On Antisemitism

Issue section: 

“The truth is that everyone who organises for justice in Palestine must wrestle with antisemitism, either because a false accusation is being lobbed at them, or because of a need to be vigilant to ensure that the critique of the Jewish state does not become a blanket criticism of the Jewish people”, explains Rabbi Alissa Wise, one of the contributors in this collection of essays curated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

Students in San Francisco set up JVP in 1996. It grew rapidly in response to the war on Gaza in 2014. Today JVP has over 10,000 members across the US.

The essays “reflect the multiplicity of perspectives and experiences” of Jews in the movement to win justice for the Palestinians. The aim is to demystify “the strategies used by those who wish to silence dissent and critique of Israel, particularly on college campuses”. This makes it a must-read for all involved in the struggle to build solidarity with the Palestinians today.

Opponents of the growth of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have made headway in the fight to redefine antisemitism — so that it includes any “criticism of Israel”.

Antisemitism means “discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the rights of Jews to live as equal members of society”, explains Anthony Lerman. In an important section, Lerman explains how supporters of Israel fought to change the meaning of the term.

In the new definition, antisemitism is defined as “the discrimination, against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations, with Israel as the targeted ‘collective Jew’ among nations”.

The logic is that Israel speaks for all Jews, therefore criticism of any action by the Israeli state must be antisemitic. This is rejected by the writers in this book. They share the view that “wanting freedom and justice for the Palestinians reflects the teachings of Judaism, which focuses on uplifting the oppressed”. Many students in Britain will be interested in how the political war was waged on US campuses against Jewish advocates of the Palestinians. Contributors use intersectionality to understand their experiences.

In a chapter on the response of Jews in Europe to antisemitism, Rabbi Brant Rosen recalls how in 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris — in which four Jews were killed — Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the central synagogue in Paris to call on Jews to leave France and emigrate to Israel. French Jews rose to their feet and sang the French national anthem, indicating they had no intention of leaving.

“Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are”, was the reply of Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association.