London debate on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia polite, but pointed
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London debate on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia polite, but pointed

The fine line between criticizing Israel and delving into anti-Semitism is discussed by leading Muslim and Jewish journalists

At a September 15, 2014 London debate, editor Mehdi Hasan, left, and journalist Jonathan Freedland highlighted high levels of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the UK and suggested there should be common cause in ending it. (courtesy)
At a September 15, 2014 London debate, editor Mehdi Hasan, left, and journalist Jonathan Freedland highlighted high levels of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the UK and suggested there should be common cause in ending it. (courtesy)

LONDON — British Jews need to become as comfortable listening to genuine criticism of Israel as they are at discussing rising levels of anti-Semitism, and not fear giving “ammunition” to the other side, a leading British Jewish commentator suggested this week.

Speaking at a debate in London on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia hosted by the Guardian on Monday evening, journalist Jonathan Freedland said that when it comes to the Middle East “you so often need to say both things” and called on the community to accept that. He argued that acknowledging rising levels of anti-Semitism in the UK should not be seen to run contrary to criticism of Israeli Government actions.

“People are comfortable saying the first thing,” he said. “But when I go on to say I think Israel’s response was wrongheaded they will denounce me.”

The wide-ranging but polite debate saw discussion of the Tricycle Theatre’s recent (now reversed) refusal to host the UK Jewish Film Festival if it maintained Israeli funding, and calls for a moratorium on Holocaust analogies in discussion of the Middle East. Editor Mehdi Hasan and Freedland highlighted high levels of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the UK and suggested there should be common cause in ending it.

Freedland, a writer for the Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle, made clear his warmth for Anglo-Jewry in his comments. But he also viewed Israel’s actions in Gaza this summer as self-defeating and emphasized that encouraging debate within the community is crucial.

“There is no shortage of Jewish critics of Israel, but those who are committed to the Jewish community? Not so much,” he said. “If you really want progress, the people who will make it happen are the people who are listened to by their own communities,” he said. “If you do want progress then you do have to win over people on both sides.”

‘There is no shortage of Jewish critics of Israel, but those who are committed to the Jewish community? Not so much’

He was joined in the discussion by British Muslim commentator Hasan, the political editor of the Huffington Post UK, who last year wrote a widely-discussed piece criticizing his own community for tolerating anti-Semitism.

Both journalists made clear that as members of their communities, they understood the fear among British Jews and Muslims of giving “ammunition” to the opposition, recalling how they had respectively been attacked as a “Nazi collaborator” or as a “Mossad agent” after taking contradictory views. But they warned against a retreat into comfort zones.

“We can’t not talk about these things because we are worried about the PR,” said Hasan, urging his own community to become better at “airing their dirty laundry in public.”

“You’ve got to go out there,” he said, adding, “You have to work out how much ammunition you want to give. How much do you want to provide Islamophobes or anti-Semites to club you with?”

Freedland acknowledged that for many British Jews, there are genuine worries about raising their voice, given the tone of the debate on social media or in the wider world.

‘How much do you want to provide Islamophobes or anti-Semites to club you with?’

“People fear that if you offer an inch of criticism you hear a mile back of the most vicious antisemitism,” said Freedland.

Speaking from his own experience, he said that minutes after a recent column criticizing Israel was published online, people “who are implacably opposed to Israel” were tweeting his comments out of context.

“That just comes with the territory,” Freedland said. “People tweet the bit they agree with, so you feel reluctant to give ammunition. But you’ve got to say it.”

Arguing that Islamaphobia is not necessarily taken as seriously as it should be in the UK, Hasan said that he sees anti-Muslim attacks downplayed in a way that anti-Semitism in the UK is not. “Mainstream politicians don’t trade in anti-Semitism,” he argued. “We do have politicians who say those things about Muslims.”

But Freedland argued that “Zionist” has become a codeword for Jew, and pointed out “the minute there is a new incident, what comes up is this doctoral level debate about whether it is anti-Semitism.”

‘The first response for people with no skin in the game is that’s not anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia… people find a way to explain it away’

“Both communities go through this situation where prejudice against them isn’t taken seriously,” he said. “The first response for people with no skin in the game is that’s not anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia… people find a way to explain it away.”

The pair also differed in their views on the linking of “Israel” and “Jewish,” with Hasan arguing that when British Jews start conflating the two by emphasizing their links to the country, it is “very hard to find language to talk about Israel that doesn’t trip into anti-Semitism.”

But arguing that this is one of the knottiest aspects of the debate, Freedland warned that commentators must work to find the distinction. Referring to the Tricycle Theatre’s decision, which he said he found chilling, he said it was not anti-Semitic but nonetheless gave the sense that it is “first condemn this, then you’re allowed into polite society.”

“It would be really easy to say, ‘Say what you like about Israel but not about the Jews,’ but it’s not that simple. The Jewish community here is exceptionally bound up with Israel,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they are accountable.”

Pointing out that affinity for Israeli society and its people do not commit you to support the Israeli government Freedland stressed that “if you care about dialogue you have to be aware of that as a starting point.”

He also emphasized that while the line can be murky, it is not always so.

“During the Gaza war the hashtag ‘Hitler was right’ was trending on Twitter. It’s not always that subtle,” he said. “Sometimes it’s really just overt anti-Jewish prejudice.”

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