British comedian David Schneider has become one of the more influential public figures on social media seeking to arbitrate what constitutes anti-semitism. Compared to TV show host Rachel Riley, or even Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, Schneider is an exemplar of moderation and rationality. But, to be honest, the bar has been set pretty low in recent years.
Schneider has now published a guide in the Independent newspaper on “how to talk about Israel without sliding into antisemitism”. Although there are elements to his guide I can agree with, most of his advice is – to put it charitably – simplistic, misleading or downright unhelpful.
Given how polarised public discourse has grown on the issue of anti-semitism, and the degree to which it has been weaponised by those – Jews and non-Jews alike – opposed to a new kind of insurgency politics in the UK and US demanding the right to speak out unequivocally in support of Palestinian rights, Schneider’s blindspots need highlighting.
He rightly notes that the phrase “legitimate criticism of Israel” has become clichéd. But it is more than just a cliché; it has come to serve as a ringfence, ensuring that “legitimate” criticism relates only to Netanyahu and the Israeli right.
Many of us, however, want to point out that there would still be major problems with Israel even if Netanyahu had been replaced at last month’s election by the rival party of generals led by Benny Gantz or if the Israeli Labour party ever managed to revive itself from terminal decline. We want to talk about why Israel was a very problematic kind of state long before anyone had heard of Netanyahu, during a time when a supposed Israeli left ruled the country.
So here I offer an addendum meant to clarify and counter the arguments made in Schneider’s seven-point guide.
The relevant text of his guide is in bold italics, with my comments below in ordinary type:
1. Avoid saying “Zionist” or “Zionism” when discussing contemporary Israel/Palestine. The terms are too loaded now, too coarse and broad in their application, and too often used by hardcore antisemites to mean simply Jews.
Benjamin Netanyahu is a Zionist, but so are Israeli lawyers and peace activists fighting to achieve justice for Palestinians. You cannot lump them all together. Fair enough when talking historically, as long as you’re informed and precise, but for the present day, I recommend using specific terms instead, such as “the Israeli government” or “Netanyahu”.
Schneider has lost no time in revealing the nub of the problem with his guide. He is a liberal Zionist, and understandably he feels uncomfortable being lumped in with Netanyahu. But the primary goal of Palestinians and their supporters isn’t to make Schneider or other liberal Zionists feel comfortable with their political views or to comply with their demand that “legitimate” criticism of Israel be restricted to Netanyahu.
Yes, some anti-semites may use “Zionist” as code for “Jew”. But Schneider is demanding his cake and eating it in insisting that the core ideology driving Israeli policy towards the Palestinians for more than seven decades be declared largely unmentionable.
Zionism wasn’t just a historical prelude to Israel’s creation, some anachronism to be deposited in a museum. All the major political parties in Israel still firmly define themselves as Zionist. It is at the core of their political programmes, meaning that they share much common ground. The parties are often divided chiefly about how to achieve their political goals, not what those goals are.
Political disagreements in Israel revolve around two camps: Labour Zionists, who founded Israel, and Revisionist Zionists, now represented chiefly by Netanyahu’s Likud party, that have largely ousted Labour Zionists from power since the late 1970s.
The movement Schneider probably identifies most with are the Labour Zionists (now often described as liberal Zionists) whose founders drove 80 per cent of the native Palestinian population off their lands in 1948 in what would today be called an ethnic cleansing operation.
It didn’t end there, though. The Labour Zionists then created a land and residential segregation system inside the new state of Israel that very much persists to this day. In fact, almost all of Israel’s land is reserved exclusively for Jews, with many hundreds of communities using admissions committees to bar the fifth of the population who are Palestinian citizens. The Palestinian minority have been herded into deprived and overcrowded ghettoes on a tiny fraction of the remaining land. All of this is entirely separate from what happens to Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Inside Israel, the state’s control and allocation of land and resources on an ethnic basis is know as Judaisation, and it has been at the heart of state policy for 71 years.
Labour Zionists also established and maintained a rigid system of segregated state education, separating Jewish and Palestinian children – all of them Israeli citizens – in much the same way as occurred in the Jim Crow South in the US.
Outside Israel, the Labour Zionists founded the first settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which were built in violation of international law and with intent to destroy any hope of a Palestinian state emerging.
Today the Labour Zionists still advocate policies to keep Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens apart, and support the larger settlements, even at the cost of denying the Palestinians any viable right to self-determination. In any other context, we would call them ethnic nationalists, or racists.
In fact, one could reasonably argue that Judaisation and political Zionism – the kind that probably finds favour with 99 per cent of Israeli Jews – are as good as synonyms. Many of the Israeli Jewish lawyers and human rights actvists Schneider refers to who are trying to help Palestinians in the occupied territories are still quite ready to back a political system inside Israel that keeps Palestinian citizens separate from Jewish citizens.
These extreme liberal Zionists – small in number though they are – are plagued by concerns about the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but all too often because they want Israel out of those territories so it can concentrate on privileging Jews inside Israel, even though a fifth of Israel’s population are not Jewish.
Those who do not feel that way are usually described as anti-Zionists – one reason why the term “Zionist” is such a helpful ideological signpost about where Israel Jews and their supporters stand on core issues like equality inside the state of Israel itself.
The other camp, the Likud Zionists, have not opposed this system of segregation, which closely echoes apartheid South Africa. In fact, they have sought to entrench and expand it. Today, the main difference between Labour and Likud Zionists is the latter’s indifference to how such policies are perceived by the international community.
So, in other words, there is no way to understand or critique Israel’s political system, or the nature of its abuses of Palestinians, or the ideology espoused by its supporters abroad, without analysing Zionism and its aims.
Schneider’s formula makes as much sense as demanding back in the 1980s that “legitimate criticism” of South Africa not address the country’s overarching apartheid ideology but be reserved specifically for P W Botha and his government. Following Schneider’s advice would make useful, reasoned criticism of Israel impossible.
2. Do not slide from anger at the actions of the Israeli state into asserting that Israel is controlling everything or paying money to MPs, celebrities or the media to act as they do. To do so simply echoes far-right antisemitism and centuries-old conspiracy theories about Jews, now rebadged to apply to Israel.
And yes, I know about the documentary The Lobby, where a Labour MP was filmed discussing money with an Israeli embassy official. But unless you have other examples of this, I suggest you avoid it.
Few critics of Israel are actually claiming anything of this sort. Schneider has offered a strawman formulation here. But I suspect he wishes to catch in his trawl net far more than these claims.
It is interesting to consider why it is so contentious to claim that Israel wields power through its lobbies to promote its interests in the US and UK when our political elites are so ready to claim that Russia has been supposedly interfering in superhuman ways in the US and UK to pursue its interests.
It is telling that Schneider, like the British media, wishes to hurry past Al-Jazeera’s documentary The Lobby. The undercover film did not just show a Labour MP discussing money with an embassy official – as Schneider would presumably know if he had watched the documentary. It showed much, much more.
Not least, it showed an Israeli government agent, Shai Masot, who was probably working for the strategic affairs ministry at the time, plotting from within the UK to unseat a British government minister who was seen by Israel as a little too sympathetic to the Palestinians. And it showed pro-Israel activists within the Labour party, led by the Jewish Labour Movement, colluding with the Israeli embassy to damage and oust Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn because he too is seen as overly sympathetic to Palestinian rights. That is the necessary context for understanding the endless claims of a supposed “anti-semitism crisis” in the Labour party, much of it advanced by this same Jewish Labour Movement.
The Lobby – both the UK series and the censored, but leaked, US follow-up – were groundbreaking television. They put flesh on the bare bones of what we already knew about the lobby’s activities in interfering in British and American politics. To dimiss its revelations so casually and quickly is to bury one’s head in the sand – because its findings are too unpalatable for those who wish to place Israel at the core of their identity.
3. Don’t conflate Israel and Jews. It may anger you that the likes of Netanyahu try to do this, so don’t make the same mistake yourself. If you see someone talking about Jews, antisemitism or the Holocaust and find yourself leaping straight to Israel-Palestine, think again.
This would make good sense only if we had not just spent the last three years witnessing the term “anti-semitism” being publicly redefined so as to refer chiefly to criticism of Israel. It wasn’t, after all, Israel’s critics that insisted public bodies and political parties, including the British Labour party, adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s 11 examples of anti-semitism, seven of which refer to Israel.
Here’s a promise. If the accusation of anti-semitism is restricted to examples of hatred, suspicion or fear of Jews, I happily promise to avoid raising the issue of Israel during debates about anti-semitism. But when the term is being weaponised, when its meaning is being altered to defend a state, and one that has been abusing Palestinians for decades without serious censure, then I and others are under a moral responsibility to talk about Israel and remind others that criticism of Israel is not usually anti-semitic.
4. Avoid the terms “Israel lobby” and especially “Jewish lobby” unless you also say “Saudi lobby”, “Russian lobby”, “Hindu lobby” and so on. “Supporters of Israel” is safer language.
As for “Jewish lobby”, they say “two Jews, three opinions”. The idea of us agreeing enough to form a single lobby is as likely as Theresa May fighting the next election as Tory leader.
It is rather surprising that Schneider claims Jews are so disputatious with each other that they could never form a single lobby. Surprising because so many prominent Jews, including Jonathan Freeland of the Guardian, and Schneider himself, I believe, have regularly insisted that Jews are almost entirely of a single mind on at least one issue: that Israel is crucial to their identity as Jews. (This, of course, usually serves as a prelude to warning that any criticism of Israel – apart from the “legitimate” kind they approve of – is evidence of anti-semitism because it undermines Jewish identity.)
Not only is there a very obvious “Israel lobby”, but it is quite unlike the other lobbies Schneider mentions. In the UK, for example, there is no visible public lobby for Saudia Arabia or Russia, and if Hindus are actively and vocally campaigning to prevent criticism of India, or labelling such criticism as anti-Hindu, I must have missed it.
And in one obvious sense, Schneider sabotages his own argument. We have just seen American society waste more than two years hyperventilating about non-existent Russian “collusion” with Donald Trump – a US president supposedly acting as a sort of Trojan horse or Manchurian candidate for the Russia lobby.
Unlike the many conspiracy theories about Russia, the Israel lobby is talked about so much by Israel’s critics because it is so in our faces, and so obviously trying to hijack or manipulate public debate in ways that harm free speech and Palestinian rights.
Right now, more than half of state legislatures in the US have passed legislation to limit their citizens’ fundamental right to free speech – but only in relation to criticism of Israel. Similar legislation is well advanced in Congress too.
This spate of legislation has occurred not because US politicians love Israel more than their own country (which Americans are still free to criticise), but because of the ferocious tactics of an extremely well organised Israel lobby in the US. That lobby is dominated by both rightwing Jewish leadership organisations and rightwing Christian evangelical groups.
None of this is to say that the Israel lobby is supremely powerful, or even unusually powerful, even if it sometimes looks that way. There are lots of other powerful lobbies, from the health and gun lobbies to the arms and financial industries lobbies. And, we could add, the Saudi-oil lobby too.
In fact, one could plausibly argue that many of these lobbies are even more powerful than the Israel lobby because their power is typically wielded far from public view. They are less visible, and therefore their presence less felt by the public. They operate almost entirely in the shadows.
But that is hardly grounds for condemning critics of Israel who are able to identify the Israel lobby’s activities and influence, and its efforts to manipulate public debate, whether it be by misusing the anti-semitism accusation or working actively to violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.
Many of us can see very clearly what the Israel lobby is up to.
It has, for example, also begun actively interfering in British politics. One only needs to see the arch-conservative body the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Murdoch-owned Times newspaper regularly sticking the knife into Jeremy Corbyn using anti-semitism as their weapon of choice. It is his socialism, not any presumed anti-semitism, that is really driving the agenda of these bodies.
The lobby is seeking to damage our democracies in plain sight, but it is almost impossible to say so without being accused of anti-semitism, as Schneider himself implies here. That’s a wonderful self-rationalising system if you love Israel, but it is simply terrifying if you think the Palestinians should be entitled to rights in their homeland, or that we should at least have the right to discuss whether they are entitled to such rights.
That is why it is so important to keep identifying and exposing the Israel lobby – because, unlike those other lobbies, we don’t need special access to the hidden corridors of power to see it in operation. Even as ordinary citizens we can identify its role and call it out for what it is.
5) Don’t accuse Jews of dual loyalty to Israel and the UK (or whichever country), and certainly not of just being loyal to Israel. It’s another age-old antisemitic standard, as featured in Stalinist show trials and the Dreyfus affair.
And yet, many prominent Jews in the UK and US – as previously mentioned – tell us that Israel is central to their identity, and in the US have been willing to promote a unique violation of First Amendment rights to prevent criticism of Israel.
In fact, some make no secret of their dual loyalty. Here is what I wrote recently in a piece on the lobby:
That pro-Israel lobbyists – as opposed to Jews generally – do have dual loyalty seems a peculiar thing to deny, given that the purpose of groups like AIPAC is to rally support for Israel in Congress.
Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a key backer of Republican candidates for the presidency, has never hidden his passion not only for Israel but specifically for the ultra-nationalist governments of Benjamin Netanyahu.
In fact, he is so committed to Netanyahu’s survival that he spent nearly $200 million propping up an Israeli newspaper over its first seven years – all so he could assist the prime minister of a foreign country.
Similarly, Haim Saban, one of the main donors to Democratic presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, has made no secret of his commitment to Israel. He has said: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”
6) Don’t compare Israeli actions to the Nazis unless it’s incredibly specific and historically justified (such as a settler calling for Arabs to be gassed). And even then, use extreme caution.
Finally we can agree.
7) Don’t ask every Jew to condemn Israel in every tweet or comment they make. Would you ask every Muslim to condemn Saudi Arabia? I hope, and presume, not.
Well, fair enough – if anyone beyond a few unhinged people trying to get themselves noticed on social media are actually doing this unbidden.
But it’s a little more complex than Schneider cares to make out. Aren’t Schnneider and other prominent Jewish figures who publicly support Israel or Zionism not creating this problem for themselves by specifically tying their Jewishness to an identification with Israel?
If Jonathan Freedland keeps telling us that to criticise Israel too vehemently is to undermine his Jewish identity – and that this is itself a new form of anti-semitism – he can hardly complain when Israel’s critics hone in on his support for Israel and try to assess what exactly he means by it.
Does his Israel-tied Jewish identity allow him to excuse, rationalise or minimise the murder of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza by Israeli snipers? Does he reject Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem, which violates international law and was based on the ethnic cleansing of many Palestinian residents living there? Does he accept that all of the West Bank must be handed over to the Palestinians as part of a future agreement? Does he accept that Palestinian refugees, ethnically cleansed from their homeland in 1948 and 1967 by Israel, have a right to return? And is he prepared to condemn unequivocally the apartheid system Israel has created inside its recognised borders that separates the rights of Jewish citizens from Palestinian citizens of Israel?
His and Schneider’s answers to those questions and many others not only help us understand what they mean when they speak of “legitimate” criticism of Israel, but what their view of their Jewish identity really entails – for their approach to human rights generally and their approach to Palestinian rights specifically.