Blog post by Aaron Winter, Lancaster University, and Co-Editor, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. Cross-posted from openDemocracy.
Since the horrific Hamas attack in Israel on 7 October and Israel’s assault on Gaza in response, I have heard a great deal about how Jewish people in Britain, as well as other places, are intimidated, afraid and under threat.
According to Justin Cohen of The Jewish News, “the Jewish community at the moment is full of dread, full of fear, like I've never seen before”. According to the Campaign Against Antisemitism, British Jews felt “forced to hide” during “anti-Israel” protests in London. Havering Council in London even cancelled its annual Hanukkah menorah display out of fears it could “inflame tensions”, though subsequently reversed the decision. We have also seen similar cancellations in the US.
I am Jewish and, although I have not experienced this, I am greatly concerned about the rise in antisemitism, as well as other forms of racism and hate. Many of these have been on the rise for almost a decade, most identifiably in the context of Brexit and Trump, and the mainstreaming of racism and the far right more broadly.
The targets of much of this hate have been migrants and Muslims – not only from the far right, which has also long targeted Jews and continues to be a threat, but also from wider mainstream politics and the media.
What also concerns me about the increased political and media focus on and understanding of antisemitism is that it often conflates anti-zionism and antisemitism (as well as Jews and Israel); operates in defence of Israel in general, and its assault on Gaza in particular; and claims antisemitism is primarily coming from Muslims, the left, and pro-Palestinian solidarity and anti-zionist activists.
It also feels as though the fears about antisemitism, particularly in relation to such marches and solidarity, are being stoked by political figures and the media. This was evident when former home secretary Suella Braverman called ceasefire protests “hate marches”.
A similar accusation that has gained particular traction is her claim that the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” may be “genocidal”. Elon Musk even banned the phrase from X/Twitter and was thanked by Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.
This occurred despite widespread criticism of Musk’s expressions and platforming of antisemitism, including in attacks on the ADL itself.
Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has labelled war crimes investigations into Israel “pure antisemitism”. And there have also been crackdowns on academic freedom and student organising critical of Israel and in support of Palestinians in the UK, US and elsewhere.
In Germany, protesters, including Jewish ones, have experienced a great deal of state suppression. We are even seeing attempts there to undermine academic and artistic freedom, and migrant and citizenship rights, for those critical of Israel. It is a great and tragic irony that the country responsible for the Holocaust – which, among other guilty European powers, supported the establishment of Israel and displacement of Palestinians – is enacting authoritarian measures that target Jews and vulnerable minoritised people, and enable those committing genocide.
All this is not to say that there is not a rise in antisemitism – we know there is – or that some of it is not linked to what is going on in Israel and Gaza. But we need to disentangle these; address fears; challenge misconceptions, misrepresentations and politicisation; and fight antisemitism itself, instead of targeting and delegitimising critics of Israel and the fight against other racisms, occupation and genocide.
This is particularly serious as it occurs in the context of Palestinians suffering what is now widely described by experts as a genocide, with warnings from politicians, human rights organisations, medical professionals and UN officials about the situation in Gaza. According to NBC, the death toll as of 18 December stood at almost 20,000 Palestinians, with mostly civilians, including children, killed, and more injured and displaced, as well as vital medical and educational infrastructure targeted and destroyed.
But the attack on Palestinians goes back much further, to the establishment of Israel and the Nakba, and extends beyond Gaza to the West Bank and wider occupied territories. Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims are also targeted elsewhere, such as the shooting of three Palestinian students wearing keffiyehs in Vermont in November.
Despite claims that Israel is acting in self-defence and only targeting Hamas, the eliminationist and expansionist nature of its behaviour is clear. Former head of the Israeli National Security Council Gloria Eiland has said explicitly that Israel “has no choice but to turn Gaza into a place that is temporarily or permanently impossible to live in”. This is accompanied by dehumanising genocidal language from Israeli officials such as references to Palestinians as “human animals” and “children of darkness”. Yet when Palestinians and others protest what is occurring, they are accused of being antisemitic, even genocidal, themselves – because of the Hamas attack that they are accused of supporting, or the bad faith reading of “from the river to the sea”. This is despite the fact that Likud's own original 1977 platform states "between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty". Netanyahu’s son Yair even recently added “from the river to the sea” in reference to Israel on his X/Twitter profile without widespread condemnation.
Something that gives me hope, however, has been the solidarity expressed by communities around the world – among them Jewish groups such as If Not Now, Jewish Voice for Peace, Na’amod, the Black-Jewish Alliance, and Jewdas. Staff from more than 100 Jewish organisations in the US also called on American president Joe Biden to support a ceasefire, something most western governments and oppositions have been loath to do – including the UK Labour Party.
On the one hand, our presence in these movements as Jewish people can help offset accusations that opposition to Israel is antisemitic. On the other, many of us are accused of being self-hating, kapos, Judenrats, and not Jewish anyway. And, of course, opposing Israel does not become antisemitic just because someone who is not Jewish does it.
It is upsetting to me that fears expressed by some Jewish people about such protests are taken more seriously than what Palestinians are going through in terms of racism, occupation and genocide. This response allows for the minimisation of Palestinian experiences and suppression of protest against the attack on Gaza, which can help enable its continuation and greater harms. It also serves to divide and rule communities, such as Palestinian, Muslim and Jewish, who share a common experience of racism that could be the basis for wider and more effective solidarity and resistance. In some cases, we not only see the minimising or denying of the racism and harms another community experiences, but the explicit expression of it.
This operates clearly in the writing of Jewish Chronicle editor Jake Wallis Simons, who claims that Palestinian solidarity marches are antisemitic and threatening to Jews. Simpson has also argued that “much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult” and that the concept of Islamophobia is “bogus” and “profoundly anti-Jew”.
As an anti-racist, anti-fascist Jew, and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, it is disturbing to see how support for Israel has co-opted opposition to antisemitism to justify racism, colonialism, occupation and genocide. This undermines the fight against antisemitism and harms Jews too, as we can see in the menorah cases, Germany, and where we have our Judaism questioned or attacked.
What is more, it is often our own communal organisations and media that have chosen to defend Zionism over antisemitism and Jews. Biden made this clear on Hanukkah when he reaffirmed his support for Israel’s actions because “[w]ithout Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who’s secure”. This conflates Jews and Israel, implying that only support for the latter stands in the way of antisemitism, and also indicates that Jews are not safe in the US or elsewhere. It is also not only antisemitism that is exploited in this way, but the Holocaust, to which 7 October is often compared, and which has been co-opted by Israel (with the help of guilty European and American powers) in its guise as the protector of Jews. The Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, even wore a yellow star to a Security Council meeting.
In light of this, it is unsurprising the accusation of genocide directed at Israel is framed by critics as antisemitism or even Holocaust minimisation. This not only serves genocide denial and spits in the face of the promise ‘Never Again’, but also corresponds to the redemption of the Nazis and the actual minimisation of the Holocaust.
It was only in March this year that Gary Lineker argued that Braverman’s Illegal Migration Bill was “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. In response, he was criticised for making such a comparison and minimising the Holocaust by Holocaust Educational Trust CEO Karen Pollack and Braverman herself.
Yet more recently, some have tried to make the case that the 7 October attack was possibly worse than the Holocaust, and that Hamas is worse than the Nazis. This includes Douglas Murray in the Jewish Chronicle and Andrew Roberts with “What Makes Hamas Worse Than the Nazis” in the Washington Free Beacon. It is something that Netanyahu himself has been arguing for years.
It is not only the Nazis of the past who are being redeemed, either. Over the past decade, as I have argued alongside Aurelien Mondon in our book Reactionary Democracy, we have seen the mainstreaming and emboldening of the far right, as well as the radicalisation of the mainstream, around immigration and Islamophobia.
This is most evident in the way traditional far-right ideas, tropes and narratives make it to the mainstream to both stoke fears and justify policies such as deportation. An example of this mainstreaming is Murray’s popular The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, which has echoes of the antisemitic far right ‘great replacement’ theory – but, as with other more contemporary and mainstream iterations, has migrants and Muslims replacing Jews as the threat.
We also see an increasing convergence of government rhetoric and policy and far-right activism – as seen at a hotel housing asylum seekers in Merseyside prior to the launch of Braverman’s bill, and in response to Palestinian solidarity marches.
In this context, Braverman’s dog whistle about hate marches on Armistice Day presented an opportunity to the far right. Not only did it appeal to the Islamophobia and professed patriotism of far-right activists; it also offered them an opportunity to exploit the supposedly counter-extremist, pro-Jewish, anti-racist image that the English Defence League (EDL) in particular had constructed in recent years to target Muslims, fend off criticism and become more acceptable to the mainstream.
Former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) led a mob to the march whose members stormed the barricades and confronted both pro-Palestine protesters and police while claiming they were there to defend the Cenotaph. The events indirectly led to Braverman’s sacking, but did not stop Robinson and others from promoting and attending the 26 November March Against Antisemitism, organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism in self-proclaimed solidarity.
Robinson was arrested and charged with failing to comply with an order banning him from the area around the march. But the fact that the far right felt entitled to attend, and were not prevented or disavowed, should be a wake-up call for Jews worried about antisemitism, along with the attempted redemption of Nazism and minimisation of the Holocaust.
I am very worried by this, particularly as a Jewish person. It not only threatens us directly, but undermines the fight against antisemitism and other racisms, our collective memory, and the lessons of the Holocaust – and does so most shockingly in the service of the racist dehumanisation and genocide of Palestinians.
What I am not fearful of is showing support for, and solidarity with, the Palestinian people.
Image credit: Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, is detained by police during the March Against Antisemitism in London, 26 November 2023. Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images
This blog post was first published in openDemocracy on 19 December 2023: Conflating antisemitism and anti-zionism emboldens the far right.
Read further on the Identities Blog:
On Gary Lineker’s tweet, the politics of comparison and denial of racism
Read further in Identities:
Vulnerability as a politics of decolonial solidarity: the case of the Anarchists Against the Wall
Racial others and settler colonialism in Israel: migrant rights claims refracted through colonial logics OPEN ACCESS
The bridled bride of Palestine: Orientalism, Zionism, and the troubled urban imagination
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.