Farewell to “Kazik” – the last of the ghetto fighters

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Rapoport monument

In Warsaw there is a very moving trail of memorials to the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It starts at the huge monument, designed by Nathan Rapoport and erected in 1948, and ends at the umschlagplatz  where the inmates of the ghetto – hundreds of thousands of Jews, and between 1,000-2,000 Romany Gypsies – were deported to the death camp of Treblinka, mainly in 1942.

Along this trail, individual memorial stones  recall individuals among the resistance led by the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa  (ZOB – Jewish fighting Organisation). Formed in 1942, it was an alliance of competing left-wing political organisations in the ghetto – Bundists, Communists, Zionists – united in a common struggle for freedom and dignity, or as one of their leaders put it, “to choose our way of death”. When the Uprising started on 19 April, just a few hundred fighters were still alive, all between 13 and 40 years of age.

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Simcha Rotem – “Kazik”

On 30 April, while the battle was still raging, two of the fighters  left the ghetto through a secret tunnel. They were Simcha Rotem, a Zionist, known to his comrades as “Kazik”, and Zalmen Friedrych, a Bundist. They had been sent on a mission by their commander, Marek Edelman, also a Bundist, to reach ZOB resisters hidden outside of the ghetto, and to arrange a way of rescuing the fighters who were still alive by evacuating them through the sewers. They found their contacts and obtained maps and guidance from non-Jewish Poles who had worked in the sewers – part of the Polish Underground in every sense. Kazik organised the rescue of dozens of fighters, and, together with Friedrych, found hiding places for them in the forests, and in the city. He was just 19 years old at the time.

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Zalmen Friedrych

Yesterday, 22 December 2018, Kazik, the last surviving fighter of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, died in Israel where he had gone to live after the war. Friedrych had been killed by Gestapo and German police when he was taking a group to a hiding place in a village called Pludy in 1943. Those he was taking were murdered too. Edelman, the last surviving member of the Uprising command group, and who helped to lead the fighters through the sewers, died in Poland in 2009.

They spent 48 hours in total in pipes just 28 inches high. They had reached the planned exit on Prosta Street, beyond the south-western edge of the  ghetto, at night, but the truck that Kazik had organised to collect them could not get there safely at that time because of a curfew imposed by the occupying Nazi forces. He had arranged for a truck that moved furniture. The driver was told that he would be moving the contents of a house. He was shocked to see that instead of furniture they would be loading people emerging from a sewer manhole.

A crowd had gathered around this remarkable scene, amazed at the sight of Jews emerging from the sewer-hole with sub-machine guns strapped to their waists. In his memoir, The Ghetto Fights, Marek Edelman wrote:

“…the trap door opened and one after another, with the stunned crowd looking on , armed Jews appeared from the depths of the dark hole… Not all were able to get out. Violently, heavily, the trap-door shut. The truck took off at full speed”

Edelman and Kazik were part of a unit of surviving ZOB fighters, hidden by non-Jews, who took part a year later in the general Warsaw Uprising led by Polish resisters in 1944.

The section of Prosta Street, where the fighters emerged, is a wide thoroughfare, IMG_3388overshadowed today by tall glass towers recently built by business corporations. It is far from the memorial route of Jewish martyrdom which crosses the north of the ghetto. Many visitors to Warsaw, following that memorial route in order to gain an insight into the history of the ghetto and the courageous resistance that fought there, do not reach this remarkable installation, unveiled in 2010, that stands where the fighters emerged from the sewers. It portrays a sewage canal rising vertically from the ground with disembodied hands symbolically climbing their way to freedom.

Next to it is a prism-shaped monument that lists those who escaped and survived the war, including Cywia Lubetkin, the sole woman among the uprising command group. It also lists those who escaped but died in combat during the war, and those who never made it out of the sewers.

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The final panels commemorate Kazik (Simcha Rotem) and the group he collaborated with to achieve this incredible rescue operation, including the Polish sewer workers, Waclaw Sledziewskie and Czeslaw Wojciechowski. As we remember the heroism of Kazik and give thanks for his remarkable life which ended yesterday, we should remember too, all who fought for freedom and dignity in the uprising, and all who helped them beyond the ghetto walls.

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Facing up to antisemitism – real, denied and invented

Paper presented at an international symposium on the “Resurgence of Antisemitism: Realities, Fictions and Uses”, Brussels 12/13 December 2018

I want to start with some personal biography. My grandparents came to Britain as Jewish child immigrants from Poland and Ukraine in the early 1900s. I grew up in an economically struggling Jewish family in inner London, that gradually became more comfortable.

My extended family were mostly Labour voters, plus some communist-supporting relatives. My family were traditional; not very religious, not actively Zionist. They had no family in Israel, but sympathised with Israel at a general level.,

I became involved in socialist politics and antifascist activism when I was around 16 years old. My first demonstration was against the National Front, a group formed in Britain in 1967 by convinced Nazis, who recruited a wider layer of supporters from all classes, by condemning black immigration and promoting British nationalism.

I went to that demonstration with several Jewish friends from a Zionist youth group. I had illusions then about Israel/Palestine that I discarded long ago. Perhaps only one or two of those  Jewish friends I attended the demonstration with, would define themselves as Zionist now. People can be persuaded to rethink by convincing arguments and evidence. Today though, many leftists are better at condemning and proclaiming than persuading.

I broke with Zionism as a result of my deepening involvement in anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, alongside a more serious engagement with the realities in Israel/Palestine.

Today, there is little involvement of left-wing or liberal Zionists within the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement in Britain. Debates around Zionism and antisemitism have become more toxic within the left. Many Jews claim that the left does not take antisemitism seriously, that it trivialises the existence of antisemitism; or dismisses it as a few cranks holding old prejudices. Many leftists insist it cannot be compared with the institutional racism that blacks, Muslims, migrant workers, and refugees suffer every day. There is some truth in all these assertions but we cannot generalise. Many left-wing Zionists are quick to label people antisemites who make genuine observations about the impacts of different kinds of racism.

brick-lane-black-white-unite-2In the 1970s I was inspired by slogans: “Black and white, unite and fight”, “self-defence is no offence”, and especially by: “here to stay – here to fight!”, which argued that the struggle was not only against discrimination, but it was also a positive assertion of the right of minorities to live as equals and develop their distinctive identities and cultures.

Another slogan from that time disturbed me: “Yesterday the Jews, today the blacks”. at street level, the National Front targeted Caribbean and Asian communities, but fascists do not replace targets: they accumulate them. Antisemitism still played a significant role for the fascists then and now. Two publications from that period explained this well: Racism, Fascism and the Politics of the National Front: a pamphlet, by David Edgar, a left wing playwright; and a book called Fascists: by Michael Billig, a social-psychologist, based on interviews with middle-rank National Front activists.

Edgar argued that although most fascists surface campaigning directed itself against non-white immigrants, the ideology shared by the movement’s inner-core said immigrants themselves were merely pawns of more powerful forces who promoted multiculturalism to undermine the white race. Who were these forces? The Jews. Billig’s book showed that the higher up the movement you moved, the more you were exposed to “world Jewish conspiracy” ideas of classic Nazi antisemitism.

the-43-groupMany people assume that, in Britain, you have to go back to the 1930s to find Jews in the front line at street level from fascists. You don’t. Just after the war, between 1946 and 1950 fascist groups re-emerged promoting antisemitism, but were beaten back by a physical anti-fascist campaign organised mainly by Jewish ex-army  servicemen and women called the 43 Group.

In the 1960s, thousands of anti-fascists broke up a rally where the platform had a banner across it saying “Free Britain from Jewish control”. In the early 1960s protests fringe far-right groups in Britain held banners proclaiming “Hitler was Right”. Those banners disappeared from view for nearly 50 years, as fascists began to use code-words to express antisemitism. But in the last few years similar banners have reappeared.

hitlerwas rightIn America, and especially in central and eastern Europe, antisemitism is still the glue that holds  neo-Nazis’ worldview together, that explains global economics and politics.

Racism against black and brown minorities in Britain has deep roots in Britain’s imperial and colonial past. Negative stereotypes of inferiority sustained themselves long after the Empire collapsed. They are still woven through institutions such as police, the criminal justice system and the education system.

Antisemitism has other deep roots in Britain society. Sometimes it has overlapped with more familiar anti-immigrant racism, but more often it stereotypes Jews not as inferior but as an intelligent, alien clique conspiring to undermine the nation

The mass immigration of Jews to Britain took place mainly between 1881 and 1905. In00aliensA2 1905, the Government passed the Aliens Act, which dramatically reduced Jewish immigration. The  Prime Minister who pushed it through was Lord Balfour, who, 12 years later, promised Palestine to the Jews. Balfour was responding to grassroots campaigning from organisations such as the British Brothers League, whose activists were from struggling working class communities bordering Jewish enclaves.

People whose work was precarious, and whose housing conditions were poor, were convinced by the League’s middle-class leaders, such as Major William Evans-Gordon, that all their problems were caused by immigrants. Some politicians and many newspapers described Jews as dirty, diseased, parasitic, culturally inferior, alien, as well as being criminals and anarchists.

Both Evans-Gordon and Balfour were personal friends of a young Zionist called Chaim Weizman, who later became the first President of Israel. Evans-Gordon and Balfour were Christian Zionists and imperialists in foreign policy but antisemites domestically.

The everyday racism Jews suffered at this time, though, was largely from white workers who saw them as rivals for scarce resources. It was very similar to the xenophobic prejudices later experienced by Caribbean and Asian immigrants,

Oswald MosleyA more ideologically articulated antisemitism emerged in the 1930s. The British Union of Fascists, formed by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932, portrayed working class Jews as rivals for the indigenous working class, but focused more on alleged machinations of wealthier Jews. It portrayed them as immensely powerful, accused them of controlling the economy, the media, and the political system. From autumn 1934 Mosley made antisemitism the central plank of his fascist ideology, defining a battle between “the cleansing spirit of fascism” and Jews as “an unclean, alien influence in our national and imperial life”.

Mosley preferred Mussolini to Hitler, at first, but in early 1936 his movement became the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, and embraced Hitlerite antisemitism. Street-corner speakers for the movement still cast Jews as criminals, bad landlords, and rivals for jobs and homes, but they also described Jews as “rats and vermin”, “subhumans”, a “pestilence”, or a “cancer” that had to be removed,

Antisemitism proved popular among sections of all classes in the population. The fascists had 500 branches around the country including 20 branches at  fee-paying schools for the wealthy. This helped to sustain an antisemitic mind-set among sections of the upper and upper-middle classes after World War 2, as they reached adulthood.

I sense that antisemitism in Britain is rising today together with other hatreds. That subjective perception is supported by the principal organisation collecting data on antisemitism – the Community Security Trust (CST) – a mainstream Jewish body that work closely with the police. They also work closely with the main institution claiming to represent the Jewish community – the Board of Deputies of British Jews – but are independent from it.

In political terms CST personnel comprise right-wing Labourites and mild Conservatives. They are pro-Zionist, and defensive about Israel, but not Netanyahu supporters. However, they are an increasingly reliable source of information on the kinds of incidents that occur and the profiles of the perpetrators. Mostly now, they differentiate between politically motivated abuse relating to Israel and Zionism and antisemitic abuse. They reject claims by Jews of antisemitic incidents which do not show a clear antisemitic intention. Their end of year report for 2017 recorded more than 1,300 incidents but left out several hundred more where anti-Jewish motives could not be proven.

Their facts indicate a significant, and gradually increasing level of attacks on Jewish individuals, sometimes on groups (such as schoolchildren), and on Jewish institutions such as  synagogues and cemeteries. A  typical attack involves verbal abuse, threatening behaviour and sometimes physical assault.  Victims of assaults are often ultra-orthodox Jews, attacked for how they dress. Muslim girls and women wearing the hijab face similar street harassment.

The language used in many attacks frequently references the Holocaust and Hitler. Jewish communal leaders claim that the principal threat to Jews in Britain comes from the Left, but where the CST can identify perpetrators, the majority are white far-right. However, increasing numbers of incidents are perpetrated by other minorities, who themselves experience racism. These perpetrators often utilise the same Hitler and Holocaust tropes.

The far right have flooded the internet with poisonous antisemitic ideas, alleging Jewishjacob-rothschild conspiracies by “Rothschild bankers”/”Rothschild Zionists”. These powerful conspiracy theories are entering mainstream and minority cultures.  Sometimes, they are unwittingly shared by Leftists who think they are sharing anti-capitalist or pro-Palestinian material. They are tainting both of these just struggles.

Jewish establishment responses to antisemitism and the far right, and to racism in general in Britain, have long been inadequate but have also undergone significant historical shifts.

Today the Board of Deputies seem to see antisemitism everywhere. Yet in the 1930 when working class Jews faced sustained abuse and assaults from organised fascists, the Board of Deputies and the principle Jewish establishment newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, dismissed the fascist threat as exaggerated, and treated the perpetrators merely as “Hitler copy-cats”.

They refused to believe that antisemitism could flourish in a country they characterised as fair, decent and tolerant. When that movement terrorised Jewish communities and threatened to march through the Jewish working class heartland, the Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle advised Jews to stay indoors and avoid protest actions that might lead to disorder. The community completely ignored them and inflicted a peoples’ defeat on the fascists through mass street action, in October 1936 in what became known as the “Battle of Cable Street”. Soon after that, Jewish leaders began to argue that Jewish behaviour was provoking antisemitism.

In the 1970s and early 1980s when the National Front were mainly targeting blacks and Asians – though antisemitism had not disappeared –  Jewish “leaders” acknowledged the problems were principally caused by the far right, but they trusted the same state authorities who were frequently mistreating immigrant communities to deal with it.

IMG_2856When a mass and broad-based anti-fascist movement – the Anti-Nazi League – was created by leftists in 1978, the Jewish establishment tried to dissuade young Jews from joining it, claiming that some ANL leaders were known for anti-Zionist activism. I believe that the Jewish establishment was less worried about Israel than the prospect of young Jews associating with militant leftists.

The Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) –a radical fringe group – openly challenged communal leaders  and helped recruit Jews to the Anti-Nazi League. A bigger confrontation with the Deputies came in the early 1980s. The JSG obtained and released information kept under wraps by the Board of Deputies about an increasing number of serious antisemitic incidents in London perpetrated by the far-right. Jewish leaders attempted to hide this from the community, because it might have alarmed the community or encouraged Jews to make common cause with other minorities. They preferred to deal with it privately in close cooperation with state authorities.

Contrast that with recent years where Britain’s Jewish leaders see antisemitism everywhere including where it is not present at all. This has coincided with their adopting a much more strident and explicit anti-left agenda, especially after Jeremy Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian radical socialist, became leader of the Labour Party. There is another paper at the conference on this so I won’t intrude on that, but just make a few observations.

The left, in its many organisations, have been the strongest and most militant fighters against racism and fascism in Britain, but they have not always recognised the continuing presence and significance of antisemitism.

Some elements of the left for whom Palestinian concerns are very important, who recognise that antisemitism provides the self-justification for Zionism, mistakenly believe that giving attention to antisemitism weakens their support for Palestinians. It doesn’t. Jewish communities are increasingly  polarising over Israel/Palestine and Zionism. Every reliable survey of Jewish community opinion in Britain shows a decline in self-identification with the term “Zionist” – down from more than 70% to 59% in the last decade. Increasing numbers of Jews speak out for Palestinian rights. Those numbers would be greater still if Jews felt that those speaking up for Palestine also consistently denounced antisemitism.

Jewish community leaders speak and act as if there is rampant antisemitism on the left. They cynically conflate opposition to Israeli policy, and critiquing of Zionism, with antisemitism. They promote the lie that Zionism is an intrinsic and eternal part of Jewish identity rather than it being one of several political ideologies that were vying for support among Jews at the end of the 19th century

There are two errors frequently made on the left that make it open to criticism from Zionists. Leftists often refer to Israel when mean the Israeli government or the Israeli

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Israeli anti-government protesters

military, or Israeli settlers. This homogenises Israeli Jews and erases the internal opposition. There are growing numbers of brave but harassed oppositionists within Israel – who are a mixture of anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, and left-wing Zionists. How they define themselves is less important than what they do. The left in Britain and elsewhere in Europe should recognise and broadcast what Israel’s internal opposition is doing.

The other error is to frequently make analogies between Israeli state practice and Nazism. This accusation seems more intended to wound rather than enlighten. It reveals a lack of historical understanding or empathy with Jews under Nazism. Racist discriminatory aspects of Israeli government policy are certainly similar to practices in the very early years of Nazism, but there are perhaps closer similarities with other racist, ultra-nationalist regimes, or with ethnic cleansers, for example, during the Yugoslav wars.

Why are we obsessed with making analogies? We can find all the arguments and evidence for promoting Palestinian justice in the practices of Israeli governments and institutions that are about dispossession, exclusion, discrimination and oppression. We don’t need to invoke Hitler.

Despite these errors, it is the left that consistently exposes and combats those who genuinely threaten the future well-being of minorities in Britain today. Leaders of the Jewish community highlight any perceived antisemitism on the Left even if the evidence is flimsy, yet they are silent on  regimes in central and Eastern Europe where antisemitism rides in tandem with Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice and other forms of bigotry,  where such regimes are friends with Benjamin Netanyahu.

We are entering a dangerous period with regard to the growth of the British far-right where the traditional alliance between the Left and the Jewish community has broken down. We urgently need to fix this.

A memory and a warning from Spain

“For the first time in the history of the peoples’ struggles, there was the spectacle, breath­taking in its grandeur, of the formation of International Brigades to help save a threatened country’s freedom and independence – the freedom and independence of our Spanish land.

“Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Republicans – men of different colours, differing

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La Pasionaria – Dolores Ibarruri

ideology, antagonistic religions – yet all profoundly loving liberty and justice, they came and offered themselves to us unconditionally.

“They gave us everything – their youth or their maturity; their science or their experience; their blood and their lives; their hopes and aspirations – and they asked us for nothing. But yes, it must be said, they did want a post in battle, they aspired to the honour of dying for us.

“Banners of Spain! Salute these many heroes! Be lowered to honour so many martyrs! … You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend.”

These are the words spoken by Dolores Ibarrruri (known as la Pasionaria) in a ceremony in Barcelona in autumn 1938, marking the withdrawal of the International Brigades. Today, 7th December, is the 80th anniversary of the arrival back in London of 305 members of the British Battalion. When they reached Victoria Station they were greeted by huge crowds. Before setting off by bus for a banquet at the Cooperative Society in the East End, they had a political task. Led by wounded Brigadistas, they delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street demanding British aid for the Spanish Republic.

Screen Shot 2018-12-07 at 09.13.18It fell on deaf ears. By 1939, Britain’s National Government, led by the Conservative, Neville Chamberlain, was recognising Franco’s regime. And the shocking fact we face, in the week of this anniversary of returning heroes, is the news that the Far Right Vox Party (formed in Spain 5 years ago by a splinter from the Conservative Popular Party) received almost 400,000 votes at the Andalusian regional elections, and for the first time won seats in the Andalusian Parliament.

It was clear that they won support from many who had previously voted for the Socialist Party (PSOE). It is striking how similar Vox’s stances are to those of populist far-right parties in central and Eastern Europe: their strong ultra nationalist-stances against immigration and multiculturalism, their open Islamophobia, are married with very strong opposition to women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights. This underlines further the need for anti-fascists the world over to give attention to all the issues on which the far right is mobilising and winning arguments for its movement deep inside working class communities. Our methods of combating them cannot be restricted to set piece confrontations in city centres but must involve arguing within all arenas in our communities with those who are becoming receptive to far right ideologies.

ifyoutWe have an opportunity to show our recognition of the breadth of issues they are mobilising on, in just two days time when the British far-right’s leading figurehead, Stephen Yaxley Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), aided and abetted by UKIP leader Gerard Batten, takes to the streets behind the facade of opposing a “Brexit Betrayal”, while their real aims are to push the same themes of racist and fascist parties asserting themselves in central and Eastern Europe, in America, and now in Spain, and to strengthen a cross-class, cross-generational far-right street movement. As a Spanish Republican poster of the late 1930s warned: “If you tolerate this your children will be next.”

There have been difficult negotiations this week towards a united demonstration this Sunday – and there are real differences to be hammered out. We need to do that, though, in a spirit that is open-minded, and free from all too common sectarianism, egotism, stereotyping and ageism. And the places to talk through these differences, learn from each other’s perspectives, change our practices, and go forward stronger together, are not in the virtual world of social media, but on the ground, in real life, within our diverse, broad-based, cross-generational, united actions.

Be there on Sunday, 11am Portland Place, talk to other groups you disagree with, not just to yourselves, build bridges not walls, show our unity in our diversity, and our absolute determination to face down the racists and fascists.

Right slogan, wrong target

The slogan “Free Palestine” should be shouted from the rooftops. It needs to prick the conscience of politicians around the world who daily tolerate the discrimination, the abuses of human rights within Israel, where Palestinians comprise more than 21% of the population; within the Occupied West Bank, where armed Israeli Settlers run rampant destroying olive groves and where Palestinians are daily humiliated at checkpoints; within Gaza, still under siege, which Israel uses as a laboratory to test its weapons, and where another story emerged this week of a mother not allowed to accompany her child to a hospital in Jerusalem for cancer treatment.

The slogan “Free Palestine” applies especially to children who have suffered directly from the brutal actions of Israeli soldiers. We hear the shocking statistics of the numbers of children who have died during five decades of occupation. Far greater numbers have been left with terrible, disabling injuries, affecting their everyday life and their future. The occupation severely impacts on children’s ability to access their education, and their teachers’ ability to provide that education. Meanwhile, according to the latest figures (October 2018), collected by the excellent Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, which closely monitors and exposes Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians, more than 200 young Palestinians are held in Israeli jails. Earlier this year that number was over 350.

The frustrations of those who witness this from a distance should be channelled into smart and effective political campaigning and action. But sadly we have just witnessed the very opposite of that in central London.  For the second time in a few weeks the slogan “Free Palestine” has been scrawled across a poster at Russell Square tube station advertising an exhibition called “Shattered”, about Kristallnacht 1938, or “Reichspogromnacht” as German anti-fascists prefer it to be known.

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 16.31.42The exhibition is being held at the nearby Wiener Library, an institute founded by Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew who returned to Germany in 1919, having fought for his country, who was horrified at the surge of right-wing antisemitism, which blamed Jews for the defeat.

From 1925 he perceived that the greatest threat came from the Nazi Party and he started an archive to collect information about the Nazis, which formed the basis of campaigns to undermine their activities.  Wiener and his family fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam. After the Kristallnacht Pogrom of 1938, Wiener made preparations to bring his collection to the UK. It arrived the following summer and  opened on the day the Nazis invaded Poland. After the Holocaust, the contents of the library assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremburg Trials.

In the decades since, the Wiener library has greatly increased its collection and has been an invaluable resource both for those who have wanted to research fascism and those who are engaged in combating fascism and all manner of human hatred today. At a time when antisemitism and many other forms of racism are rising here and elsewhere at the hands of a resurgent far right, we need those who can envisage a future based on respect and equality for all humans to choose their targets carefully for actions, in order to unite as many as possible in forging that kind of future. We need to condemn unreservedly those who set oppression of Jews and Palestinians against each other.

We know how this is going to play out among those determined to show that support for Palestinians comes at the expense of support for Jews, and who cynically spread the lie that opposition to Zionism and Israel’s actions is tantamount to opposition to Jews. They have been handed a gift. And at the same time it has probably made some progressive Jews more wary of involvement in wider issues of liberation from oppression.

Who gains? Only those who enjoy spreading hatred against Jews and who seek to divide minorities from each other. And also those who wish to maintain the oppression of Palestinians.