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My valued UK reader will be very aware of the row that has been rumbling on, over the past few months, around Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Ever since Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendancy to the leadership, his long history of cavorting with extremists has brought the matter into question. Further fuelled via asinine proclamations on the matter of Zionism by some of Labour’s local & national lights, the matter has morphed into a dispute over the definition of Anti-Semitism. Since I started writing this, Labour’s NEC has finally agreed to adopt the IHRA definition of Anti-Semitism but this really is a politically-expedient papering over of the cracks and really doesn’t change much.

Over the past year, I have been attending a Sunday morning Adult Discussion Group, led by our Rabbi, on the history of Zionism. More-often-than-not these mornings have involved heated debates on not only the matter of Labour’s alleged Anti-Semitism but also not-unrelated events. In the week of Israel’s heavy-handed response to border incursions from Gaza, my critical concerns were clearly a minority opinion with most justifying the actions on a number of fronts. I have been on the ‘thin-edge’ of many debates on Israel over the years and invariably my opinions will receive a response to the effect that: “Aren’t there enough opponents to Israel without Jews joining their numbers?” My counter is, and always has been, that criticism of events is not opposition to the whole. In fact, I believe that it is of vital importance that Jews should and must voice any objections on the basis that any government that can rely on unrestrained endorsement is inherently dangerous. When I voiced this opinion, our Rabbi, whose knowledge and gestalt I admire greatly, counselled me to take care of where I expressed my opinions else they be misused. I understand his point but feel his ‘not-beyond-these-walls’ imprimatur is misguided, as it is an argument based on expediency & inconvenience at the expense of personally held beliefs.

 

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Interestingly the group is undivided in its criticism on two official Israel events: the early morning arrest of a rabbi who officiated over a mixed-faith marriage and the Israeli government’s amendment of the country’s nationality laws. Recently, I was copied in on this Discussion Group email:

All of us share the frustration and sadness about the emerging socio-religious-political direction of Israel – the homeland which inherently we regard as the base and focus of our identity. I spent two-thirds of my life in Israel, and am still in close contact with it.   After and despite the War of Independence, I witnessed positive collaboration between Jews, Arabs and Druze but I am struck by the changes of recent times – a combination of self-centered vision, religious extremism, and sheer stupidity – now embedded in “The Nation’s Law” (Hok Haleom) which recognises only Jews as legitimate citizens of the country and offers minimal concessions to people of other denominations; many of whom have their roots in parts of the country well before the Balfour declaration … Remember how we, Jews,  felt some decades ago when countries abroad treated Jews as under-dogs restricted to Ghetto communities?  Now think for a moment about the non-Jews in Israel losing their full rights … And there is more to it: Israel’s ‘Hok Haleom’ (“the nation’s Law”) endows all Jews with full rights on land, property, elections and more, even if they are not full-time residents in Israel; but such rights are not offered to non-Jews, including veteran local tribes living in Israel.  They will receive a ‘second grade’ set of rights….. 

Sadly this email, excepting my breach of the ‘Keep It In The Family’ protocol, is unlikely to receive an audience beyond our Discussion Group. It’s not that such opinion will not find its way into the national arena, but rather the question as to who will say what, and to whom.  Should the writer of the above email constrain herself from airing her opinions to a wider public for fear of their opinions being misused? And what if Jeremy Corbyn himself were to give a speech to the effect that Israel is an Apartheid state? These are difficult questions, and context is clearly important, but Freedom Of Speech surely has to be upheld as a pillar of any democratic society.

Putting this tricky issue aside, it seems to me that fair comment needs to pass both of the following two tests:

  1. be non-offensive to a community audience
  2. and extendable to parallel scenarios

These tests are not 100% perfect and my choice of ‘community’ as a yardstick is possibly controversial in that it acknowledges, for better or worse, that the world is currently organised into national societies. However, I have chosen the word ‘community’ carefully in that it allows for certain exceptional issues – woman’s rights, slavery etc – to be deemed as matters for the global community. Whether Boris Johnson’s recent remarks*, on the wearing of the burka, fall into this category is debatable. I would suggest that opinion that the Burka be banned, on that basis that all citizens be identifiable in public places in the UK, is reasonably a national matter and fair comment under Test 1. However his ‘jokes’, about burka-wearers looking like bank-robbers or post boxes, clearly fail Test 2; as no sector of our community deserves to have ‘fun’ poked of them on this basis. Similarly, criticisms of Israel that are held exclusively of that country, while excusing/ignoring/legitimising similar actions elsewhere, are indeed evidence of prejudice as they clearly fail Test 2.

It’s not easy in these times of polarised opinions. The error of our ways is, I believe, the elevation self-entitlement to the exclusion of community values. Society, and in certain cases the world itself, needs to be a participant of equal right in our discussions. Not every matter can be treated as non-negotiable, there has to be common cause. Lose sight of this and our world becomes a Tower of Babel, which will destroy itself via oceans of speech and deserts of communication.

* My non-UK reader, and others, may be interested in this article here

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