The New Discourse on anti-Semitism

By Shafiq Morton – Cape Town

Those who criticize Israel or those who interrogate Zionism (the ism that gave birth to Israel) are often labeled “anti-Semitic” by the Zionist lobby. This lobby, a world-wide movement, is seen to be most influential in the United States where it vigorously defends the interests of Israel.

To view Israel unsympathetically means vilification by this group: it avows political critique is something that threatens the existence of all Jews. Yet, ironically, some of the most ardent critics of Israel have been Jews – academics and political liberals who have not denigrated their Jewishness in any way because of their conscience.

The truth is that the Jewish community (13, 3 million worldwide) is hardly a monolithic group that unquestioningly supports Israel’s policies. Studies by American academics, such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have graphically – if not uncomfortably – pointed to this.

In the multi-faceted Diaspora, it’s becoming evident – particularly since Gaza – that reservations have emerged about Zionist hasbara. This is the spin that suggests Israel is a country enjoying an exclusive right to be a victim, and that Israel can spurn international law because of this.

Often depicted as the “Israeli David” versus the “Arab Goliath”, the scenario is met in the Arab street with the comeback that the reverse is true. Israel has the deterrent of nuclear power and the best-equipped military in the Middle East. The Palestinians don’t even have generals.

The curse is that if a Jewish person breaks ranks with Israeli policy or Zionist ideology on humanitarian or political grounds, he or she becomes “self-loathing”. This is similar to Islamic extremism, which deems that I’m a hypocrite if I don’t subscribe to its edicts.

But as Not in My Name founder Steven Feuerstein has explained: “We criticize Israel because of, not in spite of, our Jewish values.”

One wonders then what people such as Professor Judah Magnes, founder of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, would think of today’s situation. He warned over 50 years ago of the dangers of nationalist Zionism becoming an “idol” of the Jewish people.

This is the peril of ideology being the sole medium of a nation’s socio-political discourse. The result is that the mores of humanity, and faith, are minimized. Ideology, often a virulent form of nationalism, is elevated to the altar of the black-white absolute. This is exactly where these isms become idolatrous extremes unto themselves.

In 2009 the ethos of the Zionist voice “being everywhere and saying the same thing” (as suggested by James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute) has seen Zionism becoming the demi-god of anti-Jewish conspiracy. The mantra of a “Jew behind every bush” happens precisely because the lobbyists have created this monster themselves.

This leads to the question: can the development of 21st century anti-Semitism be traced directly back to the lobbyists, to their total obeisance to Israel?

What role have organizations such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the international Zionist Congresses played in bringing the anti-Semitic house down on not only themselves, but possibly all Jews?

My response would be that they have played a hugely significant role. That and the nagging intransigence of Israel – a political reality, yes – but nevertheless a state in as much need of moral introspection and political rectitude as her dictatorial and corrupt Arab neighbours.

It’s my belief that conspiracy has led to a totally new discourse on anti-Semitism. And whilst I’m in agreement with a number of Jewish scholars that the nature of anti-Semitism might have changed, it’s obvious that I already differ on its dynamics.

For example, Canadian MP Professor Irwin Cotler – co-founder of the inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism – would most likely be aghast at my idea that the growth of 21st century anti-Semitism could ever be self-inflicted.

However, I do agree with him on a point made in the Jerusalem Post (24 February 2009) that anti-Semitism has shifted from Jewish people in host societies to Israel. But where I would wholly disagree is that Israel – the so-called “collective Jew” – is an innocent victim still seeking acceptance in the world of nations. 

Prof Cotler cannot wish away historical truths, such as the 1948 Nakba. This is the Palestinian catastrophe, one that caused two-thirds of the indigenous Arab population to be displaced. The Professor has to concede that the painful legacy of the Nakba is still unresolved after 60 fractious years.

He also has to concede that even the Israeli bete-noire, Hamas, has acknowledged the reality of Israel: for why has it spoken of a truce based on 1967 borders? And if Hamas is anti-Semitic due to its disavowal of the Zionist state, then it must be mentioned that Likud’s manifesto refuses to acknowledge Palestinian statehood too.

Coherent criticisms against the policies of Zionism – as we’ve already said – are concerns about humanitarian and socio-political issues in the Zionist state, not Judaism. There is a vital distinction. Zionism is a man-made, political system that cannot be exempt from scrutiny.

In his Jerusalem Post article Prof Cotler says that contemporary anti-Semitism is “the canary in the mineshaft of evil” and identifies three kinds: genocidal, ideological and legalized.

Prof Cotler writes that the most “lethal” type of modern anti-Semitism is genocidal. It manifests itself in three forms: state-sanctioned (Iran), in movement charters (Hamas) and in religious writs (fatwas) where “Death to Israel” takes on real meaning.

The second type is ideological. Here the Prof argues that it “disguises” itself as part of the struggle against racism. He expresses discomfort at Zionism being equated with racism, and with Israel being labeled an “Apartheid” or “Nazi” state”. These he sees as tools of ideological anti-Semitism.

The third category is legalized anti-Semitism, where all of the above join to de-legitimize and to actively seek out Israel “for differential and discriminatory treatment in the international arena”.

And whilst I find Prof Cotler’s points interesting, if not contentious, my departure point is more the language of the discourse, rather than his fears – real or imagined.

For like Abraham Weizfeld, a Canadian-based Jewish activist, I believe that the “inflated language” currently used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become thoroughly demeaning.

As he points out, the fear-mongering of Israel’s Deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, that Hamas rockets would bring a second “Shoa” (Holocaust) upon the people of Gaza, hardly justified it becoming an extended metaphor.

The subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza saw violations of the Geneva Convention and possible war crimes, but it was not a “Holocaust”. Calling Gaza a “Holocaust”, he said, was not even useful. Rather than illustrating what happened, it thoroughly degraded the Palestinian cause.

Indeed, in the Middle East I’ve seen “inflated” language detract from the real concerns, thus allowing politicians to avoid the hard questions and for the issues to become clouded with emotionalism.

For example, a Palestinian figure shouting “Jewish pigs”, the “disciples of Satan” and “Nazis” is hardly indulging in constructive political oratory. However, can Menachim Begin proclaiming that Yasser ‘Arafat is “a beast with hair”, or Yitzak Shamir pronouncing that Arabs are a “plague of locusts”, be regarded as any less publicly anti-Semitic?

In my own personal experience, the above kind of Middle East tête-à-tête has had horrific consequences. The language of anti-Semitism can be a deadly, double-edged sword.

When the late Hamas leader, Dr ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Rantisi, told me in an interview that suicide was forbidden in Islam, but that “when they [the Israelis] stop killing our children, we’ll stop killing theirs,” I was shocked.

But then Dan Halutz, a former IDF chief-of-staff, had refused in Ha’aretz newspaper to call Palestinians “innocent civilians”, bizarrely persisting with “uninvolved civilians” instead. His chilling reply to innocent bystanders being killed in Israeli operations was almost identical to Rantisi’s:

“…I am very sorry about innocent children who are killed. But anyone who sets out to murder children in Israel has to take into account that [his] children are liable to be killed [too]…”

After one particular visit to Palestine/Israel after the 2000 Intifada, I had had to seriously ask myself whether the conversation between the sons of Abraham had become so debased we now had justify killing children. I felt deeply that all of us had to disengage quickly from this hateful dialogue in the interest of lucid thought, and for the sake of future generations.

But how? It was a depressing moment. If people couldn’t even speak to each other, there was little hope. Through despair and self-doubt, I consulted the Qur’an. Had our anti-Jewish rhetoric and inflated language derived somewhere from creed?

The Holy Book mentions the Bani Isra’il, the Jews, more than twenty times. Qur’anic verses are interpreted according to two principles: ‘am (general) and khass (specific). General verses become rulings. Specific verses, which refer to specific historical instances, don’t.

The Qur’anic verses concerning Jews spoke of reminders of God, of favors, of broken covenants, of the consequences of disputing Sacred Law, of Moses and of the human condition. And more pertinently, the verses were overwhelmingly specific.

In other words, there was no Qur’anic decree permitting me to dishonor Jews. Together with Christians and ancient Sabians, they were to be regarded as “People of the Book”, a people worthy of esteem.

Prophetic example spoke only of the same. Muhammad [SAW] honored the Jewish tribes in Medina, his capital, and only acted against them when they broke pacts and agreements.

Traditions reveal that a young Jewish boy used to accompany Muhammad [SAW], that the Rabbi Mukhairiq fought with him in battle, that he married a Jewish woman and that even his suit of armor was borrowed from a Jew. And when a Jewish funeral bier passed by, he stood up out of respect, telling his Companions that the dead man was a son of Adam too.

A brief examination of Jewish commentary was equally illustrative. The Babylonian Talmud revealed that gentiles had to be honored by Jews. Poor gentiles had to receive charity and their sick had to be visited. Understood in proper context as an interpretation of G-d’s word, the Talmud evinced no hostility to Muslims (or Christians) whatsoever.

If the holy traditions spoke with such eloquent nobility, and if authentic religion was not the root of the problem, I had to ask what had gone wrong with Muslim-Jewish relations. What had fostered the inflated language of hatred and calumny so characterizing the discourse today? The sorry answer screamed from the page: political Zionism.

Prof Cotler was right. Israel had become the focus of anti-Semitism, but – as I’ve already explained – for reasons of self-imposed conspiracy and political obduracy on humanitarian issues. Yes, indeed, the canary is singing in the mineshaft of evil, but not for the reasons the honorable Prof Cotler thinks it is.

-Shafiq Morton is a Cape Town based photo-journalist, author and radio show host. He contributed this article to

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out