Illustration: Andrew Dyson
The latest Israel-Palestinian conflagration has led to the crossing of new anti-Semitic thresholds with the potential to take us down a dangerous path. It is a path laid not with bombs and bullets, but with loose and manipulative language. Anti-Israel arguments no longer just criticise Israeli policy, which is of course legitimate, but have morphed into an anti-Semitism where the nature and consequence of the putative criticism of Israel has turned into a pretext to attack Jews.
Fuelling this anti-Semitism is the insidious false notion that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza – however terrible the fighting and loss of civilian life in Gaza, it is not genocide. Redefining genocide to suit an anti-Israel agenda paradoxically opens the way for genocide to be repeated.
If Israel is “Nazi” and “genocidal”, Israel’s self-defence is immoral and illegitimate, while attacks on Israel and her co-religionists supporters around the world become moral and legitimate.
This is evidenced by the cacophonous chants of anti-Israel protestors in Europe: “Hamas, Hamas, gas the Jews” and “Hitler was right”. Several Jewish organisations in Australia have turned on their answering machines and opened up their Facebook pages to be greeted by messages of this nature.
The Gaza War has thus provided us with a new form of Holocaust revisionism that deflates what genocide is and inflates what is not genocide. Tied to passions of the Middle East conflict, it resonates among a broader audience than David Irving’s denial of gas chambers ever could. Indeed, this new Holocaust revisionism has created an unlikely alliance uniting progressive leftists, the far-right and many Islamic and Arab groups.
The inappropriate application of Holocaust imagery desecrates the memory of the Holocaust and is a form of anti-Semitism that denies Jews their right to own and mourn the Holocaust. As British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson said: “it is to … punish them (Jews) with their own grief ... by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday ... the Jews have betrayed the Holocaust and become unworthy of it, the true heirs to their suffering being the Palestinians.”
The language invoked in current anti-Israel protests has taken a more threatening form. The nexus between words and deeds was seen in Paris where Jews were trapped inside a synagogue as anti-Israel protesters bayed for blood. In Belgium a sign appeared on a café saying dogs were allowed entry, but Jews were not. Jews have been viciously assaulted across Europe, North America and Australia. In a Melbourne suburb known for its Jewish residents, a man of Jewish appearance was physically attacked by Arabic-speaking assailants who abused him with words about Gaza as they ploughed in their punches. These incidents would be as logical as attacking local Palestinians in reprisal for Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, but the precedent for physical violence and exclusion of Jews has been set.
Another dimension of this language of hate is the way “war crimes” allegations are directed at Israel. What is unsettling is not just Israel being erroneously accused of war crimes – international law provides for self-defence and it is not a war crime if civilians are killed while military targets are attacked – but that so little is heard about the actual war crimes being committed by Hamas, as it explicitly targets Israeli civilians. It is a disconcerting thought that the reluctance to criticise Hamas war crimes is because putative human rights activists sympathise with them.
As we ponder this we should not forget that the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Jews everywhere, something that anti-Israel protesters remain deafeningly silent about.
When a left-wing Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo says he would personally like to “shoot those bastard Zionists” and a prominent British DJ Andy Kershaw "likes" a comment that that regurgitates a traditional anti-Semitic canard arguing that media coverage of Gaza is affected by Jewish control of the media; when a mainstream Turkish newspaper, Yeni Akit, questions the right of Jews to stay in the country; and when a Jewish school in Perth is daubed “Zionist scum”, the writing is literally and metaphorically on the wall.
The Jewish condition has been profoundly affected by these deleterious events, with fear returning as a feature in Diaspora Jewish life. The sense of belonging and acceptance in multicultural societies now feels undermined and potentially conditional. It would be like the Egyptian Diaspora being excluded because their Homeland government outlaws and persecutes the Moslem Brotherhood.
This growing sense of alienation felt by many Jews, including those supporting a two-state solution to the conflict, is reinforced by those refusing to accept Israel’s basic right to self-defence in response to thousands of missiles. If every nation but Israel has this right a double standard is at work, and it is double standards that have always provided the litmus test of anti-Semitism.
The current wave of protests against Israel has also brought to the fore what many Jews regard as double standards in the manifestation of human rights concerns. The current conflict has coincided with killings in Syria dwarfing those in Gaza, and an actual genocide has taken place against Christians in Iraq, yet there have been no mass street protests and minimal media comment, leaving Jews like myself to wonder whether something other than an altruistic concern about human rights underlies many of those who protest against Israel.
There are legitimate grievances on both sides of the debate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but there is no excuse to vilify Jews and caution needs to be exercised in the language we use. While criticism of Israel does not inherently mean it is anti-Semitic, that doesn’t mean, as France’s Prime Minister recently said, that it can’t be. It is time to recognise that when terms like Nazi and genocide are levelled at Israel they denigrate their meaning and open the way for these actions to be repeated.
Danny Ben-Moshe is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University and a documentary filmmaker. Twitter: @dannyb_m