Naked Politics Blogger
As I was reading Peter Beinart’s article Debunking the myth that anti-Zionism is antisemitic, I was struck by how increasingly complicated debates over antisemitism are becoming, wherever they surface. As the Labour party is scrutinised over its treatment of Jewish people, the very dismissal of claims of antisemitism as a kind of capitalist smear-campaign complicates the matter further. Questions of how Israel relates to Judaism have become politicised by new definitions of antisemitism.
I had several initial thoughts when reading Beinart’s article, but one formed the basis of an important question. Israel has perpetrated human rights abuses against the Palestinians; there is no doubt about it. However Beinart seemed to take issue with the idea of a state that is formed on the basis of Judaism as something that will always exclude others for this very reason.
My initial reaction to this was that most major world religions have one, if not several, states of their own – states formed with Christianity or Islam as their basis, even states governed by religious laws. Seeing as that is the case, then why not have just one Jewish state in the world? Of course it should be a significantly more inclusive state than Israel currently is, but after all the Jewish people have been through, why not?
Nonetheless my initial reaction quickly gave way to something else. We have a lot of nation-states in this world, formed on the basis of religion. They have been around for so long, and though many have become increasingly secularised, we do not hesitate to refer to certain nations as ‘Muslim countries’ or ‘Christian Countries’.
That is not to say that just because it is normal, it does not mean it is right. Consider India, a country home to over a billion Hindus and over 100 million Muslims. India’s status as a secular state is contested, and many would argue that discrimination against the Muslim minority is widespread and tacitly encouraged by the state.
For example, cows are a holy animal in Hinduism, and India has strict laws against ‘cattle-smuggling’ either for slaughter or for cross-border sales to Bangladesh. Vigilante ‘cow-protection’ gangs try to stop smuggling by targeting those suspected. Suspicion often happens to fall on Muslims. Members of India’s governing BJP party have bestowed garlands on members of these gangs (responsible for several lynchings), and even suggested that ‘cow-smugglers’ deserve to die. The result of this is often brutal tactics which disadvantage India’s largest minority.
India’s treatment of its Muslim minority is steeped in the history of its independence from colonial rule, and the formation of neighbouring Pakistan, an officially Muslim county. A decades-old conflict over Indian-administered Kashmir (the country’s only Muslim-majority state) continues between the two countries today. Pakistan itself often carries out the persecution of religious minorities within its borders, and strict anti-blasphemy laws give rise to arbitrary accusations and penalties against non-Muslims.
So as India discriminates more against its Muslim citizens, so Pakistan asserts its religious identity by attacking religious minorities within the country. As each country battles for land and sovereignty, their national identity becomes sharpened and defined in opposition to the other.
As Israel observes the rise in antisemitism across the world, so it defines itself more sharply against the Palestinians within and outside its borders, asserting a conflated national and religious identity. As it encroaches on Palestinian peoples’ homes and towns, and tries to strangle their ethnic and religious identity, it simultaneously tries to perpetuate Israel’s statehood as something akin to Judaism.
Hamas, a military resistance movement for Palestine, pushes an agenda of fundamentalist Islamic nationalism. Its identity is defined by how it is different to that which it opposes. It is also responsible for human rights abuses against Palestinians who oppose its methods and ideology. Its identity is defined by aggression.
So where does this leave us? I do not think the government of Israel speaks for Jews around the world, nor should Jewish people allow it to speak for them. It is a government heavily invested in complex geopolitics. It is not a person with compassion, feeling and dignity.
At the same time, Israel has often been seen as a necessary enclave by many to protect Jews from the kind of dehumanisation and attack that the holocaust represented. It is understandable that in a world where other religions have their own countries (many of which are responsible for human rights abuses against minority groups), that the Jews might see a Jewish state as a place of refuge. Followers of Judaism have known horrific persecution; the nation-state borne of fear is almost a natural response to this.
However this should not be the case. The way to right the wrongs of the past is to end them now. Israel is a product of a segregated global society, where persecution, fear and identity drive divisions. We need to start recognising that although differences should be celebrated, respected and engaged with, the only way to get to that point of understanding is by people and states recognising that we as humans are more similar than we are different. This is not a trite argument, meant to homogenise the whole of humanity, but a call for compassion and empathy in our global interactions. Until we get to that point, our arguments will take us round in circles, while we forget to address the issues underlying them.