Richard Silverstein on Theresa May’s move on antisemitism

Theresa May’s announcement that the government was formally adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism split commenters down predictable lines. David Hirsh supported the move – do read his post here – whereas Ben White cautioned it would prove counterproductive. And the most hostile reactions on Twitter combined to display just about every antisemitic trope identified by the IHRA.

One of the longer responses is this piece by Richard Silverstein which addresses both the UK move and the US’s Antisemitism Awareness Act. I felt it demanded to be unpicked – I won’t attempt to cover every point, but I’m sure commenters will go on to fill in the gaps.

After agreeing that antisemitism exists and should be resisted, he continues:

But here’s where I part company with the institutional Jewish community.  If you were to poll Jews about their priorities in life and issues that most concern them, anti-Semitism would be very far down the list.

I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make – or combat – here. Your main worries might well be to do with work, health or family – but you could still be very concerned about antisemitism and indeed strongly support a capacious definition which recongizes the ‘new’ antisemitism. He goes on:

Of course, members of all religions react with great concern to threats to their co-religionists.  That is understandable.  But Jews aren’t the only religion under threat: true, Jews have been attacked by Islamists in Europe and places like Turkey.  But Coptic Christians were attacked by ISIS in Egypt this week and Rohingya Muslims have been ethnically cleansed by Burmese Buddhists for several years.  Jews in today’s world don’t have a monopoly on victimhood.  But the organized Jewish community acts as if it does.  As if they own the field of religious hatred and are the only victims, or at least the only ones who really matter, because of our past suffering in the Holocaust.

This is highly tendentious. Rene Cassin supports those working on anti-Roma prejudice and the CST has supported Tell MAMA, to give just two examples.  Of course Silverstein is US based, but I’d be surprised if there were no parallel examples of cooperation there.  And Jews are disproportionately represented as victims of hate crime in both the USA and the UK.  He criticises the ADL and AJC because they are predicated on antisemitism – I wonder if he has ever targeted CAIR for similar disapproval.

He goes on to assert that Israel has replaced other aspects of Jewish culture, including Judaism, as a key marker of Jewish identity.  This immediately put me in mind of the Tricycle Theatre’s threatened withdrawal from the Jewish Film Festival in 2014 because of the presence of Israeli embassy funding. The 2016 programme advertises films from twenty countries – perhaps it’s less the Jewish community than Israel’s indefatigable opponents who obsess about the country. Although of course Israel is of importance to many Jews, not surprisingly given that about half the world’s Jewish population is based there.  This brings me to another of Silverstein’s points – that there is a dangerous conflation between Israel and Jewishness.

How do you embrace the claim by the Likudist far-right that Iran aims to destroy not just Israel, but the entire Jewish people?  Especially when the Iranians have never made such a sweeping claim?

I’ve never come across the Likudist claim cited, but it’s certainly not too much of a stretch to see any threat to annihilate Israel as motivated by genocidal antisemitism.

There’s an annoying slippage here:

That is why the Israel Lobby has worked so diligently to insinuate criticism of Israel as a primary tenet of anti-Semitism.  That is why the current far-right Israeli government repeats the smear that BDS is not just anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic.

For BDS is not simply ‘criticism of Israel’, and the IHRA definition of course explicitly states that criticism of Israel is not, unless accompanied by some aggravating circumstance, antisemitic.

Finally – although there’s more that could be said – this is a particularly perverse question.

How do you stand against acts of terror by Islamists aimed at Jews, when the terrorists believe that in attacking Jews they are also attacking Israel?

If Jews have to disavow Israel to be defended against terrorist attacks – where does this leave Israeli victims of terrorism?