A key objective of the Israeli State is to appear to be a normal state, one adhering to the modalities and conventions associated with a legitimate political entity. Because Israel, in vitally significant ways, does not in fact conform to those modalities and conventions, it must therefore expend much energy and money directed towards creating and sustaining what is, fundamentally, a false image. The problem with falsity, however, is that it is only effective for as long as the veneer of falsehood is maintained. Such maitenance requires much effort.
This is the first of two articles, the second to be published next Monday, 28 December. This first one discusses Israel’s strenuous efforts to appear a normal democratic state and the way it has deployed accusations of anti-Semitism to intimidate its critics. The next article will pursue this theme showing how our – the UK and the West’s – commitment to democratic values and free speach are endangered by an over-strident Israel lobby. This post is about a five minute read.
A key objective of the Israeli State is to appear to be a normal state, one adhering to the modalities and conventions associated with a legitimate political entity. Because Israel, in vitally significant ways, does not in fact conform to those modalities and conventions, it must therefore expend much energy and money directed towards creating and sustaining what is, fundamentally, a false image. The problem with falsity, however, is that it is only effective for as long as the veneer of falsehood is maintained. Such maintenance requires much effort.
The mechanism deployed by Israel both to eulogise its purported achievements and to intimidate its actual and potential critics is called hasbara.
Hasbara is propaganda directed at an international audience. It aims to influence the conversation so that Israel is portrayed in a positive light. Israel well understands the power of media and works assiduously to shape and direct the narrative on Palestine/Israel matters. Such is the importance that Israel accords to propaganda that there is a Hasbara Ministry, headed by a government minister.
Hasbara, then, is well resourced, sophisticated and unrelenting. Israel-critical voices are demonised as anti-Semitic, a point I shall return to below. Palestinian voices and perspectives are erased or vilified. Mainstream western media is shamefully complicit in the marginalisation of Palestinian perspectives.
Hasbara and its local helpmates
To be effective, hasbara must work through locally based groups and organisations – some very influential – who expend much energy patrolling the boundary of what they consider to be acceptable speech about Israel. However, to have extensive reach, upwards towards government and national institutions, and downwards towards local government and civil society – for example football clubs and university student unions – requires a self-reinforcing, unifying theme, one that, superficially at least, appears manifestly, incontrovertibly, both necessary and true.
In a move of tactical brilliance, it was realised that a highly effective way of intimidating and demonising critical voices was to accuse Israel-critical and Zionist-critical individuals and groups of anti-Semitism. And, indeed, the tactic has been highly effective to the extent that even Jews can be accused of anti-Semitism, which certainly puzzles many of us.
Nevertheless, one would normally expect a degree of caution, not to say scepticism, to be brought to bear when assessing the validity of anti-Semitism charges if only because they are so promiscuously deployed. But no, to be charged is to be guilty, and through a process of demonization critical voices are silenced, hounded and marginalised.
Israel-critical and Zionist-critical analysis and speech is curtailed, in part through self-censorship born of the fear of being publicly vilified; and in part because the platforms – the halls, venues, papers, social media sites – available for speech are withdrawn and access debarred. There is a chilling hint here of the Salem witch-hunts whereby certain actions and forms of speech are deemed heretical and must at all costs be both punished and silenced.
Within its own terms, witch hunting has an underpinning rationale which, once accepted, forms the basis of the accusations that follow. One approach was to test the accused’s ability to flawlessly recite a New Testament biblical passage or the Lord’s Prayer. Stumble over a word or words, and the witchcraft charge is confirmed, for only the maliciously deviant are so far from god’s grace that holy words become unspeakable.
Spurious authority: Working definition of anti-Semitism and examples
And so it is that Israel advocates seized on a profoundly weak document – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) flawed and muddled ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism – as the basis for accusations of anti-Semitism. And, via this vehicle, a closed system of thought was instituted based on the assertion that almost all critical speech and writing about Israel and Zionism is, in and of itself, anti-Semitic.
The IHRA’s non-legally binding, working defintion of anti-Semitism:
‘Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’
In the same way as scripture, new or old testament, has an accompanying body of commentary to help elucidate the meaning of the sacred texts, the ‘definition’ had appended to it a concoction of notional ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism to illuminate potential areas of misspeak; that is, where anti-Semitic utterance could be said to have occurred.
Nothing to do with anti-Semitism
But the actual purpose of the IHRA’s so called definition, and a significant number of its notional elucidating examples, have little or nothing to do with countering anti-Semitism but has everything to do with erasing knowledge of Israel’s brutal fifty-two year occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, to say nothing of the discrimination Palestinians face within Israel (i.e. as distinct from the occupied territories).
The tactic here is to weld criticism of Israel to a self-serving set of examples that link Israel-critical and Zionist-critical comment to anti-Semitism, thereby neutering negative comment and analysis, and condemning the critic to obloquy.
There are six highly questionable examples which it is claimed may constitute anti-Semitism. The full list can be found here. For now, I’ll concentrate on only one:
‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’
In 2018 the Israel Knesset (Parliament) passed the ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’. Extracts are given below in italics.
The law’s title actually says it all: Israel is the Nation-State of the Jewish people. This further clarified in the clause:
‘The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.’
Palestinians and non-Jews comprise around 20% of the Israeli population but only Jews have the ‘unique’ right to self-determination. ‘Unique’ equals ‘exclusively.
Only Jewish immigration, not Palestinian. Palestinian’s have no right to immigrate – or ‘return’ – to Palestine/Israel. This particularly affects the approximately 750,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were effectively expelled from their homes and country in the 1948 Naqba ethnic cleansing by the nascent Jewish State.
‘The state’s language is Hebrew not Arabic.
Notwithstanding around a 20% Arab population.
‘The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.’
Note the development is of Jewish settlement. The settlements, properly called colonies, are situated on stolen (West Bank) or illegally annexed (East Jerusalem) land. The theft of Palestinian land is carried out with the aid of JCB British, militarised bulldozers, the Israel Defence Forces, and Israeli Border Police. This process continues and in fact has recently been significantly stepped up. Israel does this with impunity.
Notwithstanding any other indicators that define Israel a racist endeavour, surely the Basic Law clauses set out above confirm that the current State of Israel’s very foundations are racist, and it acts accordingly.
Does what I have said here constitute the offence of anti-Semitism?
Next week’s article will discuss the real and present danger current hasbara practices represent to free speech and the need for a unified front against all forms of racism, not simply anti-Semitism. This is both an ethical point, and a pragmatic one.