More than 100,000 people demonstrated against anti-Semitism on November 26 in London, UK.Steve Taylor (SOPA IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)
The meeting between Pedro Sanchez and Benjamin Netanyahu has just ended. It is November 23 and the Israeli prime minister, with a solemn tone, begins his speech. "They are genocidal," he says of Hamas. "They are fighting to eliminate the Jewish state. It's in their principles: to kill all the Jews." And then: "Hitler invaded Europe and committed these horrors ... the Holocaust. These murderers [Hamas] would do the same."
Listening to Netanyahu, one can better understand what his Foreign Ministry released the next day: the Spanish president "supports terrorists." In other words, he supports Hamas, whose members "would do the same as Hitler." Sanchez sympathizes with those who plan to "kill all Jews." In other words, he is accused of anti-Semitism. Or at least to support anti-Semites.
The accusation came after the Spanish president condemned the Oct. 7 attacks and invoked Israel's right to defend itself, but in accordance with international law. Sanchez said the thousands of civilian deaths from the military response in Gaza are "unbearable" and "unacceptable." The same is what the UN and other organizations on the ground are arguing.
Anti-Semitism (and its use in politics) has made a strong comeback with the war. Hate crimes — violence against Jews or attacks on synagogues and Jewish institutions — have multiplied in Europe, where 80 years ago Jews were exterminated by the millions. Fear of the phenomenon has led to the banning of anti-conflict demonstrations in France and Germany due to the risk that they could lead to acts of hatred.
Where is the line between anti-Semitism and legitimate speech? How can we protest against Israel's actions in Gaza without falling into hatred and self-censorship?
To draw the border, you have to look at the context. "October 7 was traumatic for Jews," says David Feldman, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the University of London. "Many are afraid when they see demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinians. They ask, 'Do these people condemn what happened on October 7?' Hamas' attacks and acts opposing the military response have heightened their anxiety. But some have also joined those protests."
Alejandro Baer, former director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota and researcher at the CSIC, says: "October 7 is a turning point. There have never been so many civilian casualties in attacks or in the wars that Israel has fought." He adds: "It's the biggest massacre since the Holocaust. The sensitivity of the Jews is not only because of their ties to Israel, but also because of the attacks of those who see Hamas' action as an act of "resistance."
Criticizing Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic. In recent years there have been two agreements to explain what is. The 31 countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), including Spain and Israel, adopted a definition in 2016: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews that can be expressed as hatred of Jews. The physical and rhetorical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed at Jewish and non-Jewish persons and/or their property, the institutions of Jewish communities and their places of worship."
Attacks on Israel "conceived as a Jewish collectivity" may be anti-Semitic, according to IHRA, but not criticisms similar to those directed at any other country. It is "denying Jews their right to self-determination." Or to ask of that state something not required of any other.
Feldman recalls that for 20 years there has been a debate about whether to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. "One effect of the Hamas attack and demonstrations that only see Palestinian suffering is that many Jewish leaders and institutions understand anti-Zionism and staunch criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism." Zionism is the political movement that has sought since the <>th century the establishment of a Jewish state and is at the germ of the founding of Israel.
"You hear from many quarters that anti-Zionism should not be confused with anti-Semitism, and in theory, this distinction can be made," Baer says. "But in practice, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism overlap. Because to be against the existence and security of millions of Jews in Israel is an expression of anti-Semitism."
To clarify the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and overcome the confusion of the IHRA definition, Feldman and 300 specialists in anti-Semitism, Judaism, and the Middle East from around the world promoted the Jerusalem Declaration in 2019.
According to the Jerusalem Declaration, criticizing Israel "based on evidence" is legitimate. It is not anti-Semitic to oppose "its policies and practices ... such as Israel's conduct in the West Bank and Gaza." Nor does it "point to systematic racial discrimination." "While controversial, it is not anti-Semitic in itself to compare Israel to other historical cases, including settler colonialism or apartheid."
A similar case to that of Pedro Sánchez was that of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, who, on 24 October, during a meeting of the Security Council, after condemning Hamas attacks and considering them unjustifiable, assured that "they did not come from nowhere". Netanyahu's government immediately called for his resignation.
With the Jerusalem Declaration in hand, Feldman denies that the secretary-general's attitude was anti-Semitic because it was "evidence-based." "Guterres acknowledged that Hamas' actions have been 'appalling,' but he also said that even those actions have causes: in this case 56 years of occupation, displacement and waning political hopes."
Alejandro Baer, for his part, objects: "When emotions are running high and given the cruelty of the Hamas massacre, you have to measure your words very well so as not to confer any legitimacy on the perpetrator." "It is certainly necessary to know causes and effects, but by mentioning the occupation, Guterres entered a very slippery slope that was open to all kinds of misunderstandings," he says.
Baer believes that the Israeli prime minister uses anti-Semitism as a weapon to discredit the political adversary. "That makes the term less powerful and, when there is explicit or indirect anti-Semitism, such as what we are seeing in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, it is not recognized as such."
Feldman acknowledges that while some anti-Zionism takes an anti-Semitic form, there is also "a long history of Israel and its supporters presenting anti-Zionism and many criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic" in order to delegitimize them.
What about the freedoms of expression and demonstration? Where is the limit? The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has condemned the rise of anti-Semitic (and Islamophobic) acts, but has also called for no restriction on debate or political commentary on the conflict or acts of solidarity with Israel or Palestine.
The British professor recalls that in the United Kingdom, anti-Semitic acts have skyrocketed since October 7. "Governments are faced with the task of taking action against hate speech and preserving freedom of expression," he said. "But in some cases, legitimate political expression is repressed. In November, police banned more than half of the 41 Gaza solidarity demonstrations in Berlin."
Back to November 23rd. After the meeting with Sanchez, Netanyahu continues to talk about World War II. "The Allies invaded Normandy and saw that the German army was in the cities," says the prime minister. "Did they wonder if they couldn't shoot because there were civilians? They tried what we do: minimize the cost. Then they marched on the cities of France and Germany. And unfortunately, there were many, many, many civilian casualties."
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