Only two weeks ago, we saw The Sunday Times publish a cartoon that appeared to show Benjamin Netanyahu revelling in the blood of Palestinians. The image, reminiscent of antisemitic blood libels, clearly crossed a line and the newspaper rightly apologised.
Of course, criticism of Israel’s policies is legitimate. Israel is a lively democracy. Unsurprisingly many of the voices who are the most critical of the Israeli government are Israelis themselves. Like many good friends of Israel, I have been frustrated by the lack of progress in recent years toward peace. But part of the problem is that the ongoing hostilities have resulted in moderate friends of both the Israelis and Palestinians becoming more subdued and marginalised.
This has provided space for harder-line voices to appear more mainstream. And, at worst, this has allowed some utterly distorted views of Israel to function as an alibi for antisemitism. Some antisemites seem to have embraced “anti-Zionism” as a cover to protect their fundamentally racist views. Together with old-fashioned prejudice, more and more we are seeing a rebranding of antisemitism as anti-Zionism.
A particularly depressing example has been the assault on Holocaust commemoration. Incredibly, Holocaust Memorial Day has come under attack in recent years as a Zionist plot to protect Israel from criticism. This year, activist Lee Jasper used HMD to mount an attack on Israel. He said: “Israel has failed to learn the lessons of its own tragic history having evolved into a racist oppressor.”
This kind of poisonous comparison between Israeli and the Nazis is becoming more commonplace. Most recently, the Liberal Democrat MP, David Ward, said he was saddened that “the Jews… could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new state of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis.”
Another recent example, that was not widely picked up on, occurred a few weeks ago during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi was paying tribute to the brilliant work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and was highlighting the importance of HMD, remembering the millions who perished in the Nazi death camps, at which point he was heckled: “What about Palestine?”
The situation in Israel is clearly being used and distorted, resulting in the steady spread of a one-sided and demonising narrative based on deep ignorance of the true situation on the ground. Too often, the picture given of the conflict is nothing but a caricature.
Many think Israel is a perpetrator of “Nazi-lite” ethnic cleansing, view Zionism as a racist conspiracy rather than a Jewish response to antisemitism, and believe that Israel simply invaded the land in 1948. There is a lack of knowledge of the United Nations resolution to divide the land and establish a Jewish state, as well as the historic Israeli offers to split the land in return for peace and security. And all of this is compounded by some lazy journalism that perpetuates the myths.
The best way to beat this ignorance, and to stop the spread of offensive rhetoric seeping into the mainstream, is to make sure that we explain what is really happening in the region and to encourage moderate voices – the majority who support a negotiated, two-state solution – to speak up. We must not let fatigue, borne out of the slow pace of progress towards peace, stop us from making the case for difficult compromises.
Here in the UK, politicians on all sides must continue to talk constructively about the peace process, engaging with the international community and helping the Israelis and Palestinians get back round the negotiating table.
To get to a better place, we also need to recognise that antisemitism today is not just from old-style fascists. It is about the ideas, words and images that compose an antisemitic discourse that is creating a poisonous environment for Jews. The truth is that antisemitism in Britain continues to creep into the mainstream. It’s time we woke up to that fact.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East, vice chair of the Labour Party, and vice chair of Labour Friends of Israel