Aunty Semitism and other relatives…

The current public debate about anti-semitism, whether in the Labour Party or elsewhere, is deaved (Scots= confused) by the vehement use of words whose meaning is insufficiently examined.

For example, “Semite”: this term may have some value as referring to a group of langauges with common elements ( including Hebrew and Arabic), but its use as referring to a race of people is due to the mainly German cultural historians of the 19th. century, who made it a racial designation of ancient near eastern civilisations, before it was twisted into a negative name for Jews, as seen in the founding of The League of Anti- Semitism in Germany in 1879, which was devoted to anti- Jewish action. This development was the precursor of the demented Nazi nonsense about Aryans and Semites, espoused by Hitler.

Fact: There is no Semitic race, but if the term is given its proper sense of referring to a family of languages, then it includes Hebrew and Arabic along with many others.

It is strange that Jewish people even now should continue to use a term developed by their enemies. It may be explained by their understanding of the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, on racial grounds, from 1933- 1945. Ultimately, this Nazi racism was made possible by a) the historical self-understanding of the Jewish peoples of the diaspora, that they were a race rather than merely a religion, an understanding reinforced by their frequent persecution by Christians, who also saw them as a race.

Fact: The racial “purity”  of Jewish people may go as far back as Ezra who famously told male Jews to dismiss their foreign wives, but doubtless before his time and after, there has been more racial mingling than orthodox Judaism is prepared to admit. It might be better to think of Jewish people as a religious/ secular community that wants to be a race. Genetic testing finds little difference between Israelis and Palestinians.

The term “Jew”, albeit worn as badge of honour by those who remember the history of persecution, should be understood like the term “Scot”, to refer to those who live now in the home country or are part of a diaspora, but trace their family origins to that home country. Scots are not a “race” but a melange of incomers who themselves were racially mixed before they arrived.

Jewish people who insist on their racial identity may be part of the problem of anti-semitism rather than part of the solution. The new law passed this week by the Knesset limits the right of national self-determination to “Jewish people”. Obviously this is a racist law as both Jew and  Non-Jew are racially defined. Israel is declared as the nation state of the Jewish people. This move makes idiots of all of us who scrupulously try to distinguish between the actions of Israel and those of Jewish people.

Fact: The term “Holocaust” referring to the sacrifice of an animal to be completely consumed by fire, has been used from the 1950’s by Jewish and other historians to refer to the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews. Its users, along with those who use the Hebrew “sho’ah” = destruction, often forget the other ten million people wiped out by the Nazis, including Roma, Poles, Communists, Gays, and “useless” frail elderly people. Sometimes the langauge used suggests that this unbelievable horror justifies some subsequent actions by or on behalf of Jewish people. Clearly it does not.

The prefix “anti” requires definition. I for example am “anti- orange” meaning that I detest the Orange Lodge and all it stands for in  Northern Ireland and Scotland. I also am “anti -IRA” and detest their past and supposedly non-existent present. Here “anti” refers to moral judgements made on public behaviour and speech, together with the emotional accompaniments of those judgements. In some instances those judgements have influenced my behaviour. I do not think that being “anti” in these ways is either wrong or dangerous.

So when I recognise that I am to a lesser degree “anti- Israel” I mean that I have made value judgements about the way in which the State of Israel was founded- I know people whose homes were stolen by Israelis in 1948- and about the inhumane policies of its present government towards Palestinians. These negative judgements have in this case to live alongside my admiration for the principles on which the state was founded, and for their courage in the face of concerted attacks by their neighbours. However I weigh up these pro and anti attitudes, I cannot see that one is morally superior to the other, or that either of them should be considered illegal. Nor would I relish my political party telling me that one or the other was forbidden.

Without quibbling, I believe that dislike of any  group of people on the grounds of what they are, rather than what they do or stand for, is wrong and dangerous, as it may lead to pernicious actions, such as those done by the Nazis to the Jews of Europe, or by the Serbs to the Bosnian Moslems. It is also the case that propaganda may attribute crimes to groups of people, which they have not committed, as Stalin’s political machine did to any group that he wanted rid of. For that reason, although I permit myself negative judgements on certain groups, I must limit any action I may take towards them,  by Jesus’ command to “love my enemies.” But even Jesus assumed that I would have enemies, that is, groups or individuals towards whom I might be “anti”.

Fact: Simply being “anti” a group of people is not a crime.

I am saying that the entire construct of “anti- semitism” as a moral and political crime is inaccurate, prejudicial and should be abandoned.

On the other hand there are people who foster hatred towards Jewish people, or towards the state of Israel, and some towards both. In some people this hatred rests on simple prejudice, in others, on inaccurate versions of fact. Both are wrong, and should be prevented from causing harm, or from enshrining their prejudice in any law. Our existing laws provide penalties for various kinds of incitement and of course for violence, and our political process gives opportunities for public argument and protest. I do not think that we need to adopt special protocols outlawing anti- Jewish prejudice, any more than we need them for those who dislike The Inuit because they think they smell of blubber. But we need laws that punish any harm that is done to Jewish or Inuit people, and public debate that brings such prejudice into disrepute.

As well as Jesus’ command to love our enemies, there’s the fact that we have a story which shows him expressing Jewish prejudice against a Canaanite woman, who asked him to heal her daughter. He replied by asking if the children’s food (gifts for Jewish people) should be thrown to the dogs ( gentile people), which insulted her as a dog. The woman accepted the insult, pointing out that nevertheless, the dogs got the leftovers from the family table. Rembrandt marvellously depicts the woman on all fours miming a dog. Jesus, rebuked by this splendidly humorous human being, praised her and granted her request. The Christian tradition has interpreted this story as “Jesus testing the woman’s faith.” That’s mince: the woman’s faith is testing Jesus, and although he ultimately passes the test, he shows his frailty by prejudicial words.

We are all – even the son of God- liable to have prejudices and we all need a culture which challenges them; and we can all be harmed by prejudicial words or actions and we all need laws that punish them. But must make sure that our terminology is dealing with realities and not fictions.

With all the above in mind, I cannot see that the founding of the Israeli state should be excluded from rational debate, given its impact on many Palestinian people; nor that the Israeli government out of all governments in the world, ahould be spared comparison with the Nazis, if the cap fits. I do not think the cap fits Israel nor indeed that it fits even Syria, but I cannot see why any historical comparison should be outlawed. The Labour Party is quite right to resist those who want unique protections for the state of Israel, but it must also resist those whose hatred of Israel means they would welcome its destruction.




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