Misuse of term ‘anti-Semitic’ will have repercussions

Sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me — and they may come back to haunt the name-callers.

In finding anti-Semites behind every challenge to Canadian complicity with Israeli colonialism, mainstream Jewish organizations are emptying the term “anti-Semitism” of its historical weight.

The Green Party of Canada’s vote in favour of the anti-Semitic boycott campaign against Israel shows the party has been infected by a vicious strain of anti-Jewish hate,” said the President of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, Avi Benlolo. In case anyone missed his point the head of the self-described “top Jewish human rights foundation in Canada with a substantial constituency” added that the Green’s “sole foreign policy is based on anti-Semitic hatred.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith released only slightly less wild statements in response to the Greens supporting “the use of divestment, boycott and sanctions (BDS) that are targeted to those sectors of Israel’s economy and society which profit from the ongoing occupation of the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories].”

The Greens’ resolution, which is basically official Canadian government policy — based as it is on two states and the illegality of the settlements — with a little added pressure, freaks out Israeli nationalists because they understand it is a crack in the decades-old settler-state solidarity shield of invincibility. So, establishment pro-Israel organizations are increasingly shrill in smearing the growing Palestinian solidarity movement. While supporters of Palestinian rights generally ignore these smears or reply that it’s not anti-Semitic to stand up for Palestinian rights, defensive strategies aren’t sufficient. The anti-Semitic label is too potent to not confront directly.

It seems to this writer that the name-callers are on a track that will eventually lead to a new reality, one where:

• Those who are smeared will begin to embrace the label. People will begin to understand that if they haven’t been called anti-Semitic (or self hating) they’re probably not doing enough to support justice.

• Mocking the accuser and the term will become common. Benlolo et al. will be bombarded with tweets and messages about anti-Semites at the library, gym, behind the bed etc. Jokes about anti-Semitism will undercut the word’s force.

For example: Q. What does it take to get a student union to divest from Israel’s occupation? A. A dozen hard-core Jew-hating campaigners and 3,000 anti-Semites.

• Eventually, the embrace of the term by social justice advocates will lead to a widespread re-appropriation of its meaning. It could come to have ironically positive usage like the “N-word” in certain African-American circles. Or like the word Canuck, which originally was a term of derision aimed at French Canadians in New England, perhaps it will one day be displayed proudly on hockey team jerseys.

• If right-wing Israeli nationalist groups persist in their efforts to debase the Shoah in the service of colonialism and power, dictionaries and Wikipedia will be pressed to add “a movement for justice and equality” to their definition of anti-Semitism. (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary actually included “opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel”, as part of its definition of anti-Semitism.)

Of course, considering the historical oppression originally defined by the term, most progressive-minded folk would be discomforted by the idea of mocking and re-appropriating “anti-Semitism.” But, isn’t this inevitable when “leading Jewish organizations” publicly denounce “anti-Semitism” in inverse relation to discernible anti-Jewish animus?

When Jews fleeing Hitler’s atrocities were blocked from entering Canada, notes A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada, the dominant Jewish organizations mostly shied away from publicly criticizing Ottawa’s prejudice. Similarly, some Jewish representatives negotiated with McGill over the cap it placed on Jews in some university programs in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

While some Jewish activists at the time pushed for a more forceful response to this quantifiable anti-Semitism, the “leading” community representatives didn’t want to rock the boat. Their aim was largely to join the power structure.

Today, the dominant Jewish organizations are well entrenched within the ruling elite. Whether they smear a political party, university students or the World Social Forum (“an event that was widely denounced as anti-Semitic”, according to a Canadian Jewish News report about last week’s conference in Montréal), they face little pushback in mainstream political and media life.

Nor do the less extreme elements within the Jewish community devote much energy to challenging the debasement of the term anti-Semitism. With the exception of Independent Jewish Voices, some smaller activist groups and a few righteous commentators, most liberal Jews are apathetic in the face of the cynical manipulation of centuries of Christian European prejudice.

One reason, I would postulate, is a lack of genuine concern over anti-Semitism in this country. Christianity has largely lost its cultural weight and a half-dozen other ethnic/religious groups are more likely to be targeted if there were an explosion of xenophobia in this country.

Over the past half-century Canadian Jews lived experience suggests little prejudice. In fact, most Canadian Jews benefit from white privilege and, to the extent an individual is tied into the generally educated and prosperous community, they benefit from accompanying familial and social advantages. As such, individuals uncomfortable about the nonsensical claims of anti-Semitism, simply don’t consider it worth putting their neck out to challenge the obvious damage done to the term by Simon Wiesenthal Center, B’nai Brith and CIJA, which have institutional/financial reasons to monger fear.

The primary public use of “anti-Semitism” today is to denigrate those defending a people facing the most aggressive ongoing European settler colonialism. Those who seek equality and international justice need to directly confront this abuse.

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