Disputes and arguments over alleged antisemitism have a habit of quickly heading down a dead end of accusations and counter-accusations, leaving no common understanding or resolution. A derogatory comment about Jews, or Israel, or Zionism is made; the person who made it is accused of antisemitism; they deny it; everyone entrenches their position and closes their ears. A good example of the futility and frustration that often results is Deborah Orr’s article from 2001, “I’m fed up being called an anti-Semite“.
But what if the bigotry being displayed is not in fact antisemitism, but racism against Israel and Israelis? Israel’s detractors often accuse Israel of anti-Palestinian racism. What if some of them are guilty of racism against Israelis? And what is the difference between this and antisemitism?
I am brought to these questions by the reports that the Chairman of Amnesty International in Finland, Frank Johannson, has called Israel a “scum state”. To be precise, according to the Tundra Tabloids blog which translated his words into English, he wrote on his blog:
A friend of mine who works in Israel, was visiting while piling wood in the shed, we got into his favourite topic. Several years of residence in the holy country, he has come to the conclusion that “Israel is a scum state”. On the basis of my own visit, which occurred during the 1970s and 1990s for the final time, I agree.
The comment has been translated elsewhere as “punk state” or “creep state”. According to the Jerusalem Post:
[Amnesty International spokeswoman Susanne] Flood said that Johansson used the phrase “creep state” to describe Israel, rather than “scum,” as the initial English translation of the Finnish word found. Native Finnish speakers from Tundra Tabloids said the Finnish term used by Johansson to denigrate Israel is a “highly derogatory term,” and is frequently translated as “scum,” “scum bag” or “douche bag.”
Whatever the precise translation – and “scum state” seems to have stuck – it is clearly a pretty insulting phrase. Johannson has since removed the post from his blog, and explained:
I decided to take down my blog because I appreciate that my comments were ill-judged and appear all the more so when taken out of context, and have obviously caused offence to many people although it was not my intention, at all, to cause such offence.
His comment is reminiscent of the 2001 remark by the then French Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Bernard, that Israel was a “shitty little country” and that “those people” were putting the whole world in danger of World War Three. On both occasions, other commentators were quick to see antisemitism in the comments, even though they were explicitly about Israel rather than, explicitly, about Jews. Of course, both Johannson and Bernard denied that they or their comments were antisemitic.
So is there another way to approach this question? Antisemitism is commonly understood to be prejudice, hatred or discrimination against Jews, often with an ideological component and, for some, specifically European in origin. Jews and Israel are clearly not the same thing: around half the world’s Jews are not Israeli, and around a fifth of Israelis are not Jewish. Israel is a formally constituted sovereign state, and the Jews are a disparate, amorphous set of people and communities. And so on. It follows, then, that anti-Israel feeling and antisemitism should be different things. However, Israel was created as a national home for the Jews, and it has a Jewish character. In almost every aspect of Jewish life – culture, religion, politics, academia and so on – Israel is the beating heart of the Jewish world. For most people, Israel and Jews will always be intuitively connected. So it also follows that anti-Israel feeling and antisemitism would not be entirely separate from one another.
What if we view Johannson’s comment, and Bernard’s, not as examples antisemitism but rather of anti-Israel racism, or bigotry, or prejudice? British law recognises that national groups can be subject to racism: in Section III of the Public Order Act 1986 (pdf), “racial hatred” is defined as “hatred against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins.” (my emphasis). Now, it should be recognised that both Johannson and Bernard spoke of Israel the “state” or “country”, not Israeli people either in Israel or in Britain. Plus, the name of a country is often used as a shorthand for its government. Still, both comments are so sweeping and unqualified as to give the impression that they take in Israel, its government, people and perceived national character. Nor are they alone: similar sentiments about Israel and Israelis are not hard to find, particularly on anti-Zionist blogs or in the comment threads on mainstream media websites. Language in this context is important. Take, for example, the Guardian’s description of Israel as “an arrogant nation“, and Professor Colin Shindler’s response in their letters column.
This leads me onto the comparison of Israel with South Africa which is so beloved of Israel’s opponents, but from the rather different angle of this famous Spitting Image song:
For non-British readers or those of a young age, Spitting Image was a satirical puppet show that ran during the 1980s and 1990s; I’ve Never Met a Nice South African was broadcast in 1986 and then released as the B-side to The Chicken Song, which reached no. 1 in the charts.
The lyrics of this song are brutal: the choruses describe South African people variously as “a bunch of arrogant bastards / Who hate black people”; “a bunch of talentless murderers / Who smell like baboons” and “a bunch of ignorant loudmouths / With no sense of humour”. Even allowing for the fact that it is a comedy song for a notoriously cruel satirical show, I’m not sure these particular lyrics could be written and broadcast nowadays; or at least if they were, there would be a deluge of complaints and possibly even demands for a prosecution. Opinions will differ on whether or not this change in atmosphere is a good thing. My point is that hatred of a country or anger at its government’s policies, can easily find expression via racist or bigoted statements about all of its people, especially if you believe that the particular policies to which you object are intrinsic to the character of the country. There is much in the anti-Israel discourse in this country that smacks of an emotional reaction to Israel, up to and including hatred, which goes beyond its government and encompasses the country and people as a whole. I would call it anti-Israel racism; if you don’t like that term, use bigotry or prejudice instead.
Nobody likes to think of themself as racist, but there is a particular resistance amongst left-wing people to the idea that they are capable of racism or antisemitism. This is partly because the left defines itself as anti-racist, and views racism in narrow terms as a function of power relations rather than a form of bigotry that can go in any direction. There is also a reluctance amongst many opponents of Israel to even engage with the idea that anti-Israel (or even more so, anti-Zionist) discourse may, at times, utilise tropes that have an antisemitic history. There is also a large dose of hypocrisy: many of the people who misquote Golda Meir as saying that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” think nothing of denying Israeli national identity.
Still, for those opponents of Israel who do not want to consider the possibility that their attitudes may be polluted with antisemitism, they could instead consider whether they are susceptible to racist ideas or feelings about Israel and Israelis. (And note, the defence of knowing or supporting Israeli leftists is just a variant of the old ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ line; it is the attitudes towards the rest, as an undifferentiated mass, that are at question). If it is possible to harbour racist views about French people, or Americans, or Nigerians, or, for that matter, Palestinians, then surely it is also possible to harbour racist views about Israelis. For the record, I am not suggesting that all opponents of Israel are guilty of racism, which would obviously be a meaningless generalisation. I am just discussing the principle.
And if it is possible to hold racist views about Israelis, then there is a follow-up question: what if these racist views about Israel and Israelis are similar, to a greater or lesser extent, to things that antisemites believe about Jews? Would this mean that, after all, anti-Israel racism is the same as antisemitism? or does anti-Israel racism exist separately from, but sometimes influenced by, antisemitism? And does it make a difference, morally or politically, which prejudice is in play? This is not mere sophistry. These are genuine questions about the nature and limits of contemporary antisemitism, and I am not sure of the answers.