How the Right Reinvented Antisemitism

After Israel occupied large swaths of Palestine in 1967, European and American conservatives began to charge critics of the occupation with antisemitism. Recently, politicians have taken advantage of this redefinition to criminalize solidarity with Palestine.

Protesters showing solidarity with Palestinians in Skokie, Illinois, were sprayed with pepper spray on October 22, 2023. (Jacek Boczarski / Anadolu via Getty Images)

It is a strange feature of the conservative and right-wing response to antisemitism both in the United Kingdom and the United States, that the form it largely takes is not that of identifying actual cases of antisemitism and acting on them, but of criminalizing solidarity with Palestine.

After 150,000 people marched in London against the genocide in Gaza, Britain’s home secretary, Suella Braverman, described the protest as an “intimidating mob” whose slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” meant “the destruction of Israel.” Eric Pickles, who as well as serving as a Conservative MP also occupies the position of the United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, a body largely responsible for the care of precious artifacts, went further. The slogan, which originated in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) campaign to achieve a secular democratic state across the whole of the territory that Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem says is ruled by a system of “Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” is an “ethnic cleansing chant,” Pickles outrageously claimed.

There is, of course, no contradiction between being antisemitic and being a passionate supporter of the state of Israel. The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his son, whom no one could accuse of wishing to free Palestine from the river to the sea, trade openly in George Soros conspiracy theories. In interviews, the latter has claimed that a global elite of radical leftists funded by the Jewish philanthropist control much of the media.

Netanyahu is a close ally of the Jew-baiting Viktor Orbán government in Hungary, as is the leadership of the settler movement. The Zionist movement has long allied with antisemitic Evangelicals. Seen from this perspective, the current Israeli government’s affinities with the European far right are less strange than they might initially seem. Not for nothing a Haaretz editorial last month warned that Netanyahu had become the “antisemites’ cheerleader.”

Spartans With Nukes

This new set of alliances was made possible, in part, by the emergence of a rift between the Western left and Israel as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967 during which Israel militarily crushed its neighbors and occupied the remainder of historical Palestine. This brutal act of conquest won Washington’s admiration as it floundered in Vietnam. But, coupled with the settler-colonial projects immediately commenced in the West Bank and Gaza, it destroyed the illusion that Israel was a plucky progressive Sparta in a sea of Arab hostility.

From the antiwar movement to Black Power, the radical left had every reason to criticize Israel. The new right, on the other hand, newly infatuated with Israel, charged that the Left had become, along with Arab nationalism, the source of a “new antisemitism,” which, rather than attacking Jews directly, insidiously attacked the state to which Jews looked to secure their long-term existence.

The concept of the new antisemitism was popularized in The New Anti-Semitism, which was published by the Anti-Defamation League in 1974, was given some modest intellectual heft by the Orientalist Bernard Lewis in his 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites, and has since been mainstreamed in some “working definitions” of antisemitism, from that deployed by the European Union Military Committee to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s highly controversial definition.

The thrust of the new antisemitism thesis is that Israeli military aggression was really self-defense and that solidarity toward Palestinians was really antisemitism. Thus the French essayist Alain Finkielkraut could describe 2002, when many people protested against Israel’s ravaging of the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield, as a “Kristallyear”; four years later, Lewis compared the atmosphere resulting from Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 to that of 1938.

Those statements are functionally antisemitic. Most definitions of antisemitism, “working” or otherwise, agree that it is antisemitic to fail to distinguish between the state of Israel and Jews. It follows as surely as night follows day, that it is antisemitic to fail to distinguish between opposition to the state of Israel on internationalist, anti-colonial, and anti-racist grounds and hostility to the Jews as such. But Israel apologia depends precisely on obliterating the distinction between itself and Jews. Israel must represent itself, no matter how many Jewish people reject its embrace or protest against it, as “the state of the Jews,” the “Jew of nations,” the national self-defense of a people who could only exist elsewhere as a “foreign” element.

That is what conservative politicians around the world are doing when they criminalize Palestine solidarity on the spurious basis of opposing antisemitism; that is what Britiain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is doing when he talks as if all Jews support Israel; that is what authorities in Berlin and France are doing when they ban Palestine protests. They may not be desecrating cemeteries or synagogues, but their logic is the same as that of some of those who do.

Trickle-Down Imperialism

This new antisemitism thesis has, in Britain, trickled down into the national media. On the BBC, pro-Palestine protesters are mendaciously identified as “backing” Hamas. Such charges quickly morph into direct accusations of antisemitism. According to Robin Simcox, the far-right “counter-extremism” advisor appointed by the country’s home secretary, Priti Patel, the recent marches across the UK are led by people who wish for “death to Jews and the erasure of Israel from the map.”

The Jewish Chronicle, infamous for its poor journalistic standards, has come out in favor of banning pro-Palestine protests. The paper has referred to a planned national demonstration as a “March of Hate.” The accompanying story, coming shortly after its editor alleged in a now deleted tweet that “much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult that sacralizes bloodshed,” consists largely of establishing extremely tenuous links between some protest organizers and Hamas. After the march took place on October 21, with some three hundred thousand attending, the media’s panicked smears only grew worse.

Sophy Ridge on the BBC referred to “thousands” of people talking about “jihad.” The only case of that happening was a single speech at a separate rally organized by Hizb ut-Tahrir. Former BBC journalist Andrew Marr, writing in the New Statesman, described “hate-swollen faces marching in anti-Semitic demonstrations” chanting “echoes of the Holocaust and potential nuclear war.”

These absurd slanders are part of a wider criminalization of Palestine solidarity in the UK. Counterterrorism policing has long been used against supporters of Palestinian rights in the UK. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008–2009, British police raided homes and arrested a total of 169 protesters under “Operation Ute.” Many, including minors, were charged and given severe sentences for relatively minor offenses.

More recently, during the protests against an Israeli assault on Gaza in 2021, students were either punished for such crimes as wearing keffiyehs, arrested under counterterrorism laws, or referred to the Prevent program. Currently, Conservative MP Michael Gove, who previously wasted taxpayers money pursuing a ludicrous conspiracy theory about Islamists taking over Birmingham schools, is pushing legislation to ban public bodies from joining Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns targeting Israel. He claims that such campaigns lead to “antisemitic rhetoric abuse,” which is false. He adds that they “undermine UK foreign policy,” which is true, and the whole point, and ought to be a democratic right.

What is happening here is not just that “extremism” has been redefined by a bunch of conspiracy theorists, Islamophobes, right-wing opportunists, and trigger-happy authoritarians. Nor is it just that the Right has given up on the idea of winning “hearts and minds” in favor of outright repression, although this is happening and not least in Israel where antiwar activists are hounded by both police and far-right thugs. It is that the whole idea of winning consent, of patiently constructing hegemony, is in ashes. In the UK, for example, the public overwhelmingly supports a cease-fire, but neither of the two biggest parties will support that.

Polls indicate that Britain’s Tories are likely to be decimated at the next general election, a swing greater than that won by Tony Blair in 1997 likely awaits them. But Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who refuses to reverse anti-protest laws, has maintained that Israel has the “right” to impose collective punishment on the people of Gaza. On October 17, the Guardian reported on a predictable consequence of that policy, namely Palestinians dying of dehydration or getting cholera and dysentery from drinking unhygienic water.

In Labour, there have been waves of resignations of the party’s councilors and council leaders, from Scotland to London, furious over the leader of the opposition’s stance. Labour has been having urgent meetings with council leaders, ITV journalist Shehab Khan reports, but the most Starmer has done in response is deny that he said what he said while slightly adjusting his language. Even now, Shadow Minister for International Development Lisa Nandy refuses to say that Israel’s collective punishment is in breach of international law. It’s unlikely much will change if the party is elected.

In the United States, too, the blanket support for Israel is provoking splits in Joe Biden’s ruling coalition. As most Americans, especially Democrat voters, oppose sending more arms to Israel and support a cease-fire, staffers in the administration are in revolt against Biden’s policy of blanket support for Netanyahu.

Despite this opposition, polities around the world are being led into a disastrous war in support of an Israeli far right waging a genocidal campaign. Universally, the response of those in power has been a multipronged strategy: get more people fired, demand names and lists, ban protests, cancel pro-Palestine events, and lock more people up. The ruling class still knows how to rule, but it is exhausting the means of ruling by consent.

America’s Outpost

Israel could not do what it is threatening to do to the Palestinians, which a UN press release warns is tantamount to “mass ethnic cleansing,” and which experts have said is a clear expression of genocidal intent, without rabid international backing. It could not accelerate its policy of pogroms and “transfer” (ethnic cleansing) in the West Bank without the diplomatic cover and unqualified backing provided by the United States and Britain. That is why the overseas public relations battle has historically been so important for Israel. That is why it matters for them if mass movements arise to oppose Israel.

Israel is a tiny country in the Levant, with a smaller population than Greece and a smaller GDP than Turkey. Its army, barring its nuclear weapons program (built with French assistance), is not significantly larger or better armed than those of other Middle Eastern states, like Iran. It could not be the fearsome, violent state it is were it not for the fact that, as a Congressional Research Service report from earlier this year notes, Israel “is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.”

In fact, US military backing really kicked off after Israel’s defeat of Arab armies in 1967 demonstrated its utility to geopolitical control of the region. Current aid, most of it military, is $3.8 billion each year — a direct result of Barack Obama signing the largest aid package in history at that point (recently dwarfed by US aid to Ukraine), in the ten-year Memorandum of Understanding. In current dollars, Israel has received a sum total of $158 billion.

The Pentagon provides Israel with its most advanced weapons, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, its fifth-generation stealth aircraft. It has also been policy since the Bill Clinton administration to affirm tacit support for Israel’s nuclear weapons in a secret letter signed by incoming administrations. (If, as Ehud Barak fears, a “messianic dictatorship” were to take power in Israel and threaten surrounding states with nuclear weapons, that will partly be a result of such invaluable backing.)

Currently, the United States is supplying a fresh batch of armored cars to Israel, which will shortly be used against Gaza residents if Israel embarks on its threatened ground invasion. Of course, the United States doesn’t do this out of charity or even because of an outsized “Israel Lobby.” Every dollar in aid comes with stipulations as to how it is to be used so that Israel’s military acts (very willingly) as an outpost of US foreign policy priorities in the region.

The United Kingdom was, of course, decisive in helping to establish the state of Israel at the price of the ethnic cleansing of seven hundred thousand Palestinians in the Nakba, which is Arabic for catastrophe. The realpolitik rationale for this was expressed by Ronald Storrs, a British governor of Jerusalem during the Mandate rule over Palestine, who looked forward to the Zionist movement “forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”

And so, especially during the Arab uprising of 1936–1939, the armed forces of the British empire trained the paramilitaries that would form the nucleus of the future Israeli army. Currently, the UK is one of Israel’s strongest global allies. It provides annual weapons licenses to Israel worth hundreds of millions of pounds, weapons that are then used in the suppression of Palestinians, such as during the Great March of Return in 2018.

In support of Israel’s war, where Prime Minister Sunak refuses even the pabulum of “restraint,” the government has dispatched navy ships and surveillance planes as a symbolic gesture of support for Israel. This is the “foreign policy” that Gove is concerned that protesters are trying to subvert. This is what official campaigns, ostensibly aimed at curbing antisemitism, are trying to protect.

None of this is entirely new. The alliance with Israel is decades old, the new antisemitism myth is just as old, and the suppression of antiwar and pro-Palestine protest with a distinctly Islamophobic bent has been escalating since the “war on terror.” However, there is an historic shift taking place. Just as consent for the alliance with Israel has been draining for years, Israel has shifted drastically to the right, becoming one of a wave of states from Brazil to India, Hungary, Italy, the Philippines, Poland, and the United States ruled by a far-right administration.

Just as repression of Palestine solidarity is cross-fertilized by broader authoritarian currents inflected with reactionary conspiracism, so international support for Israel at its most unhinged and irrational is now fecundated by the rise of vengeful ethnonationalism. The same forces who promote “Great Replacement” or “cultural Marxism” myths, and aggressively support Israel’s pulverization of the Palestinians, are now positioning themselves as the allies of Jewish people and enemies of extremism.

The result is the current derangement. We have never before had to protest against an Israeli war so openly justified in genocidal terms, and it’s difficult to believe that in the past this would have been okay with Washington, or London, as it is now. We have not before encountered a situation in which the war-making state and its allies are so brazenly grudging in their genuflections to the ideological ballast of liberal internationalism, human rights, and international legality. We have never before faced a global right so exultantly, triumphantly irrational and violent, or an official liberalism so complaisant in its attitude to this reaction.

Yet there are heartening counterpoints and contradictions. As huge, diverse protests against Israeli aggression rage in cities through the Middle East, Europe, and North America, and as Washington DC sees the biggest mobilization of Jewish support for the Palestinians in US history, Western powers are reluctantly rediscovering their condescending, feigned interest in Palestinian statehood.

Sunak insists that Britain, which has done nothing to bring it about and everything to impede it by cracking down on all civil society means of organizing for it, supports a “Palestinian state.” Biden, having continued Donald Trump’s policy, and while giving full-throated support to Israel’s demented campaign of violence, says “there must be a path to a Palestinian state.”

They are no doubt saying this for the same reason that they are so eager to roll back democratic rights: the situation may get out of hand. This may be a watershed for Israel and, hopefully, the Palestinians. It may also assemble the kind of internationalist coalition that could withstand and even defeat the dark currents of disaster nationalism abroad, from Delhi to Huwara. That is why it is essential to continue to defy the criminalization of Palestine solidarity, continue the protests, and resume the campaign of BDS against Israel.