Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

NSW Greens MPs oppose antisemites who don't mention Israel

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Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

In an extremely positive development in Australian politics, recent weeks have seen hundreds of Australian parliamentarians signing the London Declaration on Antisemitism--a 2009 declaration by the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism, which aims to "draw the democratic world's attention to the resurgence of antisemitism as a potent force in politics, international affairs and society." Australia now has the largest proportion of MPs who have signed the Declaration of any country in the world.

Not all, however, support the Declaration. Two parliamentarians who have vocally opposed signing it are NSW Greens leader David Shoebridge, and his colleague in the NSW Legislative Council, John Kaye--who is Jewish by birth, if not by practice.

The two MLCs have written a post on New Matilda explaining their position. If that piece is a true reflection of their views on the subject, they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the substance of the Declaration.

Shoebridge and Kaye write that:

The first clause of the Declaration, under the heading "Challenging Antisemitism" calls on Parliamentarians to "expose, challenge, and isolate political actors who engage in hate against Jews and target the State of Israel as a Jewish collectivity."

Of course, every elected official should expose those who engage in hate against the Jews, as both of us have and will continue to do. However, signing the declaration turns MPs into vigilantes against anyone who raises concerns about the fact that Israel is unashamedly based on a religious or ethnic identity. Using this rationale, critics of Iran, who reject its extremist religious theocracy, would be open to criticism under such a clause.

The comparison to Iran is a complete non-sequitur. Criticising Israel for being a secular, democratic nation-state based around the Jewish nation is by no stretch of the imagination equivalent to criticising Iran's theocratic dictatorship.

Secondly, Shoebridge and Kaye demonstrate a substantial misreading of the Declaration. Targeting Israel as a "Jewish collectivity" refers to projecting anti-Jewish sentiments onto the Jewish state as though it were an embodiment of the collective "evils" that antisemites see in the Jewish people.

It is revealing that the two Greens see it as legitimate to express "concerns about the fact that Israel is unashamedly based on a religious or ethnic identity." They are correct in concluding that this is the kind of sentiment that the Declaration opposes.

The fact is that many, if not most, countries in the world--including almost every Middle Eastern country--are "based on a religious or ethnic identity". Shoebridge and Kaye have never seen fit to criticise the UK for being "unashamedly" based on the Anglican Church, or Korea for being "unashamedly" based on the Korean ethnic identity. The idea that it is wrong to define a country by its religion or ethnicity would likewise come as news to the Italians, the Greeks, the Irish, the Japanese, and countless others.

Of all of the world's nation-states, only Israel is told by people like Shoebridge and Kaye that it ought to be ashamed of being a state based on an ethnic identity. The only characteristic that distinguishes Israel from every other nation state is that the identity on which it was founded happens to be Jewish.

The Declaration is not opposed to criticism of the nation-state as a model of governance per se, which would amount to criticising every state based on that model. It is also not opposed to criticism of individual Israeli policies. It merely observes that it is antisemitic to have one standard for every ethnic group or nationality in the world other than Jews, and another for Jews.

 As academic David Hirsch has explained:

Other states do bad things: Israel's bad things are epiphenomena of its racist essence (or its psychological trauma). Demonization of Israel defines Israeli nationalism as a form of racism ... Demonization is about relating to Israel as though it were a unique evil in the world. Criticism is about relating to Israel as though it were a state that does bad things.

Shoebridge and Kaye then go on to write that:

If the intent was to expose the genuinely anti-semitic critics of Israel, whose sole motivation is to prosecute a hatred of the Jews by targeting Israel, then the clause could readily have accommodated this. We would have gladly signed a declaration that consistently focused on a call to Parliamentarians to "expose, challenge, and isolate political actors who engage in hate against Jews and target any organisation or entity specifically because of its Jewish identity or association".

What the pair seem to be saying is that they would be happy to sign a declaration that referred in general to 'organisations or entities' being targeted because they were Jewish, but not one that specifically refers to Israel as one of these 'organisations or entities'. It seems that they are against the targeting of any Jewish entity for being Jewish, unless that entity is the Jewish State.

At other points, they display what could be considered a rare analytical talent. It is not unusual in political writing to take quotes out of context in order to misrepresent a document's intent or significance. What is rather unusual is to give the quotes in context, then misrepresent them regardless. Yet Shoebridge and Kaye include such passages as:

[C]lause 6 ... calls for governments and the UN to ensure that "never again will the institutions of the international community and the dialogue of nation states be abused to try to establish any legitimacy for anti-semitism". This is a strong and entirely supportable aim but then the clause proceeds with "including the singling out of Israel for discriminatory treatment in the international arena".

Critics of Indonesia for its treatment of West Papuans, China for its treatment of the Uighurs and the Tibetans or North Korea for its abuse of its entire civilian population are constantly "singling out" those states "for discriminatory treatment in the international arena"....

Clause 24 calls on education authorities to "ensure that freedom of speech is upheld within the law and to protect students and staff from illegal anti-semitic discourse and a hostile environment in whatever form it takes including calls for boycotts".

This is not an isolated attempt to suggest that calls for boycotts of businesses that have links to the illegal settlements or that support the Israeli military are anti-semitic. They are not.

The Declaration condemns the abuse of "the institutions of the international community and the dialogue of nation states" in order to "try to establish any legitimacy for anti-semitism", and then includes a parenthetical point about singling out Israel for discrimination. It goes without saying that Israel should not be immune from criticism, but in the Declaration there is nothing that even implies precluding valid or legitimate criticism. It is difficult to see how anyone with a modicum of understanding of English would fail to see that, in context, the word "discrimination" is clearly referring to where Israel is treated unfairly because of anti-Jewish prejudice.

The two Greens also take issue with the Declaration's criticism of the 'United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and other related Intolerances' in Durban in 2001, which is widely acknowledged to have descended into little more than an anti-Jewish hate fest. They give a whitewashed account of the goings-on there, which clashes with the accounts of people who actually attended the conference's NGO forum--such as AIJAC's Jeremy Jones.

To name just a few of the examples of what Shoebridge and Kaye referred to as discussions of "long-standing and sometimes bitter divisions regarding race and history" that reportedly took place at the "anti-racism conference": individuals identified as Jewish were shouted down from speaking with chants of "Jew! Jew! Jew!"; a session on Holocaust denial was cancelled after it was decided that the safety of the participants could not be guaranteed; pamphlets  depicting "grotesque caricatures of hook-nosed Jews depicted as Nazis, spearing Palestinian children, dripping blood from their fang", and the notorious antisemitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were distributed to attendees; and a Palestinian-led march featured placards declaring that "Hitler should have finished the job".

Their dismissal of these incidents as simple discussions of "divisions regarding race" clearly demonstrates Shoebridge and Kaye's unwillingness to acknowledge even overt antisemitism when perpetrated by people who claim to be acting out of opposition to Israel.

Similarly, there is a substantial distinction between "anti-semitic discourse and a hostile environment in whatever form it takes including calls for boycotts" and suggestions "that calls for boycotts of businesses that have links to the illegal settlements or that support the Israeli military are anti-semitic." The Declaration says nothing of businesses with links to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, nor to the Israeli military. It does, however, condemn "anti-semitic discourse" taking the form of calls for boycotts.

As Shoebridge and Kaye themselves acknowledge, it would be absurd to suggest that antisemitic discourse could never take such forms--the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses being the example given by the Greens MLCs.

This is not the only instance in which the two Greens construct a 'straw man argument' by referring to policies not mentioned in the Declaration, which for some reason they allege would be considered antisemitic under the Declaration. As another example:

When people of goodwill express their opposition to Israeli soldiers routinely humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints, the construction of an apartheid-style segregation wall through the West Bank or the brutal use of Israeli military force against civilians in Gaza, their motivation is not to denigrate the Jewish people but to highlight injustices perpetrated on the Palestinian people.

Once again, the London Declaration makes no accusations whatsoever that criticism of Israeli checkpoints, the security fence, or Israel's use of military force would necessarily amount to antisemitism. Indeed, while many mainstream Jewish and Zionist organisations dispute the accuracy, fairness, and morality of these criticisms, none of them would make the blanket claim that all such criticism is antisemitic.

In essence, Shoebridge and Kaye are rejecting the Declaration because of a claimed right to criticise Israeli policies that are not mentioned in the Declaration. At first glance this seems somewhat perverse, however the unwillingness to acknowledge antisemitism when it coincides with criticism of Israel is unfortunately widespread within the anti-Israel movement. A particularly virulent example was seen in Australia on the Facebook event page for a recent protest against the opening of a branch of Max Brenner at the University of NSW (see here, here and here). Another example was seen in a recent piece for OnLineOpinion by Bishop George Browning from the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, who similarly opposed the Declaration as it supposedly "moves away from its worthy support of Judaism and Jewishness into the world of politics by including in clauses 1 and 6 criticism of Israel as possible anti-Semitism."

This trend feeds into the broader mentality within the anti-Israel movement--recently exemplified by BDS proponent Jake Lynch--that their lack of success is caused not by their weak arguments in support of their extremist viewpoint, but by some form of smear-campaign  to unjustly label them as "antisemites" by the mysterious and all-powerful "Zionist Lobby". Of course, the idea of a mysterious and powerful Jewish cabal that secretly manipulates politics and the media itself takes a leaf out of many an antisemitic book. That irony, however, appears to be lost on the theory's proponents.

Accordingly, Shoebridge and Kaye appear intent on denying that any criticism of Israel could ever be representative of antisemitic views, or that the Jewish State specifically--and not some abstract "Jewish organisation or entity"--could be the target of anti-Jewish prejudice. [In fairness, they do admit that the Iranian leadership occasionally strays into antisemitic territory; although this feels rather tokenistic as one would be hard-pressed to find more overt antisemitism than the sentiments routinely expressed by the Iranian regime.]

The absurdity of this idea was recently highlighted by novelist Howard Jacobson in a satirical column for the Independent (which was republished in the Australian):

Gather round, everybody. I bear important news. Anti-Semitism no longer exists! Ring out, ye bells, the longest hatred has ceased to be. It's kaput, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, joined the bleedin' choir invisible. It's a stiff, ladies and gentlemen. An EX-PREJUDICE!

I first heard the news in a motion passed by the University and College Union declaring that criticism of Israel can "never" be anti-Semitic which, if "never" means "never", is a guarantee that Jew-hating is over, because ... Well, because it's impossible to believe that an active anti-Semite wouldn't - if only opportunistically - seek out somewhere to nestle in the manifold pleats of Israel-bashing, whether in generally diffuse anti-Zionism, or in more specific Boycott and Divestment Campaigns, Israeli Apartheid Weeks, End the Occupation movements and the like. Of course, you don't have to hate Jews to hate Israel, but tell me that not a single Jew-hater finds the activity congenial, that criticising Israel can "never" be an expression of Jew-hating, not even when it takes the form of accusing Israeli soldiers of harvesting organs, then it follows that there's no Jew-hating left.

While Shoebridge and Kaye are very keen to remind readers that they are opposed to antisemitism, this comes across as a disingenuous "I'm not a racist, but..." qualifier, rather than a genuine expression of their views. Both seem far more intent on defending those who vilify Israel than on condemning those who vilify Jews, and are quite prepared to look the other way at the latter when it helps to bolster the former.

If they truly considered the Declaration to be as much of a "missed opportunity" as they claim, surely they could have found some way to point out what "real" antisemitism looks like, rather than focussing solely on what it supposedly does not.

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