When an Anti-Semite is Not an Anti-Semite

What do Einstein, Mahatma Ghandi, Ehud Olmert and, yes, me all have in common? We could each be censured for racism according to the European Union Monitoring Centre’s ‘working definition of anti-Semitism’ which was last week adopted by the UK’s National Union of Students as official policy.

This definition has lately been sweeping all before it, taking endorsements everywhere from the All Party Parliamentary Report on anti-Semitism to the US state department’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism. The British government has pledged to re-examine its own definition of anti-Semitism if the EUMC’s successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency, ratifies the new lingua franca.

So it’s actually a bit shocking to discover that it was largely drafted by a pro-Israel advocate who gives talks on how to elide the distinction between anti-Zionism and Jew Hatred. Kenneth Stern is the American Jewish Committee’s expert on anti-Semitism and in ‘Defining Anti-Semitism’, a paper published by Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute, he explained how he developed the working definition ‘along with other experts’ in the second half of 2004.

Significantly, it involved crunching religious and racial hatred of Jews with what he labelled ‘political’ anti-Semitism. This latter, he claimed, has been ‘otherwise known in recent years as anti-Zionism, which treats Israel as the classic Jew’. Political anti-Semites could thus include, for example, those who ‘seek to disqualify Israel from equal membership in the community of nations’, presumably by means of boycott initiatives. Naturally, comparing Israel to Apartheid-era South Africa is also, within Kenneth Stern’s framework, ‘an expression of antisemitism’.

His organisation, the AJC boasts that during the consultation period, the EUMC accepted its invitation from them to convene a consultation over the working definition. Unlike some of the other Jewish contributors to the consultation process, the AJC’s mission statement lists building support for ‘Israel’s quest for peace and security’ and countering ‘the treatment of Israel at the United Nations’ among its most pressing concerns. But Stern seems to be particularly interested in discrediting anti-Zionism. The flyer for a meeting on ‘Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism’ he is giving next month, says he will be addressing the question: ‘What are the essential ingredients of strategies to combat anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism both here and abroad?’

At the risk of sounding flip, I’d say that persuading policy makers to blur the difference between the two in their working definition might be a good start. The EUMC ended up doing precisely this. ‘Anti-Semitism’, its report began, ‘is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred’. Such a perception could include stereotypical or dehumanising libels about, for example: “The power of Jews as a collective – such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”

But it could also include a litany of lobbyist shibboleths, such as:

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor); Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation… Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

Jewish peace activists have always baulked at this last point, dissociating themselves from war crimes committed in their names. Sadly, Ehud Olmert was not so circumspect when, on July 7, he told the United Jewish Communities that the invasion of Lebanon was ‘a war fought by all the Jews’.

By the new standard though, it might be an anti-Semitic ‘double standard’ to single him out for criticism when the hateful words of the former Indian leader, Mahatma Ghandi, are still being taught in British schools. In 1938, Ghandi said he believed that ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.’ Thus might he disbar himself from speaking at a British college today.

Einstein though would really bomb. After the Deir Yassin massacre that killed more than 250 Palestinian civilians in 1948, he signed a letter to the New York Times describing the Herut Party (a.k.a Likud) as ‘closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties’. Its then-leader (and Israel’s future prime minister) Menachem Begin, represented ‘fascist elements’ in Israel, and his party had ‘openly preached the doctrine of the fascist state’. So Einstein, would flunk the EUMC’s ‘comparing Israeli policy to the Nazis’ test.

But even higher forces than Einstein could fall foul of the Stern exam. After all, in Leviticus 25:23, God instructed Moses to tell the Jewish people that ‘the land is mine; you are but tenants and travellers’. What was this if not denying the Jewish people the right to their self-determination? Haul Him up before the AJC, Kenneth.

The terrible irony of all this is that, on its current policy platform, the British National Party might have few problems with the working definition. During the Lebanon War, for example, Lee Barnes, the BNP’s head of legal affairs wrote on the party’s website that

‘As a Nationalist I can say that I support Israel 100% in their dispute with Hezbollah. In fact, I hope they wipe Hezbollah off the Lebanese map and bomb them until they leave large greasy craters in the cities where their Islamic extremist cantons of terror once stood.’

So Lee Barnes would pass the EUMC test. By comparison, Jewish anti-Zionists (such as myself) who have been physically attacked by leading members of the BNP and subjected to anti-Semitic campaigns could face censure or worse. How have we come to this?

Certainly, some Palestinians talk about ‘Yehuds’ in a derogatory fashion, cite libellous texts without forethought and make foolish statements about the Holocaust. But that’s what happens to language when you step on someone’s throat. Black victims of segregation in the Deep South talked about ‘honky’s’ and Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam preached that an evil scientist called Yaqub created white people in a test tube experiment that went wrong. This did not make them racists, because racism usually describes a concrete set of power relations, more than it does an abstract collection of prejudices.

Of course, power relations can themselves be murky. When lunatic fringes of the pro-Palestinian movement try to forge alliances with neo-Nazis by blurring the distinction between Jews and Zionists, they should be opposed. But doing this is made much more difficult by Zionist ideologues and Brussels bureaucrats who, for different reasons, blur exactly the same distinctions, only more effectively. That’s why no-one should be intimidated from challenging them over their atrocious new guidelines.

To paraphrase the old joke about feminists: How many pro-Israel lobbyists does it take to change the working definition of a lightbulb? One, and it’s not anti-Semitic to say so.

ARTHUR NESLEN is a journalist working in Tel Aviv. The first Jewish employee of Aljazeera.net and a four-year veteran of the BBC, Neslen has contributed to numerous periodicals over the years, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and Red Pepper. His first book, Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli psyche, was recently published by Pluto Press.