Who can make the call on anti-semitism?

Jun 17, 2024

The Holocaust was racist genocide of an unprecedented scale of industrial organisation. The ensuing term Never Again applies to all humankind and resonates with Jewish conceptions of justice. This moral value is now in jeopardy, impacting on Australians of conscience.

October 7 changed the national conversation. Now a range of pundits have positioned themselves as experts by standing with Israel, despite the atrocities inflicted on the people of Gaza. We witness their condemnation of those who denounce the slaughter of innocents, with unconscionable recourse to the label of antisemite. Included are allegations levelled at the increasing number of Jews calling for adherence to human rights norms and canons of decency, who receive such derogatory labels as self-hating Jew that is not only coined to offend, but also to silence.

Speaking up against racism is arguably everyone’s responsibility. It is possible that massacres and genocidal practices might have been averted if people had not turned away, Holocaust included. Yet the narrative has changed from Zionist groups advancing the cause to a range of state and non-state actors which in Australia includes politicians, media, university administrators, legislators and right-wing groups. Perpetrators of racist homilies now make claims to moral authority in denouncing vilification of Jews. No-one asked them to do so, but their words and deeds have proved fruitful for the uncompromising Zionist lobby and supporters, in the amplification of isolated incidents as systemic.

Competing views of descendants of those who experienced pogroms and the Holocaust are negated by one-sided voices. Sharing a background does not determine a singular belief. Nor does it give licence to those professing to speak for all Australian Jewry. Their public declarations of support for Israel’s deeds do not hold sway with those who are troubled by a Zionist project that unwaveringly defends Israel’s heinous actions and privileges Jewish suffering over that of others. By way of example, eminent scholar Peter Singer recounts his personal experience of the Holocaust while pointing out that along with other Australian Jews he relinquished his right of return to Israel for its racist foundation when such a right is not afforded to Palestinians.

Why have less authentic voices risen without reference to the multiplicity of Jewish viewpoints? Unrelated ideologies and global alliances are invisible perpetrators. They include those who unconditionally support Israel and its biggest supporter the United States, those who profit from arms sales to the industrial-military complex of the state of Israel, those who profess to be anti-woke in their denial of injustices and Christian fundamentalist groups who subscribe to the Never Again is Now campaign. Under the cover of free speech, purveyors of racist othering have joined the motley pro-Israel alliance. Their utterings might benefit propagandists in the short term but are discordant for the nation and likely to incite increased antisemitism. Non-Jewish protagonists can walk away but Jews from all walks of life are left with the fallout. We should not have to be constantly defensive.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism has been explosive by enabling the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. It contributes to stigmatising those who critically scrutinise Israel’s policies.

A drift toward antisemitism rhetoric is antagonistic to those who support human rights and human responses to the tragedy in Gaza. There is a constant call to tone down language, but words matter and if discomfort is caused then it might be a wakeup call to those who uncritically align with dominant discourses. Whether it’s denunciation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) or a mere letter to an editor by a compassionate citizen, no entity or individual ought to be publicly shunned for their views, have their international standing diminished, lose friends, have their jobs put at risk.

Long-standing appeals to Israel to end the occupation have resulted in lawful forms of protest such as the BDS movement, calls for corporations and universities to divest from projects that collaborate with the IDF, and shipping embargoes. As pointed out by the Jewish Council of Australia, protests are legitimate expressions of support for Palestinians who are facing overwhelming levels of violence and displacement. Raymond Gaita shows how conversations can be turned around by thinking of civil disobedience as an act of civic friendship.

The term ‘unsafe’ has entered the lexicon of Jewish students on campus and captured by the leadership of universities. Most certainly, everyone should feel safe, but this euphemism is one of bad faith. Feeling unsafe is more about being discomforted by certain truths and wishing to cover up. Punitive actions have unleashed for scholars abroad, including those with Australian connections, resulting in the demise of voices of thoughtful and compassionate academics standing up for justice. The question arises as to who makes these decisions and if they are made in consultation with Jews, who is represented at the decision-making table? Moreover, where is factchecking to identify what is truth and what is distortion used to advance dubious argumentation?

It may be idealistic to say so, but I hold onto hope that most people are committed to peace even if they do not join social movements or fully understand the basis of the conflict. In order to tackle the rupture that tears out our hearts, we need to smash the binary of ‘with us or against us’ that shrouds the meaning of antisemitism. The voices of those who are unequivocal in condemning the violence of 7 October while reproaching the disproportionate response to the events, recognise all human suffering and is a start to a dialogical pathway to peace.

Jews can no longer stand by while distortions of antisemitism are invoked in our name. The refrain of Never Again must return to its true meaning.

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