Are we falling into the trap that Humpty Dumpty did in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Look Glass, when he said to Alice, ‘When I use a word… it means just what I want it to mean – neither more nor less’? Current debate and conversations about Zionism and anti-Semitism seem to have fallen into just this trap, particularly with the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism scandal which has so far lacked clarity about the words being used and so there has been a muddled debate.
When we talk about Israel, we are referring to a state. This state is a secular state. According to its own self-description, the narrative of the self-description of the state is that the state is distinct from the political cause known as Zionism. When we talk about Zionism, we are talking about a political cause that for some people has found expression in the establishment and continuing existence of the state of Israel. When we are talking about Jewish people, we are talking about an ethnic group. We may also be talking about those who hold particular religious convictions. What becomes confusing at this point is that some people say that they are Jewish but without religious convictions. In other words, the terminology we use can refer to a political cause, an ethnic group and those who hold to a particular faith.
The term anti-Semitism is not helpful because it is not clear from the term whether we are referring to an ethnic group, a religious group, or those who hold Zionist political convictions. The Semites are an ethnic group who include more than Jewish people. Even the term ‘anti-Jewish’, which is sometimes used, can be confusing because it is not clear whether this term refers to Jewish people as an ethnic group or Jewish people of faith.
The debate so far has been characterised by a failure to understand what people mean by the words they use. There has been mudslinging, and sloganizing, both of which fail to take the discussion further forward. We see this clearly in the scandal surrounding Naz Shah MP and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.
A Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, Naz Shah, was suspended from the party in 2016 after a Facebook postfrom 2014 resurfaced. The post advocated relocating Israel into the United States as a solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Supposedly, this would be a good idea as ‘Israelis are most loved by Americans’, and thus ‘Americans will welcome Israelis with open arms into their homes’. The post claimed that certain benefits would result, such as ‘oil prices will go down, inflation will go down, [and the] whole world will be happy’. She added a personal comment of ‘problem solved’.
It is unclear what Shah meant by Israel. Was Shah referring to the people living in Israel today? Those people include both Jewish people and non-Jewish people, and Jewish people with faith, and Jewish people without, and those who are Zionists and those who are not. Did Shah mean all of them should be moved to the United States, and is it not offensive to suggest that any group of people should be compulsively repatriated to another country whether they want to move or not? It bears some likeness to suggesting that Scottish people living in England should all be relocated to another country.
Subsequently, Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, defended Shah’s comments, and saidthat they were ‘over-the-top’ but ‘not anti-Semitic’. If nothing else, Livingstone’s comments portray a lack of analytical clarity. Just who is he referring to, and is he seriously suggesting that he favours the relocation of an ethnic group, or a religious group, or a non-religious group, or a political group to another country?
Also, what do we make about his comment that ‘when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism. [He then] went mad and ending up killing 6 million Jews. But the simple fact in all of this is that Naz made these comments at a time when there was another brutal Israeli attack on the Palestinians’?
Is it extraordinary to think that after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf that Hitler was a Zionist. Mein Kampf contains some of the bitterest, ugliest vitriol about Jews and their influence and contribution to Western society. His policy to exterminate the Jews was hardly a volte face resulting from a change of mind. For Livingstone to suggest that Hitler had the best of intentions towards the Jews initially is a failure to understand the basic facts of history.
Words and their meanings matter. For a mature debate, we need to understand both the language that we use and the way others use language. Lack of clarity about language produces misunderstanding and conflict. It can also become a way of not facing the pain of historical reality.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put Humpty together again. Maybe if he had been a little more careful with the language that he used, he would not have fallen and been irreparably damaged.