Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity
Hil Aked discusses taboo, terminology, and the racial politics of Israel/Palestine as it pertains to discussion of the ‘Israel lobby’.
What follows is an edited excerpt from Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity by Hil Aked.
Against Israeli apartheid and antisemitism
It is precisely because of my commitment to anti-racism that I oppose both Israeli apartheid and antisemitism. I want to help restore a transversal anti-racism, as opposed to the selective, zero-sum view of anti-racism currently touted by the Zionist movement – which posits that one can be an opponent of either antisemitism or Israeli apartheid, but not both.
Antisemitism is a very real threat to Jewish communities. The topic of the ‘Israel lobby’ or ‘Zionist movement’ requires sensitive handling and respect for the legitimate concerns around antisemitism that addressing it can provoke. This requires a degree of empathy and emotional intelligence often lacking in such discussions. It also calls for a clear understanding of how the complex racial politics of Israel/Palestine play out in global contexts.
As scholars Yasmeen Abu-Laban and Abigail Bakan point out, Israeli apartheid has long enjoyed solidarity from the governments of other settler-colonial states like the US, Canada and Australia, as well as former imperial states like Britain and France. All these countries retain huge power in the world system and support Israel’s apartheid system in numerous ways . Since 1977, Israeli politics has fairly consistently moved to the right, and its current coalition government is the most far right in history. Perversely, despite the antisemitic affinities of far-right authoritarian leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi and former US president Donald Trump, these men are among those who came to be counted, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Israel’s closest allies .
Simultaneously, the Israeli government and Zionist movement have sought to move away from the broad and long-standing consensus that antisemitism is ‘hostility to Jews as Jews’ . Instead, they have promoted the idea that some types of criticism of Israel or Zionism constitute a ‘new antisemitism’. As British sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris notes, the term ‘new antisemitism’ is not itself particularly novel, having appeared at least as early as 1967 . It gained prominence, however, from around the turn of the millennium – a point at which Zionism, I argue, entered a period of systemic crisis – as part of an ideological offensive apparently stimulated by that crisis. Scholar Brian Klug explains that the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis cast leftists (alongside Muslims), rather than the far right, as the main perpetrators of this novel form of racism. Meanwhile, its victim – rather than Jewish people – is the state of Israel, understood as ‘the collective Jew’. Klug notes the lack of clarity pervading the voluminous literature on ‘new antisemitism’ but discerns that ‘on one point there is a virtual consensus: anti-Zionism as such is beyond the pale’ .
Taboo and terminology
The topic of the ‘Israel lobby’ is significantly taboo . This is in part the result of a deliberate effort by pro-Israel actors themselves to resist – and indeed stigmatise – critical scrutiny. But we must also acknowledge the existence of very real racist fantasies about ‘Jewish power’. In combination, these two factors have helped to create a situation in which virtually any critique of the Zionist movement is liable to be interpreted, or disingenuously represented, as antisemitic. This serves to deter almost all scholarly examinations of Zionism in Britain and the topic has come to be regarded as largely off limits. This necessitates a direct response.
The 2006 Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism states: ‘No-one would seek to deny that there is well-organised support for Israel in Britain, but in some quarters this becomes inflated to the point where discourse about the “lobby” resembles discourse about a world Jewish conspiracy’ .
Indeed, it would be hard to deny the existence of the Zionist movement in Britain. Despite a degree of opacity, it is not a secret: it is a visible network of organisations with offices and websites, staffed by employees with business cards and LinkedIn profiles. But is it possible to write about this admittedly ‘well-organised support for Israel’ without overstating its power and, critically, without ‘ethnicising’ the issue? Is it possible to write an anti-racist book about the pro-Israel lobby?
Words are powerful, and language matters. In using the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Zionist’ as interchangeable prefixes before the terms ‘lobby’ and ‘movement’, I take as a given journalist and political commentator Peter Beinart’s words that ‘Zionism is what Israel does’ . Nonetheless, the term ‘Zionism’ is relevant and useful because it pinpoints the ideology underpinning the state of Israel’s apartheid practices. It also invites us to bear in mind the spectrum of political persuasions, from liberal Zionism to revisionist Zionism, contained therein.
‘Israel lobby’ should not be interpreted as ‘code’ for ‘Jewish lobby’ (a phrase Friends of Israel never uses). It is vital to distinguish between Judaism, an ethno-religious and cultural identity, and Zionism – understood here as an ethno-nationalist political ideology and movement defined by a commitment to an inherently exclusionary Jewish state. The fact that in some quarters, Judaism and Zionism are deliberately equated is not a reason to accept the blurring of this critically important conceptual distinction.
Using the terminology of a ‘Jewish lobby’ to speak about pro-Israel activism is empirically inaccurate, as well as politically irresponsible and harmful. The Israel lobby is very far from incorporating all Jewish people and is, moreover, far from exclusively Jewish. The contemporary power of Christian Zionism deserves special mention in this regard , and indeed, some of the most important supporters of Israel discussed in Friends of Israel are non-Jewish Zionists. More importantly, the idea that a ‘Jewish lobby’ is behind support for Israel is an antisemitic trope which erroneously ‘reduces political activity to ethnicity’ and reinforces the idea that there is only one ‘Jewish political position’ , when in reality, in the words of scholar and activist Joel Kovel, ‘there is no one way of being Jewish’ .
What are the implications of this for writing about the Israel lobby? Maintaining a principled anti-racist position – opposed to both Israeli apartheid and antisemitism – can feel at times like walking a tightrope. It is vital to acknowledge that real antisemitism is on the rise globally. Furthermore, racist tropes which essentialise and homogenise Jewish people while attributing to them immense, inexplicable and nefarious powers have a long and ignominious history. As Klug explains, ideas about a ‘hidden hand’ of Jewish ‘control’ over ‘banks, commerce and media, manipulating governments and promoting wars among nations’ have featured prominently in the history of antisemitism . These claims are racist myths, and they cause harm to Jewish communities. Therefore, a critique that addresses the pro-Israel lobby’s power in a cavalier fashion, or fails to evidence its assertions could easily and justifiably be accused of conspiratorial paranoia at best, or of feeding antisemitic tropes at worst.
We must also avoid exaggerating the Zionist movement’s power. For example, claims like those by ex-US president and Netanyahu ally Donald Trump that Israel once ‘had absolute power over Congress’ were rightly met with strong criticism . Friends of Israel makes no claim of ‘control’ for the Zionist movement. On the contrary, it demonstrates that although elements of the movement have access to significant resources and can, in certain arenas at specific times, exert influence, pro-Israel actors are very far from all-powerful. Indeed, while most existing studies of the Israel lobby (which are overwhelmingly focused on the US) pay little attention to pro-Palestinian activism, this book emphasises its importance.
It shows that the Zionist movement has been profoundly challenged by the grassroots BDS movement and has had to mobilise a backlash precisely because it lacks control, and because support for Israel is vulnerable to erosion through Palestine solidarity activism. The book analyses the strategies and circumstances that lead to both the lobby’s successes and its failures, on a political terrain that is complex and continually contested, and in which power is never absolute. It stresses, in particular, the consistent growth of the boycott movement – despite a well-resourced Zionist counter-campaign which has at times succeeded in censoring, undermining and repressing BDS – and in so doing highlights the limitations of the lobby’s power.
As well as Palestinians, then, I also stand in solidarity with Jewish communities, who should never be the target of collective blame for the actions of the Israeli state. By demystifying, as far as possible, the networks that constitute the Israel lobby, Friends of Israel aims to challenge both efforts to ring-fence pro-Israeli apartheid activism from critical scrutiny and antisemitic conspiracy theories which ‘ethnicise’ a fundamentally political issue. In the last analysis, such dangerous fantasies not only breed racism, but also misidentify the problem, creating a sense of impotence which fosters passivity, and ultimately decrease the likelihood of clear-headed engagement and practical solidarity with Palestinians struggling against injustices which are all too real.
Friends of Israel: the Backlash against Palestine Solidarity by Hil Aked is out now. Read Hil Aked's Five Book Plan and their essay Cruising for a bruising? Critiquing the British Zionist movement (while trans).
 Yasmeen Abu-Laban and Abigail Bakan (2019),. Israel, Palestine and the Politics of Race: Exploring Identity and Power in a Global Context. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 13.
 Paul Gross, ‘Modi, Orban, Bolsonaro: Israel Doesn’t Need to Pander to Netanyahu’s Autocratic Pals Any More’, Haaretz, 29 July 2021, https://www.haaretz.com./israel-news/modi-orban-bolsonaro-israel-doesn-t-need-to-pander-to-bibi-s-autocratic-pals-now-1.10050403
 Brian Klug, ‘The Collective Jew: Israel and the New Antisemitism’, Patterns of Prejudice 37, no. 2 (2003): 122.
 Keith Kahn-Harris, Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (London: Continuum, 2010), 138–139.
 Klug, ‘The Collective Jew’, 124.
 See, for example: Edward Said, ‘America’s Last Taboo’, New Left Review 6, (November–-December (2000); Walter Russell Mead, ‘Jerusalem Syndrome – Decoding the Israel Lobby’, Foreign Affairs 86, (November–-December (2007): 161.; John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, ‘The Blind Man and the Elephant in the Room: Robert Lieberman and the Israel Lobby’, Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 2 (2009): 260.
 All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (London: All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, 2006): 28.
 Peter Beinart, The Crisis of Zionism (New York: Times Books, 2012), 181.
 See, for example: Brian Wood, ‘The Second Annual CUFI Conference, July 2007: The Christian Zionist Coalition Hits Its stride’, Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no. 1 (2007): 79–-87; Faydra Shapiro, ‘“‘Thank you Israel, for Supporting America”’: the The Transnational Flow of Christian Zionist Resources’, Identities 19, no. 5 (2012): 616–631; Nathan Lean, ‘Of Politics and Prophecy: The Alliance of the Pro-Israel Right’, in The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (London: Pluto, 2012), 119–136; Elvira King, The Pro-Israel Lobby in Europe: The Politics of Religion and Christian Zionism in the European Union (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016).
 Pierre Guerlain, ‘The Israel Lobby, American Democracy and Foreign Perceptions of the USA’, Journal of Public Affairs 11, no. 4 (2011): 376.
 Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 2007),: 40.
 Klug, ‘The Collective Jew’, 124.
 Andrew Feinberg, ‘Trump Accused of “‘Classic”’ Antisemitism After after Claiming Israel “‘Had Absolute Power Over Congress”, Independent, 7 December 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-israel-us-congress-b1978210.html.