism are used as justification for Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land and as an excuse for a century of violations of Palestinian rights and dispossession. But Palestinians and anti-Zionists (both Jewish and non-Jewish) have reiterated that antisemitism is not unique, separate and distinct from the oppression that other marginalized groups experience. Antisemitism cannot be used as a justification or an excuse for the oppression of another people. As Ahmed Abu Artema, organizer of the Great March of Return in Gaza recently said, “It is not fair to solve one tragedy by creating another one.”
Antisemitism and anti-Jewish violence are part of the same history of European violence and racism that took place elsewhere in the world. From this perspective, anti-Jewish oppression is not a unique or exceptional form of oppression, despite its grave and inhumane history. Germany’s first concentration camps were in modern-day Namibia, where it committed genocide against the Nama and Herero people some 30 years before doing the same thing to European Jews. Nazi leaders studied Jim Crow segregation laws and the US exclusion of Black, Chinese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, indigenous populations and others from full citizenship in order to categorize people by race and strip Jews of citizenship under the Nuremburg Laws. King Leopold of Belgium killed 10 million people in the Congo in Belgium’s quest for rubber. Fascist Italy’s first concentration camps targeted Bedouins in colonial Libya. It was only later that they employed those same techniques at home on Jewish citizens. Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and the US, among others, kidnapped and enslaved over 12 million Africans, who continue to be structurally poor and systematically discriminated against. Anti-Blackness, as a central element of white supremacy, is a central foundation of the modern and Western worlds.
In regard to the United States in particular, anti-Blackness and anti-indigenous policies operate in a deeper and more systematic way than anti-Jewish oppression. Despite enduring antisemitism, there is no state-sanctioned system in the United States targeting Jewish people to be malnourished, chronically ill, mis-educated, financially insecure, exploited, warehoused and caged in jails or killed without due legal process—the fate of a majority of Black and Native people in this country. Any reality that does not acknowledge and confront these fundamental forms of violence upholds a racist and settler colonial status quo that winds up oppressing a majority of people in this country.
Charges or instances of antisemitism are weaponized in a way that no other instance of bigotry or racial violence is. Allegations of anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, or anti-Arab sentiments do not lead donors to threaten to stop funding institutions, prompt officials to issue blanket condemnations or provoke the same moral outrage as allegations of antisemitism. Our society must move mountains to condemn and combat all forms of violence and discrimination.
When the politically-motivated Zionist definition of most criticism of Israel as antisemitism is no longer accepted, Israel’s apologists and US politicians will no longer be able to defend a racist, settler-colonial and apartheid state from the full weight of condemnation and mobilization among those who care about freedom and justice.
Antisemitism has not yet disappeared from the US or the world because no form of oppression or bigotry has disappeared. The answer to the scourge of antisemitism is not working for the liberation of some at the expense of others, but rather the liberation of all from existing power and class structures that benefit from all forms of racism.
Weaponizing antisemitism on behalf of Israeli policies has often been effective in silencing criticism or scaring off potential supporters of Palestinian rights, but the surge of support for Ilhan Omar indicates that its days could be numbered with steady and consistent organizing for justice in Palestine. This political opening would allow us to more effectively unite in working towards the eradication of all forms of racism and oppression and create a world that is free for everyone.
Standing Up to Vilification for Palestinian Rights at the Grassroots
Olivia Katbi Smith is co-chair of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
As we have seen with Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and other politicians who have dared to speak critically about Israel, the primary tool in the arsenal of Israel advocacy organizations these days is the public vilification of supporters of Palestinian rights, in the hopes of scaring and shaming them into silence and discouraging others from joining their cause. It is often more difficult for those of us who are not in elected office—those of us working in the grassroots in our communities—to stand up against these bullying tactics since we often have less support and more to lose, which is why it is important to share our experiences so that we are better prepared to confront them together.
As an Arab-American woman who has engaged in public activism for Palestinian rights, most recently as the co-chair of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), I am intimately familiar with being smeared as an antisemite, a terrorist supporter and even as an oriental enchantress who has an “obsession” with Israel and who tricks people into supporting Palestine, among other forms of vilification by those opposed to Palestinian rights.
Growing up Arab in rural Ohio, there weren’t many chances to be involved in activism, and my identity as an Arab was something I pushed away as a child growing up in post-September 11 United States, where I grew accustomed to being called a terrorist and worse. After moving to Chicago and joining a massive march in solidarity with Palestinians during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge war against Gaza, I finally felt like I could be not only comfortable, but proud, in my Arab skin and work to further the causes of my Arab brothers and sisters. I followed Palestine and other Middle East issues closely, but I soon realized that most Democrats had toothless, mealy-mouthed or abhorrent views regarding these issues.
The Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, with its open acknowledgement that Arabs were human beings who don’t deserve to have their countries occupied and bombed and its open embrace of democratic socialism, opened a window into an entirely new political world for me. I met other socialists who were pro-Palestine and supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy to fight for Palestinian rights and made the jump to join DSA immediately after Trump was elected President. I was invited into a caucus inside DSA working to get the organization to endorse BDS at the national convention. When the resolution passed overwhelmingly, however, a number of DSA members who were also Israel supporters resigned from DSA and wrote furious articles denouncing the resolution and claimed that waving the Palestinian flag and chanting for Palestinian freedom after the vote was offensive, even though the idea originated with many of our Jewish comrades.
But it was when I became secretary and then co-chair of Portland DSA and helped involve the organization in Palestinian rights and BDS work that I confronted much harsher and ever more personal vilification campaigns at the grassroots level.
We joined a local coalition called Occupation Free Portland after it had achieved a major win convincing the city of Portland to withdraw from all corporate securities, highlighting the human rights violations of the bulldozer-maker Caterpillar corporation in occupied Palestine. The Portland Jewish Federation and other pro-Israel groups had fought against Occupation Free Portland’s victory tooth and nail, with threats and articles disparaging supporters and any officials who dared to even consider that something might not be right in Israel/Palestine—that the city might be complicit in Israel’s human rights violations through its investments—as anti-Israel and antisemitic. Even though Jewish Voice for Peace was largely driving this effort, their voices and experiences as Jews did not matter to the media and to politicians who accepted the charges of antisemitism to write off the divestment movement.
Despite these attacks and smears on grassroots activism, Portland DSA and others continued its work in support of Palestinian rights while the Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi was imprisoned by Israeli occupation forces and as the Great March of Return protests in Gaza and resulting massacre at the Gaza fence began. We undertook actions to urge the internationally known band Pussy Riot to cancel their scheduled show in Tel Aviv, with surprising success when Pussy Riot cancelled. We also began a campaign to pressure our local NBA team, the Portland Trail Blazers, to end their partnership with local sniper scope manufacturer Leupold and Stevens, which supplies scopes to Israeli snipers like those who shot many unarmed activists at the Great March of Return protests in Gaza.
As DSA gained more exposure and the local media even wrote a lengthy profile on me, our work around Palestine was at first missing entirely from their coverage. This is the double-edged sword of doing BDS work—it’s a tactic that relies heavily on media coverage to create public pressure on Israel, but the media is also terrified to cover it for fear of being accused of spreading antisemitism. Fortunately, CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin offered an important insight on an episode of the podcast Delete Your Account when she said: “if the media won’t come to you, go to where they are.” We escalated our actions, attended Blazers media day and got a reporter to ask the Blazer’s president about the protests outside. But it was only after a Marine veteran protested the partnership during the televised Hometown Hero segment at a Blazers game and made international news that our local media finally wrote about our work for Palestinian rights.
The growing attention given to DSA, however, put our Palestine work onto the radar of supporters of Israel, and I became the subject of several hit pieces laden with racist and sexist tropes and threats against me and my family. Every article that mentioned Portland DSA, regardless of the topic, featured commenters who denigrated our Palestine work, claiming that we were obsessed with Israel, even accusing me of being a terrorist or terrorist supporter, and publicizing my LinkedIn page and encouraging people to contact my employer with complaints.
While this was a new and unsettling experience for me, it is nothing new for advocates for justice in Palestine. It often seems that if you even tweet a single pro-Palestine thought—and it doesn’t matter how well known you are—sites like Canary Mission, which was recently revealed to be funded by the Jewish Federation, will find out as much as they can about your life, your work, your family and tie you to organizations that you have nothing to do with and do everything in their power to smear you as an antisemite, to delegitimize your voice and to intimidate you into silence. Canary Mission’s racist, anti-Arab and Islamophobic vilifications are ironic for a site that claims to be outing racists. But their ability to hide under the cover of antisemitism is what makes their tactics so effective.
For many people, especially Muslim and Palestinian activists who are more vulnerable in today’s political climate, this kind of vilification often works, and they are forced to stay quiet in order to protect themselves. For those of us who can afford to take more risks, it is our job to bear the brunt of these attacks and beat them back.
Antisemitism is a real and dangerous problem that is on the rise globally right now. But conflating criticism of the Israeli government’s policies with antisemitism is also dangerous and undermines the fight against actual antisemitism. We see this play out in the way reactionary nationalists like Donald Trump and his white supremacist followers can inspire hideous acts of violence like the Tree of Life synagogue shooting one week and condemn pro-Palestine advocates as antisemites the next. We see this in the way that right-wing media figures like Ben Shapiro can declare that Arabs like to bomb things and live in open sewage and then have their smears against Muslim women like Ilhan Omar received as good faith criticism by establishment liberals. People who accept this conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism often imply that there are acceptable versions of criticism of Israel, but don’t be fooled. There is no way of phrasing your criticism of Israel in ways that they would accept, because the fundamental disagreement isn’t about antisemitism at all—it’s about criticism of Zionism, and those two are not the same.
In this context I often think about my comrades in Jewish Voice for Peace at Portland State University, college students who have been doxed—where their personal or private information is publicly shared to encourage harassment—and risk their jobs and education to fight this fight, yet who are proud of their Jewish traditions and educate others about them while also being unapologetically critical of Zionism. I think about how difficult it must have been for them to join us in protesting former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation outside of a building called the Jewish Community Center and get accused of being “self-hating Jews.” It’s insulting to them and to all Jews to treat Jews as a monolith and to conflate their faith and tradition with an exclusivist ideology that promotes ethnic cleansing—because make no mistake: that is what Zionism is.
And of course, at the root of all the smearing and vilification is fear. If it were any other human rights issue, the Portland Trail Blazers would end the sponsorship with Leupold and Stevens immediately, if not for moral reasons then at least for public relations reasons, but because it concerns Palestinian human rights, they will not risk being branded antisemitic. Many progressive elected officials refuse to take a stand for Palestine for the same reason. Well-meaning establishment liberals tow the party line for Israel because they have no understanding of Israel’s long history of human rights violations and no sense of solidarity with the oppressed—they can only stand there calling for “love” and “unity” because they are paralyzed by their fear of an upended status quo. And pro-Zionists are scared most of all because they can see our movement growing in strength, maybe more clearly than anyone else. They are absolutely terrified that the anti-apartheid and pro-liberation view regarding Israel/Palestine is becoming the norm. Despite their attempts to use public vilification to silence us, it’s our job now to prove them right.