Why I... believe diasporan Jews find it hard to criticise Israel when anti-Semitism is rife

April 26, 2002

I am a white, Jewish, feminist, English woman, of working-class background, who has just had her 50th birthday. There are aspects of this identity - religion, social class, gender, age - that have denied full citizenship to me and that have contributed to my engagement with active citizenship.

This denial of citizenship has undoubtedly made me a victim. But being victimised and recognising and critiquing such victimisation does not mean that I think or act like a victim. Indeed, it has led to my engagement in civic activity - with women's groups, working-class young people and with the Jewish community. Identities are constructed through difference, and this informs our attitudes and our political engagement.

What is happening in Israel and the Middle East has left Israelis and Palestinians trying to find their own ways to claim identity and citizenship. Both are fighting a war that cannot be won and both have been subjected to terrible attacks. It is too easy to say that it is the Palestinians who are denied citizenship and that Israel is the oppressor. The United Nations determined in 1948 that Palestine be lost and Israel recreated. Many Palestinians since then have called not just for the end of the state of Israel, but for the destruction of Israelis and Jews. There is understandable hurt, pain and deep mistrust on both sides.

What is less easy to understand is the negative coverage of Israel in the world press, so different from coverage of the US action in Afghanistan. The fate of Jews in the diaspora seems bound to public opinion against Israel. Synagogues and Jewish organisations in Britain and across Europe are on security alert. A rise in the number of anti-Semitic attacks has been reported in the UK, France, Holland, Turkey, Ukraine and elsewhere.

It is a complicated business to be a diasporan Jew. While Jews have a strong record of engaging as citizens in voluntary and community work and through civic activity, there remains a sense of never quite knowing if we are accepted as full citizens. At any moment, we are liable to be asked which team we would cheer for in that mythical cricket match - our country or Israel. We include a prayer for the royal family in our prayer books, spoken out loud once a week, on every Shabbat . Active citizens or concerned victims? I am not always sure.

Of course, the struggle between engaging as active citizens and being accepted as full citizens is not the province of Jews alone: after September 11, Muslims in Britain were forced to justify themselves, their British citizenry and Islam. Race and ethnicity, linked to debate on immigration, nationality and citizenship, have become key political concerns and extreme rightwing politics is spreading across Europe. The British National Party is trying to disguise its neo-fascism and refashion itself into mainstream politics. But Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in France brings another twist to the debate. He has described the Nazi extermination of Jews as "a detail of history" and blamed "international Jewry" for unrest in France. If Jews and other minority groups in France are worried, this is not "victim culture" but a reasoned response.

And if Jews in the diaspora need to find ways to respond not as victims but as citizens, the diaspora needs to demonstrate that its Jewish citizens are just that. While some of us may be critical of what is happening in the Middle East, that criticism can be hard to express when anti-Semitism remains rife.

How can we move forward? There are too many critical incidents on both sides. To remember is to enter a sort of madness, to remain forever victim. We need to remember: to reconstruct and to journey into a future where hope can be found. In such a future, Jews in the diaspora might find the freedom both to criticise and to support Israel.

Sue Jackson
Lecturer in lifelong learning and citizenship
Birkbeck College
University of London

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