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).
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