CST Blog

Shut Up Jewish Israelis (And go back to Poland...or to Auschwitz)

8 June 2010

As so often, a controversy involving Israel has exposed the widespread conceit that anti-Israel hostility and antisemitism are two distinct phenomena. While they are certainly not the same thing, the border between them is frequently porous.

In this instance, the controversy concerns Israel’s seizure of boats heading for Gaza: and specifically the killing by Israeli commandos of 8 Turks and 1 American-Turk on a Turkish vessel in international waters.

The lessons regarding antisemitism, however, come from two very different places. One is the bridge of one of the boats; and the other is the front row of the White House press corps.

From the bridge of one of the boats, came this response to the Israeli Navy’s request that it alter its course:

Shut up. Go back to Auschwitz.

From the White House press corps, veteran reporter Helen Thomas (who for decades sat centre front in the White House press room) gave this response to an interviewer from rabbilive.com, who asked her if she had “any comments on Israel”:

Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

When asked if she had “any better comments than that”, Thomas replied:

Remember, these people are occupied and its their land, not Germany, not Poland.

And then Thomas answered where Israelis “should go”:

 Go home. Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.  

In both instances, the protagonists fundamentally relate to Israelis as Jews. This is the kind of elemental linkage that exposes the futility of the many people who glibly repeat the mantra that anti-Israel hatred and antisemitism are two distinct phenomena. In philosophical theory, you could separate the two; but in the real world, it hardly ever happens.

For the sake of clarity and to avoid possible misrepresentation, this is most certainly not to say that the scrutiny and attitude to Israel displayed across Europe by everyone from the Guardian to Greek anarchists is antisemitic. Rather, it is to point out that those who, at root, regard modern day Israelis as displaced, or colonising, Jews, risk going down an antisemitic track that begins with ‘get the hell out of Palestine’ and moves seamlessly into ‘go back to Poland’. (Of course, the more that ‘go back to Poland’ then becomes 'go back to Auschwitz', the more antisemitic the track becomes.)

The sense of being unfairly persecuted lies deep within many Jewish and Israeli psyches. This has profound emotional and political impacts, for if such Jews (either Israeli or not) hear the words “shut up” or “go back to Poland”, then many of them will interpret those words as somehow meaning, “Go back to Auschwitz”. This engenders a siege mentality that entrenches Jewish and Israeli fears and makes the prospects for peace even more distant. It also reduces the likelihood that Diaspora Jews will publicly criticise Israel, as is now systematically demanded of them by the anti-Israel lobby.

It is hard to envisage anyone on the anti-Israel left in Britain and Europe telling Jews, even Israeli ones, to “go back to Auschwitz”. However, their enthusiasm for the first part of the sentence, “Shut up”, is a crucially important marker of just how distant from mainstream Jewish perspectives, much of the British and European left’s position has become.

At the forefront, you have the trade unions that publicly refuse to even speak with their Israeli counterparts. How long will it be before they also refuse to speak to those local Jews whom they suspect of being on Israel’s side? Indeed, isn’t this where we are largely at already, for example with the University and College Union’s contemptuous attitude to Jewish communal fears about antisemitism?

At least in America, the White House Correspondents Association condemned Helen Thomas for her comments and her agent dropped her like a hot potato latke. It is practically impossible to imagine the National Union of Journalists reacting in the same way here in the UK, where hostility to Israel has reached such “shut up” proportions that if you couch antisemitism in anti-Israel terms, then you are far more likely be resolutely defended against Jewish (or Zionist) complaints, than to be called for what you really are.

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