The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism

Reverend Stephen Sizer

Anglican priest Stephen Sizer reflects on how he has been targeted by the Zionist lobby in the UK for his pro-Palestine activism, and explains how Israel’s supporters are deliberately trying to conflate anti-Israel criticism with antisemitism. 

Ten years ago, in September 2008, an anonymous “Mordechai Maverick” sent a defamatory message about me to everyone in our church Facebook group. The message drew attention to a new but anonymous blog called Seismic Shock (intended apparently to sound like my name), which described me as a “dangerous anti- Semite” and promised to publish articles to expose me.

The anonymous author(s) then began to write articles about me on a weekly basis, sometimes daily. These were subsequently re-posted on other websites such as Rosh Pina Project and Harry’s Place. In a one year period September 2008-to July 2009 well over one hundred articles about me were published on the Seismic Shock website.

Surrey police took an interest and provided me and my family with additional security. On 29th November 2009, I received a report from West Yorkshire Police to advise that they had identified and visited an individual and asked him to desist writing defamatory material about me and remove from his website material of that nature.

I was asked to contact them if I became aware of further articles by the same individual “causing you harassment”. Despite the fact that at the time I did not know the name of the author, “Mordechai” subsequently admitted being the owner of the website, and then used it to accuse me of using the police to suppress free speech on the internet.

On 30thJune 2011, he wrote to each of my staff, drawing their attention to three defamatory videos about me on YouTube. He stated: “I am concerned about the way your church is being used to form ties with extremists. I will be making a formal complaint to the Bishop of Guildford, but I want to alert your church leadership to these facts beforehand. I am keenly aware of how the Incumbent reacts to lay criticism.”

On the 4thJuly 2011, on Harry’s Place, a comment was left for “Mordechai”: “I understand that you are compiling a dossier on one of [Palestinian leader Raed] Saleh’s supporters, the Rev Sizer, to submit to the church authorities. Bishop Christopher of Guildford has written me to say that he will take action if proof of anti-Semitic views, whether in written form or verifiable spoken form, can be sustained.”

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In October 2012, Jonathan Arkush, on behalf of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, made a formal complaint to my Bishop, alleging “a clear and consistent pattern” of misconduct “unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders.”

Their complaint alleged that I had made “antisemitic statements”; that I was an “avid reader and publiciser of websites that are openly and virulently antisemitic”; of “trawling dark and extreme corners of the internet for material” to add to my website; of regularly publishing links on my website “to antisemitic websites, thereby re-publishing their anti-Semitism” in order to introduce readers to “racist and antisemitic websites.”

To maximise the embarrassment, their complaint was published on their website the same day it was delivered to my Bishop, so that I and many others were aware of it before he was.

A year later in October 2013, the complaint was resolved by conciliation. I believe this was due in part to the robust support I received from several Jewish academics and rabbis, from leading politicians and several Anglican Bishops who spoke in my defence and challenged the allegations. Although the Board of Deputies withdrew their complaint on this occasion, the criticisms continued and eventually led to my early retirement, but that is another story.

Antisemitism redefined

Being accused of antisemitism is not something I would wish on anyone. It is painful and when such allegations are publicised; it is acutely embarrassing as well as distressing to family and friends.

This is why I have had a longstanding personal interest in how antisemitism is defined, and in particular, how the definition is now being broadened, conflating hatred of Jewish people with criticism of Israel. This has not gone unchallenged and has led to sharp divisions within the Jewish community.

Antony Lerman, for example, asks: “How is it that so many people who care deeply and genuinely about the problem of antisemitism find themselves on the opposite sides of a barricade fighting what sometimes seems like a war to the death? How many of us who have got caught up in these often bitter battles have hoped for some way of finding a common language through which we could discuss our differences?”

Dr Bryan Klug at St Benet’s, Oxford, defines antisemitism as “a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.”[7]The Community Security Trust (CST) defines antisemitism as “hatred, bigotry, prejudice or discrimination against Jews.”

The word “Antisemitism” came into use in the late nineteenth century to describe pseudo-scientific racial discrimination against Jews. Now, it generally describes all forms of discrimination, prejudice or hostility towards Jews throughout history; and has been called “the Longest Hatred”.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, recently accepted by the British government, reads: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individ uals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The IHRA acknowledge that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” However, following the IHRA definition, examples of how the definition may be applied include “but are not limited to:”

Anonymous blog Harry’s Place attacks pro Palestine activists
  • “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

Lerman traces the historical development of the “new antisemitism” and draws out how the new definition differs from traditional descriptions. He cites Irwin Cotler, Canadian professor of law and former minister of justice in the 2003-2006 Liberal government, as saying: “In a word, classical anti-Semitism is the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the rights of Jews to live as equal members of whatever society they inhabit. The new anti-Semitism involves the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations, with Israel as the targeted ‘collective Jew among the nations’.”

Leading lawyers have described the new IHRA definition as having a “chilling effect” on free speech.  Hugh Tomlinson QC was asked to give legal opinion on the impact the new definition could have on freedom of expression and assembly, by Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Free Speech on Israel (FSOI) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

Tomlinson stressed that the definition is not legally binding and public bodies are under no obligation to adopt it. Indeed, those that do so must take care in applying it or risk “unlawfully restricting legitimate expressions of political opinion in violation of statutory duties to ensure freedom of expression and assembly…”

Tomlinson further argues: “Properly understood in its own terms the IHRA Definition does not mean that activities such as describing Israel as a state enacting a policy of apartheid, as practising settler colonialism or calling for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel can properly be characterised as antisemitic. A public authority which sought to apply the IHRA Definition to prohibit or sanction such activities would be acting unlawfully.”

Tomlinson insisted that the new definition could “not be used to judge criticism of Israel to be antisemitic, unless the criticism actually expresses hatred towards Jews.” Criticism of Israel for its actions is clearly not synonymous with criticism of Israel for being Jewish.

Designating Israel as a Jewish state is also problematic, not just for two million Israeli Palestinians, but also the five million Palestinians living under military occupation in the Palestinian Territories.

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism

Jewish activists have been among the most vociferous in voicing opposition to the new definition. Ben White cites several anti-Zionist Jewish campaigners.

“For Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a group with more than 200,000 online members and 60 chapters across the US, equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism obscures the long history of Jewish anti-Zionism and diasporism.”

According to the UK-based group Jews for Justice for Palestinians, fusing “Jewishness/Israel/Zionism” enables antisemitism to become “a weapon for imposing conformity on dissidents within the Jewish community.”

Chicago-based Rabbi Brant Rosen has described how “growing numbers of Jews” identify as anti-Zionists for “legitimate ideological reasons”, motivated “by values of equality and human rights for all human beings.” His words chime with those of a former President of Edinburgh University’s Jewish Society, who recently wrote of “the growing frustration felt by many millennial Jews about the default positioning that support for Israel receives amongst Jewish civil society organisations.”

But what about the claim that, since Zionism is simply Jewish self-determination, anti-Zionism is anti-Jewish bigotry? This is also misguided; put simply, “self-determination does not equate to statehood.” As legal scholar Michael Kearney has explained, self-determination is “less understood these days as a right to one’s own exclusive state, and more as a right to non-discrimination and to democratic participation in society.”

Israel’s supporters, however, are deliberately conflating terms such as “homeland,” “home,” “state,” and “self-determination.” The concept of a Jewish homeland is one thing; the creation and maintenance of a “Jewish state,” in Palestine, at the expense of its non-Jewish inhabitants, is another. The right to self-determination is never a right to colonisation, whoever is doing it.

Finally, to maintain that anti-Zionism is antisemitism is to deny the historical and contemporary reality of the Palestinians’ experience, and to dehumanise them as a people. For the Palestinians, Zionism has meant violent displacement, colonisation, and discrimination – are they “antisemitic” for refusing to cheer their own dispossession? By extension, as orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor Charles H. Manekin put it recently, labelling Palestine solidarity activists as antisemitic is to imply that “the Palestinians have little justified claim to sympathy.”

Antisemitism objective and subjective

Frances Webber, of the Institute for Race Relations, raises a more fundamental concern that antisemitism is now being seen as not just about racist actions but also about prejudicial attitudes. In effect, he argues, the IHRA definition operates within the realm of “thought policing.”

“… what particularly concerns us here is the way that the definition of anti-Semitism is moving from deed to thought, from the objective to the subjective, from action to attitude.

The IRR has always maintained that it was important to distinguish between prejudices – the subjective – and the acting out of those prejudices – the objective – in discriminatory acts, physical attacks, government edicts etc.

Penalising people for racist feelings or attitudes leads to thought-policing, whereas racist acts are measurable and therefore prosecutable before the law if needs be. And there are specific laws relating to incitement to race hatred, the committing of racially-motivated crimes, discrimination in provision of goods and services whether direct or indirect.

The Israeli lobby holds a powerful sway over British politics

But, recently, emanating in part from cultural/identity studies in academia, a kind of victimology, a subjectivism is creeping into policy. Anything that is said or might be said that upsets people, gives hurt, merely makes them uncomfortable, is becoming equated with outright discrimination and liable for a prohibitive ban.”

Referring to the IHRA definition adopted by the Conservative government, Webber emphasises that causing offence is not synonymous with racism.

“The conceptual flaw underlying Pickles’ definition is to equate racism with anything that gives offence. For while racism is offensive, not everything which gives offence is per se racist. Objections to cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist or paedophile are made not on grounds of their offensiveness – although they undoubtedly are – but on the grounds of the use of crude racist images to depict a religious minority as quintessentially evil.

“Although it might cause offence to some, it is no more inherently racist to attack Israel’s policies than it is to demand that ‘Rhodes must fall’ or to denounce US or British imperialism or these states’ complicity in torture. So Pickles’ definition not only appears to make an exception of Israel but also to close down on freedom of speech and of expression when it comes to defining what it is permissible to say about a particular country.”

What then is wrong with the new definition of antisemitism? Essentially, critics argue that it “conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, defines legitimate criticism of Israel too narrowly and demonization too broadly, trivializes the meaning of antisemitism, and exploits antisemitism in order to silence political debate.”

Blaming Jews and exacerbating antisemitism

Kamel Hawwash believes broadening the definition of what constitutes antisemitism to include criticism of Israel to be misguided and indeed, does “a disservice to the Jewish community in this country.”

“… once criticism of Israel is linked to hatred of Jews in the UK, a line was crossed which implicitly makes the Jewish community somehow responsible for the actions of a foreign state.”

Lerman goes further, arguing that perversely, the new definition actually provokes antisemitism.

“The de-coupling of the understanding of antisemitism from traditional antisemitic tropes, which thereby made criticism of Israel in and of itself antisemitic, necessarily made the opposite – support for Israel – into a touchstone for expressing sympathy with Jews. This opened the door to the phenomenon of Jewish support for far right, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant parties keen to whitewash their pasts and sanitise their anti-Muslim prejudice by expressing support for Israel and seeing the country and its Jews as the front line against Islam’s ‘incursion into Europe’.”

The Israel lobby fears a Jeremy Corbyn government

It is not surprising, therefore, that acceptance of the “new antisemitism” theory has contributed to the exacerbation of tensions between Muslims and Jews in the UK (and elsewhere in Europe). There is, however, mutual pre-existing misunderstanding and mistrust, while negative images of Jews unrelated to the Israel-Palestine conflict are common among some Muslims.”

The children’s story of Chicken Little who thought the sky was falling in when a leaf fell on her tail is pertinent. By broadening or diluting the definition of antisemitism, people may become complacent or immune to genuine antisemitism and not repudiate it as they should.

Klug argues: “When anti-Semitism is everywhere, it is nowhere. And when every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite, we no longer know how to recognize the real thing—the concept of anti-Semitism loses its significance.”

Lerman adds: “Given the misery and murder that antisemitism has caused over the centuries,” … “one might expect pro-Israel groups to be more circumspect before using it indiscriminately as a political tool.” … “not everything that offends Jewish sensibilities is antisemitism”, and by labelling BDS as antisemitic, Israel advocates “are draining the word of any meaning.”

Ben White concludes: “This politicised redefining of antisemitism should worry us all: it dehumanises Palestinians and delegitimises solidarity, imperils the fight against real antisemitism, and constitutes a much broader attackon our democracy and political freedoms.”

Antisemitism and the UK Labour Party

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have been criticised for failing to address antisemitism within the party. Pro-Israeli lobbyists know that a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn will introduce major changes to British foreign policy. Assuming Labour had a sufficient majority, Jeremy Corbyn’s government would likely recognise the state of Palestine on the 1967 borders, (like most of the rest of the world), and also might introduce sanctions against Israel as well as companies profiting from the occupation.

White cites Richard Kuper, spokesperson of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), as saying: “there is clearly also a co-ordinated, willed and malign campaign to exaggerate the nature and extent of antisemitism as a stick to beat the Labour party”

He also observes: “The Labour Party has more than 400 MPs and peers at Westminster, in addition to almost 7,000 local government officials and some 390,000 members. The antisemitism ‘crisis’ has involved half a dozen individuals, most of whom have either never held, or no longer hold elected office. Corbyn himself has repeatedly condemned antisemitism since becoming leader, while according to Party General Secretary Iain McNicol, everyone reported for antisemitism has been suspended or excluded.”

Challenging both antisemitism and Zionism

Hawwash has called upon the British government to reject the IHRA definition of antisemitism for the following reasons: “Our message to British politicians is this: as long as Israel continues to occupy Palestine, to oppress and murder, to lay siege to two million people, to steal our land and resources, to restrict our movement, to refuse to allow the refugees to return, to attack our religious sites, to illegally settle our land and to leave our people with no hope of freedom, dignity or independence, we and our supporters will continue to speak out, to educate and to demand that the British government changes its shameful, but deliberate policies which place trade with Israel above human rights.

“We will not allow Zionists who support a state that does all of the above to silence us under the disguise of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ but we will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Jews in their fight against the real anti-Semitism that some still undoubtedly face.”

It is lamentably true that in the past, church leaders have indeed tolerated antisemitism and incited racist attacks on Jewish people. Racism is without excuse. Antisemitism must be repudiated unequivocally.cHowever, anti-Zionism is not synonymous with antisemitism. Judaism is a religious faith. Israel is a largely secular and multi-ethnic nation state. Zionism is a political system. These three are not synonymous. Indeed most Zionists are Christians and many Jews are anti-Zionist.

This is why it is imperative to repudiate antisemitism, to defend Israel’s right to exist within internationally recognised borders, while at the same time campaign equally for the civil, religious and political rights of Palestinians to be respected. This is surely the best way to bring an end to the evil of antisemitism.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)


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