What are the Boundaries of Anti-semitism?– Harold Zwier

magen-david-swaztikaThis article, by AJDS Executive member Harold Zwier was published, in a very slightly modified form in the Australian Jewish News of 2 Feb 2012. The AJN version is attached below.
Recently The Age newspaper reported that the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) had complained to the SBS ombudsman about a fictional drama, The Promise, shown on SBS late in 2011. The drama is set against the historical background of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate 1947/48 and Israel in 2005.
The main contention of the ECAJ is summed up in this quote from their complaint to SBS.
“The basic concept of The Promise, and the premises on which it rests, are … not merely a gross misrepresentation of history, they also fall squarely within the … Working Definition of Antisemitism.”
The showing of The Promise pushed all the wrong buttons in the Jewish community. It is an unsentimental and unflattering portrait of Israel’s creation. The portrayal of Jews is less sympathetic than those of the Arabs. The main Jewish family depicted in modern day Israel is wealthy. The historical narrative is biased towards the Arabs.

Reflecting the concern of many in the Jewish community, the ECAJ reacted by raising these and many other points in their complaint to SBS. The complaint in part depended on a general acceptance of what constitutes anti-semitism, but the SBS ombudsman did not agree with the ECAJ.
It used to be reasonably easy to spot anti-semitism. It fell fairly neatly under the headings of racism, prejudice and bigotry, and unambiguously manifested itself in caricature and stereotype that painted all Jews as subversive. Nowadays, that sort of anti-semitism has shifted to Muslims who are accused of collective subversion. Anti-semitism is probably a good description for the calumny directed at Muslims – except that it is a term applied specifically to hatred of Jews. So new words, such as Islamophobia, have had to be invented.
Over the last two decades there has been a widening of the definition of anti-semitism. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a working definition of anti-semitism, giving examples which include: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”. But with the qualification that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.
In reality it often becomes a matter of opinion as to whether a work critical of Israel falls within the definition of anti-semitism or not. The problem is not with views from the political extremities, whose black and white depiction of issues sets them clearly apart from the real world. The problem is with the mainstream, where a diversity of views is the currency of debate.
Who can take on the task of objectively adjudicating whether a particular “criticism of Israel is similar to that leveled against any other country”, or whether it is more harsh and therefore deemed to be anti-semitic?
More importantly, if identifying anti-semitism of this form can be so difficult that it becomes the subject of academic or legal debate, how can ordinary people of goodwill be expected to understand its nuance and subtlety, let alone oppose it.
Whatever the historical inaccuracy and bias of The Promise, its characters are complex and there are a variety of opinions expressed about the nature of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Any influence it has on the audience of people uncommitted to one political narrative or the other, would be offset firstly by their general awareness that the story itself is fictional and the historical background subjective, and secondly by other dramas and documentaries on television that present a broad spectrum of views.
In making their complaint to SBS, the ECAJ must have been aware that the complaint would likely enter the public domain, giving a level of publicity to the drama that SBS could only dream of. They must also have been aware that no matter how genuinely they believe the drama to be anti-semitic, the complaint could be seen in the wider community as a way of suppressing a valid political viewpoint with which the ECAJ disagrees.
On an even more fundamental level, the working definition of anti-semitism in relation to criticism of Israel encourages those who believe the drama is biased against Israel, to look for ways in which the bias can be attributed to anti-semitism, rather than simply to a different political or historical perspective. Once anti-semitism has been identified, the whole work can be dismissed as being tainted.
This in-built bias in the working definition of anti-semitism, in my opinion, compromises an objective determination that a work is anti-semitic. And the dismissal of the ECAJ complaint by the SBS ombudsman reinforces that view.
Considering that a major purpose of categorising this form of racism is to educate the wider community as a way of countering anti-semitism, anything that works against its easy identification spoils the effort to fight it.
Harold Zwier is on the executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society