Why crying wolf on anti-Semitism harms us all
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