Zionism and the politics of suspicion

A photo taken at a demonstration for Palestine showing Palestinian flags and one Irish flag as well as a banner reading "End Israeli state terror" and below it one with a picture of Nelson Mandela with the words "End Apartheid Israel", "Boycott Israel" and the quote "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians".
Demonstration for Palestine, London, 15th May 2021

The “politics of suspicion” is a term often heard in Muslim circles: it means a culture in which people are held responsible for the deeds of those with the same beliefs as themselves, and assumed to support those deeds unless they publicly condemn it; often no amount of condemning will actually satisfy the demand, especially when people dare to mention oppressions or atrocities against their own people. Last week, as the violence in Israel and Gaza ratcheted up with Israeli settlers invading homes in the Sheikh Jerrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem (a district which, although founded by Jews in the 19th century, was awarded to Palestinian refugees by the United Nations in the 1940s when the area was under Jordanian rule after Arab neighbourhoods had been resettled by Jews), Israeli Jewish mobs attacking Israeli Palestinian businesses in mixed towns in Israel, Hamas firing rockets into Israel and Israel responding by bombing numerous civilian targets in Gaza including residential blocks and a tower block containing the offices of Al-Jazeera and Associated Press, I came across a thread purporting to be “top tips for people who want to support Palestinians in a non-antisemitic way”.

The first of them might seem pretty reasonable until you realise that Muslims have been under pressure to condemn al-Qa’ida, ISIS and any other group purporting to act in their name for decades and that Jewish writers and bloggers have often been prominent in advancing this narrative, going back at least to the explosion of racist pro-war blogs following 9/11. The difference is that, while there is no mainstream Muslim representative body that supports either of the groups mentioned, the mainstream community bodies of British Jewry, including the Board of Deputies, Community Security Trust and Union of Jewish Students, actually do support Israel and commonly issue statements that suggest that they are on Israel’s side, however many Palestinian civilian casualties there are. Only this morning, the BOD tweeted inviting people to join in a “community-wide campaign” under the slogan “no to rockets, yes to peace”. The narrative is that everything is Hamas’s fault, never Israel’s, and ‘peace’ has to be on Israel’s terms and consist of Palestinian submission to Israeli overlordship in return for a few pockets of limited self-rule (in the case of the West Bank, much less than the actual internationally-recognised occupied territory and none of the environs of Jerusalem). It has also been observed that some of the most extreme and fanatical settlers are recent migrants from western countries, particularly the United States, not refugees from places where Jews had been persecuted.

It cannot be a coincidence that both Israel’s armed forces and its thuggish settlers feel emboldened to escalate their violence just as international pressure has largely fallen away and the Palestinian natives are more friendless than they have ever been. In 2002 when Israel killed a number of innocent civilians while bombing a building where a Hamas commander was also present, US president George W Bush condemned the action and his spokesman called it “a heavy-handed action that is not consistent with dedication to peace in the Middle East”. This weekend, President Biden boasted that he had spoken with Netanyahu, “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza, and condemned these indiscriminate attacks against Israel”, without calling on Netanyahu (who has been accused of stoking this week’s violence) to in any way restrain himself or even condemning the attacks on foreign press agencies, much less Palestinian civilians. Palestine has become an unfashionable cause in the West; people are forced to tread on eggshells so as to avoid falling into some ‘trap’ and being labelled antisemitic.

In my experience going back decades, Palestine solidarity activists have always been quite scrupulous in making sure they do not blame the entire Jewish population for the acts of Israel’s military and settlers, but it is plain that politicians dance around it and will call it antisemitic to state facts; the Labour MP Lisa Nandy, for example, stated on TV that it was antisemitic to talk of “Israeli atrocities” when Israel routinely kills civilians in its bombing raids in Gaza as well as oppressing West Bank natives with its separation wall, its monopolisation of the water supply, its harassment of ordinary people going about their business, its invasions of people’s homes and numerous other violations of people’s basic rights. The Labour Party in particular have become cowardly since Jeremy Corbyn stepped down from the leadership. Meanwhile, the remaining Arab states have abandoned any pretence of opposing Israel; not stopping at normalising relations and even allowing it to be advertised as a holiday destination in Dubai, the UAE has refused work visas for people of Somali origin because Somalia itself retains a pro-Palestinian stance.

Besides the fact that we know that not all Jews support Israel, I have also seen Zionist activists call it antisemitic to “divide good Jews from bad Jews” by distinguishing those who support Israel and cheer on its attacks or at least smear those who support the native people’s rights from those who don’t. So it is a case of “heads I win, tails you lose”, whether this is their intention or not. To conclude, we all know that not all Jews support everything Israel does and that not everyone that does is Jewish, but its supporters worldwide have built a climate in which Israel can act as it wishes with no fear of any consequence by shouting down dissent again and again. If anyone does not like being associated with or blamed for Israel’s actions, they might like to reconsider their attitudes and put pressure on any organisations they feel represent them to stop acting in service of Israeli propaganda. With or without pressure from below, these organisations should really be considering the effect their public statements have on public perceptions of the community they claim to serve.

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