On A Scale Of 1 To 10: How Anti-Semitic Was FM Qureshi?
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi took a prominent role at the UN in speaking out against indiscriminate Israeli military action in Occupied Palestine. But he has come under fire from some quarters for his remarks in an interview with CNN’s Bianna Golodryga, which have been described as “anti-Semitic” in that they allegedly make reference to old anti-Jewish tropes from Europe.
Controversy has erupted within Pakistan and outside: with some suggesting that he said nothing that was anti-Semitic, and others arguing that he did indeed do so. Those who have accused him of anti-Semitic remarks are not all pro-Israeli voices. Naturally, however, pro-Israel voices are making much of the perceived anti-Semitism, since it strengthens the overall narrative of Zionism as being the only safe refuge from an anti-Semitic world.
How are we to begin unpacking the foreign minister’s statement during his interview on CNN? Did he indeed cross the line from ‘legitimate’ criticism of the Zionist state and solidarity with the Palestinians into a territory that is more unacceptable?
Let us reproduce here, for the reader’s reference, that part of the interview.
“Israel is losing out. They are losing the media war, despite their connections,” Qureshi told CNN’s Golodryga. When she asked him as to what these connections were, the foreign minister replied, “Deep pockets,” then added: “They are very influential people. They control media.”
When accused of having made an anti-Semitic remark by Golodryga, he then continued: “Well, you see, the point is, they have a lot of influence. They get a lot of coverage. Now, what balances that is the citizen journalist who has been reporting, sharing video clips, and that has jolted people, and woken up people, and people who were sitting on the fence are today speaking up.”
So, are his views truly anti-Semitic?
Short answer: either way, such accusations will not help rid the world of anti-Semitism. Instead they only fan anti-Semitism at a moment when Israel is yet again openly demonstrating its disregard for Palestinian lives, human rights and international norms.
For the reader who has the patience to sit through a detailed discussion, let us assess Qureshi’s views and put them in their context – both historical and current.
Is there a kernel of truth to what Shah Mehmood Qureshi was trying to point towards, i.e the immense influence that Israel’s official narrative enjoys in the mainstream Western media? Yes.
This fact has been commented upon, written about, researched and dissected for decades now. Even during the current military action, media groups as crucial to global coverage as Reuters were seen performing all manner of editorial gymnastics in order to distance Israel from the very violence that it actively perpetrates. As early as 2006, the BBC produced a report for its own board of governors, which found a clear pro-Israel bias – and this report surprised even itself. Matters have only gone downhill since then. Meanwhile, the US mainstream media is known to be completely vulnerable to systematic pro-Israel manipulation. The CNN’s own interview with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi involved Bianna Golodryga throwing one Israeli government talking point after another at him, as if they were undisputed facts, while subjecting his own remarks to the most minute scrutiny. DW News went so far as to issue instructions to its staff that not only were voices questioning the legitimacy of the Israeli state to be censored, but that even references to apartheid and colonialism could not be associated with Israel. Even media organizations like Al Jazeera which have been critical of Israel in many instances, producing excellent work which investigates how Israeli diplomats and state agencies manipulate politics within Britain, remain unable to air the same sort of investigation into Israel’s lobbying activities in the US. This is, doubtless, due to the power wielded by outfits such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Here lies the problem: even if Qureshi had merely referred to the power of such lobbies, rather than going into his “they have deep pockets” remarks, he would still have been accused of anti-Semitism. Political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are still busy trying to clear their name from accusations of anti-Semitism based on exaggerated Snowman versions of the arguments presented in their famous 2007 book on the pro-Israel lobby!
Could Shah Mehmood Qureshi have phrased it better when he spoke of pro-Zionist ideological influence over the Western mainstream media? Yes.
Strictly speaking, can his remarks – as delivered – be seen as drawing upon anti-Semitic tropes which are common in the West and, since the formation of Israel, have also been adopted in our part of the world? Yes.
But the discussion cannot be closed at “Aha! He was, therefore, anti-Semitic!” – for such is the ugliness of the world that we live in. The problem is far more complicated than the sentinels guarding public discourse against anti-Semitism would dare to admit.
Those jumping to accuse Pakistan’s foreign minister of anti-Semitism must bear in mind two points. First, the context of the accusations. And second, what impact such accusations have.
Let us consider the first point, the backdrop. The discussion was not taking place in some pensive moment where Shah Mehmood Qureshi was asked to reflect on the historical role of the Jewish people and then he spewed forth anti-Semitic tropes, etc. Instead, he was speaking at a moment when hundreds of millions of people are horrified by Israel’s continued occupation and torment of the Palestinian Arab people. These people are not just in Muslim or non-Western countries: in fact, Western populations are increasingly recoiling from the actions of the brutal state which is described to them as a steadfast ally by the Western political elite and media. At such a time, the outrage of a CNN journalist over Qureshi’s poorly phrased remarks rings hollow to many who are horrified by the far more material and large-scale harm being visited by Israel on its victims.
The context of the outrage over Qureshi’s remarks is, simply put, a media blitz whose purpose is to justify not only the existence of the Israeli state, but also its brutality. It is because the world is so anti-Semitic, the argument runs, that we must do whatever is needed. And Israel indeed does whatever it feels the need to do. And much more.
In defending himself against Golodryga’s outraged accusations of anti-Semitism, Foreign Minister Qureshi ended up making a crucial point: that his own view of the matter is less important than global perceptions. It is a fact that these global perceptions are shaped by an anti-Zionism that has a porous border with anti-Semitism. And for all the pious preaching of Western leaders and media about the evils of anti-Semitism, the fact of the matter is that most people in the Global South became politically cognizant of Jewish people through the creation and actions of the State of Israel post-1948. Israel’s violent path and the impunity afforded it by its Western allies has shaped perceptions all over the world.
If these perceptions stumble into anti-Semitic territory and that makes the West uncomfortable, it must be pointed out that the skeletons are in the West’s closet. European anti-Semitism, which made the horror of the Holocaust possible, was not an Asian or Muslim crime.
All anti-Semitism is morally repugnant. But that does not mean that all anti-Semitisms were created alike. Some were crafted in a thousand-year marginalization of the Jewish people, culminating in industrialized mass murder. Others were adopted over TV screens, while watching the recklessly violent actions of a state that purports to act in the name of the Jewish people. This second form of anti-Semitism has an easier cure than the historical Western one. Israel-centric anti-Semitism can be expunged if the Zionist state were to be less of an ugly force in world affairs. But the historical Western anti-Semitism required nothing less than a reworking of Western civilization itself. It is common for the newly (and partially?) reformed to lecture others who are in different contexts, but it is rarely well received!
There are those who will be enraged – in the fine tradition of Western pro-Israeli sensitivity – by the very thought that Israel’s actions could possibly explain the rise of anti-Semitism in the Global South. Yet the same voices would find it perfectly acceptable to say that the actions of violent Islamic fundamentalists are a factor that helps fuel Islamophobia! If linking Islamophobia to the publicized actions of a few Muslim extremists is not victim-blaming, then surely the same standard can be applied to anti-Semitic tropes and slurs fueled by Israel’s warlike ways? To point out unfortunate realities is not to endorse them.
Our second point to consider is the result of accusations such as those leveled at Shah Mehmood Qureshi. And here comes an even more uncomfortable truth for ideological defenders of the Israeli state. At some point, the accusations of anti-Semitism will cease to even matter in the global discussion. In fact, we may already have crossed that point some years ago!
Israel and its supporters have systematically weaponized the accusation of anti-Semitism. They did this to stifle any questions around the legitimacy of the Zionist state and its actions. This game is not lost on critics of Israel. Not all critics are politically mature enough to know the history of anti-Semitism. When they see shrill accusations of anti-Semitism deployed against figures as diverse as Jeremy Corbyn and Gigi Hadid, they will reach their own conclusions. And they are likely to conclude not just that these accusations are mala fide, but also that the very concept of opposing anti-Semitism is merely some tactic of a pro-Zionist cabal.
Simply put: the more Israel weaponizes these accusations of anti-Semitism, the less seriously people will take real and egregious cases of anti-Semitic sentiment. Israel’s government, diplomats, intelligence agencies and zealous supporters will not have the last laugh if they continue to smear their critics with accusations of anti-Semitism. They will not succeed in silencing the growing chorus of condemnation for policies of perpetual occupation and brutal apartheid. Instead, they might end up giving respectability to actual anti-Semitism. We all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf.
Is there a lesson in this affair for Pakistani diplomacy and efforts to stand in solidarity with Palestine?
Before we conclude this discussion, a note on how common it is for right-wing voices in Pakistan to resort to actual anti-Semitism and pro-Hitler remarks when speaking of Israeli crimes and apartheid. A number of figures in the ruling party, the opposition and some religious leaders have embarrassed their country and the Palestinian cause with foolish anti-Semitic remarks. Just recently, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan was pushing the most ignorant anti-Semitic myths about the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, while standing before Parliament. Another lawmaker was admiringly citing a fake Hitler quote. Meanwhile an Islamabad-based journalist working with CNN got into hot water for anti-Semitic remarks – and doubled down on the ugly bigotry when the American media giant cut off its ties with him.
While Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was not remotely close to some of the vile remarks that are made by others in government and opposition to appeal to a right-wing audience at home, he could certainly have handled the interview better. He, of all people, ought to have known that accusations of anti-Semitism are a standard way of stifling debate on Israel in the Western media. A little bit of preparation beforehand, avoiding the misplaced confidence of an opinionated Whatsapp Uncle, discussing talking-points with someone who is actually familiar with the global discussion, sticking to such talking-points and avoiding the smirk and the references to “they” and their “deep pockets” might have helped him. It may not have kept him entirely clear of bad-faith accusations of anti-Semitism from a CNN in thrall to the Israeli state’s narrative, but it might have given him a more defensible ground from which to respond to the inevitable accusations.
Above all, when Pakistani officials or members of the public participate in discussions on Israeli crimes, they should remember their duty of solidarity to the Palestinian people’s cause, rather than treating the whole affair as an opportunity to enlighten us with their personal opinions on Jews and the world.
There is a well-funded and well-staffed Israeli state propaganda apparatus – helped along by Western guilty, complicity and ignorance – to take advantage of loose talk by Muslim voices rising in solidarity with Palestine.
The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.