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Hate Crimes

This is a guest post by Dave Rich

Today’s post by David T about the murder of Ilan Halimi is one of the most sobering I have read on Harry’s Place for some time.

One of CST’s main functions is to record and analyse antisemitic incidents – hate crimes – that are reported to us here in the UK. Nothing like the kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi has happened in this country in living memory and I desperately hope it never does.

The disagreement over whether or not Halimi’s murder was antisemitic revolves around the fact that it can be construed as having both rational and irrational motives. The rational motive is similar to that of a lot of crime: to make money. The irrational motive is what makes it a hate crime: if it was driven by hatred of the victim due to his race, religion, colour, sexuality or other identifiable group label. In crimes like this, some people have a tendency to over-emphasise one motive to the exclusion of the other, when in fact both are often relevant and it is the interplay between them that defines the nature of the crime.

Another example of this is in the news today. Four men have been arrested in New York, accused of trying to bomb a synagogue and a Jewish community centre, as well as to shoot down American military aircraft. The group had been under surveillance by the FBI, who ensured that they did not have real bombs. During this surveillance, one of the defendants told an FBI informant in June 2008 that, because of his family connection to Afghanistan, he was “upset about the war there” and “unhappy that many Muslim people were being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the United States Military forces.” Five months later, the same defendant told the same informant: “I hate those motherfuckers, those fucking Jewish bastards…I would like to get a synagogue.”

There are some who will identify his desire to attack American military aircraft as a rational, though misguided and illegitimate, response to his anger over American military activity in Afghanistan: the ‘foreign policy’ explanation for terrorism. Others will explain the attempt to blow up a synagogue as antisemitism, pure and simple. Some may try to elide the two, by assuming that because this person was angry about the war in Afghanistan, he was probably angry about Palestine too, thereby explaining the selection of a synagogue as a target.

Think this is a straw man? Think instead of Mumbai, and the argument put forward that the selection of Chabad House for attack was an anti-Israel act, not an antisemitic one, because the sole surviving terrorist said that it was chosen to avenge Palestinian suffering. What was striking was the effort to grasp at any evidence that the perpetrators of such a horrifically inhumane act, requiring a total absence of human pity or empathy, were rational actors.

There are plenty of examples of people explaining attacks on synagogues, or other Jewish targets, as rational acts: the understandable, though wrong, response of angry people to what they see in Israel/Palestine. Normally, the person ‘understanding’ such attacks is at pains to make clear, quite rightly, that they do not support such acts, just that they are trying to explain them. Here is an example from Ben White, arguing that he is not antisemitic, but that he understands how people can look at Israel and dislike Jews:

The Guardian article…cites a poll undertaken by the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt, in which thirty-six per cent of participants said they would agree with the statement “I can understand very well that some people are unpleasant towards Jews.” This was taken to indicate an increase in anti-Semitism, since it was a dramatic increase from 20% three years ago.

I was somewhat startled by this, since I do not consider myself an anti-Semite, yet I can also understand why some are. There are, in fact, a number of reasons. One is the state of Israel, its ideology of racial supremacy and its subsequent crimes committed against the Palestinians. It is because Zionists have always sought to equate their colonial project with Judaism that some misguidedly respond to what they see on their televisions with attacks on Jews or Jewish property.

I have just provided a by no means comprehensive list of reasons why “I can understand very well that some people are unpleasant towards Jews.” I do not agree with them, but I can understand.

Many people have watched the documented rise in antisemitism in recent years and asked why so much of the anti-racist left has abandoned Jews to face it alone. Even amongst those on this part of the left who acknowledge the rise, there has been much shrugging of shoulders and little solidarity. This is Ken Loach, in Brussels a few weeks ago:

”I know there have been recently statements, or presentations, about the rise in antisemitism. Well, of course we all abhor racism in whatever form, wherever it comes. But nothing has been a greater instigator of antisemitism than the self-proclaimed Jewish state itself. And until we deal with that, until that is acknowledged, then racism, I’m afraid, will be with us.”

In other words, Israel is the cause of antisemitism, and until Israel is sorted out, society will just have to live with the antisemitism.

There is a worrying idea on the anti-Zionist left that what rise there may have been in contemporary antisemitism is the product of a rational thought process, albeit based on wrong information or mistaken interpretation of that information. According to this line of thought, a person gets angry about Israel and, based on their mistaken association of Israel with their local synagogue, or their ignorance of other, better, forms of protest, they go and firebomb the synagogue. It’s a rational thought process, so the thinking goes, certainly wrong but sadly quite common. Similarly, Halimi’s murderers, so the idea goes, were just criminals who wanted money. Based on their mistaken association of Jews with money, they picked a Jew as their victim. Any antisemitism they displayed was merely an aggravating factor in the crime, not its main driver, and certainly not something that should be prioritised for particular concern.

The problem with ascribing rationality to racism is that you deny the hatred and bigotry which forms its central component. Neo-Nazis never get this excuse: when they firebomb a synagogue, everyone knows it is because they hate Jews. Nobody disputes that it is a hate crime, because nobody accepts the neo-Nazis’ starting premise that there is a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race through immigration. But if the attackers are perceived to be driven by anger over Israel, then for many anti-Zionists who share that premise – who perhaps hate Israel themselves and recognise the urge to act on that hatred, but would never do so – then the firebombing of a synagogue is a crime, for sure, but not a hate crime; there is no bigotry, just a mistaken politics; no antisemitism, no need for anti-racist solidarity and certainly no need for Zionism and Israel. I am yet to see anyone try to explain the attempted bombing of a synagogue in New York as an understandable, though misguided, expression of anger about Israel. But I won’t be surprised if someone does.

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