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Jul 23, 2014

Why crying wolf on anti-Semitism harms us all

The pro-Israel lobby is quick to use the term "anti-Semitism" where it is not warranted. But there really are people who hate Jews and by overusing the term we reduce its power, writes Larry Stillman from the executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.

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If you are at all familiar with Crikey politics editor Bernard Keane on Twitter, you’ll know he uses the platform to hold the world’s great and powerful to account, asking hard questions and often goading public figures over hypocrisy or unfairness. But federal MP Michael Danby has told Australian media scribe Sharri Markson that Keane “taunted” him on Twitter recently over the Gaza incursion because of his Jewish faith — an assertion of anti-Semitism that is not only unfair to Keane, but that damages Jews worldwide.

The accusation of behaving in an anti-Semitic way is familiar story, and it is also put to Jews who are strong critics of Israel. Even in Israel today, there is an extraordinary amount of vilification and even violence towards Jewish critics who have come out against the Israeli military attack “Protective Edge”.

The desire to defend Israel as the ultimate protector of all Jews results in an extraordinary degree of sensitivity towards those who hold critical views of Israel’s behaviour. There is a feeling that nobody understands “us” and history shows that the world will hate us at the drop of a hat. Israel’s circumstances are held to be exceptional and divinely ordained, and there is extreme sensitivity to suggestions that the Zionist lobby has too much power and money for its own good. Strong political attacks are classified as anti-Semitic incidents in hate crime statistics by Jewish organisations. Danby has said even fellow Labor MP Bob Carr has “empowered people to express their anti-Semitic views”.

The problem with knee-jerk claims of anti-Semitism is that there really are very nasty people around who don’t like Jews. But crying wolf so often leads people to become insensitive to what I think are legitimate concerns. We see this in some theories and literature peddled around on the fringe Left and Right that conflate Zionism and Judaism (often with a profound ignorance of the variety of Jewish beliefs and practices), and global conspiracy theories. The unchallenged presence of Islamist flags at demonstrations don’t help either, and one only needs to follow what is claimed by political Islamists to see that ancient tropes about Jewish power continue to have currency.

But should we compare the Jewish community’s concerns over what it sees as anti-Semitism to racism and abuse as it affects other communities? The answer needs to be split in two. First, yes, there are racist incidents, including incidents of racist violence, there are people who just don’t like Jews, and there is always the possibility of a terrorist incident. But more attacks occur on Muslims in Australia, and other minorities are subject to far more harassment and violence than that experienced by Jews. But they have a very limited voice. Second, however, much of what appears in the mainstream media is not anti-Semitic in either intent or nature. It is, for the most part, harsh political critique about an international flash point on which those taking a very tough line on Israeli politics play hardball. The cries of anti-Semitism among the political and media mainstream are well past their use-by date.

*Dr Larry Stillman is a senior research fellow at Monash University

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47 thoughts on “Why crying wolf on anti-Semitism harms us all

  1. Hunt Ian

    I cannot agree more. The charge of anti-semitism is used all too frequently as a device to stop criticism of the policy of the Israeli state. “Whatever we do cannot be wrong because we have relatives who have been so massively wronged on racist grounds in the past. The size of the that wrong means we can never let our guard fall in case it happens again.” This message has too often blinkered Jews and people who rightly felt horror of the crimes committed under Nazism and by others, including notably even official propagandists and authorities in the former Soviet Union and even in Russia today.

    They are blinkered to the comparative safety of Jews living in Israel today, since Hamas, who wants to, or anyone else in the middle east, has little chance of sweeping Jews back into the sea. No state has the power the Nazis had to commit those racist crimes on anywhere near the same scale again.

    The real danger for Jews or anyone else living in Israel and Palestine is continuing terror attacks from Iran linked groups and from Al Qaida linked groups. These are possibly an even greater danger to people living elsewhere.

    Support for such attacks will continue so long as Israel threatens to force a “Bantustan” style two “state” solution on Palestinians or threatens to expel them from lands once settled about two thousand years ago by Jews before their expulsion by the Romans.

    If only the trauma of the past were not used to conceal the real problems of the present, Jews in Israel might come to see the uncomfortable similarity between early Nazi resettlement of Germans in northern Poland and displacement of Jews to ghettos. Though those measures were nowhere as morally outrageous as what the Nazis did after 1941-1942, they were still crimes against humanity.

    Real friends of Israel and real opponents of anti-semitism hope it is not too late for Israel to step back from the path to expulsion of Palestinians from their lands.

  2. Anna Pasternak

    “Harsh political critique”! Is that what you call blatant anti-semitism. Mobs across Europe shouting “Death to the Jews’, “Hitler was right” and other racist slogans. Jews being barricaded into synagogues while violent youths threaten their lives. Is this being over sensitive? Or is this dangerous anti-semitism. Where’s the “harsh political critique” of this deranged conduct?

    Israel fights for it’s very survival while 2000 missiles reign down on it’s terrified population. The press ignores this war crime and responds only to Israel’s attempts to restore peace. Where’s the “harsh political critique”?

    Hamas in it’s very charter is profoundly anti-Semitic with racism at its core. According to the Hamas charter, Jewish people “have only negative traits and are presented as planning to take over the world.”[26] The charter claims that the Jews deserve God’s/Allah’s enmity and wrath because they received the Scriptures but violated its sacred texts, disbelieved the signs of Allah, and slew their own prophets.[27] “The Day of Judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, ‘O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'[28] Where’s the harsh critique of this faith of “peace”!

    And don’t even get me started on the UN! What an abomination of an institute. 10,000,000 muslims slaughtered in the last 60 years by their fellow muslims and this reality is not worthy of “harsh political critique”.

    No, the “harsh political critique” you refer to is ANTI-SEMITISM at it’s finest!

  3. Ray Butler

    In addition to what I have said so far; as Pride is identified as the gateway sin, that either through it or against it all other sins are made manifest, simply by maintaining that a certain religious perspective is the only true way is automatically to base the religion on the Superiority Complex, so what hope do people really have when the two primary points are in irreconcilable conflict?

    The idea is to rationalise behaviour and dominate the environment in order to tune everything toward the greatest benefit, but what we decide should be the primary beneficiary of that purpose is where the real question comes in; all of humanity would seem the ideal, but it becomes problematic when people consider others unworthy of decent treatment or even any kind of effort, so people organise into likeminded categories and draw a line of responsibility that they serve all within and no further.

    But then you can think about concepts like “the white mans burden” if everyone is progressively building their potential then many hands make for light work, people only become aggravated when their lives do not have an adequate proportion of fulfilment so enemies are only really made when they don’t, but then one thing a Tyrant fears most is a greater Tyrant usurping the throne, so the Tyranny seems an automatic response to counter the potential for tyranny, the Gilded Cage scenario, or Chicken and Egg catch 22.

    The point would not be to remove the self but to successfully remove the power dynamic altogether, and that suffers all too much from uncertainty.

  4. Kevin Herbert


    Clearly until those historical claims by Zionists of a unique type of racism against Jews are verified by independent scholars, they have to be taken with a grain of salt.
    For example, racism against ALL minorities have been a part of societies for millenia, so why would racism against a Jewish minority be worse.
    Further, I contend there’s no such thing as ‘anti-semitism’ – there is only racism. The late 19th century Zionist proposition that racism against one ethnic group of Jews, is more heinous that that against another group, is both intellectually & morally repugnant.
    It is tantamount to saying that a Vietnamese child napalmed in the US genocide of 3 million Vietnamese is not as immoral an act as the gassing of a child in Nazi holocaust.

    Up until the net shone alight on these Zionist constructs, we have all been the subject of Zionist controlled US MSM propaganda….decades of it heaped on thick.

    The great US Jewish historian Dr Norman Finkelstein says:
    “… if you go back, say 20 or 30 years, most of the scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict…..could be accurately described as the Leon Uris novel Exodus with footnotes. It was basically propaganda. And most American Jews felt at ease with their liberal beliefs, their liberal creed, their liberal tenets, and supporting—you might say blindly—all of Israel’s conduct and actions. But over the past 20 or 30 years, in particular since the late—early 1990s, a lot more is now known about the conflict, not least because of the research of Israeli historians and Jewish historians”.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    SMALLVOX: You asked a question to which I have no scientific or, indeed any rational answer. The only remotely feasible scenario I can think of is that there was a time when the Jews were treated abominably; then came the run up to WWII during which a Holocaust was carried out by Nazi Germany against the Jews. A Holocaust of such fury it was matched only by the Holocaust perpetrated by the Turkish people against the Armenian people which occurred during WWI.

    Thanks to the 1929 Sykes Picot agreement signed by France and England, the two countries concerned split up the Middle East into Empire sized bites better to facilitate the grabbing of countries which had seemingly limitless possibilities to produce oil. Then came the Balfour declaration which, and by this stage, America was showing an undue interest, whereby the grabbing of power to facilitate the oil business increased and the persecuted Jews of Europe were granted a large part of Palestine. (This may not be the exact wording of the Balfour Declaration, but it was the eventual outcome.)

    The new State of Israel was born. That Israel wanted to make sure the Jews would never again allow themselves to be pushed around by other nations was understandable and their apparent bellicosity also was understood.

    However, gradually the notion of nation establishment by Israel was undergoing a subtle change. It was becoming a pirate nation which started helping itself to land which it didn’t own. As is the usual thing when one country or one person does something unconscionable they blame the victim of their attacks by ascribing to them the motives of the attacker. Land, under the auspices of ‘new settlements’ and ‘we need more land’…-The Germans under Adolf Hitler called it Lebensraum-the Israelis helped themselves to land which didn’t belong to them.

    But by bit the extreme right wing governments of Israel flooded the world’s media with reasons why Israel was doing the right thing by treating the Palestinians badly. This is not to suggest the Palestinians are blameless. Far from it. However, thanks to a world of improved communications, all sorts of people were beginning to cut through the Israeli generated bullshit. And what they have come to see makes them very uncomfortable.

    Contrary to the above mentioned right wing bullshit, people who express their disquiet are immediately slapped down with ill informed slurs of ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘racism’by the Benjamin Netanyahu led Israeli government. This has become so laughable a situation that Israelis who don’t approve of the direction Israel has taken are promptly called anti-Semitic, by the establishment. As indeed are the people of the Arab world so described. Odd that racially the Arabs are, in fact, Semitic.

    SMALLVOX: I profess little knowledge of the situation in the Middle East, or of the question you asked. I have endeavoured only to be of service to you.

  6. Jake

    Chris, you’re right, this isn’t quite on topic, but a couple of the many inaccuracies above need to be set straight.

    You know, Venise, if you genuinely wanted to be of service you’d include some objectively factual material in your largely fantasised comments. For example you could take the radical step of looking in a dictionary for the meaning of anti-semite. My Macquarie (of 1981) defines “Semite” as “n 1 a member of a speech family comprising the Hebrews, Arabs, Assyrians, etc, supposedly descended from Shem, eldest son of Noah. 2. a Jew”. It defines “anti-Semite” as “n one hostile to the Jews”. So unless things have changed since 1981, that’s it. Anti-Jew, not anti-Arab, not anti-Assyrian, just anti-Jew.
    Or try this, from Wikipedia: “Antisemitism (also spelled anti-semitism or anti-Semitism) is prejudice, hatred of, or discrimination against Jews as a national, ethnic,religious or racial group. A person who holds such positions is called an “antisemite”. As Jews are an ethnoreligious group, antisemitism is generally considered a form of racism. While the term’s etymology appears to indicate that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic people, the term was in fact coined in Germany in 1860 as a scientific-sounding term for Judenhass (“Jew-hatred”), and that has been its normal use since then. For the purposes of a 2005 U.S. governmental report, antisemitism was considered “hatred toward Jews—individually and as a group—that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity.”
    Yes, it may be incongruous, but hey, English isn’t always logical. So unless Jews are controlling the world lexicography industry, it is incorrect to allege as you did that Jews have somehow “garnered” the word to themselves. Incidentally, anyone worried about the true meanings of words, and obviously Kevin isn’t one of them, could also look into the meanings of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” and how these are falsely bandied about by anti-Israel (and often anti-Semitic) propagandists.

    As for your “history” of the establishment of the state of Israel, it does leave out a few tiny details. The “pirate nation” as you so inventively call Israel, far from “helping itself” to the treasures surrounding it, was attacked on so many occasions I won’t list them here (but please do inform yourself eg Wikipedia under “List of wars involving Israel”) but the first was at its very inception in 1948. Despite being the victim of other nations’ aggression Israel has returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, various territories captured in 1967 and 1973 to Syria, withdrawn from Lebanon, withdrawn from most of the West Bank that it captured from Jordan in 1967 (returned to Jordan and to the Palestinian Authority). In 2005 Israel withdrew totally from Gaza. As your interpretation of events is based on a false history, the honest thing to do would be to reconsider it.

    As for Kevin, mate, if you think that your pseudo-intellectual front conceals your primitive anti-Semitism, you are even more deluded than you appear.

  7. Mike R

    Venise confirms yet again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Her potted history, while in convenient form , makes some obvious mistakes and omissions.

    With reference to the Sykes Picot agreement I am not sure where the year 1929 came from. In 1929 Sykes was long dead even though Picot lived to a ripe old age The Sykes Picot agreement was actually formulated in 1916 during world war 1 and implemented after the war. The Balfour declaration was almost contemporaneous being issued in 1917.

    I keep using the word bizarre to describe many of the comments in Crikey with regards to the Middle –East and this contribution does not disappoint. For one obvious example, Venise’s version of history , I assume wilfully (the other reason would be ignorance, which I discount), makes no mention of the UN ‘s original two state solution partition plan of 1948 that resulted in the creation of Israel and the rejection of their state by the Palestinian and Arab leadership. This is one of, if not the most important, progenitors of the current mess in this part of the world.

    For those whose starting point with regard to this conflict is not predetermined then I would recommend reading books from both points of view regarding the conflict. A good place to start would be reading books and articles by Edward Said or Robert Fisk that gives a version from the Arab/Palestinian viewpoint or if on the off chance that balance is required then the alternative can be found in books and articles by Martin Gilbert or Alan Dershovitz. This would be much more informative than potted histories that give only one narrow perspective.

    As for the anti-Semitism m, I thought this bit of guff had already been adequately covered (8,26,43) but it seems not so I need reiterate for the umpteenth time, the inappropriate use of the term should be condemned.

    It should only be used when it is truly justified.

  8. Venise Alstergren

    BTW MIKE R: SMALLVOX asked a question of all the commentariat which I alone attempted to answer. In order to give him this answer I was forced-if I wanted to give a complete answer it would have run to the same length as Robert Fisk’s “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.” At 1366 pages, including the index, I doubted the willingness of the Editor of Crikey to print it. Accordingly I gave him/her a potted history. I made a mistake in the date of the Sykes Picot Treaty. For which MIKE R: would like to crucify me. Tough cheddar Mike.

    The thing which really distresses MIKE is someone ignoring his cant and hyperbole. Something to make MIKE even more furious occurs in my comment above. Ms Louise Adler and I are politically in lockstep. I’m sure you will have a lovely time trying to work out which of us is the Anti-Semite.

    Where I am distressed is to see someone, MIKE, who professes to admire Robert Fisk yet completely twists Fisk’s philosophy to suit his own less than heroic take on the subject. Fisk happens to be my ultimate hero. The man’s love of humanity together with the appalling risks he takes to bring the truth to his subject matter, and the slightly self-deprecating humour he brings to his work makes him the ultimate war correspondent. In fact, because of him I nearly got refused permission to enter a country in the Middle East. Forgetting which books I’d brought with me I opened my case with a flourish. Sitting on the top was Fisk’s “The Great War for Civilisation.” Finally I agreed to leave the book with the customs authority and collect it on the way out of the country.

    SMALLVOX: There is nothing to be ashamed of in reading a potted history. I attempted to answer your question. I apologise for my typing error.

  9. Mike R

    Venise, Yet again you are quite right and I plead mea-culpa as I missed watching the most recent Q and A live. I prefer to watch Q and A on IVIEW. It is much more convenient than watching it live. You should try it.

    Again your defensiveness re the ‘a’ word is totally unfathomable. I don’t believe I have applied this label directly to you or even Louise Adler in any of my preceding comments . The closest regular commenter on Crikey that merits the ‘a’ word description is our mutual friend Kevin as witnessed by his espousal of the David Duke show (no relation to Patty) on YouTube and his advocacy of the Duke’s associated neo-Nazi hate literature.

    However it appears you have a bee in your bonnet regarding the term for some reason, as you wish to only interpret the term literally. I seem to recall this is a rerun (complete with asides from Gavin Moodie trying, it seems unsuccessfully, to explain how the word is commonly used ) of our correspondence about the matter via the comments section some 2 or 3 years ago.

    I hope we are not doomed to endless runs of this debate until we are both in our dotage in the same dementia ward. Rather than a two year loop (which seems to neatly coincide with the wars in Gaza) we could repeat these exchanges at 5 minute intervals until one or both of us expires.

    As you can note from my tone, I am getting fed up with this regurgitative nonsense so I bid you adieu and you can now have some clear air to peddle your obsessions in my absence (but with the usual caveat- unless unduly provoked).