Airbrushing anti-Semitism out of the #Toulouse attack

Ha’aretz 3/29/12

Like Jews across the world, I was shocked, sickened and frightened by the senseless murder of a rabbi and three small children in France last week. With the end of Mohammed Merah’s life came the start of an operation on the psychosis that drove him to murder with such callousness. Analysts and political pundits attempting to establish cause and motive have come up with a range of options. Yet, absent from such analysis of many was the cause of anti-Semitism.

As a British Jew who has moved to the United States, my media diet has somewhat shifted to this new geographical location. Now that I do not read the European press daily, I was first made aware of the issue of the air-brushing of anti-Semitism from Merah’s causes by an excellent article in the Tablet by Michael Moynihan, where he picked through various accounts of peoples explanations of the killings and saw that hatred against the Jews did not feature.

Toulouse A man pays respect front of candles during a march in honor of the Toulouse victims, in Paris, Monday, March 19, 2012.
Photo by: AP

Perhaps the most shocking piece written on the murders came from Oxford Professor and Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan, who declared that Merah was a young man, “imbued neither with the values of Islam, or driven by racism and anti-Semitism.” He was merely attacking symbols, “the army and Jews.”

His analysis was joined by a piece on France 24 that his trigger was due to the loss of a job or a political act. The Guardian in their editorial worries about the politicization of the incident and the general threats to society of violent extremisms, but never mentions the term anti-Semitism.

The reduction of the French Jewish community to a mere symbol of a Western European society demonstrates a dehumanization of Merah’s victims. How does the slaughter of a religious leader and three small children of a particular minority community merely become a symbol of attacking society in general? Do the victims’ identities mean nothing to these analysts except to demonstrate this was another disaffected immigrant angry at the West and demonstrating that anger in just any way he knew how?

As someone who was once the convener anti-racist, anti-fascist campaign for the National Student Movement in the U.K., I understand the tinder box of inter community violence all too well. The desire for the far-right to have been the perpetrator, the boogie man that we can all agree to hate, is overwhelmingly strong. The last thing we want to do is exacerbate Jewish-Muslim tensions.

Yet this noble desire cannot mask the fact that this man’s victims were not random. They were Jews. His lip service to the Palestinian cause as justification makes him no more a symbol of their movement, as his victims were symbols of Western Society. Merah got it into his head that one should kill Jews; it was something that was correct in his eyes to do. His brother is proud of what he did. Is that also because he lost his job or is disaffected? When will it be allowed to say that these two people hated Jews?

The post-mortem of this terrible act needs to focus on how this understanding – that it was a good idea to gun down Jews – occurred. Mohammad Merah, and his brother it seems, have both been infected by eleminationist anti-Semitism. What is needed alongside the rest of the psychological analysis is finding the cause of the infection and callousing it from Western society. It must be burnt out.

The inabilities of some to even mention anti-Semitism as a cause terrifies me. Call a spade a spade; the victims deserve labeling this an act of anti-Semitism far more than the analysis of rightist politics in France’s political discourse.

Perhaps the only positive thing of note has been the reaction of the French Jewish community. After a rabbi and three small children were murdered in France, and declared by the persecutor as an act in the name of the Middle East conflict, there were no riots, nor firebombs lobbed at mosques. During the 2009 War in Gaza there were riots in London, shops smashed and firebombs thrown at synagogues.

The French Jewish community’s silent and powerful protest in arms with other communities in response to such violent provocation demonstrates that even at the pinnacle of rage rioting in the streets of Europe is not justified. So as we think about what lead a man to target Jewish children, let us also recognize the control of a community, a control that we could only hope to emulate if we found ourselves in such circumstances.

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Why I have nothing to be ashamed of

National Union of Students 5/309

When I was campaigning to get elected at conference last year, I would go up to delegates and give them my election speech which revolved around my ARAF work and campaign on student housing. After speaking to one delegate, though, I was asked a question that I thought had nothing to do with my election. “Well, are you a Zionist?” A little taken a back, I said, “Yes, I believe in the concept of the state of Israel alongside the concept of the state of Palestine.” The delegate shook their head and said, “Sorry, I can’t vote for a racist,” and walked away.

At the time I shrugged this off as the ignorance of a single delegate and went on to try and persuade more people to vote for me. What I have discovered, though, is that whether in a students’ union or a seminar, the word Zionism is seen as a slur, something you say to make someone feel ashamed or embarrassed.

It’s important at this point to state that I am a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. I believe in the national self determination of the Jewish people in the same way that I believe in the national self determination of the Palestinian people. There is nothing shameful in this belief, nothing that makes me a racist. I am utterly perplexed and at times frustrated by people insisting that I am a morally corrupt person for believing in the above.

What I find astonishing is that it is becoming an acceptable view in the student movement that my belief in national self determination means that I am a legitimate target for hate. If I were to denounce any wish for self government, be happy with the concept of being a minority in every country, with no place to call home, then people would stop hating me and all would be well. If only I could understand that it was my belief in a homeland that leads people to the slip from anti-Zionism into antisemitism then I would see that the best way of avoiding being a victim of racism was to give up the concept of me being a people and settle for me being only a member of a religion – then I too could be a member of the progressive student community and no one would have to wonder if I have a sinister Zionist agenda.

Over the past two months there have been things said to me by students and colleagues, both in formal NEC meetings and informal ‘chats’, that range from offensive to outrageous. I have been told that I am an immoral Jew, that I am one of the bad ones who do not march against Israeli oppression and that there are good moral Jews who march and Zionist Jews who don’t (of course this was said by someone who is not Jewish). I have been told that rather than being a victim of antisemitism, I am the cause of antisemitism, I and my fellow nasty Zionists are responsible for everything that happens to the Jewish community in the UK. Not the people who attempt to burn down synagogues, attack school children on buses, graffiti over Jewish community buildings or who call for death to all Jews; not any of them, but I am the one responsible for the historic rise in antisemitism, I, a member of a people who deserve the homeland that the UN granted us sixty years ago. Lastly I was told that I do not understand how to fight antisemitism and, rather then oppose a rally that intertwines a swastika with a Star of David, I should march alongside that banner to educate the people there….

Sometimes clarity is very important so let me be clear. I have never heard of anyone in the student movement blaming a victim of racism for the abuse they get. I have never heard people justify racism when in pursuit of a political cause (whether legitimate or not). Anyone who racially abuses me because I am a Zionist is wrong as racial abuse is wrong. This is not about me smudging a line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but rather pointing out that clear cases of antisemitism such as speakers going around saying it is a rational thing to blow up a synagogue or people actually trying to burn down synagogues, are being explained away by motivations that lie in the Middle East. I don’t give a damn how angry you are about what happens in another part of the world, there is no excuse for people putting up the names and addresses of people’s places of worship on a protest group. Yet it is justified and absolved because the Jews were asking for it – what do they expect if they have a prayer for the safety of the state of Israel in their services. Antisemitism is not contentious and I’m sick of people ringing their hands over it and making excuses.

My aim here is not to open a can of worms, that was done at the last EGM, but to state a message loudly and clearly. To those who feel that it is a slur to accuse someone of being a Zionist I stand up proudly as a Zionist, unashamed and willing to defend it passionately. To those who are disheartened with what they have seen, who are feeling intimidated and low, you have nothing to feel bad about. Though some people like shouting louder and will use more underhand tactics, tactics that they should have to apologise for, to achieve their goals, you have a legitimate voice that should and will be heard.