Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: Another Toxic Epidemic

Jul 26, 2021 | Colin Rubenstein

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Like the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the globe for the past 18 months, antisemitism has been experiencing a resurgence in virtually every part of the world. 

Organisations that monitor antisemitic incidents in many countries, including Australia, have found a steady and sometimes dramatic rise in assaults, harassment, intimidation and bullying over recent years – reaching a dramatic crescendo during and in the aftermath of the conflict launched by Gaza’s Hamas rulers against Israel in May 2021. 

In both the US and Britain over recent months, monitoring bodies have recorded the highest levels of antisemitic incidents ever experienced.

Social media is clearly a key part of this explosion of hate.

A European Commission study showed a seven-fold increase in antisemitic content on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram in French, and a more than 13-fold increase in antisemitic content in German between the beginning of 2020 and early 2021. 

Antisemites have apparently found social media to be the perfect medium for anti-Jewish bullying, abuse and libel, and for organising and inciting hatred on a global scale. 

State sponsorship by antisemitic regimes is an important element of this ugly trend. A recent US study revealed that Iranian regime-linked Twitter accounts began spreading messages like “Hitler was right” and “Kill all Jews” at a rate of 175 times per minute during the recent Israel-Hamas conflict.

Moreover, in Malaysia, government-linked organisations with hundreds of thousands of members not only flooded the internet with virulently anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda, but made concerted efforts to hack or shut down the accounts of Jews and other supporters of Israel. 

Many commentators seem to be in denial about the current unprecedented wave of antisemitism, insisting it is either a response to Israeli policies, or even a concoction of Zionists who want to smear all criticism of Israel as antisemitic. 

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, put himself in the former category in a recent tweet, when he wrote: “Antisemitism is always wrong, and it long preceded the creation of Israel, but the surge in UK antisemitic incidents during the recent Gaza conflict gives the lie to those who pretend that the Israeli government’s conduct doesn’t affect antisemitism.” (Roth subsequently removed it without retracting it.)

Meanwhile, antisemites often use the excuse that they are “only criticising Israel” as a cloak to clothe their hatred in a veneer of self-righteous social virtue.

Yet, in addition to its own dubious morality, obsessive, over-the-top and disproportionate criticism of Israel unquestionably helps create the environment in which antisemitic activity has flourished. 

As we’ve witnessed time and time again at pro-Palestinian rallies in Australia, groups that organise these demonstrations provide a safe space for bona fide antisemites to march proudly alongside the well-meaning but ill-informed people who have been taught to see the situation in the Holy Land through a false prism – such as by defining Israelis as white colonisers oppressing dark-skinned Palestinians in a misappropriation of critical race theory.

People like Roth are part of this same environment – effectively legitimating antisemitism by placing the blame on Israel rather than the perpetrators. 

Antisemitism does rise when Israel fights back against attacks. But the only moral response to such ugliness, particularly from the standpoint of universal human rights, is that “Nothing justifies hate crimes or harassment against Jews anywhere, regardless of the Israeli Government’s conduct.” 

One key to confronting this problem is the widely-employed working definition of antisemitism developed in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), of which Australia is a member. 

This definition has been adopted by the governments of 32 countries, supported by the UN Secretary-General and the EU, and is in use by hundreds of public and private institutions.

Recognising that as a Jewish collective, Israel can be either a target of antisemitism or employed as a way to express antisemitism indirectly, the IHRA definition astutely offers some examples where criticism of Israel can cross a line into antisemitism – while rightly insisting that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The examples it offers are simply common sense – for example, blaming all Jews for Israel’s behaviour; using traditional antisemitic tropes in castigating Israel; accusing Jews of dual loyalty for supporting Israel; rejecting a Jewish right to self-determination, alone of all peoples; or insisting that the expression of that right in the State of Israel is inherently a racist endeavour. Any person of goodwill should see that doing any of these things at least raises questions about possible antisemitic motives. 

The IHRA definition effectively leaves no place for those who espouse antisemitism to hide amidst the broader activities of anti-Israel organisations. 

Therefore, some individuals affiliated with these anti-Israel groups, indignant at their dubious and potentially antisemitic behaviour being exposed, arranged an alternative to give themselves cover – the “Jerusalem Declaration” of 2020. This alternative definition differentiates itself from the IHRA’s mainly by providing a long list of anti-Israel stances and activities associated with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which it explicitly says should never be considered antisemitic. 

This misconceived and unconvincing ploy is particularly damaging because the IHRA definition is so central to any effort to turn back the current dangerous tide of antisemitism. 

Social media companies, in particular, need to adopt the IHRA definition to help recognise and limit the explosion of online hate which has fed and helped incite the parallel explosion of antisemitic attacks, harassment, and intimidation in the offline world. These companies have made some improvements at the margins recently, but have light years left to travel before they will be adequately meeting their responsibilities in this regard.

To convince them to meet these responsibilities, Jews and their non-Jewish allies need to stand together against antisemitism, like all other forms of prejudice and racism, wherever and whenever it arises, and end the unconvincing qualifying, equivocating and prevaricating that has prevailed in confronting the “longest hatred” for far too long.


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