Thursday, November 14, 2013

Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

It’s the debate that seems to rage continually in political discourse, the media, on online forums, university campuses and in Jewish communal circles. It has been going on for some time, it has led to diplomatic incidents, court cases, tribunals, verbal insults and physical violence, and no small measure of psychological distress. It’s fraught with political tension, it’s littered with innuendo, and it’s extraordinarily divisive. Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

In many respects, the question has become rather hackneyed, and tends to yield a sense of exasperation among many, so I raise it with a considerable degree of caution. But the recently published results of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) survey of discrimination and hate crime against Jews in EU Member States, conducted by the research team at JPR in partnership with Ipsos MORI, sheds new and important light on it, that ought to be brought to bear when discussing the question in future.

The survey is the largest ever conducted of Jews in Europe. It covers the Jewish populations of nine EU Member States, which, collectively, are home to over 90% of Europe’s Jews. It was conducted in eleven languages, thereby allowing optimum opportunity for all to participate. It was undertaken as part of the FRA’s efforts to survey minority populations across Europe, and is designed to be used by policy makers at all levels – European, national and local – to inform anti-racism policy going forward.

Because it is extremely difficult to create a common sampling frame for Jews in each of the countries surveyed, the researchers could not use random probability sampling for the survey. Whilst this means that further work is required to determine whether the percentages reported in the FRA’s report can be generalised to the Jewish populations of Europe as a whole, the academic team responsible for the survey is clear that the results broadly reflect the communally-involved and engaged sections of the populations.

So what did it find? Respondents were presented with fourteen statements, and asked about the extent to which they would consider them antisemitic if expressed by, or observed in the behaviour of, someone who is not Jewish. The response scheme was “Yes, definitely”; “Yes, probably”; “No, probably not”; “No, definitely not”; and “Don’t know.” The statements included various common antisemitic canards, as well as more ambiguous attitudes and ideas. Among the fourteen statements tested was one which asked the Jewish respondents if they would consider a non-Jewish person antisemitic if he or she “criticises Israel.”

Interestingly, it came bottom of the list. Across the eight countries reported, two-thirds of respondents said criticism of Israel is either “probably not” or “definitely not” antisemitic. The proportions varied slightly from country to country, but in no country did a majority feel it to be either definitely or probably antisemitic.

However, that’s not the end of the story. Other statements listed included comments related in some way to Israel or Israelis. Notably, respondents were asked to rate the statements “Israelis behave ‘like Nazis’ towards the Palestinians”, and “Supports boycotts of Israeli goods/products.” And, faced with these statements, the respondents reacted very differently. 81% of them considered the Israeli-Nazi parallel to be definitely or probably antisemitic, and 72% considered support for a boycott to be so. Whilst there is by no means unanimous agreement on either one, not least because both comments are, on occasion, voiced by Jews themselves, it is clear what the majority view is for respondents in every one of the countries investigated.

The implication is that most Jews surveyed appear to hold the view that whilst criticism of Israel is not antisemitic per se, it can become so when it is manifested in particular ways. In essence, criticism of the Israeli government is by no means off the table. Like any other government, the Israeli government should be held to account for its actions, as it is regularly by Israelis themselves in the country’s media, civil society and polling booths. But when the nature of that criticism tips over into these more hostile or aggressive realms, it is experienced as much more prejudicial.

In general terms, the survey found disturbingly high levels of anxiety and fear among Jews in Europe. Three-quarters of respondents feel that levels of antisemitism have increased over the past five years. Almost half are worried about falling victim to verbal insult or harassment. Two-thirds hide their Jewish identity – at least on occasion – because they are concerned about being identified as Jewish. Almost a third have contemplated emigrating. They are particularly concerned about antisemitism online and in the media, both of which they say have increased in recent years. The overarching impression is that they believe antisemitism is becoming more culturally acceptable in Europe, particularly in parts of the political left and parts of the Muslim population. And, not surprisingly, they’re worried.

It is totally unacceptable that any minority in twenty-first century Europe should feel like this. It’s probably even more unacceptable that Jews should feel like this given their history on the continent. Antisemitism has famously been described as “the longest hatred.” It has existed for at least two thousand years. It has led to forced conversions, expulsions, pogroms and genocide. It’s enough. Criticism of the Israeli government is legitimate; plenty of Israelis criticise it every day. But the vitriol around the criticism has to stop. It’s not solving the problem, it’s creating a new one.

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