Though we resist oppression, still our dream is peace
Theirs is the mask of hatred, ours the human face
Then let not our suffering turn our souls to ice
So that we do to strangers what was done to us.
It is not with conquering armies I belong
Their bloody retribution I disown
Their songs of triumph I will never sing
For the god they worship turns them into stone.
If any teach their children how to hate and hurt
Though they are Jews they do not live inside my heart.
(From ‘The Song of Martin Fontasch’)
Jonathan Freedland’s article in the Guardian of Saturday 28 July (Jewish anger is about Labour’s failure to listen with empathy) is a good example of the devious arguments and outright lies used to defend the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the accusations being levelled against Corbyn and the Labour Party.
It starts with the obligatory reference to the Holocaust. This has no logical connection with his arguments but is designed to soften you up. It’s a kind of emotional blackmail. Cynical? Perish the thought. That Israel and its supporters have, since the war of 1967 when Israel began to lose control of the narrative, exploited the Holocaust to give Israel victim status and thus to shield it from criticism is a truism. Norman Finkelstein, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, has written a book about it called The Holocaust Industry. The former Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, was excoriated for saying: ‘The Israelis use the Holocaust: they use the murder of six million Jews to justify their murder of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians’. The accuracy of his observation, however, was not disputed.
But while the Holocaust has served as a shield to deflect attacks on Israel, actual Holocaust survivors can be more problematic. Some of them have inconvenient views. Dr Hajo Meyer, who died in 2014, is now at the centre of a media storm for having seen parallels between his own experience at the hands of the Nazis and the crimes committed against Palestinians under Israeli occupation. How odd that the mindless views of Margaret Hodge and her abusive accusations are somehow sanctified by the fact that some of her relatives were murdered by the Nazis while an actual Holocaust survivor is vilified and his experience negated. Clearly the wrong sort of Holocaust survivor.
But Dr Meyer is not alone. In March 2017, Marika Sherwood was due to give an open talk at Manchester University entitled A Holocaust survivor’s story and the Balfour Declaration: You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me. She commented: ‘I was just speaking of my experience of what the Nazis did to me as a Jewish child…. I can’t say I’m a Palestinian but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now’. After protests from the Israeli Embassy that this violated the IHRA definition, the University insisted the subtitle be removed, that academics chosen to chair the meeting should be replaced by university appointees and attendance limited to university students and staff. And in August 2014, a letter signed by 40 Holocaust survivors — including Dr Meyer — and 287 of their descendants was published in the NY Times. It condemned the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and called for a total boycott of Israel.
The Holocaust may have moved centre stage in the consciousness of the Jewish community but the appalling treatment by Israel of its Holocaust survivors is still a dirty secret. An estimated 60,000 survivors live below the poverty line in abysmal conditions. Germany has paid to the Israeli government nearly 80 billion dollars as reparation to Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution but much of that never reached individual Holocaust survivors. A recent report revealed that 20,000 survivors in Israel have never received the government support due to them.
For Dora Roth, an 86-year-old survivor, the report was a watershed moment. This was the first time in her life that she’d heard an Israeli official claim any shred of responsibility or remorse on behalf of the government. As one of the most outspoken critics of Israel’s treatment of Holocaust survivors, Roth made headlines in 2013 when she memorably shouted down members of a committee at a hearing in the Israeli parliament.
“Ben-Gurion made a pact, promising we would receive money for the rest of our lives,” Roth demanded, in reference to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. “What have you done with the money?” she screamed, pointing her finger at the seemingly unfazed politicians. “Seeing a Holocaust survivor who can’t afford to heat his home in the winter and can’t afford to buy food or medicine is your disgrace. I don’t care about your committees. They mean nothing to us. I came all the way here to ask you one thing: Let us die in dignity.”
Roth was 7 years old when she entered the Warsaw ghetto. She went on to Vilna, and then to the Stutthof concentration camp, where her mother died of hunger and her sister was sent to the gas chamber. She was 15 when the war ended, and she moved to Israel alone. Echoing the accounts of other survivors, Roth said that when she arrived, Israelis treated Holocaust survivors as if what happened to them was somehow their fault. “I heard many times that we went like sheep to the slaughter,” Roth told me. Yet, she continued, the Israeli government was happy to take money from the German government for the suffering she and millions of others endured.
(Yardena Schwartz in the Tablet Magazine January 2017)
An article in Ha’aretz in November 2006 observed that ‘it is better today to be a Holocaust survivor in the United States or France, not to mention Germany, than to be one in Israel’. I look forward to Freedland’s investigative article on this scandal.
After introducing us to the Holocaust, Freedland embarks on a remarkable piece of obfuscation. You can’t, he says, draw a clear line between ‘the idea of Israel and Zion and Jerusalem’ (which, he says, is embedded in Jewish tradition) and the concrete reality, so that you can’t hate Israel without showing hostility to Jews. This is nonsense. Pure sophistry. It’s not a question of hating Israel but of holding it to account for its crimes and you can certainly do that without showing any hostility to Jews. In any case, the yearning for a return to Zion is a yearning for a home somewhere over the rainbow which is not particular to Jews but is part of being human. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Zionist state. Rabbinical law forbids a return to the Holy Land until the messiah comes; political Zionism is a secular ideology, not based on a religiously authorised return to Zion but on the belief that antisemitism cannot be combatted and Jews do not belong in the countries they have lived in over the centuries. Both Ben-Gurion and Theodore Herzl were militantly anti-religious.
What’s next? Next is an assertion that the Jewish community, whoever they are, have had problems with the Labour Party for a long time. “Churning inside are deep incomprehension and distrust brewed over many years, if not decades.” What is he talking about? Is he suggesting that under the arch Zionist and Israel lover Tony Blair, antisemitism was even then rife in the Labour Party? How come then that the issue only emerged into the open when Corbyn was elected leader? Just coincidence? Nothing to do with the fact that Corbyn has been a campaigner for Palestinian rights. Of course not.
And then he comes to the nitty-gritty of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The charge that the IHRA definition conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism ‘makes plenty of Jews want to slam their heads on their desks in frustration’, he says. Well, I’m really looking forward to seeing a display of synchronised head-banging by members of the Jewish Labour Movement, orchestrated presumably by Mark Regev, because that’s exactly what the definition does. That’s why 36 international Jewish groups have rejected it and Liberty and two eminent lawyers have described it as a threat to free speech. And, as Freedland will know, it has already been used to close down discussion in universities and suspend Israel’s critics from the Labour Party.
Freedland argues that the text explicitly says that if you criticise Israel the way you criticise other countries it ‘cannot be regarded as antisemitic’. What the example actually says is: ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’. As I’ve pointed out, the italicised phrase puts limits on what you can say in criticising Israel’s actions and policies. Israel is a criminal state, a racist state, an apartheid state. At what point do those appellations become antisemitic? And who is to decide? In any case, why is Israel being given this special protection? No-one suggests that there should be limits placed on criticism of, for example, Myanmar on the grounds that it could be anti-Buddhist.
The only pro-Palestinian who needs to fear the IHRA, Freedland says, is ‘the one who wants to say Jews are disloyal to their own countries, that Jews are Nazis and that the very idea of Jews having a homeland of their own is ‘a racist endeavour.’ All those three examples are distortions of what the IHRA definition actually says. There is nothing about calling Jews Nazis. In any case, that would be covered by hate speech.The example it actually gives is ‘Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ which is exactly what Dr Meyer did and what other Holocaust survivors have done. And what many Israelis have done. And there is nothing antisemitic about that. If the parallels are there, why are we not allowed to say so? Israel is a state. It has committed atrocities, not least in the war of 1947/48. In December 1948, the Agricultural minister referred to some of those atrocities as ‘Nazi acts’. He wasn’t being antisemitic. Hannah Arendt compared the Nuremburg laws to Israel’s marriage laws. She wasn’t being antisemitic. Recently the veteran Israeli journalist Uri Avnery compared the way Israel’s population was being brainwashed with Nazi propaganda and the dehumanisation of Palestinians with ‘the creation of Untermenschen in the Nazi lexicon’. There is nothing antisemitic about that.
His interpretation of another IHRA example of antisemitism — ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination , eg by claiming that a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’ — is equally dishonest. He claims that it’s ‘the very idea of Jews having a homeland of their own’ that is being protected by the definition, not the actual state of Israel. What chutzpah! The example refers to a state not a homeland or a ‘refuge’, a word he uses later on. The two are very different. Many Jews — Martin Buber, Judas Magnes, Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein — were in favour of a homeland but vigorously opposed a Jewish state in Palestine, for obvious reasons. And his emphasis on the word ‘a’ is absurd. It is clear that the example refers to the actual state of Israel, not to some fictitious entity, and that it is the existing racist state of Israel that the example is trying to protect from being called racist.
In short, this article is a devious, dissembling, dishonest piece of special pleading that shames both Freedland and the Guardian.
And frankly I am sick and tired of these arguments. We have a government with a wafer thin majority lurching from disaster to catastrophe, tearing itself to pieces over Brexit, failing dismally in the face of crisis after crisis — the NHS, housing, immigration, the railways, air pollution, education, Universal Credit — embarking on dangerous and deluded policies — nuclear power, Trident renewal, fracking — . Surely one concerted push would topple it into oblivion. So what is the Labour Party, the supposed opposition, doing? It is arguing about definitions. This is insane. And why is it doing this? Because the ‘Jewish community’ is unhappy that the Labour Party hasn’t accepted the IHRA definition in full, or, at least , that is the pretext. So Corbyn concedes and Corbyn apologises and the more he concedes and the more he apologises the weaker his position becomes and still the pressure grows and the attacks continue because this is not really about antisemitism and definitions but about getting rid of Corbyn or undermining him to the point where he is powerless.
The ones who should apologise are those in the Jewish community who were silent when Israel was gunning down unarmed civilians in Gaza or, like the Board of Deputies, tried to justify it. They are the racists.
For my parents Judaism meant bearing witness, raging against injustice and foregoing silence. It meant compassion, tolerance and rescue. These were the ultimate Jewish values.
(Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and daughter of Holocaust survivors)