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Monday, 12 December 2016

Theresa May's gift to the pro-Israeli lobby


I've written various articles before pointing out Theresa May's autocratic and authoritarian hard-right tendencies. I've written about her open contempt for the concept of human rights, her utter disdain for free speech, her attacks on the concept of fair and open justice, her undermining of the right to privacy; her promotion of economic apartheid schemes that blatantly discriminate against people based on their gender and their incomes; and her use of divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Theresa May's latest authoritarian crackdown is another attack on freedom of expression. Under the guise of clamping down on anti-Jewish bigotry she is planning to outlaw all kinds of political criticisms of Israel and make it very much easier for the pro-Israeli lobby to smear their political critics as anti-Semites.

Criticism of Israel ≠ Anti-Semitism


Theresa May's policy is to adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism as drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the concept of outlawing the bigoted abuse of Jewish people, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism that Theresa May is keen to adopt into UK law goes an awful lot further than protecting Jews from abuse.


Several of the IHRA example definitions of anti-Semitism blatantly conflate political criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. This kind of deliberate muddying of the water can only be seen as yet another attempt to silence Israel's critics by labelling them as anti-Semites.

The definitions

The IHRA definitions that Theresa May wants to write into UK law can be separated into three different types; reasonable, debatable, and unacceptable.

Reasonable

"Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion."
Only the worst kind of bigot would attempt to argue that it should be acceptable for people to call for the killing or harming of Jews.
"Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews."
Of course it is wrong to blame all Jews (or the concept of Judaism) for the crimes of individual Jews, just as it is wrong to blame all Muslims for the crimes of Islamist terrorists, or to blame all white people for the crimes of white supremacist extremists like Anders Breivik or Thomas Mair.

If the IHRA definition stuck to clear and incontrovertible definitions like these, few would complain if it was adopted as a standard definition of anti-Semitism.

Debatable

Unfortunately the IHRA definition contains debatable definitions of anti-Semitism that would become problematic if adopted into UK law. One example is an a poorly-worded attempt to define Holocaust denial.

"Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust)."
While Holocaust denial is extremely distasteful, and very often motivated by anti-Jewish hatred, this definition is problematic because it clearly relies on the idea of one true knowable version of historical events.

The big problem is the use of the word "scope" because it implies that the true scale of the Holocaust is a known quantity when it isn't. In 1953 Gerald Reitlinger estimated the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust at 4.2 - 4.5 million; Raul Hilberg estimated the number of deaths to be 5.1 million; The Encycolpedia of the Holocaust estimated between 5.59 million and 5.86 million; Jacob Lestschinsky's estimate was 5.9 million; and the Technical University of Berlin estimate is between 5.29 and 6.2 million.

Given the variable estimates into the scale of the Holocaust, any attempt to criminalise people for denying the "scope" of the Holocaust should really include a detailed description of where the cut-off point actually lies.

For example, would belief in Gerald Reitlinger's lower estimate of 4.2 - 4.5 million victims make a person guilty of "denying the scope of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany"? If not, where exactly is the cut-off point?

The official adoption of such a lax definition of Holocaust denial by the UK government clearly be problematic because who gets to say what is and isn't a reasonable estimation of the "scope" of the Holocaust?

Aside from the lax wording of the definition, there's also the question of whether criminal prosecution is really the right way to deal with people who are wrong about the scope of the Holocaust. In my view the best approach is to confront Holocaust deniers with the facts and evidence (of which there is an awful lot). If they then refuse to accept the evidence, universal criticism and ridicule are probably better solutions than prosecution and/or imprisonment.

Unacceptable

"Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor."
The first point to raise about this definition is that this is a clear non-sequitur because the cited example bears no relation to the original definition. Whether you believe Israel is a racist state or not, a claim that Israel is a racist state clearly doesn't deny anyone the right to self-determination at all. It's just an opinion.

The second point is that it's hardly unreasonable to argue that Israel is a racist state. Israel is a state that grants citizenship based on ethnic origin* and distributes land to new citizens that has been stolen from the Palestinian people (the illegal settlements in the occupied territories). Additionally there's also the discriminatory treatment towards non-Jewish Israeli citizens to consider.

It's actually difficult to argue that Israel isn't a racist state, but if Theresa May gets her way then anyone who questions the ethnicity based Law of Return or complains that the discriminatory treatment of non-Jews in Israel is racist could find themselves being prosecuted for anti-Semitism.

"Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis."
The Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is a stain on humanity. Only the most cold-hearted Israel apologist could refuse to be appalled at the regular assassination of children, the killing of peace activists, chemical weapons attacks on school buildings, the obstruction of humanitarian aid shipments, the bombardment of civilian areas, the destruction of Palestinian homes and property, mass imprisonment without trial, and the general attitude of Israeli exceptionalism when it comes to issues like human rights and international law.

Although comparing people to Nazis is hardly a sensible way of trying to win your opponents over to your side of the debate, the idea that anyone who does so should be condemned as an anti-Jewish bigot or risk criminal prosecution is absolutely ludicrous.

Thought crime and the thin end of the wedge


If Theresa May gets her way and these poorly-worded definitions of anti-Semitism are adopted into UK law, then she will have created categories of political thought crime.

It doesn't matter whether you think that Israel is a racist state or not, or whether (like me) you think that Nazi comparisons are unhelpful at best, the idea that these political opinions should be labelled as anti-Jewish bigotry or liable to prosecution is unacceptable.

If the government sees fit to dictate what people are allowed to think and say about Israeli politics, how long before they see fit to begin dictating what people can say about British politics? How long before Theresa May decides that certain criticisms of the Tories or their policies becomes a criminal offence? How long before Theresa May decides that, for example, describing the Tories' systematic abuse of disabled people as "modern day eugenics" should be a criminal offence?

Lack of opposition

Very few people will dare to criticise the official adoption of these weak, poorly-worded and dictatorial definitions of anti-Semitism by the UK government because they will be afraid of the backlash from the pro-Israeli lobby who have every interest in conflating political criticism of Israeli policy with the bigoted abuse of Jewish people.

Jeremy Corbyn has already shied away from criticising Theresa May's efforts to conflate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Jewish bigotry. It's perhaps understandable that he's adopted such a weak position given the inevitable barrage of mainstream media hysteria he would provoke by trying to argue that it's wrong to officially conflate political criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry in this way.

Theresa May's links to Israel

Theresa May has been involved in the powerful pro-Israeli lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel, and she was one of the many Tory MPs to abstain on the 2014 Parliamentary vote to recognise the Palestinian state.

In attempting to push through this poorly-worded and highly partisan definition of anti-Semitism that deliberately muddies the water by mixing up political criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry, she's demonstrating her bias once again.

When Theresa May was installed as Prime Minister after the failure of David Cameron's reckless EU referendum gamble, Conservative Friends of Israel described it as "an exciting new chapter in the UK-Israel relationship", and her efforts to deter and intimidate political criticism of Israel by officially conflating it with anti-Jewish bigotry is clearly a huge gift to the pro-Israeli lobby.


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* = The Israeli Law of Return automatically grants Israeli citizenship to any Jew, spouse of a Jew, the children of a Jew and their spouses, and the grandchildren of a Jew and their spouses, provided that the Jew did not practice a religion other than Judaism willingly.