Angela Davis, Palestinian rights and anti-Semitism

Despite what pro-Israel advocates would have many of us believe, criticism of the State of Israel’s systemic nature of institutionalised racism is not anti-Semitism.

I was impelled to write this short piece after the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s (BCRI) controversial decision to rescind and later reaffirm scholar and activist, Angela Davis as its award recipient.

The institute announced in October last year that Davis, “one of the most globally recognised champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak,” would receive the prestigious Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights award. But in January this year, the organisation reversed course and said her statements and public record do not “meet all of the criteria on which the award is based,” in response to objections over her outspoken support of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel and institutions complicit in its oppressive policies towards Palestinians.

I then came across a statement shared on social media, a day or so later, wherein Davis said she found out that the BCRI had decided to rescind its invitation on account of her “long-term support of justice for Palestine”. According to Davis, the revocation of the award was “not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice.”

“I have indeed expressed opposition to policies and practices of the state of Israel, as I express similar opposition to US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other discriminatory US policies,” she wrote. “In many ways, this work has been integral to my growing consciousness regarding the importance of protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

I continued to read all of this – particularly within the context of the growing campaign that is unfolding across the globe – to censor any, and all voices that share a critique of Israeli repressive measures against Palestinians. But despite what pro-Israel advocates would have many of us believe, criticism of the State of Israel’s systemic nature of institutionalised racism is not anti-Semitism. This deliberate and disingenuous conflation of legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism is an exploitation of the real danger of anti-Semitism, to further the progression of their political positions: supporting Israel no matter how much it entrenches and intensifies its apartheid policies towards the people of Palestine. It is an effort to stifle much needed debate and distracts from the struggle to root out genuine instances of anti-Semitism – a plague that has caused immense devastation in human history. It is a kind of ignorance that whitewashes the historical trajectory of the Palestinian experiences of injustice, and further cements misperceptions and myths about Jews that anti-Semitic campaigns have propagated throughout the years.

To borrow from Reuben Roth, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, “like the fable of ‘the boy who cried wolf,’ campaigns that broaden the definition of anti-Semitism to include Israel’s critics are dangerous in their trivialisation of genuine hostility and prejudice against Jews, and their negation of political solidarity with Palestinians who are fighting for equality, freedom, and justice”.

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