At times of high tension such as during military conflicts many values can be overlooked, and this can sometimes dilute the human principles that should be shared and adopted by all, even warring factions.
It is understandable that people are not cool-headed when rockets are falling on their homes. But they should not abandon reason for all that, as this plays into the hands of those fomenting violence, hatred, or terror.
No one with even a shred of humanity can condone the killing of thousands of women and children in the way that Israel is doing in Gaza, whatever the pretexts or explanations may be. It was not so long ago that the US and UK invaded and then occupied Iraq based on lies that they had propagated. The then UK prime minister Tony Blair’s fabricated “dossier” claiming to provide evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the faked satellite images shown off by then-US secretary of state Colin Powell at the UN are still remembered by many.
Israel claims that it is fighting a “religious” group in Gaza that is proscribed in many countries as a terrorist organisation. That suits its own discriminatory nature as a “religious state” in a law adopted under a previous Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018. That law made Israel and Iran, along with the “caliphate” run by the Islamic State (IS) group, the only religious states in the world.
Even if the world has turned a blind eye to Israel’s daily aggressions against the Palestinians for years, this does not mean that it is not aware of them. I do not buy into conspiracy theories, especially those propagated by religious fanatics, and I see the Western support of Israel as a political and strategic choice, whether or not it is one in its own interests.
That political choice cannot be a justification for undermining basic human rights, among them the right to free speech and to the expression of one’s own opinions without the fear of being persecuted. One of the main laws used to scare those with different views is the allegation of “anti-Semitism.” Whether the ruling elite in Israel are of Semitic or of Caucasian origin – the latter is closer to the truth – is irrelevant here. Aside from a few fundamentalists, no one is against Israel because it is a “Jewish state” or because its leaders are “Semites.”
Two years ago, the majority of people in the region sympathised with Palestinian families about to be evicted from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem. But once the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired rockets from Gaza on Israeli cities, Arab public opinion became divided.
It might be thought that this was the case only in the Arab Gulf countries that had recently established a “warm peace” with Israel. But in fact many Egyptians were also reluctant to cheer on Hamas. Many Egyptians still remember how Hamas, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, sided against the popular will during the one-year rule of the Brotherhood in Egypt. The debate in Egypt was unprecedented, with some people accusing Hamas of “terrorism” when it supported Brotherhood efforts to destroy Egypt in 2011-2013.
This reluctance is not present this time round, even with Netanyahu and his extremist government portraying the Israeli war on Gaza as an Israel-Hamas war. One of his ministers has described the Palestinian Arabs as “human animals.” Thousands of the victims in this war are not members of Hamas, and the killing and destruction amounts to genocide and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their own land.
Many people in the Middle East realise that mixing religion with politics leads to awful dangers. That is contrary to perceptions in the late 1970s and later when many academics in the West propagated the notion that so-called “moderate Islamism” was the rising political power in the Middle East.
Some of these academics, among them the Frenchman François Burgat, the American John Esposito, and the Lebanese-American Fawaz Gerges, tended to differentiate between “moderate Islamism” (the Brotherhood and its affiliates) and “militant Islamism” (Al-Qaeda, IS, and so on). Today, people in the region are realising that this distinction is not a real one. They increasingly believe that all those groups are offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, anybody criticising Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories faces the accusation of “anti-Semitism.” It looks as if Israel is suffering from the same malaise associated with Iran in raising a religious flag in politics.
There is no legally binding international definition of terrorism. The same thing is true of anti-Semitism. But there is a working definition for the latter that many countries incorporate into their criminal law.
Anti-Semitism is the belief about or behaviour that is hostile towards Jews just because they are Jews. The definition conforms to the basic human rights principle not to discriminate against people on the grounds of religious, ethnicity, or for other reasons. However, some countries extend the definition to any action against the state of Israel, seeing this as “Jewish collective.” This is introducing religion into politics and is discriminatory if not close to racist.
Any action against a Jew because of his religion falls under the law against anti-Semitism in almost every country in the world. However, assuming that a state or its politicians are exclusively representative of a religion (or even a race) is a notion that is not acceptable. Standing up against so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Israeli settlers killing Palestinians in the West Bank and burning their farms is not anti-Semitic. Protesting against these actions is not done because those carrying them out are Jews.
In fact, diluting the serious crime of anti-Semitism, rightly applicable to Holocaust deniers or those who attack Jews because of their religion, is dangerous. It fuels the dangerous perception propagated by Political Islamists, and now by the extremist Israeli government, that the world brands all Muslims as “terrorists” or that the Arabs regard all Jews as “Zionists.” It is true that some extremist groups might give that impression. But the law and the state should not.
The use of the accusation of “anti-Semitism” to silence any criticism of Israel or its policies dilutes its working definition. Moreover, it feeds into the perception that Israel is allowed to ignore all rules and norms because the world is reluctant to force it to commit to them for fear of being seen as “anti-Semitic.”
Supporting Israel is a political decision that has nothing to do with being a Semite or not being a Semite. Not supporting it is also a political decision that has nothing to do with religion. It is odd that while people in many Arab countries are abandoning religion in politics, some in the West are becoming more accommodating of it.
*The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly