Reuben Bard-Rosenberg: the Palestine solidarity movement must remain intolerant of anti-Semitism – but the claim that anti-Semitism is a dominant or generalised feature needs to be exposed as the falsehood that it is

Over the last couple of days, much has been said about the decision by Sainsbury’s in Holborn, London to remove kosher food from its shelves during an action by anti-Israel protestors on Saturday. ‘Protest forced store to hide kosher food’ ran the headline in The Times.

Like other headlines, this one was clearly misleading. The protestors at Sainsbury’s were pushing for a boycott, not of kosher food, but of Israeli goods – which can be found across all too many sections of the supermarket. The kosher food section, for its part, contained food from a variety countries, including Poland and Britain.

In other words, pro-Palestine protestors were not responsible for the foolhardy and unfortunate reaction of Sainsbury’s management. Nonetheless, columnists are using the incident to highlight what they allege is the “anti-Semitism” of the Palestine solidarity movement.

The reaction, across Europe, to Israel’s war on Gaza has been unprecedented in its breadth. In London, crowds of up to 150,000 have regularly marched through the streets – such is the popular revulsion at the terror being unleashed against the people of Gaza. Even Britain’s Conservative government has been compelled – at least superficially – to slightly temper its pro-Israel instincts. Thus it is unsurprising that supporters of Israel are keen to delegitimize the mass movement for Palestine. Allegations of anti-Semitism are clearly a more effective means for achieving such ends than attempting to defend Israel’s indefensible actions in Gaza.

This is not, for a moment, to suggest that all allegations of anti-Semitism are simply a means to an end. Within British and European society, anti-Semitism is a longstanding poison. Meanwhile, the pro-Palestinian movement now encompasses hundreds of thousands of people. It is unfortunate, if not entirely unsurprising, that some individuals have reacted to Israel’s war on Gaza by attacking British Jews rather than the Israelis.

In Stamford Hill, close to where I live, there have been of incidents of individuals threatening and abusing the large Hassidic community. In Brighton, the words “Free Gaza” were spray-painted on a synagogue, in an action that clearly blurred the lines between British Jews and the Israeli state. It was unfortunate that in a local press piece on the latter incident, a pro-Palestine activist was quoted as saying that the city’s Jews needed to “stand up” and demonstrate their opposition to Israel.

Britain’s Jews do not have a special responsibility to condemn Israel. Nor should they be expected to demonstrate their political morality in order to avoid anti-Semitic attacks.

At the same time, the claim that anti-Semitism is a dominant or generalised feature of the Palestine solidarity movement needs to be exposed as the falsehood that it is. On the recent demonstrations I was struck by how free they were from anti-Semitic rhetoric. Amongst the many tens of thousands of placards, I’ve witnessed just a handful that were problematic, and in all cases I heard non-Jewish demonstrators expressing their disapproval.

Interestingly, this represents something of a shift from the situation that prevailed during the second intifida, when “Star of David = swastika” placards were more common. Within the Palestine solidarity movement, anti-Semitism has clearly declined sharply.

In part, I would suggest that this is the legacy of Britain’s decade-long anti-war movement. Insofar as the anti-war movement has popularised an anti-imperialist analysis of events in the Middle East – one that is focused upon the geo-political motivations of the key global and regional powers – this has served as a bulwark against any attempt to frame the oppression of the Palestinians as simply the consequence of some peculiar Jewish evil.

Meanwhile, within the British Jewish community itself, unprecedented fissures have emerged. British Jews have always been part of the Palestine solidarity movement. Yet this time the scale of has been greater than ever before, numbering certainly in the hundreds and possibly in the thousands. At the same time, the Zionist Federation could muster just 1,500 people to demonstrate in solidarity with the Israeli government, compared with the 30,000 who filled Trafalgar Square during a previous war on Gaza.

This is good news. And it represents just one of many reasons why the Palestine solidarity movement needs to remain intolerant of any manifestation of anti-Semitism. We should, with some confidence, speak out against attempts to smear the generality of the Palestine solidarity movement as anti-Semitic – either because of the actions of a small number of individuals, or because we are “singling out Israel” – if Assad in Syria was being backed to the hilt by our own government and its allies, believe me we’d be demonstrating in our thousands against him.

As long as Israel continues to blockade the people of Gaza, as long as it remains an Apartheid state in which millions of Palestinians cannot vote out the regime that governs them, the movement against it will continue to be sustained by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.

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