Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party: Muzzling free speech silences rightful criticism of Israel

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Attempts by the Labour Party or any other body to stifle free speech about Israeli racism will only ensure that the racism continues and increases unabated.

Source: Middle East Eye

The British Labour Party’s recent efforts to define anti-Semitism, and to put clear water between a racist act (which is a criminal offence) and legitimate criticism of Israel, is deeply appreciated by those who strive for truth and justice.

Conversely, the push by supporters of Israel to bully and browbeat the Labour Party into adopting a distorted definition of anti-Semitism is sad and disheartening.

“It is impossible to understand why Labour refuses to align itself with this universal definition,” complained the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the UK’s Jewish Leadership Council.

The second half of this sentence is patently false. These groups’ desired definition, through politically slanted examples, is most definitely not a universally accepted test to decide which statements should be struck from the political discourse – and for good reason.

Five years ago, the Fundamental Rights Agency – the European Union body dedicated to combatting racism and discrimination – dropped the definition from its website.

In fact, the definition’s controversial examples are not even accepted as such by the man who wrote it.

As Kenneth Stern, the lawyer and lead author of the document explained in a 2016 op-ed in the New York Times, the text was only ever “intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe. It was never supposed to curtail speech”.

The fog of ‘whataboutery’

Now on to the first claim, that it is “impossible to understand” why the UK Labour Party, or any body dedicated to human rights and opposed to racial hatred, would reject the definition or associated examples championed by pro-Israel groups.

Allow me, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to explain why this definition of anti-Semitism is problematic in the extreme, and why it amounts to an attempt to muzzle public discourse on the rights of Palestinian people.

Anger at the Labour Party stems not from its decision to accept the broad definition of anti-Semitism written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), but its refusal to accept four examples of anti-Semitism which relate explicitly to Israel. These are:

  • “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”
  • ” Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations”
  • “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”
  • ”Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”

The first of these examples is just an eloquent ”whataboutery”. Responding to reports about state racism, Israel’s defenders cry out: “What about Syria? What about Saudi Arabia? What about Iran?”

Of course, these aren’t honest appeals to discuss the alleged crimes of those other countries, but rather, efforts to derail discussion of Israel’s. No victim of racism should ever be required to compile lists of other equally reprehensible acts of racism, just to earn the right to describe their own suffering.

If other countries are guilty of similar or worse crimes, they should also be called out for those crimes. The responsibility to do so, however, falls on every single citizen, every political actor.

Any effort to burden those who would advocate Palestinian rights with the demand that they first lobby for the rights of every other aggrieved group in the world is nothing more than a strategy to silence them, and to ensure Israeli impunity.

Where are rights for Palestinians?

Another way Palestinians are being silenced is with the assertion that those who accuse the State of Israel of inherent racism, of being a “racist endeavour“, are really inciting hatred of Jews in general and wherever they happen to live. Founding the state was the common wish of Jewish people, say supporters of Israel: denying that wish amounts to anti-Semitism.

In fact, creating a state that would give preferential treatment to Jews over others, including over the indigenous Palestinian people, was a minority opinion among Jews around the world before Israel was established.

Israeli police grab demonstrators

Israeli police grab demonstrators resisting the demolition of Palestinian Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank, July 4, 2018

Since the state’s founding in 1948, admittedly, Jews who support a territory of their own in Palestine have grown in number and proportion.

Still, no right of self-determination could ever supercede the right to equal treatment of every other person living on the land. Why should support for Israel – even if such support was unanimous among Jewry around the world – absolve Israel of racism at its core?

At the time of Israel’s creation, its founding fathers drove out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and did not permit them to return when hostilities had ended. They refuse a right of return to this day. In the seven decades that followed, there was only a single year in which Israel did not control the Palestinian masses that remained by military occupation.

Palestinians now make up a majority of the population in all the territories Israel controls, but only a quarter of those people are accorded citizenship, and even they are subject to discrimination by at least 66 state laws.

Almost 1,000 villages and towns in Israel – more than three-quarters of the total – do not permit non-Jews to live within them.

To ensure that Israel’s High Court cannot quash any of these laws that discriminate against non-Jews, the Netanyahu government is now advancing new legislation which would sanctify the superior status of Jews in Israel.

These and many more travesties of justice are not bugs of the Jewish state; they are features of it. Where then are the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, after the State of Israel has systematically eliminated them?

The hatred against Palestinians and others

In recent years, though, the elected and appointed leaders of Israeli Jews have incited hatred against Palestinians, African refugees, non-Jews in general, even against Israeli Jews who are not sufficiently nationalist in their eyes.

It gives me no pleasure to write this, but it must be clearly stated for the record: of late, top Israeli political and religious leaders have even incited genocide against the Palestinian people. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef ruled in March that non-Jewish people, including Palestinians, have no right to live in the country.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in May 2015 that all Palestinian people, including mothers and babies, are enemies who must be destroyed.

 A picture of Palestinian toddler Ali Dawabsha, killed when his West Bank home was set on fire in July 2015 (AFP)

Most worrisome, this racist rhetoric is increasingly influencing the Israeli public, shifting it further and further to the far right. What human rights horrors could this lead to, if left unchecked?

In May 2014, Israel’s most highly respected author, Amos Oz, used a variation on the N-word to describe the country’s Jewish supremacists. “We also have Hebrew neo-Nazi groups,” Oz said. “There is nothing the modern-day neo-Nazis in Europe do that those groups don’t do here.”

Just weeks later, some of those neo-Nazis kidnapped Mohammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem, beat him, forced gasoline down his throat, and burned him to death from the inside out. In July 2015, another group of Hebrew neo-Nazis firebombed a Palestinian home in the West Bank, murdering the Dawabsheh family’s father, mother and one-year-old baby.

In recent weeks, I accompanied the baby’s grandfather to court to support him in his quest for justice. Meanwhile, my fellow deputy speaker of the Knesset, Bezalel Smotrich, accompanied to court the young Israeli men on trial for committing the murders.

Two years ago on Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day itself – the Israeli army’s deputy chief of staff, Major General Yair Golan, told a group of assembled soldiers: “If there’s something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance, it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then – 70, 80 and 90 years ago – and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”

Golan’s harsh observations were not divorced from reality, but rather, reflected it accurately. A Pew poll published just two months earlier found that four-fifths of Israeli Jews want the state to accord them more legal rights than Palestinian citizens of Israel, and half – half! – of Israeli Jews want to strip non-Jews of their citizenship, and to outright deport them.

Stifling free speech ensures racism continues

This state of affairs is nothing to be happy about; like other public figures, I regret to inform you of it. But I am left with no choice: unless you are made aware of these frightening facts, there is no chance that these trends can be curbed, and reversed, so that ultimately, everyone living in the land can enjoy the equal rights they are entitled to, Jew and Gentile, Israeli and Palestinian.

The Labour Party’s new statement, which slams anti-Semitism but defends criticism of Israel, is a huge improvement over the anti-Palestinian policy that preceded it, and should be praised as such.

Attempts by the Labour Party or any other body to stifle free speech about Israeli racism will only ensure that the racism continues and increases unabated.

Ahmad Tibi is the most senior Arab member of the Israeli parliament, having served since 1999.

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