Disagreement is not racism.

Following the Jewish Council’s comments in Christchurch, I was sad to read reactions like this:  “I do take antisemitism very seriously, and the Jewish community is an important part of any discussion in preventing racism, but this just makes it so hard.”

Why is it getting harder?  7amleh, the Arab Center For The Advancement Of Social Media, recorded a 15-fold increase in racist, violent and inciting speech against Palestinians and Arabs on the internet during May.  Here in Aotearoa, we hear misleading accusations against advocates for a rights-based solution to the occupation of Palestine.  The accusations purport to describe antisemitism, but we  believe that we are witnessing a politicised deterioration in the way we portray each other. 

          For some time, accusations of antisemitism have been expanding. Sometimes they rely on a definition of antisemitism that confuses Jew-hatred with opposition to the occupation of Palestine.  Called the IHRA Working Definition, it also separates antisemitism from other forms of racism and seeks a separate response.  At the end of this post, we list links to more information about definitions. Here, we want to explore the implications of this era of accusation. To do that, it is only necessary to repeat that the expansive IHRA Working Definition has no official standing whatsoever  in Aotearoa-NZ.  Nor has its claim that non-Zionism is inherently antisemitic. That is not what antisemitism means.

These politically framed accusations hover in the air like space-junk. We want to draw attention to the harm they are causing to our relations and our ability to undertake the shared work of antiracism including the hatred of Jews and Muslims.

          To be very clear, we are not asserting that there is more, or less, actual antisemitism (Jew-hatred) around us. We are suggesting that politicised accusations misdirect our attention and undermine our response to any amount of racism.

Disagreement is not hate

To call someone a Jew-hater because they oppose Zionism and the occupation of Palestine is to confuse a political disagreement with racial hate.  The power of definition is the power to make one’s own view normal or normative, and to problematize other views.  This power escalates disagreement to an intolerance of disagreement, and of the people who disagree.  It elevates a contested idea to the absolute wrong of racism. Regardless of one’s understanding of Palestine, consider that step-change. Once a political view been labelled racist, all dissent can be discredited and the discussion is forfeit.

That step-change does grievous damage to our freedom to passionately contest politics.  It is everyone’s business to protect our right to argue politics.  Brian Klug, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford University Faculty of Philosophy, writes:

“Excessive criticism is just a fact of political life… There is no requirement in human rights ethics or law that, in order to merit protection, political speech has to be measured or reasonable or balanced.  This point is fundamental to the principle of freedom of expression…. Being contentious and being antisemitic are not at all the same.  The line between contentious and non-contentious speech is different from the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech… It is vital these these two lines are clearly distinguished.”

If any advocate succeeds in protecting their view by officially defining disagreement ashateful, then more political contests will be waged in the same way.  Disagreement will become a contest for the machinery of state (See also Donald Trump’s America). 

Relational harm

To confuse disagreement with hatred is to drive a wedge into our body politic.  Suddenly, linguistically, there are those who agree and those who are racist. That deters anyone who doesn’t want to be labeled as an extremist or an enemy.  Sadly, the real racists are undeterred. They don’t give a damn about definitions and labels.

The antisemitism wedge harms our Jewish community, too. Cass Sunstein’s book, Conformity, discusses the damage that communities do when they narrow their information pool and require members to suppress dissenting views. He cites some Jewish communities to illustrate the risks of insularity. 

Imagine what it would do to any community – to your own group – to be told that people disagree with you out of hatred, that they threaten your security, or (as has been written of advocates for Palestinian’s equal human rights) that they actively wish you harm. Your group might respond by defending its views as absolutely as it defends its safety.  

By attacking dissenting speakers as racist, your group would also be absolved of any need to engage with the substance of disgreement. You might begin to regard your neighbours as dangerous, racists, with voices not worth hearing – even as you find it hard to understand why others do not share your fears.

What a harmful, isolating trajectory.

There is no separate safety

The IHRA Working Definition calls for a separate definition of anti-Jewish racism, and a separate official response. However, there is no separate safety.  It’s a myth. 

In order to believe that Jews (or any group) can separately save themselves from racism, you would have to imagine a day when Muslims or LGBTQ+ or immigrants are still objects of hatred – but not Jews.  Jews would have somehow been removed from the racist’s target list.  That’s magical thinking.  Every hatred has a distinct history, but at the moment hatreds tend to travel in a pack. To confront that white supremacist pack effectively, we need to face it down together.

Separatism erodes our ability to do that, as it denies our need to co-exist in the political space of Aotearoa-NZ. It seeks ‘my’ safety as if ‘my’ safety were the extent of my responsibility.  At its very worst, such ring-fencing becomes zero-sum when ‘my’ safety is allowed to require ‘your’ silence.  If ‘my’ story is normal, then ‘my’ allies are only those who grant me sole authorship.

All this helps to explain why it may be feeling more difficult to be a friend, an ally, or simply to be respected as a decent human being who profoundly disagrees.  Or a non-Zionist Jew. 

We will lose the language to identify and oppose racism if we misuse it to serve another agenda. A politicised definition of antisemitism has no official standing in Aotearoa-NZ, and its use undermines our collective work.  While these loose accusations fly; the real, shared, proximate threat of white supremacist hatred and violence is getting a pass.  The voices from the Christchurch hui’s second day spoke to this, if only they had been more prominent.

A little more than a year ago, a member of AJV decided to report a burst of hatemail.  She was referred to Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women’s Association, to learn from her experience.  That’s our message in miniature: we need each other.

We have definitions of racism.  What we need is action. We need to form a solid wall of tolerance for each other and intolerance for threats to any of us. 

If you would like to read more from Alternative Jewish Voices on antiracism:

See our resource page for more on the working definition, including this  from an Oxford researcher on its fundamentally misleading advocacy (or Al Jazeera’s summary of the same paper).  In March of this year, two hundred scholars produced the Jerusalem Declaration, which we suggest as a superior, interim tool for understanding antisemitism.  We have written the Jerusalem Declaration Brief and a list of Jerusalem Declaration resources to juxtapose the two definitions.

When the Wellington City Council was lobbied to accept the IHRA Working Definition, we objected for all the reasons outlined above.

We have also written about the individual harm caused to New Zealanders who have been falsely accused of antisemitism, and we have tried to show the depth of that rabbit hole

Signed by these members and friends of Alternative Jewish Voices

Marilyn Garson

Fred Albert

David Weinstein

Ilan Blumberg

Lynn Jenner

Sue Berman

Sarah Cole

Diego Lewin

Yael Shochat

Not At This Hui, And Not In Our Names

Alternative Jewish Voices responds to the statements of NZ Jewish Council spokesperson. Our release also appears on Scoop here: https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO2106/S00124/not-at-this-hui-and-not-in-our-names.htm

We, Alternative Jewish Voices, hope for a productive and unifying second day at the Christchurch anti-terrorism hui.  Security is something we build together and give each other. A threat may be singular, but our safety is collective.

We are saddened to hear that such a kaupapa has been disrespected and we are, additionally, horrified to hear Jewish Council spokesperson Juliet Moses double down on her claim that she was expressing the sentiment of our national Jewish community.

It was wrong to coopt the hui for statements that (according to the comments of those present) securitised and essentialised the Muslim community.  We object to any statement that presumes Palestinian solidarity must imply a love of violence.  Such statements are wrong, period; and it was additionallty wrong to bring those politics into the anti-terrorism venue in particular. 

We feel for those who have been hurt, but we are heartened to hear that the hui will continue with its mission.

We have challenged the Jewish Council’s claim to represent our community.  We repeat our statement in order to challenge Ms Moses’s present claim that the Council’s politics represent the fears of all NZ Jews.

The NZ Jewish Council records its mission thus: “The Council is the representative organisation of New Zealand Jewry. Its objective is to promote the interests, welfare and wellbeing of New Zealand Jewry.” 

However, as we understand it, NZ Jewish Council members are chosen by a number of regional Jewish councils.  The NZ Jewish Council members seem to be appointed through a series of indirect institutional processes.  Members of Alternative Jewish Voices who belong to synagogues – some for many years – have never had any direct input to the composition of the NZ Jewish Council.  Jews who are not members of a synagogue don’t appear to have any voice in these processes at all.  The NZ Jewish Council does not attempt to elicit, include or represent the spectrum of views within the Jewish community.

We want our neighbours to understand that the ardent Zionist voices of the NZ Jewish Council and Israel Institute do not represent the whole community of New Zealand Jews. They emphatically do not represent us.

Alternative Jewish Voices wishes all participants in the Christchurch hui wisdom and unity.  We all need your kaupapa and we will all benefit from it.

Alternative Jewish Voices of New Zealand

Not just antisemitism: protest that neither hates nor falsely equates

Members of Alternative Jewish Voices and Justice for Palestine sat down last weekend to explore the speech of protest that neither hates nor falsely equates.  

We find that language in the discourse of human rights, because rights are either everyone’s rights, or they are nothing. We reject any language which ethnically ranks and values human beings.  Rights value us according to a single, shared human standard.  Then the law can distinguish between the different obligations of occupier and occupied, and the wildly different proportions of actual harm.

We deplore the weapons of war because we are all flesh and blood and family.  We mourn all of the deaths. We do not equate the dangers or the damages. We protest Israel’s regime, wherein the weapons are wielded so disproportionately by the powerful against the powerless.  We call for legal accountability to replace the present, violent impunity.

That is not anti-Israel.  Accountability takes the side of civilians. The armed party which does the overwhelming share of the wrongful killing and destruction, earns the overwhelming share of the law’s attention.  The community which experiences the overwhelming share of the dispossession, loss and harm deserves the greatest part of our concern, our protection.  B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, tracks the casualties of this occupation.  Through the past twenty years, the casualites have been 88% Palestinian. 

Now another 256 are dead in Gaza; 12 in Israel.  It is wrong to decry these factual proportions as anti-Israel, or to attribute antisemitic motives to speakers who are simply counting.

Early in the Great March of Return, Ha’aretz published an Op-Ed by an American rabbi, titled, If You Call the Gaza Death Toll ‘Disproportionate,’ How Many Israelis Have to Die for the Sake of Symmetry?  On May 17, 2018, I responded.

“The deaths arising from Gaza’s weeks-old protests are one-sided: the IDF has killed more than 100 Gazans. They have injured more protestors than Gaza has hospital beds. Médecins Sans Frontières has noted an alarming pattern among the gunshot wounds, indicating a particularly harmful choice of ammunition. No Israeli has been injured or killed.

“You ask whether a person who observes these facts would like to see ‘a hundred Jewish bodies strewn across the desert.’  No, I would not. I am simply observing a fact. I am not seeking more deaths; I am seeking fewer. I am calling attention to avoidable killing. If I may not note the factual distribution of death, then what am I allowed to say?”

Facts are allowed.  Essentializing, dehumanizing hate is not.  Between them lies a hotly contested political vocabulary.

This vocabulary includes objective, discomfiting words like apartheid, a crime against humanity.  Human rights lawyers have repeatedly found that Israel’s arrangements of power constitute apartheid. Their legal analyses make the term available to the rest of us.  I object when anti-Jewish motives are attributed to people for using such substantiated terminology.  It is incidental that this apartheid happens to benefit Jews.  The point is that it illegally, systemically oppresses our fellow human beings. 

If it is antisemitic for non-Jews to conflate ‘Israel,’ ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jews,’ then why do we allow Zionist spokespeople to do precisely that – to hide Israel’s military regime in the protected religious sphere of Judaism?  Are they not essentialising all Jews as nationalists and occupiers? 

When the proponents of Israel’s occupation call their critics antisemitic, they also logically encroach on the meaning of semitism.  I am a Jew, a Semite.  The category is ancient and precious to me. See what they are doing to it. If it is antisemitic to pursue others’ freedom, if human equality is antisemitic, then tell me what they have made of my semitism.

In this era of accusations, how often do we condemn the speech that hates and dehumanizes Palestinians?

We must urgently equalize the hateful, deadly disparity we apply to the dense civilian-military intermingling that prevails in both Israel and Gaza.  Israel consistently ranks among the most militarized states on earth.  Its Ministry of Defense stands in the commercial heart of Tel Aviv.  You can’t walk a block in Israeli cities without seeing weapons, some carried by men and women wearing uniforms and some not.  Gaza is also militarized, some of it visible and some concealed.  Yet we allow ourselves to be told that Israel’s army shields civilians while Gaza’s civilians are deployed to shield Hamas fighters. Which is it? This perception conditions our understanding of justifiable and wrongful killing.

Israel has wiped out generations of Palestinian families on the pretext of striking at individual members of Hamas.  It beggars belief to suggest that Israelis – or anyone else – would accept the killing en masse of generations of the families of their own soldiers, teachers, civil servants, rubbish collectors or police with the same rationale. Nor, straying geographically, would Israelis or anyone else call it justice to blow up the family homes of people suspected of crimes, as Israel does in the West Bank.

Israeli police stations are civic installations, yet the IDF blew up “dozens” of Gaza’s police stations as military targets.  In all these ways, the prevalence of arms in Israel is not seen as forfeiting civilian status. The mere, unproven association with Hamas is allowed to militarize extended families and apartment towers in the Gaza Strip. 

Which is it?  Each inversion protects Israelis and strips Palestinians of their civilian protection. 

We begin discounting Gazan life when we allow “Hamas” to stand in for the name of the place being bombed. Israel does not bomb Hamas, because Hamas is not a place. We see with our own eyes that every bomb lands on the Gaza Strip, an overwhelmingly civilian community.  To euphemise the repeated bombardment of Gazan Palestinians as ‘mowing the lawn’ is the ultimate denial of their humanity. That speech drips with hate and incitement.

It is imperative that we continue to protest boldly, because this did not end with the grief and the wreckage of Gaza.  Since the ceasefire, another 800 Palestinians are facing expulsion from their homes in Silwan.  Naftali Bennett may become Israel’s Prime Minister despite declaring, “I’ve already killed a lot of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.”  Ayelet Shaked may return to prominence despite reminding Israeli soldiers in 2014 to kill the Palestinian “little snakes,” to kill their mothers and to destroy their homes.

The triggers are all still cocked. 

Marilyn Garson, Alternative Jewish Voices of NZ