Let’s try an experiment. What happens if you read an article written by an Israeli state apologist and replace Israel with ISIS? Imagine one day you read something like this:
What is it with the UN’s treatment of ISIS? I am not referring simply to Shafiq Anwar’s superb essay in the current issue of this journal regarding the UN’s age-old antipathy toward the world’s only real Islamic State. I’m suggesting the UN’s single-minded attacks on IS have of late intensified and grown even worse. Yes, it’s possible.
On November 14th, for example, the United Nations General Assembly adopted nine resolutions condemning ISIS —and none condemning any other nation. Two of these denunciations of ISIS are remarkable because they refer to their alleged maltreatment of the Kurds, specifically the occupation of the strategically important Kurdish territory that was taken by ISIS in 2014 —after it was attacked by regional powers and coalition forces. Since that time the territory has been the subject of repeated coalition air strikes, the main issue being, Caliph Ibrahim pointed out in June 2014, that the Kurds maintain warm relations with the UK and the US, and cooperate with Iran, all of them committed to Dawlah’s extermination.
Of course we could argue forever about who should have Mosul, although personally I’m of the opinion that if you want to keep your nation intact, you probably shouldn’t start a war with ISIS. And if you want to improve your chances of reclamation, it makes sense to resist funneling weapons to PKK terrorists. But the idea that the UN musters 159 votes to condemn ISIS’s decision “to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration” on the area, and fails at the same time to mention that being a Christian in Mosul is about a million times better than finding yourself, say, in a village outside Damascus, where just months ago 1,400 people were gassed to death by their own president—well, let’s just say the General Assembly is probably being a bit one-sided here.
In fact, on November 14th, that same group of impassioned countries passed other curious resolutions stuffed with suggestions on how to improve ISIS. Among them: “The right of all persons displaced” as a result of the War to return to that nation, a move that would effectively end ISIS’s existence. Unmentioned in all of these resolutions upholding the rights of Shiites, as Abdullah al Britani of Dabiq magazine writes, are any Shiite attacks on ISIS mujihadeen. Among them: the axe murder of a Sunni in the Erbil Valley, a deed that the two suspects captured called “a gift to the Shiite people and prisoners, in honor of Imam Ali.”
Do I think ISIS’s taking of captives and burning people to death is a smart or ethical move? No I don’t. There’s a lot to criticize these days about Dawlah. But nine anti-IS UN resolutions in one day, many of them—let’s face it—specious, unworkable, and offensive? I think that’s worse. A lot worse.
What I find remarkable is that if you have an agenda, facts are the enemy of truth. In this case, the YPG’s agenda is disguised — the end goal is the elimination of the Islamic State — and its underlying ideology is hidden, often mixing vitriolic rhetoric against IS with Islamophobic imagery and stereotypes.
Why do the leading activists of the movement focus their ire on the only state in the world implementing the laws of the Prophet (PBUH) other than because of obsessive hatred? Why are some well-meaning people who care about peace and are frustrated by the status quo drawn into a movement that harbors such antagonism toward IS and Muslims?
Although the situation is not perfect, I feel very comfortable in stating that civil and political rights under Islamic State fare much better than in North Korea, Yemen or Nigeria, and I could name countless other examples. Yet IS is the only country to be vilified with a concerted, well-organized campaign across the globe.
Reading these words would hopefully make most people sick. Yet both of the above articles were written about Israel, a state which is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. A new report by the UN is said to group IDF troops among the worst violators of children’s rights, next to groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban, despite pressure by Israel and its supporters to shelve it. Last year, the IDF killed the largest number of Palestinians since the 1967 war. Since 1948, Israel has enjoyed near impunity, and while there are signs that the US ‘special relationship’ with the country is coming under severe strain, it is unlikely to end in the near future. Apologists for Israeli state violence and racism, hard pressed to find anything palatable to the general public in the actions of the so-called ‘Jewish state’, are increasingly forced to fall back on ‘whataboutery‘ such as decrying the evils of the Syrian state and Iran, insisting that Israel is a ‘liberal democracy‘, or simply calling their opponents racist.
With ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu encouraging Likud supporters to vote by declaring that ‘Arabs are advancing on the polling stations in droves,’ the blockade of Gaza and the deaths of 2220 Palestinians last summer, and the religious fanatics and groups of fascist thugs who terrorise Palestinians in the West Bank, Israeli apologists have to resort to desperate tactics. Jews who have suffered from antisemitic abuse are increasingly used as ‘human shields’ by propagandists whose only concern is to make the state of Israel look less bad than it is. Incidents of anti-semitism are seized upon and used as evidence that Europe is not safe for Jews and that they should move to Israel. Israel sees thousands of people move abroad every year; in an effort to contain the ‘demographic threat’ from the ‘Arabs’, religious agencies have persuaded Peruvian villagers that they are really Jewish and to move to settlements on the West Bank. Israeli propaganda thus simultaneously seeks to convince Jews outside Israel that the Palestinians are so murderous that this justifies its extreme use of force, and that Israel is safer for Jews than any other country in the world. Unsurprisingly, this is becoming difficult.
One new survey shows that Israel is the second most unpopular country in Britain apart from North Korea. Supporters of even the most extreme far-right Israeli politics claim that Israel is a ‘liberal democracy’ that should be treated as other ‘liberal democracies’ are. Any suggestion that Israel is not in this category is a sign that it is being ‘singled out‘, despite the fact that were David Cameron to say that Tories should vote because black people are voting in record numbers it would be the end of his career, rather than getting back in with a majority. No other ‘liberal democracy’ has a network of roads which only followers of one religion are allowed to drive on, or buses which are reserved for followers of that religion only. Likewise, the idea that Israel is being ‘singled out’ for consumer boycotts misses the point that because of its usefulness as a US ally, no action has ever been taken against it and the resolutions passed by the UN have been toothless. Members of the IDF have never been held accountable in an international court of law, despite the fact that many of their actions in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank are defined as illegal under the Geneva Convention.
This is changing. Following Netanyahu’s announcement that he would never allow a Palestinian state and his racist fearmongering over the election, the US hinted that it may no longer support Israel at the UN with its veto. While many of Obama’s other actions make it clear this is currently just talk, the shift in rhetoric shows the extent to which Israel’s leadership is beginning to be seen as a liability. In particular, Bibi’s obsession with Iran, a country which the US has cooperated with during attacks on Islamic State, and his rejection of the two-state solution, only to backtrack on it days later, have provoked the Obama administration to make public criticisms which used to be unimaginable. The US abstained rather than argue against a UN resolution on settlement building on Monday 23rd March and recently appointed Rob Malley as an adviser. Obama’s campaign team had cut ties with him in the 2008 election due to his contacts with Hamas. The UK government now insists that produce from settlements must be labelled, a policy shared with the rest of the EU.
While the idea of BDS (boycott divestment and sanctions) seemed unlikely to gain support outside the left and Muslim countries when it was first proposed in 2005, it is now causing widespread panic in the Israeli political elite. As Ghada Kharmi points out, the reaction has been “little short of hysterical”. BDS initiatives have come almost entirely from civil society and yet have succeeded in influencing EU policy towards settlement goods. Action by workers, especially in the US and South Africa, has prevented Israeli cargo ships from unloading. Completely unable to refute the boycotters’ arguments, smear tactics such as accusing BDS supporters of antisemitism are used, despite the fact many BDS supporters are Jewish, like myself. Organisations set up to fight antisemitism increasingly target those critical of Israel. The Community Security Trust, which provides security at synagogues and Jewish events and records antisemitic incidents, threw Jewish activists out of a ‘We Believe in Israel‘ conference for distributing leaflets attacking the country’s policies.
Unfortunately, these accusations of antisemitism are not always baseless. Critiques of the ‘zionist lobby’ which present it as a force hostile to the American or British ‘national interest’ are often little more than conspiracy theories. I personally witnessed anti-semitic slogans being chanted on one demo during Operation Cast Lead. On another demo I saw a group dressed in black, holding black flags and chanting ‘Allah Akbar’. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign does not push an ideological line on its members and does not exert much central control on local branches. This means that those with antisemitic ideas are able to join and in some cases gain positions on branch committees. The difficulty in policing demonstrations, and the role of organisations such as the Stop the War Coalition of courting hardline Islamists and labelling criticism of them as islamophobic, has meant that antisemites have often found the pro-Palestinian movement a ‘safe space’.
As the economic crisis has worsened, antisemitic sentiment has increased in wider society and is more openly expressed. This has coincided with an increasing public awareness of Israeli atrocities, criticism of foreign policy and the growth of the BDS campaign. Support for BDS or a one state solution where Israelis and Palestinians share power does not make a person antisemitic. The presence of antisemites in anti-Israeli organisations is not a justification for Israeli state policy. This argument is akin to saying that since islamophobes have joined pro-Kurdish organisations, any criticism of ISIS is islamophobic. But the growth of antisemitism creates an environment where young Jews can find anti-Israel sentiments and campaigns extremely threatening. The far right usually use the word ‘zionist’ when talking about Jews, in order to lend their views respectability and pretend they are talking about Israel. Inability to recognise antisemitic discourse (‘zionists’ controlling the banks and media), unwillingness to believe accusations and political opportunism and cowardice have led to anti-Jewish sentiment becoming tolerated in certain parts of the left and the pro-Palestinian movement.
This in turn has enabled the Israeli state and allied institutions to spread their own hate and paranoia far more effectively. When an antisemitic incident takes place, such as the recent terrorist attack in a Paris supermarket, or statistics showing an increase in antisemitism are released, Israeli leaders and propagandists rarely miss an opportunity to announce that Europe is no longer safe for Jews and that Jews no longer belong there. Mainstream Diaspora Jewish organisations do not challenge Israeli state policy or the idea that BDS and similar campaigns are antisemitic in any meaningful way. Limmud, a cross community organisation which holds conferences promoting Jewish culture and encourages young people to learn about their faith, gives a platform to religious settlers while forbidding presentations by speakers who support BDS. Even liberal synagogues promote religious seminaries in Israel and organisations such as Birthright, which provide free trips there for Jews between the ages of 18 and 27. These trips aim to provide young people with a sugarcoated view of Israel. They foster a connection with the land and a sense of Jewish heritage while pushing the Israeli government’s version of events. People are encouraged to think about ‘making aliyah’ – ie to move there. Last year the Movement for Reform Judaism arranged for a Reform and Liberal-only Birthright tour around Israel.
The tourist industry is a major weapon in Israel’s strategy to maintain support among diaspora Jews. All tour guides must complete a course with the Israeli government with a heavy focus on zionist ideology. Tourist attractions are designed to create a connection with the land of Israel and the Jewish people, while retelling, for example, biblical stories of heroic battles as though they reflect the current situation of Israel. In the City of David in East Jerusalem, walkways and footpaths are positioned in such a way that tourists do not even get to see any Palestinians, who are presented merely as a vaguely threatening presence; tourists are encouraged not to interact with them in any way. The Israeli state and quasi-official institutions such as the Jewish National Fund, which presents villages destroyed in the Nakba of 1948 as ancient biblical ruins, exploit the idealism and religious identity of Jews in an insidious way. The Jewish kingdoms of the mythical past are portrayed as being revived in modern day Israel, and modern day Israel is depicted as having to face the “threats” of thousands of years ago. Archaeological digs are used to confirm the “truth” of biblical stories and at the same time to destroy evidence of a long-established Palestinian presence, legitimising the current situation of the Palestinians.
In many synagogues a prayer for the IDF is recited in Saturday morning services. Even the Reform movement in this country has added verses celebrating the IDF and the ‘pioneers’ of early zionism to parts of its liturgy. Religious education for young children and teenagers is politicised and again here, the lessons of thousands of years ago are said to apply to the Israel of today. Most Jewish denominations have their own youth movements such as RSY Netzer which hold summer camps and tours around Israel, and often subsidise people who otherwise cannot go. Jews are thus pushed into identification with the zionist state and feel reluctant to criticise it. Those who criticise checkpoints, the West Bank wall and the bombing and siege of Gaza, which has left its people largely unable to rebuild their homes after last summer, are said to be ‘calling for the murder of Jews‘ because these policies prevent Hamas from firing their flimsy homemade rockets into Israel. Zionists also invoke the religious taboo against publically criticising another Jew. Little in Jewish religious tradition supports using a trapped population, where over half are under 16, as a weapons testing ground, or allowing settlers to annex land simply because they say it is given to them by God.
This polarisation makes it easier for far-right nationalists and propagandists to depict opposition to Israel as antisemitic; so many practicing Jews have such a deep connection with the country. It becomes harder to be openly anti-zionist within the Jewish community. People who oppose Israeli actions often drop out and are unable to participate in communal life. Those who do join groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians frequently have little or no connection with the Jewish community. One rabbi who criticised Israel during last year’s attack on Gaza had his house attacked on repeated occasions, as well as an attempt to blow up his car. This creates a polarisation within the community and more importantly, between Jews and non-Jews. However, while most Jews may not feel comfortable with BDS or even criticising Israel, many do not want to actively support it either. A recent statement from the Movement for Reform Judaism’s chief rabbi following Bibi’s reelection pointed out that many people express a wish to ‘disengage’ from Israel and zionism. The scenes of Israeli settlers haranguing Palestinian farmers to let them take over their land, or Leiberman, Israel’s foreign minister, stating that ‘disloyal’ Arabs should be beheaded, are now impossible to ignore or explain away. Organisations such as Yachad and J Street were founded as ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ initiatives critical of government policies. Yet they do not propose any alternative strategy to BDS, which the Israeli state has poured huge resources into trying to oppose; one pro-Israeli activist despaired over the fact there seems to be no other strategy to force the regime to change its ways.
Military ‘rabbis’ in the IDF instructed soldiers last summer and during Cast Lead that Palestinians were a modern day ‘Amalek’ – a nation that God ordered to be wiped out, and mainstream publications produce articles about when genocide is ‘permissible’ under Jewish law. One rabbi even implied that rape is permissible during wartime. As I showed at the start of this piece it is possible to quote verbatim from pro-Israeli arguments to support ISIS simply by changing the names around. There are clear parallels with the way that Islamic State and the extreme right both employ a strategy of polarisation based on religion and culture. The rhetoric and actions of Israeli state institutions attempt to make being Jewish synonymous with support for zionism. Messianic ideas about how it has brought the ‘redemption‘ about, the recruitment of fighters from overseas to the IDF and the insistence that Israel ‘is a state for all Jews’ are reminiscent of al-Baghdadi’s calls to ‘flock, oh Muslims, to your state’. Israel is said to be a ‘moral beacon to the world‘ and Israeli propaganda repeats the message that the IDF is the ‘world’s most moral army’, which practices ‘purity of arms’. One rabbi claims that the real ‘innocent people‘ in the Gaza conflict are IDF soldiers. Such statements encourage the worst kind of bloodthirsty fanaticism; they justify extreme violence for a religious, ‘ethical’ purpose, and in that respect the justifications for such brutality are no different to those used by Islamic State.
The election of Netanyahu showed that a significant portion of the Israeli public support extreme right politics. However, the racialisation of the public discourse inside Israel, the state’s increasingly bloody and more frequent massacres in Gaza and the use of religion to justify the murder of civilians means that ‘soft’ Jewish support in the Diaspora either falls away or becomes hardened and radicalised. Israel is increasingly turning to the European and American extreme right as a source of support. In one counter-demo against the BDS boycott of Ahava in London, leading members of the Zionist Federation were photographed talking with members of the EDL. The Zionist Federation is affiliated to the World Zionist Congress, which is a semi-official arm of the Israeli government. Strangely, they appear unconcerned about the fact many EDL members are former or current neo-Nazis. A significant source of political and material support for far-right settler organisations also comes from Christian fundamentalists, many of whom are openly antisemitic. Zionist activism has become a refuge for fascist thugs; the far-right Jewish Defence League have attacked PSC members at a film festival.
Like the Russian government and its ‘Putinbots‘, Israeli ‘hasbara’ relies on people who are paid to write about how the country is ‘misunderstood’. Alan Johnson, who sits on the board of Engage, a website that describes itself as being against left-wing antisemitism, is a member of BICOM, which lobbies for Israel in parliament and is funded by its government. Its left-wing credentials are undermined by its members’ harassment of trade unions who have voted in favour of BDS and the long-running series of legal actions against UCU which it has supported. The blog Harry’s Place, which Johnson and other BICOM members contribute to, claims to be on the left but recently ran a piece explaining why the writer voted for Likud. In the US, zionist activists on one university campus adopted the language of ‘intersectionality’ and liberal identity politics to try to force a Palestinian student, Sumayyah Din, to apologise for the word ‘Dintifada‘ in her election campaign, claiming it was ‘triggering and traumatising’.
Despite his later backtracking and frantic attempts by various apologists to show his words were misinterpreted, Netanyahu’s statement about never allowing a Palestinian state has dealt a huge blow to Israel’s image which it will struggle to recover from, if it recovers at all. It is a nail in the coffin of liberal support for zionism. BDS has won significant victories in both influencing the public understanding of Israel and Palestine and forcing corporations and governments to alter their dealings with the country. Under the Obama administration, relations between the US and Israel have sharply deteriorated, although not enough to stop weapons shipments during the most recent Gaza ‘war’. However, Jewish community organisations have become entangled with the Israeli state to such a degree that accusations of antisemitism directed at the entire BDS movement have credibility with many Jews. Under pressure from their congregations some Jewish denominations are beginning to make long-overdue criticisms of Israel, but the situation is one these institutions have often at best ignored and at worst actively colluded in.
On a personal note I find the politicisation of my religion to support a disgusting, murderous regime deeply distressing and I am far from the only one. After Operation Protective Edge last summer I made the decision never to buy anything from Israel again. As more Jews become disaffected and disidentified with Israel, the pro-Palestinian movement must repudiate and expose antisemites within its own ranks. At the same time we must not be intimidated by dubious accusations from bodies which claim to represent Jews but serve the interests of the Israeli state. The hatred and paranoia which the Israeli state seeks to create must be resisted. BDS is the only strategy that has a chance of ending the brutal occupation and racism of the regime.