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How to Criticize Israel Without Being a Dick

Want to say that bombing Palestinian children as they play on the beach is bad but don't want to say something anti-Semitic? Use this handy guide.

Ken Livingstone is surrounded by a media scrum after his comments about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party (Photo: Anthony Devlin / PA Wire)

Right now in the UK, there are a lot of people policing the boundaries of anti-Semitism. And there should be—but they have a tendency to stray out of their jurisdiction. As an ongoing crisis within the Labour party has shown, it can be hard to criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. Case in point: Ken Livingstone, who went on the BBC's Daily Politics show to defend his party members from accusations that they're anti-Semites, and in the process got himself suspended from the party. Watch the video—at no point does he ever actually voice a personal hatred towards Jewish people, but even if he had it's hard to see how he could have made things worse.


READ: The Naz Shah Scandal Shows the Right Has an Anti-Semitism Problem

Ken should have known. The more he croaked on, the redder his big round face grew, until it started shining like an enormous Stop sign. But he didn't stop. As far as I know, he isn't an anti-Semite, but his comments were crude, thoughtless, and incredibly stupid. Basically, he was being a dick. If you want to criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism, not being a dick isn't a guaranteed defence—even being Jewish yourself doesn't really guarantee anything—but if the accusation is false, it's a pretty good start. Here's how.


I get it. The cruel historical ironies, that Israeli minister threatening Palestinians with a "Shoah," the fact that Israel retains the Nuremberg Laws in its definitions of Jewishness, the enormous prison camps for African migrants they've built in the desert, the sheer rhetorical heft, the fact that nothing makes your point quite like dropping a big fat-bottomed Hitler into the conversation. Just don't do it. What got Ken Livingstone in the worst trouble was his line that Hitler was actually working with Zionists to expel Jews from Europe until he "went mad and ended up killing six million Jews." This is pretty objectionable—is a policy of mass deportation now tolerable? Was the Holocaust really just all about one person's insanity? And while it's not entirely inaccurate (there was an agreement between Hitler and Zionist groups to facilitate Jewish emigration; at the same time the Lehi, a Jewish paramilitary group in 1940s Palestine, tried to form an anti-British alliance with Germany), it's not helping anyone.

At no point in a conversation about Israel or anti-Semitism is it a good idea to start talking about interesting facts about the Holocaust that not many people know. This isn't just a matter of looking bad in front of the cameras: the Holocaust was a monstrous, shattering cataclysm, a memory that's still incredibly painful for millions of people, an evil far, far greater than anything Israel has done since, and it should not be used to score an argumentative point. Yes, there are supporters of Israeli policy who like to sift through the cemeteries in the hope of silencing any opposition. Be better than them. Don't talk about Hitler. Don't talk about the Holocaust.



Well done. You've done your research, and you now know that Semitic languages are spoken by over three hundred million people, including Saudis, Somalis, Ethiopians, and, yes, Palestinians. But it's also true that usage determines meaning, and that by a series of historical accidents the term "anti-Semitism" has come to refer to just one branch of that big happy family. Pointing out that the Palestinians are also Semites isn't a devastating truth, it makes it sound like you're trying to semantically weasel yourself out of an argument, and it makes it sound like your accuser has a point.


The definite article is a strange thing. You can use it for most household objects without raising an outcry, but start applying it to groups of people and you're immediately deep into crank territory. This might be because unlike "the table", "the Jews" are not a single, fixed, homogeneous object that you can lay things on top of. There are quite a few of us, we tend to disagree with each other a lot, and we can hear you.


It's not as if you don't have a point here. It's true that media in the UK has an occasional habit of focusing unduly on Israeli casualties in any outbreak of violence, while ignoring Palestinian ones (or of devoting equal time to both in an attempt at impartiality, when deaths on the Palestinian side tend to massively outnumber those in Israel.) In the United States, it's a lot worse; it's only relatively recently that a lot of American media has started covering Palestinian suffering in any depth at all. It's true that there are many passionate Zionists working in news organisations. But it's also true that allegations of Jewish control of the media are a common and pernicious feature of anti-Semitic discourse, and one that's pushed in particular by white supremacists and other assorted idiots.

The media as a whole do not have a structurally Zionist agenda: many outlets will tend to tilt towards the Israeli government, but it's for the same reason that they'll give more airtime to bosses than to unions, more invitations to Nigel Farage than to migrants in Calais, more column space to politicians than protesters. Powerful people have more money and influence than the powerless, and that tends to get them a better press. In this instance, most of the power is on the Israeli side of the equation. This should be why you're in solidarity with Palestine—because you're in solidarity with the powerless. An unfair media goes with that territory. Fight to change it, but quit kvetching.



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