This article is based on remarks made during a webinar sponsored by Independent Jewish Voices - Vancouver, the IJV-Vancouver Youth Bloc, and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights at the University of British Columbia on October 8, 2020.
Anti-Semitism is hatred, hostility, prejudice or discrimination against Jews because they are Jews. It is a form of racism, akin to Islamophobia and hatred of people of Asian, African or Latinx descent.
The use of the word "Semite" in "anti-Semitism" gives the false impression that it is directed against all Semitic peoples, including Arabs. But the term originated in Germany in 1879, coined by Wilhelm Marr as a pseudo-scientific-sounding term to describe hatred of Jews. This has been how the expression has been used ever since.
Anti-Jewish prejudice had its origins in the conflict between Christianity and Judaism, when the church blamed Jews for the killing of Jesus. Since its inception, anti-Semitism has manifested itself in different ways, ranging from expressions of hatred of or discrimination against individual Jews to organized pogroms by mobs, the police or military forces against entire Jewish communities.
Anti-Semitism often flares up in times of social and economic crisis, when Jews are scapegoated as responsible for prevailing societal troubles.
Major instances of anti-Jewish violence and persecution include the Rhineland massacres that preceded the First Crusade in 1096, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the 1348-1351 persecution of Jews during the Black Death, the massacres of Spanish Jews in 1391, the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Cossack massacres in the Ukraine from 1648 to 1657, anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dreyfus affair in France, and the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War.
Anti-Semitism is a societal ill that should be combatted by progressive activists for the same reason that they resist all forms of racism and discrimination.
Zionism is an ideology which arose in the late 19th century in Central and Eastern Europe in reaction to recurring waves of anti-Semitic violence. It espouses the establishment of and support for a Jewish state in Palestine as a means of escaping this scourge.
Initially, Zionism was highly unpopular among Jews, who saw it as undermining the legitimacy of their claim to citizenship in the countries where they already resided. When the British government came out in support of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine via the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the prevailing Jewish rejection was captured by the detailed, articulate denunciation of the idea by Edwin Montagu, a Jewish member of the British government of the day.
It wasn't until the Holocaust that the notion of the establishment of a Jewish state which could serve as a refuge from anti-Semitism became widely accepted among Jews and Zionism became dominant in their ranks.
Ever since then, romanticized, idealized visions of a Jewish state have been promoted in Jewish communities and institutions. The impact that the creation and maintenance of such a state would have on the Indigenous people who were already living in Palestine has been ignored by the proponents of the idea.
In recent decades, however, there has been a growing awareness of the reality of Zionism and its devastating impact on Palestinians. Instead of addressing the related issues, however, Israel and its defenders have chosen to smear those who criticize the country's apartheid political system which institutionalizes discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens and its occupation of Palestinian lands, by conflating criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism.
The growing strength of international campaigns in solidarity with Palestine along with the rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, has generated considerable concern in Israel and in the ranks of its Zionist supporters.
Israel has gone so far as to create a government ministry to wage war on the BDS movement. Deploying hasbara (a Hebrew term literally meaning "information" but in practice propaganda), it mounts propaganda campaigns to whitewash the actions of the Israeli state. Much of this involves branding of criticism of Israel as manifestations of anti-Semitism.
In the past couple of years, this strategy has been aggressively promoted through the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which has adopted a definition of anti-Semitism that focuses overwhelmingly on criticisms of Israel.
The goal of those who promote it is to have activities such as BDS condemned as manifestations of anti-Semitism and to subject those who engage in them to legal sanctions. I am proud to say that our organization, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, has embraced BDS as a totally legitimate tactic and is playing a leading role, both nationally and internationally, in opposing the outrageous IHRA initiative.
Ironically and dangerously, at a time when real anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head in the world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other prominent Zionists have embraced outright anti-Semites like Donald Trump and Victor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, because these same people are enthusiastic supporters of Israel!
In conclusion, there are two essential points to make here: first, it is essential for all of us to oppose anti-Semitism the way we oppose all forms of racism. Second, we must not allow the crucially important struggle for justice for Palestine to be impeded by the deceptive misuse of the term.
A founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, Sid Shniad spent nearly 30 years working as a staffer for the Telecommunications Workers Union in British Columbia. He is affiliated with Independent Jewish Voices Canada -- Vancouver. He has been an activist all his life.
Image: Taylor Brandon/Unsplash
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