Calling out Israel – Jews speak out

JVL introduction

An op-ed in the Independent elaborates on the Global Jewish Statement on Defining Antisemitism published last week, signed by over forty Jewish organisations

As Jews, we reject the myth that it’s antisemitic to call Israel racist

In such urgent times, it is more important than ever to distinguish between legitimate critiques of unjust Israeli policies and ‘hostility to Jews as Jews’

  • Rebecca Vilkomerson
  • Richard Kuper

The Independent, 22nd July 2018


A worldwide coalition of Jewish groups has issued a joint statement condemning attempts to stifle criticism of Israel with false accusations of antisemitism.

The statement, which 40 Jewish groups from 15 different countries have signed, could not have been more timely. In the UK, the Labour Party is currently under pressure to adopt the full guidelines accompanying a definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

Labour adopted the 38-word definition long ago. But the guidelines with it include examples of antisemitism, two of which – both connected to criticism of Israel – are highly controversial.

Firstly, they suggest that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” could itself be racist. Secondly, they claim that “applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected of any other democratic nation” is potentially antisemitic.

Since being adopted by the UK government in December 2016, these guidelines have already been used to target organisations campaigning for Palestinian rights. Supporters of Israel have called on government to stop the annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” on university campuses on the grounds that it breaches the IHRA.

But genuine anti-racist principles surely lead us to criticise Israel for its many discriminatory policies, whether its segregated road network, its dual justice system, or the “Jewish nation state” bill passed on Wednesday, which entrenches ethnic inequality in law.

Perversely labelling critics of this racism “antisemitic” also silences Palestinians who object to Israel’s historic and ongoing takeover of their land.

Meanwhile, the idea of “double standards” has been used to attack the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Supporters of Israel claim that unless all human rights-abusing nation states are boycotted, there must be some antisemitic motivation lurking behind calls for BDS.

This deliberately ignores three points. Firstly, Palestinians have collectively called for solidarity through BDS until their fundamental human rights are upheld, including the right of return for refugees.

Secondly, via military, financial and diplomatic support, our governments are deeply complicit in Israel’s violations, whereas this is not the case with, say, the Syrian government’s crimes.

Thirdly, precisely because of this direct involvement, implementing a boycott strategy here can make real impact, just as the boycott of South Africa – on which BDS is modelled – helped to bring an end to apartheid there.

BDS is indeed working, as worried pro-Israel groups themselves acknowledged last year. Due to the success of the movement, a global response by Israel’s supporters is in full swing, with legislation to repress the boycott initiated in many countries.

What is happening in the UK is but one example of attempts to redefine antisemitism to include criticism of Israel. In the US, the Antisemitism Awareness Act does the same.

As Jews who support the BDS movement, which is based on universal human rights principles and opposition to all racisms, we find it distressing that some imply Jewish communities are unanimous in their support of the IHRA.

On the contrary, we believe that by dangerously conflating opposition to Israel’s discriminatory policies with anti-Jewish racism, IHRA politicises and harms the fight against antisemitism as well as the struggle for justice for Palestinians.

We take the threat of antisemitism seriously. Indeed, from our own histories we are all too aware of the dangers of increasingly racist governments and political parties. The rise in antisemitic discourse and attacks worldwide is part of that broader trend.

In such urgent times, it is more important than ever to distinguish between legitimate critiques of unjust Israeli policies and “hostility to Jews as Jews“, as leading expert Brian Klug defines antisemitism.

It is profoundly wrong to label the Labour party “antisemitic” for refraining to adopt IHRA guidelines in their entirety. Criticising Israeli policies – or indeed the tenets of Zionism – must be allowed to be part of political debate. That’s why Labour’s national executive committee has found aspects of the IHRA guidelines wanting.

Leading lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC has criticised the IHRA on these grounds. Civil liberties champions Liberty recently cautioned public bodies that it could constitute a threat to freedom of expression. Tellingly, even US lawyer Kenneth Stern – a key figure in crafting early incarnations of the IHRA – has warned that it could “encourage punishments of legitimate expressions of political opinion”.

Last weekend, two Palestinian teenagers in Gaza were killed by an Israeli air strike. Since the beginning of the Great Return March protests on 30 March, over 130 people have been killed – including 25 children. These are just the most recent examples of why we call for a non-violent boycott of Israel until it complies with international law.

With Jewish and Israeli organisations across the globe that have varying approaches to the BDS movement, we stand united against harmful definitions of antisemitism and together for human rights and the freedom to protest.


Richard Kuper co-founded the UK-based Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Rebecca Vilkomerson is director of US-based Jewish Voice for Peace

Comments (2)

  • philiph35 says:

    It may not be anti-Semitic to call Israel racist but the end result will not be pretty for most Jews. Many people now consider Israel a racist and a Nazi state. On the other hand, most people consider most Jews support Israel: I believe this is likely to be the case. So many see most Jews as supporting a racist and Nazi state hence, presumably, racists and Nazis. I am quite sure that expressions of support for Israel will be forbidden under a Labour government – freedom of speech does not apply to racists after all. It seems legitimate to wonder what else is in store for most Jews.

  • Martin Rudland says:

    philiph you seem to be projecting the same approach of ignorance/agenda that the IHRA-code-pushers have !
    I am sure that expressions of support for Israel will NOT be forbidden, REPEAT will NOT be forbidden, under a Labour government .
    What are you on about with ” freedom of speech does not apply to racists after all” ? Perhaps you are illuminating a certain mindset – dangerous and is it behind the push for the IHRA-code examples?

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