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Calling out evil is doing the right thing, it doesn’t make you an anti-Semite

Posted on May 19, 2021

My maternal grandmother and her husband came to England in 1905 from the small town of Szczebrzeszyn, now in Eastern Poland. Even by Polish standards, the name defeats the most stout-hearted: the best approximation is Shrebyeshin. Despite its size, remote location and general anonymity, the town is known by Polish people as part of a tongue-twister of the ‘she sells seashells’ variety. I discovered this when I first went there and have since delighted a succession of Polish acquaintances with the knowledge, prompting many of them to rattle off the rhyme with varying degrees of success.

 When my grandparents left the town, which now sits almost directly on the border between Poland and the Ukraine, it was part of Russia; it had been disputed territory for centuries. Fearing the pogroms that were sweeping that part of the world, they made their move. Had they remained and eked out some kind of existence, they would certainly have met their fate some forty years later when the Nazis arrived and forced Jews in Szczebrzeszyn to dig their own graves before shooting them where they stood.

They settled in Birmingham and with five daughters in their household, young men a ‘plenty must have come calling. One of them was my father. Until 1938 he had been getting on with a normal, quiet life in Vienna. The street on which he was living, still standing and looking relatively unchanged, is a short walk from the Prater Fairground, where the big wheel became famous for its use in The Third Man.

A stroll down the row of unassuming, grey apartment buildings, now inhabited largely by people of Turkish origin, might reveal nothing until one looks at the inscriptions on the entrance halls of all of them. There, a list of names appears along with the stark admission that, on various dates in 1938, these people were taken from their homes and, as the blunt translation reveals, murdered by the Nazis. My personal researches reveal that my father escaped this fate by a matter of days, quite possibly hours.

Given this history, it is little wonder that my entire extended family – including me – looked to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as a thing of wonder and, above all, as the embodiment of a place of safety. Notions of returning to the land of birthright along with the convenient idea of a land without people for a people without land reinforced the fierce loyalty that informed my family’s thinking. Israel represented the righting of historical wrongs, the delivery of what was due to Jewish people and, most compellingly, a sense of reparation for the horrors of the Holocaust.

I know now, of course, that it’s all a bit more complicated than that. My reason for furnishing you with this brief history of my family and heritage is to make a simple point that is wilfully ignored by various mischief-makers: to oppose the actions of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitic. And, for the avoidance of doubt, to blame Jewish people for those actions most definitely is. It makes no more sense to blame a Jewish person living in North London for the actions of Netanyahu and his killing machines than to blame a Muslim in Luton for terror attacks anywhere in the world.

What was it that shifted me – and so many others – from thinking that Israel represented humanity at its best? A land made prosperous by industrious people eager to make the most of their recognition by claiming what was their proper due? The answer is simple: by finding out about the central myth of the ‘empty’ land and its appropriation by those claiming rights to it. This enduringly false premise has played out in towns, cities and villages since 1948 as Israel’s governments have systematically ratcheted up segregation, exclusion and the displacement of Palestinian people. This now plays out in the construction of check-points, dividing walls, diverted roads and the building of illegal, Jewish-only settlements. The Israeli state has become a byword for systematic discrimination: it is, without doubt, an apartheid state.

A couple of days after Eid last week – that’d be when Israeli forces thought it prudent to invade the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem while people were at prayer – Palestinians commemorated Nakba Day, the remembrance of the catastrophe of their displacement. It’s a commemoration that is subject to legal penalty under Israeli law.  A few days earlier, a group of right-wing Israelis exercised their privilege to march through areas of Jerusalem for their annual March of the Flags, blithely chanting ‘Death to Arabs’ and left to their own devices by security forces. This rampant nationalism worked well for a beleaguered Prime Minister Netanyahu, happy to play the vile card of populist nationalism at a time when his hold on power looks as precarious as ever. Attempts to deflect criticism of these cynical, violent policy decisions by dubbing detractors antisemitic are the desperate acts of guilty people.

I was brought up believing the central truth that the land of Israel belonged to the Jewish people. The most cursory acquaintance with history undermines that attractive, but flawed notion. Many people I know, including family members, exercised what is known as ‘right of return’ which means that anyone of Jewish heritage is entitled to live in Israel and be granted citizenship. They can go ‘home’. In an absurd twist of fate, I could do it. I’m secular, non-practising and sceptical and I can’t believe I’d be very welcome, but it remains my right. Palestinians remain excluded; their real homes – their houses – are much closer, often within touching distance, but remain firmly out of reach.

In early May, during Ramadan, in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, Israeli riot police set about nightly beatings of protestors trying to protect families from being evicted from the area and being replaced by Jewish settlers. A viral clip shows a resident explaining to a settler that he is stealing her house. ‘If I don’t steal it,’ he tells her, ‘someone else will.’ Goodness only knows what my displaced forebears would have made of that, but I’m pretty confident that they’d think it wasn’t the attitude of an honourable person. And I can tell you with supreme confidence, that neither my grandmother, my father – nor me – could ever be called anti-Semites.

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