David Hirsh: The Livingstone Formulation

David Hirsh

David Hirsh (2010) ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism‘ Transversal 1/2010, Graz, Austria

The Livingstone Formulation, ‘playing the antisemitism card’ and contesting the boundaries of antiracist discourse

To download the whole paper as a pdf file, click here

Author:  David Hirsh is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He is co-convenor of the European Sociological Network on Racism and Antisemitism.  He has published on crimes against humanity, international humanitarian law and antisemitism.  He is the founding editor of the Engage journal and website and has written on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

This paper, publised in Transversal, the journal of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Graz, describes how the Livingstone Formulation operates as a way of de-legitmizing questions about contemporary antisemitism by means of ad hominem attack.  It is possible to relate seriously and rationally to charges of antisemitism but it is interesting how often people refuse to take the charges seriously and instead resort to this counter-accusation of malicious ‘Zionist’ intent. This mirrors the operation against which the Livingstone Formulation originally sets itself – which is the raising of the issue of antisemitism maliciously in order to de-legitimise criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.

The paper describes and analyses more than twenty documented examples of the Livingstone Formulation from public discourse.

This paper is concerned with a rhetorical formulation which is sometimes deployed in response to an accusation of antisemitism, particularly when it relates to discourse which is of the form of criticism of Israel. This formulation is a defensive response which deploys a counter-accusation that the person raising the issue of antisemitism is doing so in bad faith and dishonestly. I have called it The Livingstone Formulation.  It is defined by the presence of two elements. Firstly the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israel with what are alleged to be demonizing, exclusionary or antisemitic discourses or actions; secondly, the presence of the counteraccusation that the raisers of the issue of antisemitism do so with dishonest intent, in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. The allegation is that the accuser chooses to ‘play the antisemitism card’ rather than to relate seriously to, or to refute, the criticisms of Israel. While the issue of antisemitism is certainly sometimes raised in an unjustified way, and may even be raised in bad faith, the Livingstone Formulation may appear as a response to any discussion of contemporary antisemitism.

This paper is not concerned directly with those who are accused of employing antisemitic discourse and who respond in a measured and rational way to such accusations in a good faith effort to relate to the concern, and to refute it. Rather it is concerned with modes of refusal to engage with the issue of antisemitism. Those who argue that certain kinds of arguments, tropes, analogies and ideas are antisemitic are trying to have them recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate antiracist discourse. The Livingstone Formulation as a response tries to have the raising itself of the issue of antisemitism recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate discourse.  In this paper I describe and analyse a number of examples of the formulation which come from a number of profoundly different sources, including antiracist, openly antisemitic, antizionist, and mainstream ones.

I focus on the accusations and the counter accusations of malicious intent which are made in public debates around the issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict and antisemitism. It is widely accepted in the sociological literature on racism, and also in the practice of antiracist movements, that racism is often unintended and that social actors who are involved are often unconscious of the racism with which they are perhaps complicit or of which they are unconscious ‘carriers’. Antiracists are generally comfortable with the concepts of institutional, structural and discursive racism and they are comfortable with the idea that discourses, structures and institutions can be racist in effect, objectively, even in the absence of any subjective racist intent on the part of social actors. Yet a common response to the raising of the issue of antisemitism in relation to discourses concerning criticism of Israel is that if there is no antisemitic intent then there can be no antisemitism. Antisemitism is implicitly, then, often defined differently from other racisms as requiring an element of intent.

One thing that follows from this is that the raising of the issue of antisemitism is often conflated with the accusation of antisemitic intent. So the raising of the issue of antisemitism is often claimed to be an ad hominem attack, an accusation of antisemitic intent on the part of the ‘critic of Israel’. Yet while there is fierce resistance to the possibility of unintended antisemitism, those who employ the Livingstone Formulation accuse those who raise the issue of antisemitism of doing so with malicious intent and of knowing that their concerns are not justified, and of doing so for instrumental reasons.

It seems to follow that the use of the Livingstone Formulation is intended to make sure that the raising of the issue of antisemitism, when related to ‘criticism of Israel’ remains or becomes a commonsense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and a faux pas in polite antiracist company. A commonsense bundling of positions leads to a binary opposition in which either you remain within the bounds of rational and antiracist discourse, and so you are on the left, and a supporter of the Palestinians against Israeli human rights abuses, or, on the other hand, you are thought of as being on the right, a supporter of Israel against the Palestinians, and a person who instrumentalizes the issue of antisemitism. To raise the issue of antisemitism is to put yourself in the wrong camp. Having already indicated the complexities relating to accusations of intent, it is necessary to examine carefully to what extent this charge of intent may be justified.

In the 1990s Gillian Rose identified a phenomenon which she called ‘Holocaust piety’. It was common, she argued, to be unsympathetic to attempts to analyse the Holocaust using the normal tools of understanding, of social
science and of historiography. Instead, people tended to think about the Holocaust as a radically unique event which was in some sense outside of human history or ‘ineffable’ and so unreachable by social theory and by various forms of artistic and scholarly representation.  One of the consequences of Holocaust piety has been the construction of antisemitism itself as being an unimaginably huge and threatening phenomenon, beyond all other ordinary, worldly, threats and phenomena. A by-product of this is that the charge itself of antisemitism is in danger of being thought of as a nuclear bomb, a weapon, so terrible that it destroys not only its target but also the whole field of battle, the whole discursive space in which discussion proceeds. If to raise the issue of antisemitism is to unleash a nuclear bomb, then the issue is unraisable, as nuclear weapons are unusable. Under the conditions of Holocaust piety, it becomes difficult to relate in a measured and serious way to the issue of antisemitism. Either antisemitism is thought of as something radically different from ordinary ‘normal’ racism and then there is a temptation to be less vigilant against those other racisms than one is against antisemitism. Or the discussion of antisemitism is thought of as a weapon instead of an analytic or political question, which may be deployed to destroy ‘critics of Israel’ but which cannot be a serious question in itself. The weapon, instrumentally used, also destroys the very possibility of rational debate and analysis. The standard response to piety is blasphemy. The cartoon of Anna Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler, President Ahmadinejad’s exhibition of Holocaust denial and normalization in Tehran and the increasingly common phenomenon of characterising Israeli Jews as the new Nazis are examples of Holocaust blasphemy.

To download the whole paper as a pdf file, click here

David Hirsh: ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conrflict and about antisemitism

NB some more examples of the Livingstone Formulation and some interesting discussion in the comments box here

NB an article about the Livingstone Formulation from z-word is here

NB there was discussion of the Livingstone Formulation in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections

33 Responses to “David Hirsh: The Livingstone Formulation”

  1. James Mendelsohn Says:

    nice work David, well done

  2. Joseph Says:

    Ace article!

  3. David Hirsh On The The Livingstone Formulation at Z-Word Blog Says:

    [...] will not want to let this article by David Hirsh escape them. In due course I hope to write something  of similar length, if [...]

  4. David UK Says:

    Excellent article.

    One question though,

    “Under the conditions of Holocaust piety, it becomes difficult to relate in a measured and serious way to the issue of antisemitism. Either antisemitism is thought of as something radically different from ordinary ‘normal’ racism and then there is a temptation to be less vigilant against those other racisms than one is against antisemitism. Or the discussion of antisemitism is thought of as a weapon instead of an analytic or political question, which may be deployed to destroy ‘critics of Israel’ but which cannot be a serious question in itself. The weapon, instrumentally used, also destroys the very possibility of rational debate and analysis. The standard response to piety is blasphemy.”

    Or, Holocaust Piety means that anything less than the mass murder of Jews by a political regime is simply not recognised as antisemitism. It is as if the Holocaust has blotted out all memory and knowledge of non-genocidal forms of antisemitism or, rather, has sucked all those other forms into it, so nothing appears to remain outside it.
    A type of thinking that leads to the idea of No Holocaust = no antisemitism.

  5. Brian Robinson Says:

    I enjoyed this article very much — I have a much clearer grasp of the concept now, and I envisage sending the pdf to a number of people I know. A most convincing exposition.

    The discussion here http://bit.ly/9lIyrF on the “Gurvitz-Goldman Doctrine” is fascinating. If anything, I think this is perhaps an even thornier issue and could do with some very clear thinking. I say this with feeling, as I have to confess I’ve been confused about it in the past (and not so recent past — and I’m not alone either — see Tony Klug’s article in Tikkun
    http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/may2010klug )

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      I notice that Tony Klug, like Gurvitz, is (again?) blaming the victims. Thus, his Tikkun article is headlined “Are Israeli Policies Entrenching Anti-Semitism Worldwide?
      by Tony Klug”, and his answer appears to be, essentially, yes. So the diaspora should rethink its “habitual” (his word) reflexive support for Israel. As a result of which, he asserts, the problem of antisemitism will, at the very least, diminish.

      Just as the likes of Anthony Lerman keeps asserting too. I have suggested to the editors of Engage that they consider a new category of articles, that of “blaming the victims”. As I’ve long said, this social phenomenon is well known among social scientists, even if there are social scientists who appear unable to recognise it when it sits up and bites them on the nose.

      • Brian Robinson Says:

        It’s a while since I’ve read TK’s article, but looking at the headline Brian G has quoted, I’m struck by the word ‘entrenching’. Not e.g. ‘causing’ or ‘creating’. The Oxford Concise includes notions of establishing firmly, also “in a defensible position”, “not easily modified”. That is, something (antisemitism) has to be already there for Israel (allegedly) to affix it. I ought to read Klug’s piece again bearing this distinction in mind.

        There’s a difference between trying to say for example that Israel makes people behave in effectively antisemitic ways when they had never previously done so; and saying e.g. that Israeli policies make already antisemitic people even more antisemitic (grants them feelings of justification, vindication &c).

  6. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Brian R., what I take Klug (like Gurvitz and Lerman, among others) as saying is not so much that it’s _Israel’s_ fault that antisemitism exists, but rather that if only Jews in the diaspora would stop being so pro-Israel, so _Zionist_, then antisemitism against them would, at least, diminish. So (Gurvitz opossibly apart) neither Klug nor Lerman are demanding that Israel cease to be (i.e., a one-state solution), but that we “out here” stop being so supportive of Israel.

    What in Klug’s article have I missed?

  7. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    David thanks for your article. I am just analysing the text of an Austrian pastor and superintendent of the Reformed (Calvinist) Church, who is using the Livingstone Formula. He states that some Christians and Jews see the theological election as a licence for not having to justify the actions. He is also of the opinion, that Jews can’t be judged by the same measure as others because they feel themselves elected.

  8. Bialik Says:

    It’s all clear now. Thank you.

  9. Israel and Palestine – who does the ‘solving’” « Greens Engage Says:

    [...] a comment » As demonstrated by David Hirsh’s recent paper, bad campaigning about Israel diverts energy and attention away from positive campaigning on behalf [...]

  10. A Few Things. « ModernityBlog Says:

    [...] The Livingstone Formulation and the issue surrounding it deserves more scrutiny. Here it is as a PDF, Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism. [...]

  11. Engage serves as “‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda” – Ran Greenstein « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] See David Hirsh’s response to Neve Gordon here and his analysis of the two opposite positions taken by Neve Gordon here.  See Also his paper on the struggle over the boundaries of legitimate discourse here. [...]

  12. Wenn Christen kritisieren « Says:

    [...] Art Maulkorb zu versehen. Mit dieser Vorgehensweise, die der britische Soziologe David Hirsh in mehreren Essays kritisch gewürdigt hat, wird von nicht geringen Teilen der Linken jegliche Kritik am [...]

  13. Richard Kuper, ‘Asa Jew’… « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] Hirsh (2010) ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitis…‘ Transversal 1/2010, Graz, [...]

  14. Labour needs a new candidate for Mayor « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] The Livingstone Formulation at greater length. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailStumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted in Uncategorized. Leave a Comment » [...]

  15. Judith Butler, the Adorno Prize, and the Moral State of the “Global Left” | Augean Stables Says:

    [...] line at the remorseless recourse to accusations of malicious violence, what David Hirsch calls “The Livingstone Formulation”; many draw the line at apartheid; most at accusations of being as bad as, or worse than the [...]

  16. The looking-glass world of the modern ‘progressives’: anti-Zionist trends within the British left – Brian Goldfarb « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] motion. There was no way I wanted her for my MP. Perhaps we might talk later of the so-called “Livingstone Formulation” (a term coined by David Hirsh, founding editor of the website Engage, formed to fight the [...]

  17. Michael White, Guardian Assistant Editor, cries “Israel” in response to concern over Lord Ahmed’s antisemitism | Engage - the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] It happens very often, that a person who raises the issue of antisemitism is accused of doing so in bad faith, dishonestly, as part of a secret and common ‘sub-text’ or de-legitimizing Israel.  See The Livingstone Formulation. [...]

  18. The twisted logic of Anti-semites | Anne's Opinions Says:

    [...] It happens very often, that a person who raises the issue of antisemitism is accused of doing so in bad faith, dishonestly, as part of a secret ‘sub-text’ of de-legitimizing Israel.  See The Livingstone Formulation. [...]

  19. The Anti-Semitism of the UCU | Anne's Opinions Says:

    [...] Fraser said that the key mode of intimidation in the UCU was a constant allegation of bad faith – the allegation that Jews who say they feel antisemitism are actually lying for Israel.  The Tribunal replied that the Jews who say they feel antisemitism are actually lying for Israel – they are dressing up a political end as a problem of racist exclusion.  In other words, the Tribunal answers that the accusation of bad faith made against Jews who say that they experienced antisemitism is appropriate.  The Tribunal employed The Livingstone Formulation. [...]

  20. Top 10 Warning Signs You May be a ‘Guardian Left’ Anti-Semite - Israel News Cloud Says:

    […] You accuse Jews of cynically misusing the charge of antisemitism to “stifle” debate about the Jewish […]

  21. Video: Lesley Klaff discusses Holocaust Inversion and the Livingstone Formulation | BBC Watch Says:

    […] – senior lecturer in law at Sheffield Hallam University – discusses Holocaust Inversion and the Livingstone Formulation, using the statements made by David Ward MP earlier this year as one of her […]

  22. ‘Civility’ in contemporary debates about antisemitism – David Hirsh | Engage Says:

    […] 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. […]


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