On 4th February 2021, DiEM25’s coordinating collective held a discussion on how progressives can, at once, fight antisemitism and remain highly critical of Israel’s policies. You can watch a video of my speech and read an extended version of these thoughts below.
Last week, while discussing competing identities, I argued that it is unacceptable to compare and contrast the suffering of different oppressed communities; that no one can tell a trans person that the terror they feel in this society is worse or better than an Amazon warehouse worker’s exhaustion, alienation and poverty.
This same principle must surely apply to types of discrimination that involve gross violence. For example, it is senseless, unnecessary and offensive to compare the suffering of a Tutsi victim in the Ruanda genocide to that of an Armenian victim during last century’s respective genocide etc. Or, for that matter, to compare a black American’s suffering to that of a persecuted Uighur in China or indeed of a Jew.
However, one historic persecution stands above all else. Not because its victims suffered more than victims of some other form of inhumanity. But because of its nature. And that is antisemitism in general and the Holocaust in particular. What makes the Holocaust exceptional and unique, at least in my thinking, is that the Nazis approached the Jews with the mindset of a stamp collector. This had never happened before, ever. The Turkish authorities undoubtedly committed genocide against the Armenians, the French army did something not too dissimilar in Algeria, the Hutu in Ruanda, etc.
But in all those cases there was no plan to kill every single living and breathing Armenian, Algerian or Tutsi on the planet – and to do so calmly, comprehensively and at an industrial scale. The purpose of every other genocide was to kill as many members of a community or ethnic group as they could in order either to force them, through sheer terror, to vacate a territory (e.g. the Armenians or the Tutsi) or to terminate all resistance to an occupying force (e.g. the Algerians under the French colonial power). The attempt to exterminate every single individual member of a people, even if they had managed to escape to Antarctica, was what made the Holocaust unique.
Yes, the Nazis also exterminated in their death camps Roma, Leftists, the disabled, Slavs – people they also considered ‘untermeschen’. But, the infrastructure of the Holocaust was created for the Jews, and only then used for non-Jews. It is hard to imagine that, if it were not for their penchant to exterminate the Jews, the Nazis would have put the tremendous investment and energy necessary into building not just the camps but also the necessary infrastructure of chemical products, railways, archives, special forces etc.
In view of the above, it is perfectly possible to stay true to the principle that, no, we do not compare sufferings (e.g. the suffering of the Armenians with that of the Jews) but, yes, we can say unequivocally that the Holocaust was exceptional and unique in the whole History of Inhumanities. And thus that antisemitism, which was the ideological driving force of the Holocaust, is a cut above (or is it below?) other forms of racism.
We can see this too from the fact that antisemitism can so easily infect people who are not racist in other respects. Recall the scene in Eisenstein’s STRIKE, when a fiery speech is made by a trades union leader against the bankers who are sucking people and communities dry. A man in the audience jumps up and shouts: “The Jews!” At that moment, Eisenstein – clearly aware of how easy it is to step from a critique of financial capital to antisemitism – has the crowd turn against the antisemite, pointing him out as a scourge of the workers’ movement before throwing him out of the meeting.
Speaking personally for a moment, I first encountered antisemitism in a story my grandmother related to me when I was very little: Recounting life in the Peloponnesian village where she grew up between 1898 and the 1920s, she told me of how there was a day every year when the kids would “burn the Jew”, a little like British kids would burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes. When I heard her say that, I asked: “Did you mean Judas or the Jew?” Then she explained how the Jew and Judas were being used interchangeably in her village. It was my first brush with a deep-seated antisemitism that typified most European countries. Thankfully, that was not all. At the same time, I was exposed to the pride of former partisans – my grandma’s age – on how they were part of a unit that helped save thousands of Thessaloniki Jews from the Nazis. That was my first glimpse of the complicated relationship of the Left with the Jews and with antisemitism: the very same people that, as children, would burn the Jew learned through their struggles against fascism to be proud of defending the Jews.
My point has now been half-made: Antisemitism is an exceptional form of racism, not because that’s what some calculus of suffering reveals, but because of the nature of the Nazi regime and the fact that the Jews are the only people to have been despised both for being capitalists and for being leftie revolutionaries. Let me now make the other half of my point:
Criticism of Israel is and can never be criticism of the Jews, exactly as criticism of the Greek state or of American imperialism is not criticism of the Greeks or of the Americans respectively. The same applies to interrogating the wisdom of having created an ethnic state. When remarkable people like my heroes Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein questioned the Zionist project of a Jewish state in Palestine, it is absurd to say that to debate Israel’s existence is to be antisemitic. The question is not whether Arendt and Einstein were right or wrong. The question is whether their questioning of the wisdom of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine is antisemitic or not. Clearly, while antisemites opposed the foundation of the state of Israel, it does not follow that only antisemites opposed the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Let me now turn to the claim that critics of Israel single Israel out for criticism, even daring to question its right to exist as a Jewish state, thus revealing their hidden antisemitism. To demonstrate that this is unfounded, allow me to refer again to my own country. Here in Greece, one of our greatest revolutionary heroes was poet, author and activist Rigas Ferraios (1757-98). His wonderful poem Thourios is taught in schools and recited by kids every 25th of March, our National Day. However, it is only the first few verses that children get to learn; e.g. the famous lines celebrating an hour’s freedom as preferable to a long life in chains. Following verses are suppressed because they clearly challenge the notion that Rigas was fighting for an ethnic Greek, Christian state. Here is the most telling, suppressed, verse:
Bulgarians and Albanians, Armenians and Greeks
Arabs and Whites with one, common force
Let us for liberty’s sake take up the sword
So that it is heard everywhere that we have courage…
Let’s slaughter the wolves who hold us under the yoke
Ruthlessly oppressing Christians and Turks…
Quite clearly, Rigas, the quintessential Greek patriot, was not calling for a revolution to set up an ethnic, Christian Greek state but, rather, called upon Turks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Albanians, Greeks and everyone else residing in the Ottoman Empire to rise up in order to create a multi-ethnic, multicultural Republic. In this light, questioning the wisdom of setting up a mono-ethnic Greek Christian nation-state is perfectly consistent with being a Greek patriot – and certainly not a sign of being an antihellene.
In fact, it is because I consider myself a Greek patriot, who also is an internationalist committed to fighting racism, that I have spent much of my life charging the Greek state with authoritarianism, institutionalised racism and ultra-nationalism. For my efforts, Greek right-wing nationalists admonish me as an antipatriotic, self-hating Greek. For the past ten years, they have even referred to me as George Soros’ man in Greece, in an attempt to use an antisemitic trope to tarnish my image. But, if it is absurd to call critics of the Greek state antihellenes, i.e., racists toward the Greeks, the campaign to present critics of Israel as antisemitic is equally ridiculous.
For these reasons, I have nothing but immense respect for Israelis who take awful risks by defending the right of Jews and non-Jews alike to criticise Israel, even to interrogate the wisdom of an ethnic Jewish state (just as Rigas opposed an ethnic Greek state). For instance, this group of academics who have methodically deconstructed the IHRA’s indefensible definition of antisemitism, which conflates it with legitimate criticisms of Israel that many progressive Israelis share. Or the wonderful people working with the Israeli human rights organisation B’TSELEM to resist the apartheid policies of successive Israeli governments.
Ending on a personal note, back in 2015, while serving as Greece’s finance minister, a Greek pro-troika newspaper thought they diminished me with the adjacent cartoon depicting me as a Shylock-like figure. What these idiots did not realise was that they made me very proud! Trying to tarnish my image by likening me to a Jew was, and remains, a badge of honour. I feel deeply flattered whenever an antisemite bundles me together with a people who have suffered racism for so long so very bravely. As long as a single Jew feels threatened by antisemitism, I shall carry in my heart the Star of David, eager and ready to be counted as a Jew – even though I am not one. At the very same time, I wear the Palestinian flag as a symbol of solidarity with a people living in an Apartheid state built by reactionary Israelis damaging my Jewish and Arab brothers and sisters and stoking the fires of racism which, ironically, always forge a steelier variety of antisemitism.