Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why does the left downplay antisemitism? All forms of racism should be abhorred

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, antisemitism was impossible to ignore and became a central concern of the global left, but Julian Burnside encapsulated the contemporary shift in thinking when he wrote in the Guardian that “Islamophobia is the new antisemitism”, implying, as many often do, that the old antisemitism has been superseded.

It hasn’t.  Last Wednesday, a lecture at the University of Sydney by retired British Colonel Richard Kemp became the scene of a heated protest. Kemp was accused of supporting genocide, and, during the fracas, noted Australian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions advocate Professor Jake Lynch was filmed waving money in the faces of an elderly Jewish women and the Jewish student trying to prevent the two from coming to blows.

Lynch explained his actions as a response to having been kicked, saying it was a warning that he would sue, and described his restraint as “almost heroic”, though his account has been disputed by witnesses, with Kemp claiming that the woman was attempting to push Lynch away, who initiated the contact.

Irrespective of who struck first, the image of a leftwing academic brandishing money in the faces of Jewish people clearly evokes the crude antisemitic falsehood that Jews are obsessed with money and perhaps neatly encapsulates the shift of the left away from Jews.

Whatever Lynch’s excuses or reasoning, and the elderly woman’s behaviour, it was clearly an offensive and provocative gesture, reasonably likely to offend the Jewish community. In the past, a leftwing professor would surely have anticipated this, but the reality is that antisemitism today is not as pressing an issue to progressives as it once was.

Instead we have a new set of attitudes towards antisemitism: that it is of lesser importance in the west than other forms of racism, like Islamophobia; that it is no longer a serious threat to diaspora Jews; and that the gravity of its existence is diminished because of the existence and behaviour of Israel.

The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen are ample proof that antisemitism still poses a threat to Jews in the west, especially in light of new recordings from Paris confirming definitively that the gunman targeted Jews. In France, Jews make up 1% of the population yet suffer half of all racist attacks. In Australia, 2014 saw a massive increase in reported antisemitism, including physical attacks in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

But Jews should not be required to parade our suffering, historical or contemporary, in a competition for attention with other forms of racism. Nor should we be expected to tolerate the constant appearance of antisemitic language and imagery at prominent anti-Israel rallies, which does seem to show that the use of antisemitic symbols and language in the west is seen as less threatening, or perhaps “understandable”, when connected with Israel.

That attitude was shown by leftwing Jewish actress Miriam Margolyes’ astonishing performance on a recent episode of the ABC’s Q&A programme. Answering a straightforward question on whether antisemitism garners as much sympathy as Islamophobia, Margolyes’ response was to bring up Israel’s “evil” actions in Gaza as a likely cause of antisemitism. Her solution was for Australians to see that “not all Jews behave in the way Israelis are doing” – suggesting all the Jew has to do is denounce Israel loudly enough, or perhaps wear a sign, that indicates that we aren’t all “evil” like Israelis are, to avoid being victimised.

Ironically, it sounds remarkably like a demand so often made of Muslims. As Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said a week earlier, “I wish more Muslim leaders would say [they are a religion of peace] more often and mean it.” Abbott’s comments were widely denounced by the left and rightfully so, but Margolyes’ comments were not objected to, they were applauded by many in the audience and online.

It is surely obvious that mitigating bigotry or racism with victim-blaming is wrong regardless of the victim’s ethnic or religious background. Yet it persists in some left-wing circles that Jews are the exception to this rule – our communal connection to Israel makes us somehow more legitimate targets, unless we denounce the Jewish state.

The problem with this notion is twofold – firstly, because Jews do not wear signs declaring our position on Israel. A proud Zionist Jew can just as easily be targeted at a kosher supermarket as an anti-Zionist one. More than that though, why should we have a duty to detach ourselves from a vital aspect of our cultural identity to avoid victimisation?

The reality is that we are human beings with complex identities, defined by a wide range of societal, communal and ethnic influences. Must we carry the burden of answering for all of Israel’s actions because we were born Jewish? And are we so unlike other ethnic cultures that care for the safety and security of our relatives abroad, that we can be painted as immoral for not abstracting ourselves from their threatened existence?

In a political climate where fear is a weapon as much as a state of mind, where innocence isn’t automatically assumed, and where wars and foreign affairs can fuel prejudice at home, it is natural that many take great steps to defend embattled Muslim communities from the risk of dangerous incitement. In doing so, they recognise that Muslims deserve to have their rights – freedom of association, of safety, of speech – protected, if necessary by the state.

They also recognise that self-determination of cultural and national identity is not something we can impose on other people. Those rights and understandings must be equally extended to Jews without the expectation that we must first denounce Israel, fight it, answer for it, or be ashamed by it.

Even before the Kemp lecture, the student protesters Lynch became involved with declared that they were there to defend Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the extremist group which has been exposed as having spread antisemitic propaganda and incitement against Jews on the streets of Sydney. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whatever their legal status, cannot be defended by any genuine anti-racist. If the radical left with which Lynch and his fellow protesters are affiliated are prepared to defend their civil rights, they must not excuse their anti-Jewish racism – a duty of which they have thus far failed.

When progressives downplay or diminish the threat of antisemitism in the diaspora because of Israel – or, worse, fuel it – they do not extend to us those equal rights they purport to stand for. Progressives do more than dishonouring their values in this case, they diminish the unique history of Jews in Australian (and western) society, failing to acknowledge and defend us as equal, regardless of our relationship with or opinions about Israel.

The left must act to repair its straining relationship with Jews and once again take up opposition to antisemitism as its cause. Antisemitism is, like all forms of racism, to be abhorred and condemned unequivocally, not reduced and marginalised by games of comparison and mitigation. It is not a partisan issue and it cannot be up to the right to own the unqualified outrage it deservedly generates. The left, and the values it holds, are far too proud and dear to our hearts for that.

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