John Mann: Our debate on Israel is being polluted with antisemitism
This month colleagues and I released the
report of our inquiryinto the significant increase in antisemitism which emanated from last summer’s conflict between Israel and Gaza. Recent events in Paris and Copenhagen underline the requirement for us to act and at speed. We consider our report to constitute a plan and it is one we will be working hard to implement.
One of the many difficult issues that we considered was the language that we as parliamentarians and others use in voicing their opinions about the conflict. At the heart of our deliberations was a commitment to free speech. This, as we note in the report, remains an essential and rightly guarded tenet of British life. However, free speech is accompanied by a set of inherent responsibilities and one of those is the responsibility not to slip into antisemitic themes or tropes however good our intentions.
It is an incontrovertible fact that anti-Israel discourse can, at times, be polluted by antisemitism. Language playing on myths and stereotypes of Jews is deployed, but is subtle and harder to identify than say, physical abuse. However, there is no handy guide on where those that are dissatisfied with Israel’s action should draw the line with their comments, and so we have in our report sought to establish some warning signs about the language used in our public debate. This is language that goes beyond ‘the right to offend’ and begins to inculcate an environment in which some people deem it acceptable to attack our British Jewish community.
"It should be clear that Jews do not speak with one voice on Israel"
Of particular concern and all the more shocking in the shadow of Holocaust Memorial Day, is the inappropriate use of Holocaust imagery. One third of the incidents reported to the Community Security Trust over the summer used Holocaust-related imagery or language. We are clear in the report that use of terms like ‘Hitler was right’ in the context of discussion of the Middle East are antisemitic. More broadly, attempts to draw analogies between Israel’s actions and those of Nazi Germany are, as we put it, grossly misleading and can diminish the Holocaust. Context and intent are of course important but our public debate can, and should be better than this.
Another worrying trend in public discourse was the suggestion that Jews have a ‘dual loyalty’. Whilst this has been a theme in antisemitic discourses for some time, these accusations were increasingly mainstreamed during the summer of 2014 and afterwards. Too many times, politicians and others have been referring to a “well-funded” or powerful “Jewish lobby”. It should be clear that Jews do not speak with one voice on Israel and there is no hidden, malign Jewish power blind to our national interest. We must be careful not to stereotype Jews in this way. Not only is it inaccurate, but it can be antisemitic to do so.
With the advancement of social media platforms, it has become easier than ever to contribute to our public debate about issues local to international. Much of the antisemitic material that appeared over the summer did so in the most condensed torrents of communication and yet it took us an entire chapter of the report to unpack some of the complexities of the discourse that presented.
As our world changes and our discourse develops, we need to do more to stop antisemitic trends. There is of course a role for the prosecuting authorities and we have recommended that they clarify their guidance but a key priority must be education to ensure that our public debate is not contaminated by antisemitism when we discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict. We have concluded in our report that there is a requirement for a more sophisticated understanding and definition of antisemitism and have made appropriate recommendations in that regard.
What we can’t and don’t wish to do is to police our national debate. We hope, rather, to highlight the problems and rely on decent, civil and upstanding British citizens across the country to ensure that our standards do not slip and that we can continue to pride ourselves as a nation that stands together and will not allow conflicts overseas to divide us.
John Mann is Labour MP for Bassetlaw and the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism