Drawing the line: Free speech and Israel

By Jonty Bayliss

Society has been so slow to recognise and condemn the use of criticism of Israel as an unconvincing disguise of anti-Semitism. The Labour Party’s recent anti-semitism scandals suggest this is a problem across the political spectrum.

Partly, the failure to see anti-Semitism as equivalently repugnant as other forms of bigotry is the effect of narratives of privilege: not being perceived as under-represented in politics or business, Jewish people are seen by some on the left as too powerful to be victims of prejudice.

Israel’s 55 opposition MPs can do a perfectly good job of criticising government policy.

However, some see criticism of Israel as a particular grey area. Is this merely a mask or legitimate free speech? Take the latest in the Labour Party’s long queue anti-Semitism scandals. The party dithered over omitting four contemporary examples of anti-Semitism from its own internal rules, in order to protect the freedom of speech for critics of Israel.

When it finally accepted the definition in full, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tried to add a caveat that “It should not be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel…as racist”. This was rejected. The eventual text approved by the NEC stated that the Labour anti-Semitism policy will not “undermine freedom of expression on Israel…”. In other words, those accused of anti-Semitism within the country’s largest political party could claim they were merely exercising their freedom of speech.

Just picking on the one explicitly Jewish state and opposing its very existence is anti-Semitic.

One of the four examples the party considered omitting was to expect higher moral standards of Israel. This goes to the heart of how anti-Semitism derives from criticism of Israel: the same criticisms are not made of any other states. People call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions for Israel alone on phones made in the democratic, rights-respecting and peaceful utopia of China – that’s what Corbyn might call English irony. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has 55 opposition MPs (of 120) who can do a perfectly good job of criticising the policies of the Israeli government without novices from Islington CLP adding their two cents.  

Yes, those who advocate for peace and human rights can criticise the policies of the Israeli government of the day, if those policies warrant criticism. But just picking on the one explicitly Jewish state and going so far as opposing its very existence is anti-Semitism—and no amount of free speech can disguise that.

Image: Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

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