A group of 122 Palestinian journalists and intellectuals has written a letter to the British Observer newspaper outlining their objection to the definition of anti-Semitism given by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). They claim it has been “increasingly instrumentalized by the Israeli government and its supporters,” and add that this threatens to debase and weaken the struggle against this form of racism. They insist that anti-Semitism should be “debunked and combated.” Yet what they offer instead is a textbook example of how the left misunderstands anti-Semitism and, worse, reproduces its canards under the guise of human rights.
The authors claim that anti-Semitism must be “deployed within the frame of international law and human rights” in order to “guarantee freedom and emancipation for all oppressed groups.” What these authors do not realize is that Zionism was, and remains, a struggle for emancipation for an oppressed group. It was a national liberation movement which was explicitly designed to provide a safe haven for Jews fleeing from tsarist oppression and authoritarian tyranny. Given that it is the movement for Jewish national self determination, it is only natural that the defence of a Jewish state falls “within the frame of international law and human rights.”
Yet the authors claim there is a “huge difference” between singling out and oppressing Jews “as a minority by anti-Semitic regimes or groups,” and implementing self-determination “in the form of an ethnic exclusivist and territorially expansionist state.” They claim that the State of Israel is “based on uprooting the vast majority of the natives” and on “subjugating those natives who still live on the territory of historical Palestine as either second-class citizens or people under occupation,” the latter being denied self-determination.
These are deeply misleading characterizations of Israeli policy. They ignore the fact that Israel is not ethnically exclusivist because it is a Jewish and democratic state. Nor is there anything inevitable about the current position that the Palestinians find themselves in. On six occasions since 1937, Israel and the Zionist movement have offered to partition the land and create an Arab Palestinian state, despite the inviolable legal rights of the Jewish people since 1920. Yet each time, the Palestinians have turned down the offer. Moreover, an Israeli state that has withdrawn from Sinai and Gaza, and which has offered to withdraw from around 95 percent of the West Bank, can hardly be called “territorially expansionist.”
They condemn the description of the BDS movement as anti-Semitic, declaring it to be “a legitimate non-violent means of struggle for Palestinian rights.” Yet the leaders of the BDS movement make no secret of their desire to eliminate Israel. According to As’ad AbuKhalil, “the real aim of BDS is to bring down the State of Israel” while BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has rejected any talk of a two-state solution. These and other ideologies see no future for a Jewish sovereign state, period.
The authors say that it is odd to describe as anti-Semitic the idea that Israel is a “racist endeavor.” This is because they claim that a Jewish state came about because of “ethnic cleansing.” Yet the historic record shows that the so-called nakba (or “catastrophe”) came about because the Arab leadership in Palestine rejected having their own state in 1947 and declared war on the Jews in Palestine instead. The authors would prefer IHRA to consider as legitimate “all non-Zionist visions of the future of the Israeli state,” including “a binational state” or “a secular democratic one that represents all its citizens equally.” Yet both of the latter solutions, while they sound progressive, mean that Jews would once again be a subjugated minority under Arab rule. Indeed, the fact that Jews were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world from 1948 onwards hardly inspires confidence that the same thing would not happen again. Jews do not want to be a barely tolerated minority subject to the whims and depredations of their political masters. History shows that they must be masters of their own fate, given the horrific consequences of powerlessness.
The authors claim that the Palestinian demand for “their right of return to the land from which they themselves, their parents and grandparents were expelled cannot be construed as anti-Semitic.” Firstly, there is nothing reasonable about this demand. The vast majority of those considered to be Palestinian refugees are so only because of the spurious definition of “refugee” allotted to them by UNRWA. And the vast majority of the descendants of genuine Palestinian refugees have no connection to Israel, even more so when many are now citizens of other countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Nor is Resolution 194 a basis for this alleged right, given that it was passed by the U.N. General Assembly and is therefore non-binding. Moreover, the so-called “right of return,” if ever exercised, would lead to Israel having an Arab majority and ceasing to be a Jewish state, once again denying to Jews their right of self-determination.
The final arguments made in this letter are a series of non-sequiturs. They claim that the charge of anti-Semitism is made “against anyone who regards the existing State of Israel as racist.” If the authors mean that Israel is racist in view of being a Jewish majority state, then one has to ask whether any self-defined Muslim or Christian majority state is a similarly racist entity.
They go on to say that Israel can “deport its Palestinian citizens, or revoke their citizenship or deny them the right to vote, and still be immune from the accusation of racism.” It is nonsense to suggest that Israel would be immune to criticism were such execrable policies to be carried out. These would indeed be racist policies, and the vast majority of Israelis would recognize this in a flash. They write that IHRA distorts anti-Semitism by claiming that “the State of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews.” This is no more true than the claim that a state of Palestine would embody the self-determination of all Palestinians. Most national communities have a diaspora where their co-nationals live out their lives and try to exercise their rights as equal citizens. Jewish self-determination in Israel doesn’t negate Jewish rights elsewhere. Confronting anti-Semitism means opposing prejudice, bigotry and double standards against Jews anywhere, including in Israel.
What these 122 academics have done is shine a spotlight on their own rejectionist attitudes to Israel and deep insensitivity to the issue of anti-Semitism. It is a truly sorry indictment.
Jeremy Havardi is a historian and journalist based in the United Kingdom, and the author of four books, the most recent of which is “Refuting the Anti-Israel Narrative” (2016).