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The Emma Watson Saga Exposes the Demonisation of Palestine Solidarity

By accusing actress Emma Watson of antisemitism, Israel's apologists have exposed their strategy for defending apartheid: to smear anyone who dares to acknowledge that Palestinians exist.

Whatever one’s reservations about our celebrity-orientated culture, there’s a lot to be said for big names coming out in support of important causes. In what some would say was a key moment for the mainstreaming of the Palestinian liberation movement, Harry Potter star Emma Watson yesterday shared an image on her Instagram account—with sixty-four million followers—featuring the text ‘Solidarity is a verb’ against a backdrop of Palestinian flags.

Celebrated and chastised in equal measure, the post led Israel’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, to post a tweet calling Watson an antisemite. His move was met in turn with significant derision on social media, even from more conservative Israel advocacy circles.

Despite that, Danon’s response was quite in keeping with recent events. Back in October, acclaimed author Sally Rooney refused a deal with an Israeli publisher out of respect for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and was faced with similar charges of Jew hate. The following month, the Jewish Chronicle covered a protest against right-wing Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely by invoking comparisons to Kristallnacht.

Danon’s post might have been absurd in its sheer and immediate overreach, but it was a logical extension of a process that seeks to render the very existence of Palestinians antisemitic, let alone displays of solidarity with them. This process has been at the heart of the strategy pursued by apologists of Israeli occupation for years.

At a time when public awareness of and support for Palestinian liberation is gaining significant momentum, the use of a blunt instrument like an accusation of antisemitism has become an effective tool to silence Palestinian solidarity. This is particularly true when it comes to silencing progressive social movements which draw links between Palestinian solidarity and other forms of anti-racism within a broader racial justice framework. Deeming Palestinian identity, imagery, history, and heritage an existential threat to Jews is used to shield Israel from any kind of meaningful scrutiny or accountability for its brutal human rights abuses.

This tactic has developed over the years in subtle and insidious ways. The BDS movement, for instance, has been routinely derided by Israel advocates as the equivalent of the boycotts that targeted Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany. Just last month, Conservative MP Robert Jenrick promised to outlaw BDS during a conversation entitled ‘Why Do So Many People Hate Jews?’

In November 2021, a talk by academic Sondeep Sen at Glasgow University was cancelled after the Jewish Society complained to the Vice Chancellor that his subject matter—the political nature of Hamas—would create an ‘unsafe environment’ for Jewish students on campus. Even the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a lifelong campaigner against global injustice in its myriad forms, was smeared with unfounded accusations of antisemitism because of his equation of Israel’s policies with apartheid—a classification shared by many, including Israeli human rights organisations.

These incidents might seem like social media fodder, but they’re reflective of a reaction against the growing strength of the Palestine liberation movement—a reaction that seeks to label even the most mundane criticism of Israel’s behaviour an attack on Jews. It’s no coincidence that, as the movement for Palestinian freedom becomes more popular, efforts to codify the IHRA definition on antisemitism, and to make campaigns like BDS illegal—a goal being pursued by the British government in the forthcoming UK Boycott Law—also gain political traction.

This approach is popular both in the US and Britain. It’s intended to have a chilling effect, and it does: those who want to speak out in solidarity with Palestinians remain quiet for fear of being branded antisemitic and the consequences that would carry. It also serves to re-centre the issue of antisemitism in what should be a discussion about Palestinian liberation, thus serving as a distraction from the real-life consequences of decades of injustice in Israel and Palestine.

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State and military violence is inflicted on Palestinian communities on a daily basis. On the day Emma Watson posted on Instagram, settlers destroyed a Palestinian cemetery in Burqa near Nablus, and the hunger strike of Hisham Abu Hawash—a Palestinian prisoner being kept in Israeli custody without charge, now due to be released on 26 February—entered its 140th day. Yet the public conversation continues to centre on antisemitism.

There are consequences for the fight against antisemitism, too—just not in the way those wielding the accusations seem to think. In Britain, antisemitism has essentially been relegated to a factional dispute in an internal Labour Party struggle despite the fact that it—alongside anti-black racism, white supremacy, and hate towards LGBT+ people—is on the rise nationally and globally. The conflation of antisemitism and the criticism of Israel is not only morally repugnant, then—it’s also a fundamentally ineffective form of solidarity, and denies the way in which struggles against intolerance are inextricably linked together.

Those links mean that we must all be loud and unabashed in our calls for Palestinian human rights, and for an end to Israeli occupation. In that political context, Watson’s post was significant: it showed millions that solidarity with those struggling against oppression can and should be a part of the mainstream political discourse. It also showed that, despite the best efforts of many, the Palestinian liberation cause is well on its way there, thanks predominantly to those working on the ground to expose the daily brutality that accompanies occupation and apartheid.

But Danon’s response was, in its own way, equally important: it showed that allegations of antisemitism levelled at those who have done nothing other than express solidarity with Palestinians are as malicious as they are absurd. We should hope that that fact sticks in the collective memory when the next set of accusations rolls around.

Em Hilton is a Jewish leftist activist and writer living between Tel Aviv and London. She is the co-founder of Na’amod, British Jews Against Occupation, and sits on the steering committee of the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence.

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