Cautious critisism


With Vincent Browne being labelled an anti-Semite for remarks criticising Israel, David Farrell examines the claims that criticising a state is akin to racism

Vincent Browne recently caused a mild controversy when he criticised the state of Israel live on his late night show. While it was widely perceived that he went a little too far in calling the state a ‘cancer’ in international affairs, this strong language from Browne on his TV3 show saw the Israeli Deputy Ambassador to Ireland, Nurit Tinari-Modai, brand Browne as anti-Semitic. There has long been a policy of condemning anyone who criticises the Israeli government and it’s actions as racist; equating attacks on government policy as an attack as the people as a whole, in a way that is not seen with any other nation. No one would interpret criticism of Ireland’s policies as an attack on Catholicism, so why is it the case when talking about Israel?

Israel is an unusual case in many ways. It was founded through a UN resolution in 1947 with the intention of housing Jewish people left ravaged by the horrors of the Holocaust. As such it is the only majority Jewish state, with the term Israel initially referring to the ‘Jewish Kingdom’. This sort of history, language and heritage then infers a much greater connection between church and state than almost any other. The state is not only founded along the lines of the Jewish faith, but in the very holy land that it reveres. It is unique as a country in not being formed along natural, cultural and ethnic grounds, but religious ones. This leads back to a refrain that to insult Israel is to do something beyond attack the state, but also all that comes with it. Being the sole non-Arab and western oriented state, the Jewish faith is still very much involved in the politics and life of Israel.

Yet the government of Israel cannot be expected to be immune from criticism because of the make-up of the state. State and religion is becoming increasingly separate across the globe, as fewer and fewer people equate the two in their mind. Israel is of course a republic, with its powers vested in the people regardless of the faith of those voting democratic societies and states should be judged by their actions on its merits.

When you judge on merit, there is certainly much to criticise about Israel actions, both foreign and domestic, that have nothing or almost nothing to do with religion. While claiming that people hate them for their religion, the Israeli government has some appallingly racist and anti-arab policies, which make action by other middle eastern states pale in comparison. Quite apart from the issue of land rights, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians within it’s claimed territory has been internationally condemned and compared to South African Apartheid. Israel’s response to this outrage? That the international community is biased against them and the UN Commission on Human Rights is a “campaign to demonise Israel”.

As the only western ally in the middle east, Israel seems to get a free pass. It is protected by America, and protected by it’s constant claims of racism should anyone denigrate them for any reason. In August a resolution was passed by the California State Assembly to limit criticism of Israeli policy on college campuses by equating it with anti-Semitic hate speech. While the University of California is refusing to support it, this shocking impingement on free speech effectively bans any discussion on middle-east politics at all within third level institutions.

Regardless of the close ties of any state to a religion, to condemn attack or question the acts of a government cannot in this day and age be equated to an attack on a religion. To infer as much, or use it as a defence is insensitive and merely seeks to divert the issue and the argument. The justification of a state’s actions against others on religious grounds is in itself unjustifiable and to quote history or circumstance is not acceptable.