Unsolicited Advice from A Jewish (Mother) for European Activists

Jewish voices at a flashmob protest for a cease fire in Palestine last Tuesday at Amsterdam Central Station. (Photo: Jan Kees Helms)

In the past few weeks, many Jews do not speak out publicly against Israel because of antisemitism, and many non-Jews do not speak out about their criticisms of Israel because they are afraid of being labelled antisemites. Fear of antisemitism is what fed Herzl’s Zionist dream. A dream that has now become a nightmare. Fear of antisemitism feeds the current Israeli government. Antisemitism is one of the weapons that justifies the racist Jewish nation-state law. It is also an obstacle to peace. As long as there is antisemitism in the world, the argument goes, Jews need to have a state to be safe. The fear of antisemitism is destroying hope for peace. This fear kept me silent for far too long.

Almost a decade ago, working with other incredible Jewish activists, I started Een Andere Joodse Stem. Since moving to Belgium, there have been five wars against Gaza (2006, 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021) and endless forms of violence and injustices against Palestinians (both by the military and state-sanctioned settlers). I had never addressed the Belgian public, this changed in 2014. Less than a year before I had lost a child. Seeing parents mourning the death of their children, who were playing on a beach in Gaza, I came to realise that while there are many deaths I cannot prevent, there are many more we can prevent. If speaking out publicly against Israel’s crimes could contribute, in any way, to preventing violence and injustice, my responsibility to speak out overcame my fear. Being openly critical of Israel at synagogue and in Jewish circles was once a very lonely position (one which eventually led to my excommunication). This is no longer the case. Many Jews and Israelis are critical of the current regime, but they are afraid to say so publicly.

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I now speak out, but the reality of antisemitism makes me very cautious. Denying antisemitism is not an option. I have seen, studied, and experienced it over the past two decades. It exists in many forms and arises in all academic and political circles. It is a real problem, in Belgium and across the globe. It is essential that those of us who identify with the left, who call ourselves anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-colonialists, to honestly come to terms with the reality that there is antisemitism in our circles – past and present. We must do so only for the sake of peace in the Middle East, but also for justice and equality in Europe. Let me explain why and offer some, albeit unsolicited, advice to European academics and activists. I have no advice for Palestinians, only shame for having stayed silent for so long.

Since antisemitism is still widespread today, Bibi Netanyahu, the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history, has been able to turn it into a very powerful weapon. Jewish fear and European guilt keep people silent. And silence is violence. The distinction between criticising the Israeli state and antisemitism is not an easy one to draw. Antisemitism has been weaponized by Israel and many other states and institutions to silence legitimate critique of the government or its policies by both Jews and non-Jews. To understand how this has happened, over the past decades, slowly and insidiously, one must learn more about the campaigns by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) to define criticism of Israel as antisemitism.

This weaponization has been the trojan horse of the right as it was institutionalised by ‘good progressive liberals’, in governments and universities, partially to assuage their guilt and partially to enable them not to have to think critically. For all institutions who have signed the IHRA, criticism of Israel is counted as antisemitism. This means that statistics about antisemitism are not reliable, which is further harmful to Jews and the reality of antisemitism. While we must always be careful with our sources, this is especially important at present when our mainstream media has not created enough space for critical Israelis and critics of Israel, and continues to dehumanise Palestinians by reducing their stories to numbers.

Prior to this most recent war, this weaponization served to cancel Palestinian artists, activists and scholars as well as those who support them. It took away their right to speak, to have a voice, and to be heard, and it contributed to a culture of fear and censorship. Over the past few weeks, what had become the norm in some parts of Europe, is now widespread – banning Palestinian voices, flags, slogans, heavily policing or banning protests. Antisemitism has been so weaponised that wearing a keffiyeh is a potential crime. Antisemitism has also been weaponised to divide the left.

How to address the reality of antisemitism without falling into this pitfall? How to criticise Israel’s colonial politics without unconsciously reproducing an antisemitic discourse? I am offering the following unsolicited advice to those who are now organising events, writing petitions, and supporting protests calling out Israel’s’ genocidal actions and demanding a ceasefire.

  1. In every written statement or speech, acknowledge there is no justification for the horrendous crimes of Hamas on October 7th 2023. Make clear that by contextualising these crimes, we are not justifying them.
  2. Acknowledge the tragic rise of both antisemitism and islamophobia in Europe over the past three weeks and recognise how this serves the agenda of the far right, whose political power is a spectre haunting present and upcoming elections in Europe.
  3. Do not equate Israeli with Jews, this is precisely what the IHRA and Netanyahu do. Do not homogenise all Israelis. There are many critical Israelis. There are many non-white Israelis.
  4. Having attended a few recent protests and listed to many speeches, I will admit it is hard not to ask myself the question what does “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” mean for Israelis? If it means that Israeli Jews cannot remain, it is antisemitic – and this the left must clarify and call out. I ask Europeans, not Palestinians, to make this explicit because of their own historical complicity and their present responsibility. Acknowledge the Shoah and the Nakba, and Europe’s complicity with settler colonialism. Acknowledge Europe’s complicity for what is happening today in Gaza, it is not only the US blindly supporting Israel.
  5. Challenge the IHRA definition of antisemitism, wherever it is being used, and actively engage and educate yourself about BDS.
  6. Last but not least, educate yourself, about all of the above and the larger historical context, its relation to racism, to settler colonialism and to capitalism. Doing so will enable you to speak out and contribute to peace and justice, both here and in the Middle East.

Calling for a ceasefire is not antisemitism; it is the only hope for both Israelis and Palestinians. It is not antisemitic to call what the State of Israel has been doing over the past 75 years apartheid or slow genocide. But in order to be able to make these claims, the European left must address the reality of antisemitism in their midst. Failing to do so animates the weaponization of antisemitism.

Anya Topolski

(Professor in philosophical ethics and political philosophy at Nijmegen University, and founder of the ngo Een Andere Joodse Stem.)