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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.

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 comments

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

  1. The Cleaning Lady

    YES. YES. YES.

    I appreciate that there is a great sensitivity to criticism of Jews, and with good cause, not least because there are people who would cause Israel not to exist, if they had their way.

    However, criticism of actions and words (or silence) is not the same as criticism of a person because of who they are. It is not bigotry to challenge the Church of Scientology for its alleged crimes. It would be bigotry to assume that all Scientologists are… whatever.

    Criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza is criticism of its actions. Some critics may hate Jews, many of us do not.

    If Israel is above criticism, then, God help it.

    Thank you, Larry.

  2. 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.

  3. Liz Connor

    No, it’s the US (not God) that helps Israel, apparently to the tune of an average of $3 billion a year since 1985, almost all of which is military aid (Wikipedia). This is macabre when the US now blames Russia for the downing of MH17 in spite of there being no evidence that Putin was involved in the incident. And the reason is that Russia supplies weapons to East Ukraine separatists and a Russian-made missile was launched against that plane BY MISTAKE.
    So how culpable should we judge the US to be for the civilian casualties deliberately caused in the Gaza strip by the weapons they have supplied? I know how culpable I think they are!

  4. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    YES,
    Criticism of the actions of the Israeli Government is not anti-Semitism and it hurts those that have Jewish friends and family that they care for deeply to be called anti-semitic because they do not agree with what the state of Israel is doing to the Palestinians. I wish Jewish leaders would stop using this term.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    In a letter to The Age (22 July ’14) a pro-Israel supporter waxed lyrical about the conduct of pro-Israel supporters at a ‘Peace march’. He/she observed that they were carrying signs saying “Stop the rockets” and “We want peace.” Whereas the same person described the pro-Palestinian supporters as carrying other signs saying “Palestine will be free” and “Death to Israel.” Either the pro-Israel crowd are possessed of overwhelming hypocrisy, or they accidentally picked up the wrong signs.

    BTW: The Age will not print letters which are not supporting Israel.

  6. AR

    The Member for Haifa Ports never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to acknowledge any criticism, however well founded of Eretz Israel.

  7. Jim Catt

    Larry Stillman is quite right. I must say that I am completely fed up with Michael Danby and others constantly confusing criticism with racism.

    For goodness sake, it is not anti-Semitic to disagree with the policies and actions of the Israeli government. It is not anti-Semitic to suggest that Israeli intransigence on, for examples, settlements in the Occupied Territories, is at least as big an impediment to the peace process as anything the Palestinians are doing. It is not anti-Semitic to suggest that the Israeli response to small numbers of casualties from Hamas rockets (appalling as those are) is completely out of proportion to the damage inflicted.

    Feel free to disagree with me and propose alternative views, but do not call me racist for expressing them. I spent too much time and energy in the anti-apartheid movement to accept that label.

  8. Mike R

    YES,YES,YES and I’ll raise you a YES.

    I agree that pejorative accusations of anti-Semitism are too easily bandied around by the defenders of Israel and as stated by Larry should only be used when justified.
    The motivations for criticism of Israel are varied and these criticisms are more often than not justified so such wild accusations are stupid and counterproductive.

    In set theory terms, I posit that there exists a set of those who profess to be anti-Zionists and there exists another set of those that exhibit anti-Semitic behavior. Despite protestations from some members of these groups, these sets are not always mutually exclusive and the relative size and nature of the intersection is what worries me, as witnessed by the anti-Semitic riots by avowed anti-Zionists in Europe(http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28402882). Maybe I am hopelessly naive to assume nothing like this will happen here.

    Finally there is the set of people who criticize the extremists of both sides and don’t indulge in one sided rhetoric. I like to consider myself to be in this camp but from the nature of some of the comments in Crikey regarding the Palestine/Israel conflict, I sometimes feel as lonely as a cloud.

  9. smallvox

    I have a question rather than a comment, and I’d appreciate others’ responses. Why is it, when there’s conflict in Gaza (and we’ve seen virtually the identical scenario play out a number of times now) the letters pages and social media are for days/weeks full of anguish, understandably, about the dreadful news and pictures coming out of Gaza. At the same time we know that tens of thousands of innocent Syrians have been killed, maimed and displaced, violence has erupted in Lebanon and other hotspots in the Middle East and Africa, yet these get barely a mention if at all from those who are so vocal about Gaza.

    Is my perception wrong? If not, what is it about conflict in Gaza that brings about the feverish response? It sometimes seems that those who ask is a Palestinian child’s life worth less than an Israeli child’s are in some ways holding that a Palestinian child’s life is worth more than that of a child in Syria or elsewhere because the latter don’t warrant their attention.

  10. Jill Baird

    Well said.