The following is an edited version of a speech delivered by Palestinian analyst and scholar Tareq Baconi at a conference entitled “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right,” hosted by Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin in June 2022. The day after delivering the speech, two fellow speakers, Jan Grabowski and Konstanty Gebert, publicly read a joint statement that misrepresented Baconi’s talk and condemned his very presence at the conference. In the days that followed, Grabowski continued to denounce Baconi in the right-leaning German newspaper Die Welt.
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Three years ago, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Hanukkah candle lighting at the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Turning to the assembled reporters, Netanyahu was pressed to address a breakthrough that Palestinians had been celebrating that day.
Hours earlier, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Fatou Bensouda, had announced that there were sufficient grounds to launch an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by all parties involved in the occupied territories, including by Israel. The decision, Netanyahu told the crowd, amounted to “Antisemitic decrees of the International Court telling us, the Jews standing by this wall, by this mountain, in this city, in this land, that we have no right to live here, and that if we live here we commit war crimes. Blatant antisemitism.”
Almost exactly a year prior, in November 2018, a gunman — a white American male named Robert Gregory Bowers — stormed into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jewish worshippers, wounding six others. It was described as the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Although President Donald Trump and Israeli leaders flew to Pittsburgh to offer their condolences, the Pittsburgh Rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, blamed Trump and other politicians directly. “Mr. President,” said Rabbi Myers, “hate speech leads to hateful actions. Hate speech leads to what happened in my sanctuary.”
When both the ICC and armed white supremacists are seen as equally peddling antisemitism, definitions are perhaps needed to explain what antisemitism is and how it can be combatted. But what happens when those definitions themselves become co-opted?
Since the years of the Trump administration, more countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, a definition initially assembled by experts to help monitor antisemitic incidents in Europe, and which was then expanded into a tool for addressing antisemitism globally.
The IHRA outlines 11 examples of what it views as constituting antisemitism; eight of those include criticisms of the State of Israel. As one defender of the definition said, “where classical antisemitism would have barred the individual Jew from having an equal place within society, modern antisemitism [bars] the Jewish nation-state from an equal place among the nations.”
In that nation-state, the State of Israel, the right-wing Netanyahu has been replaced by a politician even further to his right — a man who once headed the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization representing the settlements of “Judea and Samaria,” in the occupied West Bank. And since that evening when Netanyahu was outraged that Israel would be accused of committing war crimes, the following has happened (and this is not an exhaustive list):
Israel has bombed and collapsed the buildings that housed the offices of the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera in the Gaza Strip during a military assault in which 243 Palestinians were killed, including 67 children, making 2021 the deadliest year for Palestinian children since 2014; Israel has assassinated the intrepid journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, one of more than 30 journalists who have been killed by Israeli fire since 2000; the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that it is legal to forcibly transfer more than 1,000 Palestinians from Masafer Yatta in the West Bank, in direct contravention of international law.
And in between these headline news — in the daily, mundane grind of the occupation — Israel continues to kill, detain, and brutalize Palestinians, including 13 children killed this year alone, and more than 400 detained, the majority of whom were taken from their beds in the middle of the night. Earlier this month, Israeli forces killed four Palestinians across the West Bank in the span of 24 hours, bringing the total number of Palestinians killed this year to 62.
Today, Israel is acting with renewed vigor, pursuing its colonization of Palestine with confident impunity, armed with strong diplomatic support, and strengthened by the regional alliances it has cultivated through the so-called “Abraham Accords,” Donald Trump’s normalization agreements, which entailed outright bribery in the cases of Morocco and Sudan. But Palestinians, too, have stepped up our mobilization, pursuing the legal track at the ICC and expanding our Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. We, too, have achieved several pivotal milestones since that Hanukkah in Jerusalem in 2019.
In 2021, after tireless Palestinian advocacy, Israeli and international human rights organizations finally accepted what Palestinians have been saying for decades: that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people in our historic homeland. B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all come out with highly detailed and well-researched reports making the legal case that Israel is guilty of committing crimes against humanity.
In May last year, Palestinians overcame the colonial fragmentation imposed on us by Israel and mobilized from the river to the sea, as a single people fighting a single regime of apartheid, in what we’ve come to call our “Unity Intifada.” This year — as Israeli soldiers beat down the pallbearers carrying Shireen Abu Akleh’s coffin, demonstrating to international media the vicious nature of its regime — Palestinians saw another image: thousands of people from all walks of life flooding into the Old City, reclaiming Jerusalem to commemorate our fallen hero.
Israel’s response to expanding Palestinian mobilization, and to our hard-earned success in projecting our narrative onto the global stage, has been predictably intensive. Alongside a mass arrest campaign of individuals throughout Palestine following the Unity Intifada, Israel has also expanded its tactics of delegitimizing Palestinian resistance.
For example, six NGOs that form the bedrock of Palestinian mobilization today — some of which are at the forefront of the ICC case — have been declared terrorist organizations. This includes Defense for Children International-Palestine, which has been at the core of efforts to document Palestinian children killed and detained by Israeli forces. Despite having provided zero evidence to link any of the named organizations to terrorist activities, and despite European diplomats saying that the evidence submitted “doesn’t meet the required threshold of proof,” the international community has failed to push back against Israel’s smear campaigns, and these organizations are currently struggling for funding and support.
But these are old tools: Israel’s hasbara tactics have expanded beyond solely linking Palestinians to terrorism, tools of the “War on Terror” years. Hasbara 2.0, or maybe 3.0, is now focused on deeming Palestinian resistance antisemitic — and this has global reach. More than 30 U.S. states have passed laws specifically targeting the BDS movement for supposedly being antisemitic, as shown in the new Just Vision movie “Boycott.” More than 35 countries around the world have now embraced the IHRA definition, which has assumed “legal form and legal legitimacy,” as the scholar Rebecca Gould has argued.
Israeli politicians have called the reports by HRW and Amnesty antisemitic. When the UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk, in his final report last March, also conceded that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid, Israeli leaders again responded with accusations of antisemitism. “This report,” Israel’s UN envoy in Geneva said, “recycles baseless and outrageous libels previously published by NGOs that share the same goal as the author of this report: to delegitimize and criminalize the State of Israel for what it is: the nation-state of the Jewish People.”
Synergy of ideologies
The politics of what I’m outlining here are clear for everyone to see. The struggle for Palestinian rights — using international law, the ICC, and the UN — is antisemitic. It is a threat deserving of equal, if not greater, state intervention and combat as the shooting of worshippers in synagogues under the banner of white supremacy. This equalization is made even more sinister and insidious when noting that the overwhelming majority of actual antisemitic incidents can be traced back to white supremacist ideology. This misrepresentation is a product of the synergies between right-wing ideology and Zionism, synergies which are evident in the pairing of support for Israel with increasingly repressive tactics.
This trend is flourishing in both authoritarian regimes and in supposedly liberal and democratic states. In the United Kingdom, where I live, the government is pushing for the IHRA to be adopted by universities, and for anti-BDS legislation to be passed by city councils; in 2019, a bike ride for Gaza was denied a permit by Tower Hamlets Council, which stated there was a “real risk” that the event would be antisemitic by breaching the IHRA examples.
Using anti-BDS legislation, that same government has now stated, broadly and without specificity, that public-sector pensions “may not make investment decisions that conflict with the UK’s foreign and defence policy.” The government is now celebrating a plan to place migrants and asylum seekers on planes to Rwanda for processing. These anti-democratic policies are strikingly similar to past U.K. government efforts to limit boycotts of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Palestinians wearing a keffiyeh and commemorating the Nakba are taken in for questioning, losing their jobs, being vilified, and even being compared to Nazis — all while the actual neo-Nazi AfD party not so long ago became one of the largest opposition parties in the Bundestag. In France, anti-Zionism is being equated with antisemitism as Emmanuel Macron’s government increases efforts to crackdown on French Muslims, including through the passage of a bill giving the state power to monitor Muslim organizations.
Globally, Israel has actively embraced and cultivated bedfellows with regimes such as Viktor Orban’s in Hungary, Jair Bolsanaro’s in Brazil, and Christian evangelicals in the United States, all of whom are simultaneously combining their vile antisemitism with a strongly Zionist vision, embracing Israel as their model, while claiming to safeguard the memory of the Holocaust. In the Middle East, having an apartheid regime cozy up to dictators in the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain is celebrated the world over as an example of agreements which embody peace, coexistence, and religious tolerance. In reality, these deals are nothing more than an affirmation that a counter-revolutionary, anti-democratic regional architecture of surveillance and oppression is in the making.
I want to make three broad and interlinked points in relation to these troubling developments.
Firstly, it should be clear to everyone that this is not about antisemitism — it is about geopolitics. Right-wing and conservative governments, frequently racist and demagogic, have been useful allies for Israel, a state which is equally resentful of the Western liberal order even as it tries to position itself firmly in that sphere.
Israel is an apartheid, colonial state that has simultaneously managed to maintain strong diplomatic, military, and economic ties with Western liberal democracies. Its ability to do so is an attractive model to illiberal democracies and authoritarian regimes, and the flourishing of these alliances in the region and beyond is both logical and an indication of where the international order is headed, as the legal norms established after World War II are being systematically eroded. The wrongful conflation around antisemitism has also proven to be a useful tool for Western governments seeking to fuel culture wars in the context of their own domestic politics.
Secondly, Israel’s attacks on Palestinian activism are in no way limited to Palestinians. They are attacks on free speech, and on the international legal order and norms. The anti-BDS legislation has created loopholes that are now becoming another tool in the arsenal of anti-gun control legislation, anti-green energy legislation, and anti-abortion legislation. This right-wing demagogic reality is one in which Israel can thrive and continue to enjoy its impunity. The widespread selling of Israel’s Pegasus software to authoritarian leaders globally, from Saudi Arabia to Rwanda, is not merely a commercial exercise, but a carefully crafted geostrategic one. It resembles precisely the kind of vast clandestine relations Israel cultivated with apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s to buffer the regime against widening international isolation.
Thirdly, the collateral damage out of this effort to limit free speech, undermine movements struggling for freedom and equality, and allow for illiberal democracies and authoritarian regimes to flourish are in fact Jewish communities, who often end up being scapegoated in pursuit of these larger aims. Israeli claims about BDS being antisemitic, or the UN being a blood libelous organization, makes a mockery of efforts to combat actual antisemitism and other forms of racism which go hand in hand with hatred of Jews.
Our agency, our voice
So what does this all mean for the Palestinians? The answer is simple: it doesn’t matter. In this equation, in these calculations, Palestinians are nothing more than a backdrop, silent at best, a nuisance at worst. I sometimes find myself thinking that Palestinians are just the canvas against which Jewish psychodramas play themselves out.
We Palestinians have been thrust into the position we inadvertently find ourselves in today simply because we are being colonized by a state which defines itself as Jewish. Let us be clear: if Palestinians were being colonized by a non-Jewish state, we would still be resisting our colonization. In that sense, this is a continuation of the historic Palestinian predicament.
The links between Western guilt following the Holocaust and support for the creation of Israel have been well-researched, as have the roots of Zionism, which was met with ferocious resistance by indigenous Palestinians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Palestinians are the indirect victims, the collateral damage, of European and Christian antisemitism. Viewed as inferior beings and irrelevant people who did not factor into the decision-making of empires and colonial minds, the Palestinian plight in the face of Zionism was a non-issue. There is no need to repeat the tropes of a land without a people for a people without a land.
Fast forward a century, and those same European powers — including Germany, because of its own atrocious history — are exporting not their antisemitism this time, but their quest for absolution, onto the Palestinians. And Palestinians still do not factor into it; they are unseen.
The demonized Jews — those now enjoying full sovereign and national control in the form of a nuclear armed state — have become the wonder children, the inhabitants of a state that can do no wrong. And in seeking absolution, states like Germany have once again accepted Palestinians as collateral; their oppression and colonization is a fair price to pay to allow Germany to atone for its past crimes. A blind eye must be turned when it comes to the continuation of Israeli apartheid and colonization, lest the state be aggrieved and old traumas reignited. To do so, all voices speaking about Palestinian liberation or celebrating Palestinian lives must be silenced, even if those voices are themselves Jewish.
This reality is not just about discourse, as the IHRA clarifies that the Palestinian narrative is ipso facto antisemitic. Rather, it is linked to the very material structure of Jewish domination and apartheid in colonized Palestine*, which extends itself to the practices of remembrance and memorialization of the Holocaust. In Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum is literally built on the grounds overlooking the ruins of the village of Deir Yassin, where a bloody massacre was perpetrated by Zionist forces during the 1948 Nakba to facilitate Palestinian expulsion and enable Zionist colonization.
For visitors who do not know this reality, they will walk through a museum curated to document the horrific crime of the Holocaust, onto a viewing deck at the end of the permanent exhibit which looks out onto green fields, without ever realizing that they are gazing at bloody grounds. This erasure of the Palestinian catastrophe in a space where the Holocaust is memorialized is a crude trivialization of the lessons of that genocide. It reflects an elision that Israeli leaders, abetted by Germany and other European powers, have helped to sustain.
To break with this cycle of Palestinians being viewed as passive agents, as the recipients either of German antisemitism or guilt, I want to end by shifting the center of gravity away from this European and colonial gaze and place it squarely onto the Palestinians, who have always had agency and our own voice.
I want to salute all the Palestinians in Germany, and our allies, who are on the front lines of this repressive trend in Europe. And I want to say that we, as Palestinians, refuse to be singled out to defend against accusations of antisemitism. There is no reason for me to be here, on this stage, in this conference, as a Palestinian. Yet at the same time, we are not voiceless victims, nor mere recipients of European racism and neo-colonialism. And so I want to inject, for clarity and for the sake of moral and political defiance, our own narrative directly into this space.
For over a century, we Palestinians have been struggling against Zionism, a racist settler colonial movement intent on our elimination. In 1948, the Zionist movement declared the creation of the State of Israel, and constituted itself as a regime of apartheid, committed to maintaining Jewish domination in Palestine. Since then, Israel has expanded its persistent colonization of Palestinian land and relentless dispossession of the Palestinian people, a dual process of land consolidation and demographic engineering. Today, Israel is an apartheid state with full sovereign control over all of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, persecuting the Palestinian people at home and in their exile. Every Palestinian carries these simple truths in their heart and bears witness to them on a daily basis.
At this crucial juncture in time, Western democracies seem intent on undermining their own loftily declared commitments to liberal values, deploying McCarthyite tactics to assuage their guilt, to allow Israel to flourish, and to further their own increasingly authoritarian agendas. As they expand diplomatic and military relations with Israel, the task set forth for Palestinians is clear. In our struggle for freedom, we have become the protectors of international law, human rights, and accountability. Although this is a burden and a privilege we have not chosen, we will nonetheless continue to struggle both for our emancipation, for a free Palestine, and for a world where justice, freedom, and equality can be enjoyed by all.
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*Clarification, June 22, 2022: This point is important and merits a clarification on the choice of wording. Israeli apartheid is a system of Jewish domination in Palestine, not of Israeli domination. For one, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens are also subjugated victims — Israeli citizenship does not protect the individual from this system. For another, Israeli apartheid offers privileges to Jews who are non-Israeli, through the Law of Return. As B’Tselem has noted, “this is a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea.” To avoid innocent misunderstandings, we have added a clarification that this assertion is geographically limited to colonized Palestine, as the title of the talk suggests.