Here’s how to talk about Israel without sliding into antisemitism

Of course there are legitimate reasons to criticise Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s treatment of Palestinian people – but it’s shocking how often antisemitic language is used to do so

David Schneider
Thursday 09 May 2019 13:40 BST
Labour MP Chris Williamson filmed telling activists party is too 'apologetic' about antisemitism

I have always been a man of two basic parts: the Jewish part and the leftie, Labour part(y). Recently, it’s become harder to reconcile the two.

On Twitter, which is where I live – I can barely remember my actual address now – I’ve been shocked by some of the antisemitism I’ve seen from people on the left whose hearts are otherwise in the right place (the same as mine).

Nevertheless, I still believe that most antisemitism on the left is rooted in ignorance, and at the centre of much of that ignorance is the matter of Israel-Palestine. I’ve seen how those understandably furious at the injustices and atrocities committed against the Palestinian people blunder into antisemitism when criticising Israel; how they confuse Jews and Israel, such as the person who saw a poster advertising an exhibition commemorating the Holocaust and felt compelled to graffiti “Free Palestine” on it, as if all Jews, even those who died in the Holocaust, are somehow responsible for Palestinian suffering.

I’ve also seen how people are scared to condemn Israel for fear of being labelled antisemitic; and how legitimate criticism of Israel (those last four words are almost a catchphrase now) is sometimes falsely labelled antisemitic by those who maintain that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic (it is not).

So I’ve put together a rough guide on how to criticise Israel without being antisemitic. It’s not perfect, but hopefully it’s a start.

1) Be precise in your language.

Avoid saying “Zionist” or “Zionism” when discussing contemporary Israel/Palestine. The terms are too loaded now, too coarse and broad in their application, and too often used by hardcore antisemites to mean simply Jews.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a Zionist, but so are Israeli lawyers and peace activists fighting to achieve justice for Palestinians. You cannot lump them all together. Fair enough when talking historically, as long as you’re informed and precise, but for the present day, I recommend using specific terms instead, such as “the Israeli government” or “Netanyahu”.

2) Do not slide from anger at the actions of the Israeli state into asserting that Israel is controlling everything or paying money to MPs, celebrities or the media to act as they do. To do so simply echoes far-right antisemitism and centuries-old conspiracy theories about Jews, now rebadged to apply to Israel.

And yes, I know about the documentary The Lobby, where a Labour MP was filmed discussing money with an Israeli embassy official. But unless you have other examples of this, I suggest you avoid it. Of course, I may have received money from Israel to tell you this.

3) Don’t conflate Israel and Jews. It may anger you that the likes of Netanyahu try to do this, so don’t make the same mistake yourself. If you see someone talking about Jews, antisemitism or the Holocaust and find yourself leaping straight to Israel-Palestine, think again.

4) Avoid the terms “Israel lobby” and especially “Jewish lobby” unless you also say “Saudi lobby”, “Russian lobby”, “Hindu lobby” and so on. “Supporters of Israel” is safer language.

As for “Jewish lobby”, they say “two Jews, three opinions”. The idea of us agreeing enough to form a single lobby is as likely as Theresa May fighting the next election as Tory leader.

5) Don’t accuse Jews of dual loyalty to Israel and the UK (or whichever country), and certainly not of just being loyal to Israel. It’s another age-old antisemitic standard, as featured in Stalinist show trials and the Dreyfus affair.

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6) Don’t compare Israeli actions to the Nazis unless it’s incredibly specific and historically justified (such as a settler calling for Arabs to be gassed). And even then, use extreme caution.

7) Don’t ask every Jew to condemn Israel in every tweet or comment they make. Would you ask every Muslim to condemn Saudi Arabia? I hope, and presume, not.

It’s obviously not my place to tell Palestinians how they should define their oppression, but for the rest of us, people need to be able to criticise Israel and Jews need to be reassured at a time of rising antisemitism.

With careful language, we can do both.

David Schneider is an actor, comedian and director

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