The challenge for Jewish voices among progressives

June 24, 2020 by  
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Antisemitism takes many forms. It can come from the right or the left. It can be found in theology, but also in anti-religious political ideology…writes Suzanne Rutland Andre Oboler.

Professor Emerita Suzanne Rutland and Dr Andre Oboler at the IHRA plenary in Luxembourg in December 2019

Sometimes it comes from the fringes of society, other times it is through the actions of the state. There is no ideology or community which is immune to antisemitism. It is the world’s longest hate; a phenomenon which has defies simple explanation or solutions. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) took up this challenge and through its Working Definition of Antisemitism, it has provided a tool fit for real-world use to identify, monitor, and tackle all forms of antisemitism. The definition was passed unanimously on the 26th of May 2016 by the then 31 member countries of IHRA. It was a landmark moment in the fight against antisemitism. We were there, in the room, observing the proceedings on behalf of the Australian Government. Australia is now a full member of HRA, and over the years we have seen the definition be accepted by an increasing number of countries and institutions around the world. 

The definition is written in plain language. It makes clear is that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. It outlines what it describes as “contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere”. These examples form an integral part of the definition. The list is neither complete nor definitive proof of antisemitism. The definition highlights the need to always consider “the overall context”. The definition, including the examples, are not politically partisan, nor are they country-specific. They enable antisemitism to be identified, in a consistent manner, regardless of its source or location. 

Antisemitism can be thought of as a set of templates. Each of them paints the Jews as the enemy. They are ready to use, widely recognised, and highly effective. They spread hate that manifests as vilification, incitement to violence and even incitement to genocide. Good societies seek to stop this hate. Despite this antisemitism persists. When there is a dispute and one of the parties is a Jew, or where Jews could make a convenient scapegoat, the antisemitic templates are a powerful tool for those seeking to influence others and get their way at any price. 

Progressive politics are not immune from antisemitism. It was only recently that the UK’s Labor Party, under then leader Jeremy Corbyn, provided a very public example of this. Antisemitism has also been deployed regularly in the name of human rights campaigns. It also appears in political advocacy with antisemitic messages and graffiti deployed against Jewish politicians during elections, and against Israel, the Jewish State, in advocacy over policies and international politics. There is no inherent problem with opposing a particular candidate or policy, but if that opposition makes use of antisemitic rhetoric, it becomes antisemitic and not mere advocacy or criticism. The examples in the IHRA definition bring great clarity to the more common ways this occurs. 

Those who provide a Jewish voice among progressives should be the first to identify and sound the alarm when particular examples of progressive advocacy begin to use antisemitic rhetoric. As many Jews in the UK Labor party found, sounding the alarm is often unpopular. Solidarity is demanded. The fight against antisemitism may be given lip service as important, just not quite as important or urgent as whatever goal the antisemitic rhetoric is helping to progress. If that reasoning is allowed to persist, entire causes can become steeped in antisemitism. Jews get excluded from anti-racism efforts and become unwelcome in progressive causes. 

There are plenty of examples where this has occurred, from Occupy Wall Street to the Women’s March, and of particular relevance at this time, the co-option of the official Black Lives Matter policy platform to advance an anti-Israel agenda. 

One key to preventing the spread of antisemitism is education. The IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism needs to be understood by all, but most importantly by Jewish voices engaged in wider causes. The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) released a statement which said the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism “explicitly includes criticism of the policies of the State of Israel with antisemitism”. This is only true in the sense that it gives no special immunity to advocacy efforts or criticism of Israel. If such efforts are deployed using antisemitic rhetoric, under the definition they are rightly regarded as antisemitic. If they avoid using antisemitic rhetoric, then they are not antisemitic. It’s really not that hard to understand. 

It is up to those engaging in criticism of Israel to ensure they avoid the pitfalls of antisemitism. The AJDS describes itself not only as a progressive voice among Jews but also as a Jewish voice among progressives. As a Jewish voice among progressives, AJDS should first ensure it understands the definition, and then ensure it helps others in progressive circles to understand it. There is no doubt this will be challenging. There is no doubt some would prefer to carry on as they have done before, to say it is a matter of debate whether their actions are antisemitic and with no conclusion they are free to continue as they have in the past. The clarity provided by the IHRA definition puts an end to such games. 

When progressive movements engage in antisemitism, Jewish progressives find themselves in a difficult spot. They can stand firm against antisemitism, fighting it either from within or leave and tackle it from outside the movement. Or they can seek to excuse the antisemitism and sacrifice the human rights of Jews on the altar of wider progressive goals. That second choice, while easier, is a betrayal not just of the Jewish people, but of progressive values. The rejection of the IHRA Definition, and the light it shines on antisemitism, is not only a mistake but a step into darkness. It is a step the AJDS should urgently reconsider.

Dr Andre Oboler and Professor Emerita Suzanne Rutland are Expert Member of the Australian Government’s Delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and serve on its Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial. 

Comments

One Response to “The challenge for Jewish voices among progressives”
  1. Philip Mendes says:

    Good article by Suzanne and Andre. They note correctly that left-wing Jews (AJDS or any other group) have a responsibility to educate their left-wing allies on the varied causes and terminology of anti-Semitism. Similarly, Jewish conservatives have the same responsibility with their political allies.

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