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You’re an Anti-Semite: on Israel and Gaza

Unless you are living under a rock you are aware that once again Israel is launching an attack on Palestine. Gaza is once again covered in blood.

I have strong feelings on this issue; however due to the negative consequences that come with voicing an opinion, until recently, I have been publicly silent. Even though I am well aware that what is happening is a crime against humanity, my fear of being labelled has silenced me.

Much of Western politics is firmly aligned with Israel. Some of this is to maintain a secure foothold in the Middle East, and some of it exists from Holocaust guilt. To announce in anyway shape or form that you question your government’s unilateral support of Israel is to leave yourself open for an attack.

This stems largely from the fact that we have divided the Israeli/Palestinian debate into good and bad. According to the New York Times, Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said that Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, was responsible for the outbreak of violence and called its rocket attacks ”completely unacceptable. These people are nothing but thugs,” he said. “Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas.”

Palestinians are often referred to as terrorist; ignoring the disparity in power between the two combatants. This can clearly be seen when we examine the deaths on both sides. Few Israelis have died from Hamas rocket attacks; whereas hundreds of Palestinians have perished, or been injured in the last few days.

The American government has already condemned the actions of Hamas, ignoring the Palestinian blood that has been spilled, and the brutal siege that triggered the action to begin with. If you deny a people electricity, water, and food in an attempt to force them to capitulate, they will eventually be forced to defend themselves.

The Western media is content to play upon the fear of the so-called Arab terrorist forgetting that even that designation is definitely in the eye of the beholder. The ability to label, to decide exactly who is good and who is evil is often based on who holds the power. They count on us to be unaware of the history of this conflict. They count on us to make decisions out of fear. They count on us to believe the propagandaб because to question means we would have to assess our government’s culpability in this ongoing conflict.

We do not wish to open Pandora’s Box. The knowledge that questioning the blanket support of Israel often means being labelled an anti-Semite is enough to cause us to cease thinking about the issues involved. We choose purposeful ignorance, to shield ourselves not only from culpability, but from the certain knowledge that we will be assumed by some to be bigots.

No one wishes to receive such an ugly label. It instantly draws to mind images of pogroms in Russia and Nazi concentration camps. These events represent some of the worst cruelties that we have visited upon each other. The moment a charge of anti-Semitism is laid it immediately silences dissent.

Even when we realize that this labelling is nothing more than a silencing tactic, the words hang in the air like a fog that refuses to be dispelled. Declaring that someone is an anti-Semite when they dare to question Israeli policy as it relates to Palestinians is in no way different than calling a woman a misandrist when she questions patriarchy, or a person of color a “reverse racist” when they speak out about unacknowledged white privilege. It stifles conversation and renders the accused without power to defend themselves.

Who will hold the power? This is essentially what these exchanges are about. When arguing on the side of justice, one is often advocating from a position of marginalization. This is not a place where one can speak dispassionately, or without volumes of evidence.

The lies that we have told to support the evil in this world need little support, or validation, because we have accepted them as the norm; whereas restructuring the discourse demands an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of events, places and people. Even with overwhelming knowledge the discussion can still be prematurely ended by the uttering of four little words: “you’re an anti-Semite.”

Even the most basic points cannot be adequately discussed, due to the lack of general education on the Middle East and the centuries of conflict. Today, everything is viewed through a lens of oil, money, land, religion and power, without even the vaguest idea of the history involved. To the west the Middle East is simply the land of black gold, filled with “Arab others “who refuse to submit to their enlightened masters.

The media further perpetuates this ignorance by daily failing to provide background knowledge in its bid to paint all Palestinians as terrorists. The Palestinians’ humanity has been stripped from them as not a thought is given to the children that are dying, and mothers weeping over graves. The similarity to the white man’s vicious attack to indigenous North Americans is overlooked. Today, instead of killing with small pox blankets and forced marches, the weapons of choice are missiles and bombs all tracked live on CNN for our viewing pleasure. We have become desensitized to human suffering because we have created one group as “other” to benefit our geo-political position.

The very same people who refuse to question for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic will look askance one day, mystified as to why the West is so hated in the Middle East. As we return to our safe neighbourhoods, our largest worry being paying the rent, Palestinians will wonder when the next bombs will fall.

This cycle of violence will continue on while we announce to the world how much respect we have for freedom, and how much love we have for humanity. There is a proviso though, this respect must quickly be shelved if charged with anti-Semitism. Justice is only important if it costs us nothing.

The moment that there is a price to pay, those that made the picket signs quickly return to roost, unaware that the chickens will join them there on a later day. To stand for justice we must arm ourselves with knowledge and speak unabashedly even when there is an attempt to silence us. Conviction only means something when it is married to courage.

11 thoughts on “You’re an Anti-Semite: on Israel and Gaza

  1. I agree with you, Renee, that flinging the term “anti-semitic” at anybody who dares to criticize israel is incredibly destructive, silencing, and unjust. It’s also angering for me, because it “israel-washes” (a kind of white-washing, perhaps) that term, making it nearly impossible to detect true anti-Jewish hate, let alone call it out and counter it.

    Those few Jews, who like myself, acknowledge and condemn the obvious power imbalance are, sadly, policed and punished by the majority of Jews; I have left two synagogues over this issue, including a Reconstructionist synagogue that was supposedly all about social justice — at least until it came to israel bombing Lebanon, then “justice” was for the oppressors only.

    I do not believe that israel is a legitimate state, as it was “founded” (taken, really) by a process of ethnic cleansing. This has left me in very much a minority position, and I hate that I have allowed my own people to silence me in this regard.

    I like what Bint Alshamsa has to say about this:

    …So, if having ancestors who lived there in the past gives one the right to claim the land now, then the Palestinians have more right to that land than any non-Semitic person who has ever converted to Judaism and currently resides in Israel…

    I am Jewish, yes, but my family is from the Ukraine. I am Eastern European white, not Semitic. If I have a claim to any land, it is Ukraine, not Palestine. The majority of US-ian Jews are European whites, and I wish we all would get it through our thick heads that Palestine is not ours to take.

  2. I have also been silent, for the most part. I likely won’t be charged with anti-Semitism any time soon, and I haven’t been called a self-hating Jew yet (to my face), but voicing the kinds of criticisms that I do, even in my progressive Jewish circles, always feels fraught with risk.

    I think this is really important to talk about, and yet, I rarely encounter any discussions of Israel/Palestine, and anti-Semitism, that isn’t torn apart by polarizations and knee-jerk defensiveness.

    And yet, I don’t know if I agree with your analogies. Reverse racism is *always* a straw-man argument, and anti-Semitism does occur. It even occurs in discussions of Israel. In progressive circles.

    It doesn’t happen nearly as often as most right-wing Zionists would have you believe, but it occurs. I was at a radical anarchist sustainability conference over the summer, immersed in a conversation with a Mizrahi* Jew and a Christian Palestinian woman (who, interestingly, was also Jewish, because her maternal grandmother was Jewish) about how race and racism frame the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and how varying perceptions of Jewish whiteness around the world impact that; while we spoke, another couple walked past us, also discussing Zionism. However, unlike our conversation (which was refreshingly polite and thoughtful), the couple who walked past us were discussing the ‘fact’ that “the Zionists and Israelis knew about September 11 before it happened.”

    Now, this was an explicitly feminist, queer-positive, anti-racist, and otherwise progressive/radical space. And while I couldn’t even suggest whether their opinions were isolated or more widespread, it’s not totally farfetched that a discussion of Israel/Palestine in a progressive circle might bring about a comment that crosses the line from “the US Gov’t is too unquestioningly supportive of Israel” to “Zionists control the government.”

    The problem, as I see it, as that many people are so primed to revert to defensive-mode that we don’t even listen to each other. Because many progressives and allies of Palestine are, understandably, frustrated that attempts to be critical of Israel are often side-lined by claims of anti-Semitism. And Jews, Zionists, and supporters of Israel are often so much on the defensive against anti-Semitism – because the history of anti-Semitism is SUCH a big part of the Israel narrative and the Jewish diaspora narrative – that any criticism of Israel is immediately labeled anti-Semitic.

    So it sort of feels like two sides screaming at each other, and each only hears select few words. On the pro-Israel side, what comes across is “Israel is wrong,” “Aggressor,” “apartheid,” “genocidal hypocrites,” and “controlling the government.” And on the pro-Palestine side all that seems to come across is “anti-Semitic,” “holocaust,” “hitler.”

    But we don’t live in an either/or world. The Israeli government is a political body. It is a (kind of) democratically elected political body and, as such, should be open to debate and criticism. And anti-Semitism exists. It continues to exist even in progressive circles. And comments that sound anti-Semitic are not always coming from the mouths of those who are marginalized and oppressed, they are sometimes coming from the mouths of middle-class white anarchist boys. All of these realities exist simultaneously, and the middle-class white anarchist boy might have also have an on-point and insightful commentary on Israel/Palestine.

    As GallingGalla points out, it’s like crying wolf. But that wolf, nonetheless, is real.

    But this post inspired me to speak up more vocally. Particularly because, as a Jew, I have a different platform and a different position of power in this instance. So a blog post will likely be coming forth, but not tonight, because it’s getting late.

  3. (I forgot to add:)

    *Mizrahi is sometimes used synonymously with Sephardic, to refer to Jews from the Iberian penninsula, Mediterranean region, North Africa, and the Middle East. However, in Israel, Mizrahi is often used more specifically to refer to Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, not so much Europe. This particular person’s family was from Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon – and moved to what is today part of Israel’s territory in the late 1800s.

  4. I’ll confess, this essay makes me a little uncomfortable. Yes, there are many spurious accusations of anti-Semitism (some of them disingenuous, some simply misguided) – but on the Left, you hear a thousand times more about them than you do about legitimate instances of anti-Jewish sentiment.

    Jews need to be able to define our own oppression, just like other ethnic and religious groups. If a non-Jew feels that he or she was wrongly accused of anti-Semitism, he or she should check in with a Jewish ally – perhaps he or she actually did say something offensive without meaning to. It’s much more productive to focus on understanding how anti-Semitism operates than it is to keep the discussion focused solely on the instances when Jews are wrong. Because that leads to an atmosphere in which Jews are presumed to be wrong.

    I’ve found this pamphlet really helpful: http://www.thepast.info

  5. Much of Western politics is firmly aligned with Israel. Some of this is to maintain a secure foothold in the Middle East, and some of it exists from Holocaust guilt.
    To say nothing of the religious nutjobs that view Israel as the trigger for the Apocalypse!

  6. As an Australian from an English backgound my only invovlement is that my people caused this problem. That said I have been glued to websites and news channel regarding the war crimes that are occuring in the Middle East. If Israel were to show some understanding of what it is like to live in a refugee camp and have not future of peace or safety for family and people then they might understand why rockets are sent. Is this not self defence too? Best written viewpoint I have read yet. A free Palistine based on 67 borders is the only answer. This would cause Israel to have no water and a non-secular existance. No going to happen in my life time. Isreali’s living with Arabs is not possible so who are the racists?

  7. I think Jo puts it really well. I’ve had similar experiences of hearing people say totally fucked up stuff in similar contexts.

    There’s absolutely no doubt that accusations of anti-Semitism are used to silence criticism of the Israeli government. But it’s also true that, as well as legitimate criticism of the Israeli government, sometimes people are just being anti-Semitic.

  8. It is actually shameful that the word is so indiscriminately used. It is a insult to the people who suffered genuine persecution that others would so liberally use the label to win arguments or silence critics. A bit like the label “terrorist or extremist or militant” the word starts to lose meaning. The lines are blurred and when eventually a real racist does appear no one will listen or recognize him.

    We also now have in the US, University professors being screened for anti-Israeli views with students encouraged to inform on their professors if they express negative views about Israel. All this is an effort to prevent people thinking for themselves and hearing all sides of a issue.

  9. Very good piece, and I agree entirely with your comments on the importance of knowledge in fighting the forces of ignorance, on this and every other issue.

    I assume by “your government’s unilateral support of Israel” you are referring to the powers in Washington, as the EU have actively been calling for a ceasefire.

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