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Why the success of Israel's strategy to silence critics is far from assured

While Israel's European and US allies are happy to employ the 'antisemitism' smear against opponents, members of the general public are not as compliant
An Israeli flag flies in front of the Old City of Jerusalem in 2017 (AFP)

As Joe Biden prepared to take office as the new US president last month, mainstream US Jewish organisations sent him a letter urging him to follow his predecessors and adopt the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as the operative one for US government agencies, which the State Department had already done since the Obama years.

This uniform US Jewish organisational support for the IHRA definition contrasts with the fact that US Jews are divided over it. The IHRA definition deems “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” to be antisemitic.

A legal adoption of the IHRA definition means governmental and institutional targeting, censorship and persecution of anyone who deigns to attack the establishment and the continued existence of the Israeli settler-colony as racist.

Violating free speech

As the US Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016, which uses the IHRA definition, has passed the Senate but not the House of Representatives - something that former President Donald Trump remedied by issuing an executive order that adopted the IHRA definition in December 2019 - the letter urges Biden to follow in Trump’s footsteps.

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European countries, including Germany, France and Britain, along with the European Union, have already adopted the IHRA definition. Opponents of the IHRA definition in the US, including some of the Jewish organisations that would later support it, focused on its violation of the right of free speech.

The tragicomedy of the IHRA definition is that, according to it, most of the world would have been judged as 'antisemitic' in 1975 and 'philosemitic' in 1991

But why would Israel and its western supporters suddenly be interested in legally prosecuting western citizens for criticising Zionism’s racist ideology and the Israeli state’s racist policies, when they had historically fought them with rhetorical delegitimisation, not to mention through effectively preventing most from questioning official Israeli propaganda in the western media?

It is true that pro-Israel views had always dominated the western media and western government policies and declarations, but much of the rest of the world was still free to express its assessment of Zionism and Israeli policies - at least until 1991. 

When the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 in 1975, defining Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination”, and grouped Israeli racism with the racism of the white settler-colonies of South Africa and Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), only 35 out of 142 UN members opposed it. The vast majority of the “nay” voters were European settler-colonies in the Americas and Oceania, and European countries. The Israeli government reacted by accusing UN member states, even though they had clearly condemned other countries for their racism and did not single out Israel, of “antisemitism”. 

As Israel conditioned its attendance at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference (which ultimately led to the Oslo Accords) on the repeal of the resolution, the UN acquiesced under US pressure, passing Resolution 46/86 in December 1991, revoking the 1975 resolution. Of 166 members, 111 countries voted for the new resolution, including all the European countries and settler-colonies. 

The tragicomedy of the IHRA definition is that, according to it, most of the world would have been judged as "antisemitic” in 1975 and "philosemitic" in 1991. In light of the 1991 resolution, followed days later by the collapse of the Soviet Union (whose subservience to the US in its last days had it voting for the 1991 resolution), Israel and its western allies were triumphant, and felt they could expand their control of speech on Israel to the entire globe with no more opposition.

Zionist movement

The relationship of the Zionist movement to antisemitism is as old as the movement itself. Since its inception, the Zionist movement was invested in the European colonial notion of race. Its earliest Jewish critics noted its investment in the European racist claim that Jews were Asiatics, Semites, and certainly not European, let alone Aryan.

Such a commitment manifested early in the thought of the second most important founder of the Zionist movement, Max Nordau, author of the late-19th-century treatise Degeneration. This is what led Zionist Jewish social scientists to establish in 1902 the Association of Jewish Statistics to track the state of the Jewish “race” through markers that included their death rate, reproductive rate, rate of intermarriage with European Christians and rate of conversion to Christianity, which led them to believe that Jews had “degenerated” and could only be “regenerated” in a separate state of their own.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at posters of stamps featuring Zionism founder Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem in 2010 (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at posters of stamps featuring Zionism founder Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem in 2010 (AFP)

The Zionist endorsement of antisemitic postulates has never waned. The inspirational words of its founder, Theodor Herzl, guide Zionists to this day: “The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” This is what attracted Protestant antisemites to support Zionism and to see it as a product of Protestant millenarian Zionism, which had sought since the Protestant Reformation to “restore” European Jews to Palestine. 

Balfour Declaration

The basis for former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s sponsorship of the 1905 Aliens Act to ban Eastern European Jewish immigration to Britain, and his infamous 1917 declaration pledging Britain’s support for the establishment of a "national home" for European Jews in Palestine, was the same. He believed in the strongest terms that Jews were “a people apart, and not merely held a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow-countrymen”.

The Balfour Declaration: Enduring colonial criminality
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This antisemitic European Christian view, which Orientalised European Jews in the 18th century as “Asiatics” and racialised them in the 19th  as “Semites”, was fully endorsed by Zionists, whose local German branch defended Adolf Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws (opposed by all other German Jews) precisely as they agreed that Jews were of a different race and that they should be separated from gentiles in their own state. 

After the establishment of the state of Israel, the settler-colonial regime adopted a series of laws that privileged Jewish citizens over others. The July 2018 nation-state law reiterated the racialist foundations of Israel in its insistence on the exclusivity of the Jewish “right to self-determination” in all of historic Palestine - the same “self-determination” that the IHRA definition insists on safeguarding from “antisemites”. 

It is this antisemitic legacy to which Europe and the US adhere when they insist, as they have since 1948, that any “solution” to the Palestinian question, especially the “two-state solution”, must preserve Jewish racial supremacy in Israel. This includes, among others, the concern that were the expelled Palestinian refugees to return home, this would compromise Israel’s “Jewish character”, and the considerable worry that a democratic “one-state solution” would negate its “Jewish” nature. In short, such solutions would revoke Jewish racial and religious colonial privileges, something western countries deem unacceptable.

Moving beyond rhetoric

Support for Israel’s colonial occupation since 1991, for the first time since 1967,  has declined among the western European and white American publics, who accuse it of being a racist, undemocratic or “apartheid” state. Israel - which had always defended its colonial policies by branding any critic of its settler-colonial nature an “antisemite” - realised that its rhetorical strategies and its hold on western public opinion were no longer as effective as they had once been.

The world's publics, however, have so far proven less malleable than their governments were at the UN in 1991

Emboldened by the continued support it received from Europe and Europe’s settler-colonies, who effectively silenced the world at the UN in 1991, it decided to move, along with its western allies, beyond media and government rhetoric to the realm of legal threats and prosecution. It is in this context that the IHRA definition of antisemitism has been adopted across the US and European countries.

The world’s publics, however, have so far proven less malleable than their governments were at the UN in 1991. Israel’s legal strategy, and that of its European and US allies, aims to break their will. The success of the new strategy, however, is far from assured.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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