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Thursday, 19 May 2011

AIPAC and antisemitism

I've said it before and I'll say it again - it is not antisemitic to criticise the State of Israel. Israel is a country, and any country can obviously be criticised without the critic necessarily being accused of racial or religious prejudice. So, not all critics of Israel are antisemites. But all antisemites are critics of Israel, and so some critics of Israel are antisemites. By way of comparison, I can criticise Saudi Arabia without being a racist or an Islamophobe - but if my criticisms did smack of anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia, then people would be entitled to call me on that. Those who say: "You can't say anything about Israel without being accused of antisemitism" remind me of those saloon bar bores who say: "You can't say anything about immigration without being accused of racism". 

You can say a great many deeply critical things about Israel without being accused of antisemitism. But if you cross the line from talking about Israel into talking about Jews, you enter the territory in which antisemitism resides, even if you are not yourself being antisemitic. This is especially the case given the phenomenon of 'antisemitic discourse', that being language which (perhaps unintentionally) draws on tropes and themes that have traditionally been drawn on by antisemites. 

An example of antisemitic discourse was present on the BBC News Channel today. Wyre Davies, a correspondent in Jerusalem, who I am confident is not an antisemite or anything remotely like it, was presenting a report ahead of President Obama's important, imminent speech on the Middle East. I felt that the report fell below the BBC's usual high standards and was not balanced, but that's not the point I'm making here. The point I'm making here is that Mr Davies said (and I paraphrase) that President Obama is unlikely to criticise Israel in his speech today, because he's due to speak next week at "the conference of the Jewish AIPAC movement" and so he won't want to offend them. He definitely referred to "Jewish AIPAC". 

But AIPAC is not a Jewish movement, it's a pro-Israeli movement, and there's a big difference. Most Jews are pro-Israeli. Many pro-Israeli people are Jews. But the two things are not one and the same. Although many, if not most, of AIPAC's key people might well be Jewish, there are many people involved in it who are not. More seriously, my issue is with the subtext of Mr Davies' report. What he is saying is: President Obama is making a speech today, in which he would like to say certain things that he considers to be true, but he can't say those things, because he doesn't wish to offend the powerful Jewish lobby (AIPAC). Think about it, and you'll see the subtext. 

And talk of a Jewish lobby, illegitimately using its power and influence to control politics and politicians, is a form of antisemitic discourse, even if the person concerned is (like Mr Davies) not an antisemite or anything like it. That does not mean, to state the obvious, that one cannot discuss the role and influence of pro-Israeli lobbying groups. Of course one can, but one has to do it with a certain amount of sensitivity if one does not wish to inadvertently stray into some very dodgy territory. When Latino voters become a more powerful voting bloc in America, people see it as progress for an immigrant community that has faced discrimination; when Jews organise politically, it is 'the powerful Jewish lobby' - see what I mean? And that won't do, although I appreciate that Mr Davies did not actually say any such thing. Again, I'm talking here about the subtext of his words, not his intention in saying them.

AIPAC, incidentally, remains the subject of many myths. For example, it does not donate money to candidates - to do that, it would have to be a Political Action Committee, and it isn't one. And yet that doesn't stop people mistakenly suggesting that AIPAC uses donations to change politicians' minds, which is simply, factually, untrue. Given that the United States and Israel have been allies for decades, and given that Israel is (still) the only Parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, it is natural that American (and for that matter British) politicians should be willing to support Israel, without the need for a conspiracy theory about them only doing so because they've been suborned by AIPAC. 

Actually, I have to declare an interest, as I have visited AIPAC's offices in Washington and met one of their senior officials. This happened in 2009 when the pro-Israeli, pro-peace movement J Street was having its launch conference, and a British charity paid to take a few relevant Brits over there as observers, and I was privileged to be among them. J Street is actually a bit to the left of where I am, although I certainly got a warm reception when I explained that I was from a British political party called the Liberal Democrats, as most of the people there would call themselves 'liberal Democrats' in the American sense. Which brings me to my three key facts about politics and the American Jewish community:

  1. The American Jewish community is not huge - around five or six million people out of a population of more than 300 million
  2. In 2008, an estimated 78% of Jewish Americans voted for Barack Obama - a huge proportion. So, at a time when there was a right-wing campaign to persuade Jews to vote Republican because the Right was accusing Obama of not being a tough enough supporter of Israel - despite that campaign, an overwhelming majority of Jews voted for Obama, the Democrats and the prospect of a liberal president who would use his muscle to foster a two-state solution that would involve deep compromises by all sides to the conflict, including Israel. So it cannot be said that Jews are a conservative voting bloc, or that candidates seeking Jewish support have to adopt a hardline, anti-peace posture
  3. Conservative Christians are a much larger bloc of American voters than is the Jewish community - tens of millions of people, with a tendency to adopt a much more right-wing position on Israel than is adopted by most American Jews. So it is actually the Christian Right, and not the Jewish community, that could be seen as a force moving American politics rightwards on questions relating to Israel. With the suggestion often being made that, should there be a rational two-state solution, it is not Jewish Americans who would oppose it - rather, it is the Christian Right who would lobby against sensible compromises of a sort that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans would willingly support.
Anyway, the President is now on his feet, so I'm off to listen to that. 


  1. Daniel ben Dov19 May 2011 at 23:10

    A couple of comments:

    (1) You said "all antisemites are critics of Israel". I'd disagree - there are some antisemites (eg the English Defence League, and much of fundamentalist Christian right) who feign support for Israel because it fits in with their own agendas.

    (2) Although it is clearly incorrect to describe AIPAC as a Jewish organisation, many right-wing Zionists claim that Zionism is an intrinsic part of Judaism, and hence (i) any Jew who is not a Zionist is a traitor / self-hating Jew; (ii) all Jews must be supportive of organisations such as AIPAC. So, it is hardly surprising that many people conflate Israel with Jews, if that is a myth that influential groups such as AIPAC are perpetuating.

  2. If, as you rightly say, groups like the English Defence League "feign support for Israel", then their support for Israel is just that, feigned - so they could still be critics of Israel, despite feigning not to be. It is reasonable to associate Israel with Jews, as Israel is a Jewish state. Just as it is reasonable to associate Pakistan with Muslims, as Pakistan is a Muslim state. But such an association, and criticism of the states concerned, never be a justification for antisemitism or islamophobia.