Yachad: strong on peace but quiet on Jewish self-defence – David Hirsh

I think there is nothing in the Yachad statement that is wrong and I think that re-stating our clear committment to peace, to a two state solution, is important; but I suspect there is more which may be said and which Yachad is reluctant to say.
We need to consider the consequences of the possibility that we may be defeated in our efforts to work towards a peace agreement.  This would have important repurcussions both for Israel and for diaspora Jews.

Yachad may be right, that this particular war against Hamas is not forced, and that the Israeli Government should be pressing on towards a peace rather than fighting this war.  We should never stop arguing for a two state solution because there is no other possible peace.  Israel could do better in fighting for peace and it should do better in positiong itself in the public imagination as wanting peace.  But it may still be true that efforts for peace could be defeated.  Hamas was created in order to prevent a peace agreement, its constitution explicitly characterises peace negotiations as “un-Islamic”.  Fatah has been offered a Palestinian state a number of times and has said ‘no’ each time.  We hope that those Palestinians who are for peace will be successful in their struggle against the rejectionists, but we have to think about the possibility of them continuing to be unsuccessful.

Perhaps this war is not necessary, but one day Israel may have to defend itself against Hamas and Hezbollah, maybe ISIS too, maybe the Iranian state, maybe Syria and Iraq.  If Israel has to fight in Gaza or in the cities of the West Bank, many civilians will, unavoidably, die in the fight.

We need to be absolutely clear on the moral, political and legal distinction between the deliberate killing of civilians on one hand and between collateral damage in war, on the other.  Israel does not murder civilians, Israel is not a child-killing state.

Israel takes precautions to avoid civillian casualties.  I believe it should take greater precautions than it already does.  But compared to British and American actions in Syria, Libya and Iraq, the rate of collateral damage caused by Israel is low.  Compared to current struggles in Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, Congo, Libya, Egypt, the absolute numbers, as well as the proportions, of civilians killed is low.    And of course for Hamas and ISIS, killing civilians is not something to be minimized, but on the contrary, terror is the key war-aim.

The danger of antisemitism in the diaspora is significant.  We have seen antisemitic ways of thinking becoming more and more common in certain elite strands of western public opinion – Israel thought of as essentially evil, as illegitimate, as wanting to murder children, as being a key global barrier to peace, as being a keystone of global imperailism etc etc.  This discursive antisemitism is manifesting itself, in small but significant ways on the streets; the CST reports spikes in antisemitic attacks which correlate with conflict in the Middle East; synagogues have been attacked in Paris, Belfast and other cities; there were murderous attacks in Brussels and Toulouse.

Antisemitism isn’t just a natural response to Israeli crimes and neither is it just a few hotheads.  Hamas is explicitly an antisemitic organisation; it embraces the Protocols in its founding document and it says it wants to kill the Jews.  Antisemitism is important in wider Middle Eastern politics.  The Iranian state says the Holocaust was invented by the Zionists in order to provide a justification for Israeli crimes.  Yachad rightly say that there are partners for peace in the Middle East; the corollary of this is that there are also Jew-hating political formations which fight for their perspectives.  We must avoid infantilizing people in the Middle East by assuming that embracing racist politics is anything other than a political choice.  And while we may understand how people in Palestine stumble into antisemitic politics, there is less justification for people in safe London and on our campuses.

What is missing from the Yachad statement is an awareness that Israel, and also Jews in the diaspora, may need to defend themselves.  Yachad does not seem to be capable of playing a positive role in such a defence.

David Hirsh

Sociology Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

‘Civility’ in contemporary debates about antisemitism – David Hirsh

David Hirsh

David Hirsh

This piece, by David Hirsh, is one of three responses in Jewish Quarterley – Spring 2014 to Keith Kahn-Harris’s book Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community.  The other two are by Jonathan Cummings and Stephen Frosh.  

“The phenomenon which most definitely closes off the possibility of civilized discourse is the claim that Jews raise the issue of antisemitism, knowing that they’re lying, in order to stifle free speech and criticism.”

There is a war of words between the diverse majority of the Jewish community and its tiny but influential antizionist fringe. Many Jews are worried that hostility to Israel is sometimes antisemitic, sometimes mirrors antisemitic forms, sometimes brings with it antisemitic exclusions or ways of thinking. The antizionists tend to dismiss this worry about antisemitism as an illegitimate attempt to silence criticism of Israel. Of course we may civilly disagree about what is antisemitic and what isn’t; and we may argue, present evidence and discuss. But the space for rational discussion is often closed off in advance by an accusation of bad faith. It isn’t said that Jews are mistaken when they think something is antisemitic, it is said that they’ve invented it, disgracefully, for short-term, tribal, or nationalist, reasons; that they are crying wolf.

This struggle happens in public and it is influential upon wider non-Jewish civil society. Blanket denial of antisemitism becomes an enabler of antisemitic discourse, boycotts and ways of thinking. Antizionist Jews play a key role in licensing, leading and encouraging movements which single out Israel as a unique evil on the planet.

A South African trade unionist declares that he intends to make life hell for ‘Zionists’, Zionists are like Hitler and they should leave South Africa on an El Al plane. The Jewish antizionist fringe insists that this is only to be understood as a vulgar way of carrying on a debate about Israel and Palestine. Antizionism tends to treat talk of antisemitism as a dirty tactic in the Israel/Palestine debate.

People get angry and upset because they are afraid that the actions of a small minority of Jews are influential in bringing antisemitism down on the heads of their fellow Jews while others get equally angry and upset because they are convinced that their fellow Jews are trying to silence criticism of Israel with a dishonest accusation of antisemitism.

There is no nice way to accuse you of being soft on antisemitism; there is no nice way to accuse you of raising the issue of antisemitism in bad faith. It is the content of the claims not their form which is hurtful. Re-framing the issue to make us all right will not do.

The Livingstone Formulation, the response to an accusation of antisemitism which declares that the accuser speaks in bad faith, makes debate impossible. If you say that somebody who raises the issue of antisemitism is just a liar then there is no discussion which can bring us towards agreement. It silences Jewish fears and portrays them as disgraceful tactics.

Because Nazism had already been defeated when we were formed politically, it was easy for us all to recognise it as the enemy. Because colonialism and racism had been discredited, we could all understand dockers who marched with Enoch Powell and racist Afrikaners as throwbacks to a disappearing age. But caricature might have been the price we paid for unanimity.

Whereas we thought of Nazism as representing the culmination of antisemitism, it was actually an exceptional form. We were tempted to ‘other’ antisemitism, to construct it as being something which could only exist outside of our own, civilized sphere. But in fact, antisemitism had always existed very much within our own spheres; within Europe, within the left, within radical philosophy, even amongst Jews.

Antisemitism has often taken political forms, it has attracted ‘people like us’, it has not always been easy to recognise; it has melded with criticism of capitalism and banking, nationalism modernity and imperialism. There have always been some Jews who have succumbed to its logic. Nazism itself grew partly out of radical antihegemonic political traditions and was attractive to some within ‘our world’. But it was comfortable, afterwards, for us to imagine antisemitism only as appearing with a silly moustache and a fascist uniform; and as being permanently discredited.

The defeat of colonialism was not so straightforward either. It was defeated by nationalist movements which had a tendency to succumb to the most ethnically based forms of nationalism and they tended to create regimes which mirrored some of the worst race-thinking and kleptocracy of the old empires. The Soviet Cold War common sense of a world divided into imperialism and anti-imperialism gave the gloss of the ‘progressive’ to some of the most despotic regimes. The notion of ‘progressiveness’ attached itself to peoples and nations rather than to political movements or to ideas. The violence of this black/white binary is illustrated by the fate of those who fell between the two camps: Tutsis, Tamils, African Asians, Jews, Armenians, Bosniaks, Tibetans, Kurds.

The colonialists who ran the great cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East were replaced by movements which tended towards ethnic nationalism in Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad; Beirut, Tehran, Damascus, not only in Jerusalem.

We thought anti-Nazism was enough when we should have understood the complexities of antisemitism and we thought anti-colonialism and anti-racism were enough when we should have made more effort to forge a positive cosmopolitan politics.

Now we find ourselves in a world we have trouble understanding. Jews are thought of as white, and therefore never potential victims of racism; nobody looks like the Nazis so how can there be antisemitism? Israel, the refuge of the un-dead of Europe, is thought of as colonialist or apartheid. Jews, except for those who disavow, are conceived of as ‘Zionists’ which has become another word for racists or oppressors.

The conflict between Jews in the Middle East and their neighbours tends to be mystified into ready-made ways of thinking; either Jews are simply victims of the hostile antisemites around them or Arabs are victims of the Israeli white settler-colonialists. Israelis and Palestinians tend to attain a symbolic importance which is out of proportion to their actual weight in the world; they become an empty vessel into which everybody pours their own issues, a template by which people recognise themselves, a language in which they discuss their own angst.

There is an antisemitic threat in our world. Antisemitism is objective and external, recognizable through a set of clearly established characteristics. The French comedian Dieudonné makes Holocaust denial funny as he constructs a worldview where anti-imperialist thought and the right to Sieg Heil are curtailed by overwhelming Zionist power. Mainstream British and American academic organisations host campaigns to exclude Israelis, and only Israelis, from the global academic community. Open antisemitism is commonplace amongst Islamist and Arab nationalist movements which are considered by some to be part of the global left. The idea that Zionism is the key form of racism on the planet is common in radical circles. The assumption that Jews who fight against antisemitism are actually fighting for Jewish privilege lurks below the surface of much public debate. The possibility that the Israel lobby is responsible for war is taken seriously. The impulse to boycott Israel is thought to be respectable; anybody who says it’s antisemitic is thought to be vulgar and tribal.

There is a tiny minority of Jews which leads the movement to exclude Israelis from the global community, which insists that Israel is uniquely and essentially racist, which educates people to recognise anybody who worries about antisemitism as dishonest apologists for Zionism. Hardly any Jews are antizionist, but many antizionists are Jews.

This minority often mobilizes its Jewish identity, speaking loudly ‘as a Jew’. In doing so, it seeks to erode and undermine the influence of ordinary Jews in the name of an authentic, radical, diasporic and ethical Judaism.

Jews who worry about antisemitism are written off as tribal and self-interested; they are constructed as ‘Zionists’ and hence not as antiracists, intellectuals or legitimate members of the left. This hostile, external construction of Jews is in sharp contrast to the eager self-definition of the ‘as-a-Jew’ critics, who parade their Jewishness in order to discredit, in the eyes of the onlooking world, the fears of their fellow Jews.

The ‘as a Jew’ preface is directed at non-Jews. It tempts non-Jews to suspend their own political judgment as to what is, and what is not, antisemitic. The force of the ‘as a Jew’ preface is to bear witness against the other Jews. It is based on the assumption that being Jewish gives you some kind of privileged insight into what is antisemitic and what is not; the claim to authority through identity substitutes for civil, rational debate. Anti-Zionist Jews do not simply make their arguments and adduce evidence; they mobilize their Jewishness to give themselves influence. They pose as courageous dissidents who stand up against the fearsome threat of mainstream Zionist power.
Ironically, this positioning by the tiny minority tends to set the boundaries of civil discourse in such a way as to exclude and silence the legitimate concerns of the majority. It characterizes antisemitism as a right-wing issue and it teaches antiracists to recognise talk of antisemitism as an indicator of racist apologetics.

We need to agree that antisemitism is serious and that it is real; it is not only a threat to Jews but it is also a threat to the labour movement, to intellectual culture and to wider society. Of course we need then to be able to present and discuss arguments and evidence as to what is antisemitic and what isn’t; how we define it and how we recognise it are rightfully up for democratic discussion. The phenomenon which most definitely closes off the possibility of civilized discourse is the claim that Jews raise the issue of antisemitism, knowing that they’re lying, in order to stifle free speech and criticism.

David Hirsh

Lectuer, Goldsmiths, University of London

Jews and the Left. Philip Mendes in the New Summer Edition of Fathom.

The new Summer edition of Fathom is now out.

Read an interview with Philip Mendes on “Jews and the Left” here.

Guardian piece fails to meet its own community standards

In their recent article about this Anti-Defamation League report, Donna Nevel and Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark make a series of snide and tendentious observations.  They begin by invoking the wearisomely familiar complaint that concerns about antisemitism are used to silence criticism of Israel.  They then express displeasure at the survey’s findings – but not because such high levels of antisemitism are worrying.

Rather than advance our understanding of this serious issue, the survey seems predictably designed to stir up fear that Jew-hatred is a growing global phenomenon that puts the world’s Jews universally at risk, and that the biggest culprits are Muslims and Arabs, particularly Palestinians.

It is pretty incontrovertible that levels of antisemitism are very high in MENA countries.  Many other reputable surveys have confirmed this.   Yet the authors seem determined to find fault with the ADL’s methodology.

For example, one question asked whether Jews think more highly of themselves than of other groups, and answering yes tallies points in the anti-Semitic column. But common sense suggests that almost anyone in the world would likely answer affirmatively about any other ethnic or religious community.

In fact the question clearly maps onto an antisemitic trope (of ‘chosenness’) and is thus perfectly valid.

When I first read the article, I thought Nevel and Neimark might have half a point when they argued that the Palestinian responses might benefit from a little further unpacking.  It seemed reasonable to speculate that the result might be driven by local perceptions of injustice, not necessarily racism, even if the authors articulate this point with superfluous snark.

The most striking example of a leading question undergirds the ADL’s claim that the highest percentage of anti-Semitism is among Palestinians who live in the occupied territories. The ADL asked a group of people for whom the movement of goods, money and labor is controlled by Israel, “Do Jews have too much power in the business world?”. Were they really to be expected to answer anything but “yes”?

However (as @raphcouscous points out here) there is a misleading implication that the question was particularly targeted at Palestinians, rather than being a routine element in the survey.

Nevel and Neimark are also indignant about a question relating to the Holocaust, feeling that Palestinians would be justified in believing Jews talk too much about the topic.  Leaving aside what one thinks of that point – and it’s worth remembering the response a Palestinian lecturer received when he arranged a trip to Auschwitz – what about the many other countries in the world where such views are prevalent?

It would of course be possible to weaponise the data thrown up by the survey in order to deliberately whip up anti-Muslim sentiment. One might imagine, from the Guardian piece, that this is what the ADL was doing.   But in fact the findings are pretty calmly presented.  Indeed, two elements in the press statement seemed designed to slightly soften the statistics about Muslim/MENA antisemitism. The first is this observation by Abe Foxman:

“While it is startling to see how high the level of anti-Semitism is in the Middle East and North African countries, the fact of the matter is even aside from those countries, close to a quarter of those polled in other parts of the world is infected with anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Mr. Foxman.  “There is only a three-point difference when you take world attitudes toward Jews with the Middle East and North African countries, or consider the world without.”

The second is the way the religious data is summarised:

Among Muslims, which comprise 22.7 percent of the world population, 49 percent harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. In MENA, the number of Muslims holding anti-Semitic attitudes is 75 percent.

There are substantially lower levels of anti-Semitic beliefs among Muslims outside of MENA: with Asia at 37 percent; Western Europe at 29 percent; Eastern Europe at 20 percent; and Sub-Saharan Africa at 18 percent.

There were substantially higher levels of anti-Semitic beliefs among Christians in MENA, at 64 percent, compared with Christians outside of MENA

Finally –  returning to Nevel and Neimark – it turns out that one paragraph of the article was too much even for the Guardian.  It now concludes with this note:

This article was amended on 16 May 2014 to remove a paragraph that made a reference to “loyalty to Israel” that was inconsistent with Guardian editorial guidelines.

The offending paragraph was preserved by Cifwatch. Here it is:

In its press release, the ADL states that “The most widely accepted anti-Semitic stereotype worldwide is: Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country/the countries they live in.” It’s an odd indicator of anti-Semitism given that Israeli leaders consistently claim to speak for the global Jewish community and consider loyalty to Israel a precondition for being a good Jew. So it’s actually not surprising that this constant assertion has penetrated the consciousness of the rest of the world.

 

The UCU re-doubles its efforts to make Ronnie Fraser pay

In the Autumn of 2012, Ronnie Fraser took a case to the Employment Tribunal against the University and College Union under the Equality Act 2010.  He alleged that the union had allowed the campaign to boycott Israel to import antisemitism into the union; that there had developed a culture of institutional antisemitism within the union and that this had constituted harassment of him, as a Jewish member.  There was, he said, a course of action followed by the union, including union officers, union structures and union branches.  34 witnsesses, including academics,a writer, trade unionists, Jewish community workers and Members of Parliament gave witness statements testifying to the “thickening toxicity” of the antisemitism which they witnessed within the union and there were a number of specific examples of antisemitism described to the Tribunal, chaired by Judge Snelson.

Judge Snelson’s formal written judgment found that what Ronnie Fraser experienced as antisemitism was in fact entirely appropriate treatment of him within the union.  There was no antisemitism at all.  Snelson’s tribunal found that Fraser’s case was “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”.  There is an account of the case and the Snelson judgment here.

In November 2013, the University and College Union pursued an action against Ronnie Fraser and his lawyers for £580,000 in costs.  The Snelson tribunal, however, conceded that it had made statements in its judgment which could be thought to prejudice a costs hearing.  It recused itself from hearing the costs case, as described here.

Today, the UCU continued its bid to make Ronnie Fraser and his lawyers pay.  It insisted that a new tribunal be convened and today was about whether or not a costs hearing should go ahead.  It was heard by a new tribunal judge, Judge Joanna Wade, not involved so far in the case or in the writing of the Snelson judgment.

The Employment Tribunal was set up to enable individuals to take large institutions, usually their employers, to court.  For this reason its rules make it very difficult for costs to be awarded against a claimant; if people thought they could be stung for hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs it would deter them from going to the tribunal.  It is possible for costs to be awarded against a claimant, but there are stringent conditions.  Firstly, the claimant must not only be wrong, his action must be “misconceived or otherwise unreasonable”.  And secondly the hearing for costs must be capable of being heard promptly and quickly, in summary form.

Lawyers for the UCU argued that both of these conditions could be satisfied.  They said that the new tribunal could have one day’s reading preparation for a costs hearing and the hearing itself would be heard in another day; the decision on costs could be based on the material already in the Snelson judgment.

Barristers for Ronnie Fraser and his original lawyers did not agree.  They argued that the pursuit of costs had already violated the requirement for promptness since this was the third hearing in over a year and since any costs hearing would have to look far beyond the Snelson judgment for evidence.  Proving that the case was “misconceived or otherwise unreasonable” would require a long and complex case.

The Snelson judgment had made findings of fact on the substantive issues: were the charges made by Fraser proven?

But now the new tribunal was being asked a set of new questions: were the charges made by Fraser “misconceived or otherwise unreasonable”?

Normally, a tribunal which had already decided upon substantive issues could apply the new, more stringent test, for costs, to the same body of evidence and argument.  But in this case there was a new tribunal.  The Snelson tribunal’s determinations as to the substantive issues would be accepted, but the Snelson tribunal’s determinations as to whether the case was “misconceived or otherwise unreasonable” could already be seen, by Snelson’s own admission, to appear prejudicial to a costs hearing.

Where the Snelson tribunal did what it was supposed to do, that is, judge the substantive case, it would be accepted.

But where the Snelson judgment over-reached itself, in a consideration of whether the case was “misconceived or otherwise unreasonable”, Fraser’s barristers argued, its findings could not be relied upon in the costs hearing.  This would mean that the costs hearing would have to make new judgments as to whether elements of the case were “misconceived or otherwise unreasonable”.  This couldn’t be done by a quick one day trial but would require a re-examination of evidence, the presentation of new evidence and perhaps new cross-examinations.

The new Judge will decide if a fair hearing on costs is possible, and whether it would be within the rules of the Employment Tribunal.

Harriet Sherwood on Israeli intransigence and somnolence

In an article published in the Guardian Harriet Sherwood quotes Netanyahu’s attack on Europe in which he invoked Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses in order to highlight what he sees as the sinister implications of BDS.  People support BDS for different reasons, and implying that they are all motivated by antisemitism is probably not the best way to get them to engage with concerns about the strategy.  But Sherwood doesn’t acknowledge any problems in the BDS movement.

This is a serious charge, and one that causes deep discomfort to many who want to bring pressure to bear on the Israeli government over its policies towards the Palestinians, but who also vigorously oppose antisemitism in any form. Opposing the occupation does not equate to antisemitism or a rejection of Jews’ right to, and need for, a homeland. The repeated accusation of antisemitism does not make it true, however frequently it is levelled by those who defend Israel unconditionally.

Of course opposing the occupation does not equate to antisemitism or a rejection of Zionism, of Israel’s right to exist. But very many supporters of BDS see the whole of Israel as occupied territory – and certainly do not acknowledge either the right to, or need for, a Jewish homeland.  Just because accusations of antisemitism sometimes seem misplaced doesn’t mean they are never justified. And it is really misleading to imply that all those expressing concerns ‘defend Israel unconditionally’.

Sherwood goes on to distinguish between those who only boycott settlement goods and those who think all cultural, academic and sporting ties with Israel should be off limits.  She acknowledges that some feel this is a step too far, but her own rhetoric implies approval for a maximalist approach:

But others – increasingly frustrated by Israel’s intransigence, the dismal prospects for the peace process, and the failure of the international community to back up critical words with meaningful actions – say that only when Israeli citizens and institutions feel the consequences of their government’s policies will they force change from within.

Many Israelis are shielded from the occupation. To those soaking up the sun on a Tel Aviv beach or working in a hi-tech hub in Haifa, Gaza and the West Bank feel like another planet. The daily grind experienced by more than 4 million Palestinians living under military occupation just a few dozen miles away barely registers. A boycott – whether it’s the ending of academic links; the refusal of artists to perform; the divestment of international companies for reputational reasons; or a consumer rejecting Israeli produce in the supermarket – has the potential to jolt Israelis from this somnolence.

I don’t think you have to ‘defend Israel unconditionally’ to feel (like the writers of the New York Times piece quoted below) that there may be fault on both sides in the peace talks.

Mr. Kerry is not about to give up on the process. But like Mr. Baker, he is dealing with two parties that are paralyzed by intransigence and fall back on provocations: Israel announcing new Jewish settlements and refusing to release Palestinian prisoners; the Palestinians, in response, applying to join international organizations and issuing a list of new demands.

The picture of Israelis soaking up the sun as proof of their ‘somnolence’ is meaningless moralising – presumably even supporters of B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence occasionally go to the beach.  It’s a little like using a picture of a shopping mall or fancy hotel to ‘prove’ that there are no problems in Gaza.

Karl Pfeifer at the European Parliament

Bruxelles_20140408

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