ON THE MOVE: In France, Britain and America, high-profile figures on the radical left are being branded as anti-Semitic. Jewish activists are fighting back against the accusations, which they believe are being used for political ends.
“Go home.” “Dirty Zionist shit.” "You're a hater, you're going to die, you're going to hell!”
The amateur video, showing a cluster of people clad in reflective vests, who taunt and jeer at the French Jewish writer Alain Finkielkraut on a street corner in Paris last Saturday, has gone viral.
After the yellow vest movement’s 14th demonstration last weekend, a violent and polarizing debate on anti-Semitism has exploded in France. It has blended into the debate on the protest movement that, for over three months, has rebelled against what protesters believe is the anti-social policy of President Emmanuel Macron.
It is not only in France that fiery debate around anti-Semitism on the left has taken spark. In Britain, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been fighting back after being labeled “institutionally anti-Semitic.” In the U.S., new, radical voices in the Democratic Party are facing the same hard accusations. All the while, anti-Semitic acts and attacks on Jewish symbols are on the rise in several countries.
And one question arises repeatedly in these debates: Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-Semitism?
Defending the Yellow Vests
After the episode involving the attack on Finkielkraut in Paris, the Macron government’s minister of health, Agnès Buzyn, blamed the yellow vest movement for having “changed itself fundamentally” since the starting shot three months ago. Today, the protest movement “expresses anti-Semitism regularly,” she claimed on the TV network LCI on Sunday.
“I believe the demonstrations must end now,” the minister of health said at the TV studio.
Jacob Rogozinski, a Jewish professor of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, supports the yellow vests movement and votes for the left. He has reacted strongly to the accusations.
“Finkielkraut pops up often in the media, and is a controversial figure and a known provocateur. He has stood for several problematic statements on Muslims and feminists, and has called the French national soccer team ‘black-black-black,’ which makes all of Europe laugh at us. But the abuse he experienced on Saturday was serious and anti-Semitic,” Rogozinski told Klassekampen.
In the video, Finkielkraut is also heckled with the words “dirty racist,” and “dirty, hater.”
“He was attacked because he is a member of the elite, is pro-Israel, is reactionary, and is provocative. But also, unfortunately, because he is Jewish,” Rogozinski said. “Instead of saying ‘dirty Jew,’ they shouted ‘dirty Zionist shit.’ This is a modern euphemism for anti-Semitism.”
While Finkielkraut was being taunted and jeered at in Paris, Rogozinski himself was clad in a reflective vest with the yellow vest protesters in Strasbourg on Saturday. On Monday, when the debate had caught fire, Rogozinski had an op-ed published in the newspaper Le Monde, with the headline, “I support the Yellow Vests, as a man on the left and as a Jew.”
According to the French interior ministry, anti-Semitic acts reported to the police increased by a whopping 74 percent from 2017 to 2018 (from 311 to 541 instances). Even though the numbers were higher earlier in the 2000s (936 in 2002, and 974 in 2004), the French have been shaken by several severe episodes recently: On Monday night, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated with 80 swastikas that were spray-painted on the Jewish gravestones. In March last year, 85-year-old Mireille Knoll, who had survived the Holocaust, was stabbed, set on fire and killed by a neighbor and an acquaintance, both anti-Semitic Islamists. And two days after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, terrorists killed four people in a Jewish grocery store.
In Le Monde, Rogozinski writes that the rise in anti-Semitic verbal and physical attacks in France scares him. Anti-Semitism from both right-wing extremists and Islamists represents a serious problem in France, he confirms.
But he feels that the left has been unfairly labeled as anti-Semitic. He therefore thinks it is necessary to come to the defense of the yellow vest protesters — whom he believes are first and foremost characterized by direct democracy and the demand for social justice.
“Absolutely anyone — an anti-Semite, a fascist, a completely crazy person — can wear a reflective vest. This is the nature of the movement, it is nearly anarchistic. This is challenging. But it is a populist and broad movement, without any authoritarian leader-figure, and I think that is basically good,” the French professor told Klassekampen.
One of the yellow vests who roared at Finkielkraut in the famous video clip is the Islamist who calls himself Benjamin W. The 36-year-old now sits in police custody, and according to French media, is one of the controversial comedian Dieudonné’s many adherents in France. Dieudonné’s trademark, an allusion to the Nazi salute known as “La Quenelle,” has, over the course of three months of yellow vest protests been used by some yellow vest protesters.
But the chief of DGSI, the French interior intelligence agency, disproved this week that the yellow vest protesters have been “overtaken by extremists,” as several politicians and commentators have claimed. But relatively speaking, the number of extremists among the yellow vests protesters has risen, because the number of demonstrators in general has dropped, the DGSI chief confirmed to Le Parisien.
“Extremists (‘ultras’) have not succeeded at any point in taking leadership in this movement,” he said.
At the Throat of Mélenchon
After the Macron government’s minister of health, Buzyn, had criticized the yellow vest protesters and said that they “must stop protesting now,” she went for the throat of the government’s greatest opponent: Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his radical leftist movement, La France Insoumise.
She thought that the opposition politician had not distanced himself clearly or quickly enough from the abuse against Finkielkraut.
“I think it is clear: He does not condemn it. We have waited 24 hours, and he has reacted, but he has not condemned it,” said Buzyn.
Mélenchon tweeted that he “was clear about” the anti-Semitism that Finkielkraut had been subjected to, but added that one also “must never let racism pass,” with an implied nod to the accusations of racism that Finkielkraut has hanging over him. “Finkielkraut also had around him ‘yellow vests’ who wanted to defend him, and who opposed the attacks [on him]. I stand together with them,” Mélenchon tweeted.
Another politician from Macron’s party, La République en Marche, member of parliament Sylvain Mailliard, juxtaposed Mélenchon’s LFI with Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, Rassemblement National. The latter party, which until recently was called Front National, was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was convicted several times for trivializing the Holocaust, and it is for this reason that he is banned from the party today.
“Rassemblement National and La France Insoumise bear very clear anti-Semitic roots,” said the LREM politician, Mailliard, on the TV program “Public Senate.”
“Does this concern every person in these parties? I wouldn’t say that; I would not allow myself to say that. But I think that in their discourse, on a general level, anti-Semitism is always present,” he added.
’Completely Deliberate Strategy’
Rogozinski is extremely provoked by the statements of politician Maillard, who is a Macron ally. He believes the government has taken Jews as “a kind of hostage.”
“This is a deliberate strategy for the government to discredit the opposition. But it is an extremely problematic and dangerous strategy,” the Jewish professor says with outrage.
On Monday, Rogozinski, together with thousands of others, demonstrated against anti-Semitism.
He did something in Strasbourg’s streets he “must admit he had never done before.” He wore the yellow vest together with the kippah.
“For me, it is important to show that one can truly be both, both Jew and yellow vest,” he told Klassekampen.
Mélenchon and the party eventually deemed it necessary to go out and hold a press conference. They distanced themselves clearly from anti-Semitism, while at the same time defending themselves against the accusations.
“I say to those responsible in La République en Marche [Macron’s party]: No, we do not have anti-Semitic roots. One cannot be a racist and a member of La France Insoumise,” Mélenchon said.
“There are already more than enough anti-Semites. It is unnecessary to invent even more,” the politician thundered.
“And no, the yellow vests are not a racist movement. No, the yellow vests are not an anti-Semitic movement, No, the yellow vests are not a homophobic movement,” said Mélenchon, who took part in the march against anti-Semitism in Marseille.
To Separate State and People
Rogozinski says that while he places himself on the left, he disagrees with Mélenchon about many things. But he praises the party leader for supporting the yellow vests movement all the way.
The journalist and essayist Domonique Vidal is in the same boat: He has several disagreements with the renowned politician, but agrees that Mélenchon and LFI are unjustly labeled as anti-Semites by political opponents.
“Normally I would criticize Mélenchon. But what is happening here is idiotic. It is conceivable that there are some anti-Semites in Mélenchon’s party, but they can be found all over society. You’ll certainly find many in Le Pen’s party, some in the right-wing party Les Républicains, and surely also a few in the socialist party,” says Vidal.
Just like Rogozinski, he also had an op-ed printed in Le Monde this week.
There, he warned against the proposal that the aforementioned LREM politician Mailliard launched: that anti-Zionism should be criminalized.
Anti-Zionism can, as in the abuse against Finkielkraut, be used as a disguised form of anti-Semitism. But by definition, it is a criticism against the policy that the state of Israel is conducting, and that should in no way be illegal, Vidal thinks.
“In the end, Macron rejected the idea that anti-Zionism should be criminalized. That is good,” says Vidal.
But in a speech for Crif, the representational council for Jewish institutions in France, Macron said this week that “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism.”
“This is not about whether we should change the law,” the president tweeted on Wednesday.
But he simultaneously announced that France will now include anti-Zionism in its definition of anti-Semitism.
This means that France is implementing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.
“What this will mean in practice, no one knows for now. But there are many problematic aspects of this definition,” says Vidal.
A Question of Definition
The debate about the definition of anti-Semitism is also ongoing in Britain. There, a series of accusations of anti-Semitism have harried the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader in 2015. It reached a new climax this week when a total of eight members of parliament quit the Labour Party because they thought the party had become “infected with the scourge of anti-Jewish racism” under the leadership of Corbyn, among other reasons.
The inflamed debate on anti-Semitism in Labour over the last several years has contributed to the party leadership’s decision in September 2018 to adopt IHRA’s aforementioned definition of modern anti-Semitism in the party’s statutes. This set it as a foundation for the treatment of disciplinary matters.
Its incorporation in the party statutes was not without controversy. IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism has been criticized by several British jurists for being far-reaching and imprecise.
Among its critics is Stephen Sedley, formerly a judge of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales. In 2017 he wrote a legal opinion in response to IHRA’s definition. Sedley’s critique, shared by Labour’s leader Corbyn, points to the seventh point in IHRA’s definition: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
Sedley defines anti-Semitism in his response in this way: “Antisemitism is hostility towards Jews as Jews. Where it manifests itself in discriminatory acts or inflammatory speech it is generally illegal.”
He specifies, “By contrast, criticism (and equally defense) of Israel or of Zionism is not only generally lawful: it is affirmatively protected by law.” So wrote the former judge of the Court of Appeal in his legal opinion on behalf of the Labour organization, Jewish Voice for Labour.
In the context of this critique, the party leadership of Labour, at Corbyn’s initiative, added a subparagraph to the controversial seventh point that assures Labour Party members of the right to criticize the state of Israel.
This exception was immediately met with fury by one of Labour’s Jewish organizations, the Jewish Labour Movement. Luciana Berger, leader of the organization at the time, wrote in a letter to the party secretary, Jennie Formby: “The Jewish community, and the Jewish Labour Movement, believe that the best working definition of antisemitism is the full IHRA definition. … It doesn’t need changing, and it’s unclear for whose benefit these changes have been made. We cannot give antisemites a get out of jail free card.”
Berger was among those who chose to resign from the party earlier this week and rationalized this act, among other reasons, because: “I cannot remain in a party which I have come to the sickening conclusion is institutionally anti-Semitic.”
She may have the support of the movement she previously led, JLM. They are holding an internal vote later this week to decide if they will cut ties with the party that they have been a part of for 99 years.
Jewish Corbyn Supporters
It is, however, not the case that Corbyn stands without allies from the Jewish community in Britain when he desires to retain the right to criticize Israel. Glyn Secker is a Jewish Palestine activist, Corbyn supporter and general secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour. Neither he nor JVL agrees that Labour has a real problem with anti-Semitism internally.
“I have personally never experienced anti-Semitism in my many years in Labour, and have experienced that the organization takes the allegations extremely seriously.”
Secker was one of a total of 200 Jewish Labour members who signed an open letter published in the Guardian on Wednesday. The letter defended Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in Labour, and highlighted the party leader’s efforts in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination in society.
Secker explained his signature on the petition thus: “We believe that Luciana Berger’s assertion that Labour is institutionally anti-Semitic is without basis in reality. The attack is motivated by a desire to weaken Jeremy Corbyn politically,” said Secker.
He thinks that the media have not sufficiently included Jewish voices that support Corbyn, and feels that the presentation of the issue in the British press has been excessively and singularly focused against the Labour leadership. This is why the petition was necessary, he thinks.
“It was important for us as Jews in Labour to share our experiences with how we experience precisely that, to be a Jew in Labour. As you see (with reference to the petition), many of us have a different view from JLM and Luciana Berger regarding this issue,” Secker points out.
He also refers to the fact that Labour has commissioned an investigatory report, has mapped the extent of anti-Semitism within the party, has handled accusations continuously and has suspended and excluded members as a result of anti-Semitic statements and actions.
Secker, who in 2010 was captain of the “Jewish boat to Gaza,” has known Corbyn for years. They have shared the stage at various pro-Palestine demonstrations several times. He shares that he and several of his like-minded colleagues understood early on that Corbyn would be accused of anti-Semitism because of his clear, years-long support for the Palestinian cause.
“The attacks came already when he was candidate for party leader. We established JVL to be a counterweight to those; Jeremy Corbyn is truly no anti-Semite! As I see it, it concerns a deliberate campaign to undermine Corbyn’s agenda, on the Israel-Palestine question of course, but also on Labour’s economic policy,” Secker believes.
Must Be Able To Criticize Israel
Jewish Voice for Labour was formally created in 2017 not only to support Corbyn, but also for the right to criticize Israel in Britain.
“I have experienced that, to an increasing degree, there has been an equivalence made between Jewish and Israeli identity. There is a strong pro-Israel lobby that has worked toward that in several countries, in the U.S. and Britain. They try in this way to silence the critiques against Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank,” says Secker.
He himself has been called a “leftist anti-Semite” several times because he is a Palestine activist, and has increasingly experienced that his religion is taken as a stance he in no way can stand for.
“We cannot put Israel on a pedestal where they stand above all criticism. Political Zionism is an ideology, and it must be possible to criticize both Israel and Zionism without being labeled an anti-Semite.”
A similar discussion is also raging in the U.S., where the country’s first two Muslim congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have both been accused of anti-Semitism after critiquing Israel and the Israeli lobbying group, AIPAC. Omar and Tlaib are the first two members of Congress to support the so-called BDS movement, the campaign that aims to boycott Israel. BDS is a highly volatile topic in American politics, and 26 states have passed laws that make it more difficult to support boycott politics and criticism of Israel.
The Republicans’ minority leader in Congress, Kevin McCarthy, has called Tlaib and Omar’s support of BDS anti-Semitic, and has tried to remove them from committee positions. Omar responded to the critique with a tweet: “It’s all about the benjamins” — it concerns only money. The tweet was immediately criticized for playing on the stereotype of rich Jewish puppet masters. Omar clarified later that she was referring to AIPAC — the most important pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S. After pressure from both Republicans and her own Democratic leaders, Omar apologized this week, but reserved her right to criticize lobbying groups and their power in American politics.
The controversy follows a development where Democrats, who for several decades have been characterized by strong consensus around their support of Israel, are now influenced to a far greater degree by leftist grassroots activists who are sharply critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This development has also been driven by the success of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders is himself Jewish, but has criticized Israel’s warmongering in Gaza several times.