It’s not all context — as Gerry Adams pleaded after he inappropriately tweeted the N-word last Saturday night.
Tomorrow’s election for mayor of London may turn on the outburst of former Labour mayor Ken Livingstone. Charged with anti-Semitism, Livingstone is certainly anti-Zionist.
His cack-handed suggestion that Hitler was somehow a proto-Zionist because he favoured deportation of Jews to Palestine was a crude conjunction of historical fact with political polemic. The politics were that he was defending a Labour MP, Naz Shah, who suggested on Facebook that, if Jewish Israelis moved to the US, it would be “problem solved” for Palestinians.
The problem to be solved, though first it must be acknowledged, is that increased virulence and exceptionalism of criticism of Israel is giving permission for a resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe.
This criticism, at its most aggressive, is more and more the prerogative of the left, having once been a mainstay of the right. Our society is again becoming a cold house for Jews. Jewish institutions, including the synagogue, the shop, or school, increasingly require a police presence to exist.
In north inner-city Dublin, the local community rightly protested after a series of gangland killings that armed Garda checkpoints stigmatised the community and meant their daily lives felt like a warzone.
For many European Jews, this is daily life, and seemingly a permanent reality. French Jews especially are emigrating to Israel in ever greater numbers.
I don’t think Adams is a racist, and I hope Livingstone is not an anti-Semite. What both unquestionably are is ruthless polemicists who routinely annexe any other argument or cause to their own, as needs must.
Hence Adams casual appropriation of the N-word. Slavery, as he told Áine Lawlor on RTÉ’s News at One on Monday, is part of the preferred trope to justify sectarian murder after the fact. In West Ulster, the slaves’ revolt of Ballymurphy N****** was felt among rural Protestants as ethnic cleansing.
So it is all the more important that key words and terms are owned, contextualised, and detoxified. Slaves are victims, not perpetrators. It’s not what happened that really matters, it is what you call it now that counts politically.
And so it is with Israel. The association of the state of Israel with a Nazi-like ideology is a disproportionate stigmatisation which, if partially distinct from, fuels anti-Semitism, and is partly rooted in it.
The exceptionalism and singularity applied to the state of Israel is becoming ever more extreme.
Standards which European countries, including the European left, routinely apply to themselves for their own security are labelled as racial in Israel. There is racism in Israel, as there is in Ireland.
Regrettably, there are ‘peace walls’ there, as there are here. They inflict hardship and injustice. The justification, if there is one, is that, rightly or wrongly, they are perceived as matters of life and death.
It is not the argument against specific Israeli policies that is wrong — indeed some have a basis; it is the singularity and invective with which they are deployed which has darkened the context within which European Jews now live.
Ironically, this strengthens the hand of those in Israel who would pursue the very policies that are most objectionable in the irony-free zone of the politically correct.
It is not the facts or fictions which outsized political characters such as Livingstone or Adams enunciate that matter, it is their self-colonisation of new truths about themselves which is at stake. Anti-colonial in posture, they relentlessly build an empire of self. The dispossessed are emblems to be worn like the scarf or keffiyeh, decorations earned during lives lived in ‘struggle’.
When anti-Semitism was still largely a function of the European right, Zionism was generally high in favour with the left. A proto- Israel was Left-led with a utopian vision of socialist solidarity. Of course, there is no utopia.
Statehood there, like the reality of government here for those willing to undertake it, brings responsibility, not least to defend from attack.
The end of mixed communities; the forced separation of divided communities; sealing the border with the North, were all tactics applied with very mixed results, the consequences of which continue.
But statehood slowly made Israel a pariah. It slotted neatly into a post-colonial analysis after the 1967 war, when it was attached on all fronts. Marxism and nationalism combined, not only in Adams and Livingstone, but around the world to regenerate a form of anti-Semitism, that transferred from the individual Jew, to the Jewish state an ultimate form of responsibility for what is wrong in the world.
This is the core and purpose of anti-Semitism. In succeeding centuries, its purpose is to identify the cause of what is wrong, kill or expel it, and preferably profit from its expropriation. The Jews of North Africa, expelled after the establishment of the state of Israel, mainly came from Spain or Portugal centuries before. They were identified by the Inquisition as being what was wrong with society.
Many of them now in Israel, with other Jews from around the Middle East and Europe, look out from a geographically small state.
They look back on decades of characterised by an intermittent, unsuccessful peace process and ever increasing securitisation of a political problem. Electorally, many have decided, they were right.
In the context of a region in conflagration, there is too little appetite to do anything except hunker down behind ever high walls. It doesn’t advance the situation, but from a perspective we refuse to listen to, it makes sense. People only come out from behind walls when they feel safe.
The boycott of Israel is the ghettoisation of what we do not wish to hear — a self-colonisation of new truths about ourselves, at variance from home truths we are so uncomfortable with.
We know that a fortress Europe is neither fair nor sustainable. It offends principles we hold dear. So the scapegoat is more intensely criticised.
Refusing to take any chances with our own security, even at the cost of our principles, we uniquely insist on placing Israel in a state of double jeopardy where grudgingly it is still conceded as legitimate, but should not take effective means to defend itself.
Israel may be wrong in many of its policies, especially in colonising the West Bank, but we are hypocrites. On the lips of polemicists, for whom words are weapons, it creates at one remove, a space in Europe where an older anti-Semitism can regrow, inoculated as anti-Zionism.
Criticism of Israel is legitimate and necessary. But when by dint of virulence and repetition, anaesthetised by casualness in conversation, conversation which in the continuum between Naz Shah’s Facebook post and Ken Livingstone’s comments, it undermines Israel’s right to existence at all, it is hard to see the distinction one should always be careful to look for. Because through anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not the same, they can be woven together.