The Context of Boycotts

‘Liberal Delusion’ wrote this comment ‘below the line’ in an earlier thread. We thought it worth reproducing.

The BDS movement places the boycott in the context of SA (and so have to inflate Israeli human rights contraventions as ‘apartheid’). However, the vast majority of Jews place the idea of a boycott against Jews in a very different history; a history in which Jews have been singled out for allegedly unique crimes and unique wrongs despite the fact that they were no worse than many, if not all others and/or were total fabrications, and, as a consequence of these claims suffered ‘boycott’ – see e.g. the 1904 Limerick boycott where Jews were accused of price manipulation.

The problem is that when Jews raise these concerns, especially through the question – why Israel? – no sensible answer is given – the ASA’s comment, that ‘we have to start somewhere’ begs the question. (Despite the above response, the BDS movement is not supported by the PA or Hamas, and was, far from emanating from Palestine, devised by two members of the SWP here in London – and even if it did emanate from Palestinian civil society, that does not involve an immediate and unmediated response – what is right in Palestine, may not appear so right in a different context, and for very good reasons).
Rather than recognising this history and this sensitivity in its critical dealings with Israel, many BDSers simply claim that Jews are abusing this history of antisemitism (and anti-Jewish boycotts), of using ‘real’ antisemitism (and the Shoah) as a magic talisman to ward off ‘criticism’ (which is conflated by the BDS movement with exclusion) and of acting in bad faith.

In so doing, the BDS movement show that along with their support for Palestinians is an attempt to antagonise and confront non-Israeli Jews who, for those who disagree with their boycotting (what Claire Potter confused with scrutiny) are transformed into ‘supporters of Israel’ and for whom no quarter must be given.

If those in the US and Europe were serious about antisemitism and its history as well as being serious about Palestinian solidarity, they would actually realise what boycotts mean to Jews (and progressive forces in general). They would need to think of a new strategy, one that is not hostile to Jews, but which at the same time allows them (and many Jews) to move forward to achieving a just and equitable peace in the Middle East; a move forward that does not rely, replicate and bring into the present the antisemtism of the (not so distant) past.

Chip Berlet interviews David Hirsh on Contemporary Antisemitism and Conspiracy Theory

Chip Berlet’s interview with David Hirsh is on PublicEye.org.

This conversation happened on Monday, June 29th, 2009 but was not published until September 2012.

The Public Eye: Interview with David Hirsh

Chip Berlet is a US-based investigative journalist and expert on the far right and conspiracy theories.

David Hirsh is a Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. He is the author of Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections, The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, (YIISA) Working Paper Series #1, New Haven CT, 2007; and “Law Against Genocide” in Freeman, M, (ed) Law and Sociology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Hirsh did an MA in Philosophy and Social Theory at Warwick University and he wrote his PhD there on Crimes against Humanity and International Law. He was interviewed in June 2009.

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BERLET: It seems that people who think of themselves as anti-racist and of some sort of progressive political bent have a hard time recognizing antisemitism, even if they recognize antisemitic statements they have a hard time seeing it in the same context of a broader global anti-racist struggle. Why do you think that is?

HIRSH: I think people are very good at recognizing some kinds of antisemitism. If it wears a Nazi uniform they understand it, if it’s right-wing they understand it, if it’s some sort of very simple worldview of racism and anti-racism. If it comes from the left and it comes from people who are anti-racist, then there’s often much more difficulty in recognizing and understanding what’s going on. There [are] many reasons for that.

One is that we think of antisemitism as being Nazism. Nazism was actually an unusual form of antisemitism; it was very clear, it allowed no exceptions; it allowed no escape for Jews. Most forms of antisemitism haven’t been like that., Christian antisemitism allowed people to convert to Christianity and therefore make themselves clean; also political antisemitism allowed Jews to put themselves on the right side of history. One of things we shouldn’t get too hung up on is the idea that antisemites are all like Adolph Hitler, because they’re not.

BERLET: In recent years, it’s been clear that a lot of folks on the left have been part of a global anti-Zionist struggle and they don’t seem to recognize the boundaries. There’s another question which is embedded within that [in], which there seems to be a misunderstanding of Zionism as a monolithic project that has remained unchanged since the late 1800s, and that creates all sorts of problems. Can you explain what you’ve written about that, in terms of the basic misunderstanding of [Zionism] being a monolithic project?

HIRSH: It’s actually very interesting, because although these anti-Zionists think of themselves as being very macho, Marxists [and] historical materialists, yet their narrative and how they explain Zionism is almost solely in terms of ideas. So it’ll be explained that Theodore Herzl had an idea in the late nineteenth century which it will be explained [as] a racist idea that Jews and other people couldn’t live together. And every subsequent manifestation of Zionism (or at least of what we don’t like about Zionism) is explained in terms of the idea that Herzl had. Now of course, one of the flaws of that kind of reasoning is that material things happened in Europe and in the Middle East and in Russia in the 20th century which transformed Zionism from a whole set of rather utopian movements into a really existing state. So, I think sure, we should look at the ideas and the fight over ideas that have been going on ever since the beginning of Zionism, but we also need to understand the social and material realties of Jewish life.

BERLET:Clearly one of the most significant things that happened was the Nazi genocide of Jews and others in WWII., The formula that has emerged in anti-Zionist circles recently is that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, especially. in Gaza, is tantamount to what the German Nazis did to the Jews during WWII., That seems to be historically inaccurate but it also changes the understanding that Zionism changed dramatically after WWII because of the Holocaust.

HIRSH: Well, one can do all sorts of strange things with analogies. The important thing about Nazism, the reason that Nazism is Nazism in the popular and political imagination, is because it set out to exterminate the Jews. And extermination is a project that’s even rather different from mass murder. So Nazism is known for extermination. Now the idea that what is happening in the Israeli-Palestine conflict is anything similar to that is just wrong. There’s no extermination, there never was a plan of extermination, and there is no mass murder and there is no genocide. So why do people keep raising that as an analogy?

It seems to me that one of the reasons people raise that as an analogy is because they think it has a particular effect on Jews when it is said that the Jews or Israelis have become similar to those who persecuted them. And of course it does have a particular effect on Jews. It has an effect of upsetting Jews. I think that that’s really the point of it, the point of it isn’t to come out with a serious [analysis]. There are all sorts of serious historical analogies for the rise of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism in the Middle East. One can look at Europe in the 19th century, one can look at the breakdown of the 0ttoman Empire, one can look at the Balkans, one can look at many, many things. It’s not similar to Nazism. Why do people say it’s similar to Nazism? They say it’s similar to Nazism in order to wind up the Jews, so actually the charge that the Israelis are the new Nazis is a kind of Jew-baiting. It’s literally that. It is a charge whose function is to upset and to annoy and to wind up.

I also find that it’s one of those things people think of, and they actually think they’re very clever when they think of it. They say ‘the Jews have become the Nazis.’ There’s a kind of kernel behind it [that] one can understand, the idea that if one has been subject to persecution then one should be able to recognize it and one should be less willing to become a part of something like that it in the future. But it seems to me a fundamentally flawed kind of logic, partly because one only has to ask the question what were the Jews supposed to learn at Auschwitz?

The question itself is fundamentally flawed. Auschwitz wasn’t any kind of positive learning experience, and the overwhelmingly majority of the Jews who had anything to do with the Holocaust learned nothing from it because they were killed by it. It wasn’t a learning experience and it wasn’t an experience which made people better, or more left-wing, or more anti-racist. There was no silver lining to the Holocaust.

What did people learn? People learned next time, don’t rely on western civilization to prevent antisemitism and genocide, next time have bigger friends, next time have a state with which you can defend yourself and next time have more tanks. Now that’s not my lesson it’s not my politics

The idea that the Jews should have learned something from the Holocaust is a kind of category error in thinking about the Jews as one people, as a unity. Because in truth different Jews learned different things from the Holocaust, and different Jews have different kinds of politics and different kinds of worldviews and different kinds of attitudes to what goes on. And the idea that the Jews collectively should think one thing or learn one thing is problematic. It’s an idea which comes up again and again, and I think it doesn’t make much sense.

I’m afraid to articulate the thought, what should the Blacks have learned from slavery? You just have to articulate the thought to realize what a vile kind of way of thinking it is, yet people say this about the Jews routinely – and some serious people. Jacqueline Rose, the well-known literary theorist and psychoanalyst, has asked these questions in the press in quite a kind of angry way, and has put forward the analogy between Jews and Nazis. In my own institution, I went down the corridor six months ago and was handed a leaflet saying that what was happening in Gaza was the same as what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. The leaflet advertise[d] a meeting for students at which a women who was presented as a Holocaust survivor was going to make this argument. And this meeting was very well-attended

Because there was a Jewish woman making the argument, and because she called herself a Holocaust survivor, people really thought that that came with a significant authority. If one raised the question about the appropriateness of that kind of discussion on campus, the answer would be very straightforwardly, well [she’s] a Holocaust survivor making this argument not us. How can you raise the question in that context?

BERLET: In terms of the consistency issue. If critics of the idea of the state of Israel – let’s define that [as a state resulting from] Zionism [which itself is] a project that has a lot of different historical moments and a lot of different aspects—but people will argue that the idea of the state of Israel is itself a form of colonialism and settlerism. And what I find dramatically obvious is that the same people who raise that argument do not raise it in the same way with countries like Australia, New Zealand or even the United States. And it seems that very often in these discussions people exceptionalize Israel. They run away from logical and sequential arguments that would be much more powerful if you wanted to be a critic, and yet they get away with it.

HIRSH: Well, I think the way you phrase it is very interesting…There’s an old Jewish joke which was around I believe in the 1920s that asks, what’s the definition of a Zionist? And the answer is a Zionist is one Jew who gives money to a second Jew so a third Jew can live in Palestine. Point being, Zionism was a utopian movement, it was a movement which didn’t have much mass purchase in Europe in the 1920s. Why? Because nobody wanted to go live in a swamp on the coastal plain of Palestine.

So Zionism was an idea, it was a political movement which one could be for or one could be against. One could be a Bundist, one could be a socialist – actually all of these movements were movements of the left, were radical movements, were anti-racist movements. And of course the [political] Right didn’t want to have anything to do with any of them.

Zionism was a minority and a rather utopian movement at that time – it was an idea with which one could agree or disagree and enter into discussions.

Things changed. After the experience of antisemitism in Europe, after the Holocaust when Europe attempted to wipe itself clean of Jews, after the pushing out of the Jews from the cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East, after the experience of antisemitism in Russia, after 1948 and the setting up of the state of Israel, after the wars of ‘48 and ‘56 and ‘67 and ‘73, Israel is no longer an idea, actually.

I think it’s very important because Israel is often talked about as though it is an idea or Zionism is an idea or Israel is some kind of a political movement. One will often hear people talking about “the Zionists”: The Zionists do this, the Zionists should be driven out, the Zionists think that.… I don’t use the term “the Zionists” in that way because I don’t think Israel is a political movement. Israel is a nation-state, rather like other nation-states. To talk about Israel as though it were a political movement is to ask whether it’s a good political movement or a bad political movement. And one doesn’t do that with Croatia or with France or with the United States – is the United States a good idea or a bad idea? Well, who cares— the United States exists. We oppose destructive kind of nationalism, we have a political program against racism, blah blah blah. But nation-states are not political movements and Israel isn’t a political movement.

BERLET: There are a bunch of settler nations in the world.….

HIRSH: Well, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of nations are settler-nations in some sense.; Nations classically and pretty well always have been carved out by national movements which aim to create an idea of nationhood which defines itself against people who didn’t fit into that idea of nationhood. It’s a classic and ordinary history for nation-states, and its not pleasant anywhere actually, and of course Israel has particular unique features to its history. It’s more recent than many states, but not than many others—because after the fall of the Soviet Union. for example, there was another huge wave of nationalism and the creation of nation-states and national self-determination. That came often with the defining of people who didn’t fit. So Israel isn’t anymore all that new, and isn’t in any sense unique.

I think there’s quite a lot at stake in the idea that Israel is unique. Antisemitism, I think, has always tried to understand and to construct the Jews as being centrally important to everything that happens in the world. The Jews are not centrally important to everything that happens in the world. Jews are a rather small and rather insignificant group of people, actually.

So antisemitism always created out of them a kind of huge threat, usually through conspiracy theory; or a huge threat because the Jews didn’t accept Jesus; or a huge threat because the Jews were heralds of modernity and therefore [behind] the breakdown of traditional values. So Jews [were always constructed] as centrally important to what happened in the world, and they’re not. And I think that when one sees the construction of Israel as though it were centrally important to everything that happens in the world, then one is in danger of seeing a similar pattern emerging.

One often sees people who claim that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to world peace, or even the key to peace in the Middle East. There was an interesting version of that in the … Observer. The morning after the election in Iran, there was an editorial which was very fresh, nobody really knew what had happened in the election [yet], and the editorial said, ‘the election may have been stolen by Ahmadinejad – it may have been stolen, there’s people in the streets, we don’t know what’s happened yet, time will tell. Whatever happens, the most important event is Bibi Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University next week about the peace process.’

Now, I don’t think that’s true – I don’t think a rather tedious speech by a rather tedious Israeli politician is more important than the stealing of an election in Iran and the fact that there’s a huge mass popular movement against that stealing of that election. Iran is hugely important in its own right, for Iranians. It’s an old state with a huge culture of its own, with a democratic tradition of its own, with a revolutionary tradition of its own. It’s a state where there’s been fighting over democracy for decades, where the busworkers from Tehran were brutally suppressed about a year ago when they went on strike, where’s there a tradition of the Left.

So why would the Observer newspaper just kind of say ‘well, we don’t know yet what’s going to happen in Iran, but the most important thing is Netanyahu’? The reason it does that, I think, is because that there’s such a temptation to understand Israelis and Palestinians as being symbolic of much, much bigger, much, much more important things. So the importance of Israelis and Palestinians is blown up out of all proportion.

What comes with that then is an idea that Palestinians become the symbolic oppressed of the whole world, and Israelis and the Jews who argue [on the side of Israel] become symbolic of the oppressors throughout the world. One can see very straightforwardly how that can lead easily to conspiracy theory and to a reconstruction of the Jews as being central to everything that goes wrong in the world. So a lot of these debates about uniqueness are very important because Israel and Palestine are treated as though they were unique by many people, by many anti-Zionists.

Anti-Zionists claim to be universalists and cosmopolitans and anti-nationalists, but in truth, the way they relate to Israel is not the way they relate to anywhere else on the planet. For example, the boycott [sanctions and divestiture movement]. If you look at the debate which happened over the boycott in my trade union recently it was interesting because there was a lot of rhetoric [about] the Israeli incursion into Gaza in December/January [2009] that was very, very unpleasant. The Israelis went in chasing after Hamas fighters and they killed a lot of people who were in and around the targets – [and] of course the targets base themselves in civilian areas.

So the war in Gaza was very, very unpleasant, and in my view the Israelis shouldn’t have been doing it. However, a month later in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan state did to the Tamil Tigers what the Israelis didn’t to Hamas – that is, they went in, they separated the fighters from the civilians, they put the civilians in camps, they killed many thousands of people, they shelled the camps, they finished off the fighters, they took their territory and then they went through the civilians one by one and found the Tamil Tigers and dealt with them.

Now I think that’s appalling, and I’m very pleased that the Israelis don’t behave like that in Gaza. So why is it that at my union conference there’s an emergency motion about Sri Lanka, and people talk reasonable sense about Sri Lanka: people get up and say there’s a history of colonialism and a peace movement which fell apart, there’s important things we have to understand about the conflict, what we have to do as a trade union is to forge links with Sinhalese and Tamil [the two major ethnic groups] trade unionists, and we need to fight for politics of peace and reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. [These are ideas reflecting] perfectly normal [and] reasonable trade union values.

The debate then moves straight on to Israel, and the debate hinges only around the idea of boycotting Israeli academics — the idea that Israeli academics need to be punished and Israelis needs to be shown that their academics are not part of a global academic community. What about the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka? Nothing. So [we have] a much more serious situation in Sri Lanka, but much more serious anger against Israelis than against the Sri Lankan state. And an anger which spreads not only to the Israeli state but to Israeli civil society, because one of the tropes of anti-Zionism is to portray Israel as though there’s no distinction between the people and the state. So who do we punish? We punish the people, the academics. Why? Because they are the state.

[That’s a] very threatening and menacing view, to say that working-class people or civil society or ordinary people in a city are the state. We don’t normally do that. Anti-Zionists do that with Israel and they shouldn’t do it.

BERLET: It would seem, conceptually, that attacking two large office buildings in downtown New York would be the same categorical error, that by punishing people in an office building which is viewed as the center of power is equally wrong. Once any group looks at a nation-state and says that they are a loci of power and therefore it is legitimate [to argue that] every civilian is a target. That’s a collapse of understanding how complicated nations, governments, [and] societies are.
With the issue of Israel it’s collapsed even further so that not only is it the state of Israel and the government of Israel and the Israeli people, but Jews worldwide [who] are all complicit in this “conspiracy.”

HIRSH: During the conflict in Gaza, one of the official spokesmen of Hamas actually said publicly that since the Israelis are killing Palestinian children, then the Hamas movement is calling for the killing of Jewish children across the world. One would think that that was a kind of big, important statement from an antisemitic movement which was promising to kill Jewish children across the world. It wasn’t taken seriously by anybody, by anti-racists, —nobody expressed surprise or shock, it was just said, ‘well, what do the Israelis expect’?

One of the things about 9/11 is that people are able to look symbolically again. The Twin Towers are raised to symbolize something in people’s imagination in a similar way that Israelis are raised to symbolized something in people’s imagination. But really who was in the office boxes of the twin towers? They were cleaners and technicians and all sorts of people; they weren’t all bankers, they weren’t all the architects of global capital. And of course similarly —even more clearly— when buses are blown up in Tel Aviv. Rich people in Tel Aviv don’t go around in buses [partly] because they get blown up. So there’s a symbolism to the blowing up of buses which has nothing to do with the reality of it. There’s a kind of likemindedness to it – ‘wasn’t it interesting to see the symbolism of capitalism in New York collapse; isn’t it interesting to see the Palestinians gaining some revenge’? It’s a kind of simple, likeminded symbolic thinking which has no relation to politics, to a serious political tradition of the left of anti-hegemonic politics which says … ‘we have to build a politics that doesn’t replicate what we’re fighting against.’

It’s often said ‘well what can one expect from Palestinians who endure occupation, one can only expect that they will be angry with Jews.’ And I have some sympathy with that, actually, although in truth many, many Palestinians don’t adopt that kind of racist politics. In Palestine there are…political discussions and many, many people find ways of expressing their politics and their resistance [other] than killing Jews.

Then there’s another level [of] that discussion, which is one might say that if you were brought up in a Palestinian refugee camp policed by Jewish Israelis, you might dislike Jews. But what about us, in universities outside of Palestine? What’s our responsibility in those discussions? And it seems to me that we have a particular responsibility to stand up against the kind of politics of hatred which is in some sense is understandable within Palestine.

BERLET: A point you’ve made is that in other forms of racism and oppression—institutionalized or systematic [forms]—it is very unusual to analyze the situation in terms of what the victims are doing to make people hate them. And yet that seems to be part of the equation of discussing not just the state of Israel and the politics of the government of Israel, but the whole Middle East conflict. [This is then] extended out to what is uncarefully described as the Jewish Lobby or the Zionist Lobby.

HIRSH: I think that’s a very important point. The argument goes that Israel behaves badly, and I don’t disagree with that. I think Israel often behaves badly, it often behaves stupidly, it often behaves in a way which is reckless of Palestinian life. I think in order to organize the kind of occupation that the Israelis find themselves organizing, a sort of daily regime of violence and humiliation and racism just goes along with that territory. That’s why it’s very important the occupation should come to an end and there should be a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

But having said that, I think the idea that because Israel behaves badly in Palestine then its reasonable for people to hate Jews, takes a whole other step. [This] is a logic which people buy into in different kinds of ways, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not. One doesn’t do that in other places. If one said ‘well, its reasonable to be misogynistic because women do nag a lot and they do get annoying, and if they stop nagging people would stop being misogynistic,’ there’s nobody who wouldn’t be able to see through that kind of logic. But the logic which says ‘well Jews behave badly in the Middle East and all over the world; they kind of act as a sort of lobby in order to defend that bad behavior… and therefore its not all too surprising that people hate them’, then that would be considered as some kind of legitimate argument amongst anti-racist circles. Why? There’s no reason for that I think. I think that one has to take seriously the transformation of hostility against human rights abuses into racist forms. One has to take that seriously.

I was in a debate with Seumas Milne who is a Guardian columnist …..I think we can go together some distance and I think we can agree that when the Palestinians are involved in fighting Jewish soldiers […] the hostility which they may feel [can be] manifested in a language of antisemitism or in a trope of antisemitism.

How do we deal with that, how do we understand that? Now it seems to me that Seamus Milne’s argument was what we have to do is translate it back into the language in which it was meant. He invents a rather Stalinist and a rather mystical notion of the real spirit of Palestinian resistance. And the real spirit of Palestinian resistance [Milne says] has been democratic and liberational. If it happens at one time or another to be expressed or manifested in the language of antisemitism, then what we need to do is translate it back into the real language of Palestine of resistance and liberation.

Now, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. I think that antisemitism may ….You know racism starts with something real in the world. It starts with some real grievance or some real hatred or some real thing and it becomes entrenched into a racial way of thinking. And it’s that transformation of real grievance into a racial way of thinking that we have to take apart and we have to oppose. One of the reasons we have to oppose that is because then it becomes a thing in itself. So white people who are worried about poverty or poor housing—if they then translate that into a racist narrative and say ‘well the blacks are taking our houses, the blacks are taking our jobs’ then one loses any possibility of fighting over good housing and good jobs.

Racism always has some kind of legitimate grievance somewhere in its history. But one has to take seriously the forms that it takes. And if hostility to the occupation in Palestine is articulated through the language of Jew-hatred then we have to take that seriously.

There was something else I wanted to say, to go back to your question. [It] is the idea of…institutionalized antisemitism, because I think that’s rather important. I don’t think people who do antisemitic things or who say antisemitic things in Britain today are Jew-haters, [I don’t think] they hate Jews. I think what they do is stumble into antisemitic ways of thinking of which they’re not really aware. So I think the question shouldn’t be ‘does somebody intend to harm Jews or does someone intend to feel a hatred of Jews?’ The question should be ‘what is the nature of the arguments people are making?’ If they are making a unique argument that Israeli Jews should be excluded from campuses; or if they’re saying Israel is the uniquely bloodthirsty state, or a uniquely child-killing state—then one should relate that back to where those kinds of ideas come from.

If one is saying that the Jews or the Israel lobby are responsible for the Iraq War, then one has to relate that back. The Jews have been held responsible for every war – there’s nothing new about this. In the Hamas charter it says explicitly the Jews were responsible for the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution and [for] global imperialism, for the First World War and for the Second World War….

In Britain there was a peace movement against the Boer War, and many people in that movement argued that the British Empire was being manipulated by Jewish diamond interests in Southern Africa.

Now I don’t think the people in the Stop The War coalition today have any clue that their talk about the Israel lobby is similar to [the rhetoric of] the people who were in the Stop The War coalition at the time of the Boer War….who said that behind this imperialist action is Jewish diamond interests. There’s no conception of the history in which people find themselves. So my point is that one shouldn’t ask ‘do people hate Jews?’ and one shouldn’t ask ‘do people know what they’re doing?’ – one should ask why are these tropes and these images being replayed and refound [today] when one talks about Israel and Palestine?

In a sense it shouldn’t surprise us – people have a hostility to Israel, some of it legitimate and some of it justified and some of it not. But putting that aside for one moment – if you want to express hostility to Israel and if you want to express hostility to the Jews who you think defend Israel’s human rights abuses, then available to you is a huge cultural reservoir of ways in which you can express hostility to Jews.

There’s conspiracy theory, there’s blood libel, there’s a whole set of ways of thinking. Now I can demonstrate that very often in rhetoric which is anti-Israeli, these tropes and these images from previous antisemitisms are replicated. Now if you’re replicating these tropes and these ideas and these images you may well not know that you’re doing it – you’re not doing it because you hate Jews or because you’re a convinced racist, you’re doing it because there is a reservoir of resources available to you if you want to make propaganda against Jews.

Let me give you one example. There was a poster which…had a picture of a Jaffa orange and it had blood coming out of the orange and it said ‘Don’t buy a Jaffa, squeeze the occupation’ – something like that. Now, anybody who knows anything about the history of antisemitism will know immediately that a combination of blood and food and Jews is already problematic. And the message of that poster is very clear – the message of that poster says that Jews are trying to give you food which is contaminated by the blood of the children that they’ve killed. Don’t buy it, don’t eat it, it should disgust you, it should encourage you and remind you to boycott Jaffa oranges.

There is a long history of this idea that Jews mix the blood of the people they kill and eat it—mix it with their food. Now, I don’t think that the person who designed this rather striking poster knows anything about that. I don’t think that the person who designed that poster is an antisemite. It’s quite conceivable that [the designer] has never heard of the blood libel. Yet they produce a classic blood libel image. So this should be a lesson to us that we need to be careful. Yet, just asking people to be careful very often elicits a kind of hostile and angry response. The response is absolutely standard – the response to anyone who raises the issue of antisemitism in relation to hostility to Israel, to Zionism— the response is that ‘you’re accusing me of antisemitism not because you believe there is antisemitism but in order to play the antisemitism card, in order to make it impossible to delegitimize criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.’

Anyone who’s ever called on this or that antisemitic comment…produces the same response. The response is to accuse the Jews who raise the issue of antisemitism of doing so in a despicably and dishonest way in order to close down free speech. [It is a] very serious allegation. It’s an allegation that in my work I’ve come across explicitly and implicitly. It’s an allegation that says that I’m not an academic…not a sociologist. I’m just some kind of scribbler for Israel.

This same [experience] happened to Harold Jacobson, the novelist. Howard made a very serious critique of Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children.” The play made an argument that the conflict in Gaza was a result of the neurotic ways in which Jews bring up their children to be unconcerned about the killing of the “Other”—about the killing of Palestinian children. Howard Jacobson made this [serious critique of the play and] he said the play was antisemitic. Caryl Churchill replies ‘Well he would say that wouldn’t he, it’s the usual tactic.’ Meaning Howard Jacobson [is] not an intellectual, he’s not a novelist, he’s not interested really in talking about antisemitism. He’s really interested in doing is using antisemitism as a kind of despicable tactic to defend Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza.

BERLET: This is a question I struggle with. How do you approach a criticism of Israel or Zionism in a constructive way when you think some form of demonization or scapegoating is involved? Or a conspiracy theory that ties back to these historic tropes about Jews having power and control and plotting subversive [activities]. [Especially when we live in] a society that doesn’t teach people about the history of allegation against the “Other.” A lot of these criticisms that talk about global Jewish power track back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

[In the] United States prior to [the Protocols] the same narratives were used against faceless plutocrats during the Populist movement and later deformed into open antisemitism. But all the way back to the late 1700s when in both France and Scotland there were books written that made the exact same allegations against the “Other.” In this case being the Freemasons [and the] Illuminati.

We as a society have replicated…these analogues to the Protocols. We know there are techniques people use to demonize an “Other,” and yet we don’t seem to be teaching schoolchildren that this is in fact one of the techniques that they should be aware of and not copy.

HIRSH: I think it’s very interesting because I think one of the things about the society in which we live, about modernity, is that it looks a bit like a conspiracy. We live in a world where the power is in the hands of a small number of people, and it looks as though the media does their bidding and does what’s in their interests. It looks like the whole of society is set up for the benefit of the powerful. So it’s not idiotic to believe in a conspiracy. But there’s a history to this, and the history is very interesting.

People like Max Weber and Emil Durkheim and Karl Marx invented structural accounts of how the world works to explain how a minority of people take all the power to themselves which didn’t rely on conspiracy theory. I think there’s an argument which says sociology itself was invented in order to undercut conspiracy [theory]; and possibly quite explicitly to undercut antisemitic conspiracy theory. Marx—whether you like Marx or you don’t like Marx—he offers a structural account of capitalism which doesn’t rely on a conspiracy of the few interests. I teach Marx to our first-years, and it’s quite difficult to teach because a lot of them they come away with the idea that that’s precisely what [Marx] does. They write in their essays, ‘well there are a small number of rich people who exploit everybody else’ and they come out with conspiracy theory. But of course Capital is much more interesting than that.

More recently… there’s something interesting that’s happened to Marx and Durkheim and Weber and social theory; which is that the critiques of social theory and structure have…come to the fore.

It’s actually very easy to critique anything about the world that exists.

You and me, we’re clever guys; we can sit down and critique democracy. And we can critique law, and we can critique social theory. We can show that the powerful are in charge even if law says that everybody is equal. We can take very thing apart. We can even take the idea of truth apart. We can show how truth is related to power, and how knowledge is related. We can do all that.

The problem is that if one critiques everything simply negatively then one ends up with nothing. I think it’s a kind of rather frightening view that people like George Orwell, for example, were very aware of. George Orwell was very aware that the people who critiqued everything in bourgeois society the most successfully were the totalitarians.

It was the totalitarians who said ‘we don’t believe in bourgeois law, it’s just a trick. We don’t believe in bourgeois democracy, it’s just a trick, we don’t believe in truth, it’s just a trick. We know who really runs the world.’

Those kinds of ideas, and the collapse of structural ways of trying to understand the world, [have made it] illegitimate to try to understand the world. And this is true on a popular level, but also in a serious professorial level.

So it doesn’t surprise me that when everything is critiqued then we move back to conspiracy theory, because all we are left with is power. If all notions of authority or democracy or law or anything become dissolved into power, than the question becomes ‘well, who are the powerful?’ And then take your pick: the Jews, the gays, the Muslims, whatever.

But I think there is a kind of bigger underlying problem, which leads towards this way of thinking, and I think it’s a cynicism about the values of democracy, but [also about the] values of the Left. The Left I was brought up in was a place where we tried to understand how the world worked, and we tried to change the world. Changing human beings was part of changing the world. Now it’s evident that there is a totalitarian moment to that as well. But I think we need to keep hold of that problem, but also keep hold of the original problem.

As my good friend Robert Fine [in Political investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt] puts it we have to hold the critique of existing society in one hand—and we also have to understand the critique of the critique. We have to understand that the people who have most successfully critiqued existing society were the totalitarians: the Stalinists and the Nazis. So I don’t think there’s anything surprising about the rise of conspiracy theory.

Chip Berlet’s interview with David Hirsh is on PublicEye.org.

This conversation happened on Monday, June 29th, 2009 but was not published until September 2012.

Alice Walker’s Apartheid Analogy – Jonathan Judaken

Alice Walker’s recent decision not to allow an Israeli publisher, Yediot Books, to translate The Color Purple into Hebrew was a missed opportunity. The opening paragraph of her letter to the publisher indicated her reasons:

As you may know, last Fall in South Africa the Russell Tribunal on Palestine met and determined that Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.  The testimony we heard, both from Israelis and Palestinians (I was a jurist) was devastating.  I grew up under American apartheid and this was far worse.  Indeed, many South Africans who attended, including Desmond Tutu, felt the Israeli version of these crimes is worse even than what they suffered under the white supremacist regimes that dominated South Africa for so long.

Her whole argument hangs on an analogy: Israel is an apartheid state like South Africa. The analogy is the centerpiece of the growing BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel, modeled on the success of the anti-apartheid campaign.

The untranslatable Afrikaans appellation for South African’s racial state has indeed become the term of the moment for opposition to Israel. The magical label “apartheid” serves to denounce in a single word. Jacques Derrida, the famous French philosopher who coined the much-abused term “deconstruction,” once contributed an article to a catalog of an art exhibit protesting apartheid, which he titled, “Racism’s Last Word.”

Walker’s stance on the translation of her book is a good opportunity to think through “racism’s last word,” something Walker’s facile denunciation certainly has not done, but that demands doing. For all those committed to undoing the Israeli occupation thinking through this analogy is a neglected imperative. The risk for those who reflexively oppose Israel without reflectively thinking about the terms of that opposition is that the analogy they rest upon would be deconstructed.

Walker should have allowed The Color Purple to be translated. She should have seized it as a chance to actually reflect on the equation in political discourse between racism, apartheid, and Israel. Rather than a momentary splash of publicity for her cause, translating the book would have enabled sustained and ongoing reflection on the issues the book raises, which are the very heart of her protest.

This is important for if you want to upend the injustices towards Palestinians, convincing Israelis of the abiding oppression that they participate in is certainly going to have to be part of the equation. Moving Israeli public consciousness, along with raising global consciousness, should surely be part of the goal of this protest, if the desire is to change the situation of Palestinians.

What is more, if the apartheid analogy holds, then Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel could have aided in this. The first obstacle would have been the technical problems raised by the translation of her book. Written as an epistolary novel, the idiom of the narrator is that of its protagonist, Celie, a fourteen-year-old victim of rape, incest, and the institutionalized violence that was wound into the fabric of the Jim Crow South. Capturing her moving idiosyncratic language in Hebrew would have been a huge accomplishment in its own right, translating into the language of Israelis the experience of blacks under “American apartheid.”

If this could be done, the question remains whether readers in Israel would have followed Walker in seeing the connections between their world and that of Celie’s: between Israeli occupation and Palestinian oppression and Jim Crow racism. Here there is an imaginative leap that Walker might have actually addressed in a preface, explaining to an Israeli public the relevance of Celie’s tale for the political configuration that defines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

My gambit is that Walker could not actually perform this task. She would certainly have to do without the hyperbole that characterizes her protest. For surely anyone who actually thinks through the analogy is not going to claim that the occupied territories are “worse” for Palestinians than what Celie suffers, let alone the more brutal, state-sanctioned racism of apartheid.

Sure there are analogs. This is what permits an unexamined analogy to take hold. It is why when Peter Beinart made the call “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements” he had a point. But his protest is different from Walker’s because it does not reduplicate the “us vs. them,” homogenizing rhetoric that buttresses racism. Beinart not only speaks from a place of empathy for Israel and Zionism (as the Jewish liberation movement), but he makes crucial distinctions in his call to action. He acknowledges the brutalities and contradictions that characterize the Israeli occupation of non-democratic Israel. But he makes no blanket condemnation of Israel.

Thinking through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands attending to its tragic dimensions, which are underpinned by an irreconcilable pair of narratives both of which have legitimacy. This is something that Jean-Paul Sartre, who headed up the original Russell Tribunal, understood in his stance on the conflict. As such, part of what differentiates the situation in Israel/Palestine from Jim Crow racism and apartheid is that it is not an either/or, black or white problem.

Without attention to the distinctions between Celie’s world, Desmond Tutu’s world, and that of Palestinians today, it is going to remain easy for the majority of Americans and Brits to dismiss the BDS movement. What is called for now is a sustained reflection on the analogy that underpins that movement. It is a pity that Alice Walker, of all people, has not aided us in doing that thinking.

Jonathan Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in Humanities at Rhodes College.

Why call Israel an Apartheid State? – Guest Post by Sharmini Brookes

Sharmini Brookes

 ‘Is Israel the New Apartheid?’ was the topic of debate at the 21st Wednesday Seminar of the Departments of Sociology, Anthropology and Development at the University Of Johannesburg (UJ).  In March of this year the UJ senate of 72 members voted 60-40% to allow their formal institutional arrangement with Israel’s Ben Gurion University to lapse after a debate that referred to Israel as an Apartheid State and justified boycotts on the same grounds as those imposed by anti-Apartheid activists on South Africa.  The vice-chancellor, Professor Ihron Rensburg denies this is a boycott (as individual academics are allowed to continue relationships) but it is a very public censure of an institution and will inhibit full and free dialogue amongst individual academics as those who wish to do so will court the opprobrium of their peers for voluntarily maintaining links with what is now viewed as a pariah state.

‘It is wrong to refer to Israel as an Apartheid State’ said the speaker against the motion, Benjamin Pogrund, author, journalist and campaigner with the Israeli Centre for Dialogue.  He accepted that there were problems of discrimination in housing, education, land ownership and citizenship but that these were the consequence of the 1948 war for the survival of the Jewish State and not of any consciously articulated government policy of racial discrimination and separate development as instituted by Hendrik Verwoerd and his predecessors in South Africa.  Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the creation of the State of Israel, then supported by the UN, did violate the right of self-determination for Palestine and has been the source of continuing conflict ever since.

The speaker for the motion, Naeem Jeenah, Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre and formerly lecturer at Wits University, insisted that it was legitimate to call Israel an Apartheid State based on article 2 of the UN Convention on Apartheid.  However, as Benjamin Pogrund noted, this is an expanded description of situations some of which resemble those experienced under Apartheid and which could equally apply to a number of existing countries where human rights are regularly breached.  What it fails to recognize is the conscious and deliberate policy that made South Africa unique.

In addition, the assumption that the Apartheid regime was brought down by the success of the international boycott campaign is false.  Governments and companies continued their relations with South Africa while paying lip service to anti-apartheid rhetoric and the Sullivan principles until the mass uprisings in the 1980’s by the indigenous black population made continued investment unprofitable.  The final death blow to Apartheid was delivered with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of a communist threat to capitalism.  It was the convergence of black unrest with the death of communism that brought De Klerk to the negotiating table and not the self-regarding boycott campaign.

The attempt of so-called liberals and pro-Palestinian groups to label Israel as Apartheid is a lazy attempt to win support by piggy-backing on this popular international revulsion against Apartheid in the 80’s rather than to consider the more complicated reality of the situation in the Middle East.

It is a tragic and revealing irony that Zionism, presented as the salvation of persecuted Jews throughout the world, but in reality a desperate resort resulting from the failure to progressively transform the societies in which the Jews resided, has not led to security for Jewish Israelis nor has it challenged anti-Semitism.  Nevertheless, whatever the rights and wrongs of the original creation of the Zionist state, Israel and Israelis exist and cannot be wiped off the earth.  That Arabs and Israelis do live and work together in Israel is a fact and it is not inconceivable that a negotiated settlement can be achieved where both can live in peace if only external forces kept their noses out and allowed the locals to work towards their own solution.   Unfortunately, the use of the loaded term ‘Apartheid’ with the Israeli state is not only wrong but tragically serves to isolate progressive Israelis from all contact with enlightened individuals in the rest of the world and hinders any chance of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Sharmini Brookes  15/09/11      

Battle of Ideas Committee member and convenor

Eric Lee, Kim Berman, Salim Vally on Israel and apartheid

Eric Lee writes on his blog:

I visited South Africa twice in recent years, both times as the guest of the trade union movement. On my second visit, to Cape Town, I found myself walking along a beautiful beach with a leader of South Africa’s Communication Workers Union. He told me that under apartheid, if he’d be found walking on this beach, he could have been shot. This was a whites-only beach. That’s what apartheid means. It means you can be shot for walking on the wrong beach.

As for “apartheid Israel,” suffice it to say that my two sons were born in a hospital that serves the residents of the Jezreel Valley — Jews and Arabs. The staff, including doctors and nurses, were a mix of all ethnic groups and religions, as were the patients. There was no segregation, no separate facilities, no differences at all in how Jews and Arabs were treated.

Does this mean that Israel is a perfect society, a real paradise on earth for everyone? Of course not.

But if one cannot see the difference between running the risk of being shot for being on the “wrong” beach — and having your child born in a hospital full of Jews and Arabs working together — if you can’t see that difference, you understand nothing at all.

See the whole piece, on Eric Lee’s blog.

Eric’s piece relates to Kim Berman’s open letter to Salim Vally, originally published onEngage.

Salim Vally’s reply is here, on the UJ website

David Hirsh on the UJ boycott; and letter responding to a boycotter;  and on how it is progressing at UJ; and Hirsh on the apartheid analogy.

For the Engage archive on the Israel / Apartheid analogy click here.

John Strawson on UJ.

For  the debate around the South African campaign for an academic boycott of Israel, with Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack click here.

 

 

RIP Arthur Goldreich

“Arthur Goldreich, 82, who helped the anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela hide on a farm by posing as his employer, died May 24 in Tel Aviv. No cause of death was reported.”

“In his autobiography, Mandela describes the South African-born Mr. Goldreich as having fought in the 1940s with the military wing of the Jewish National Movement in Palestine. Mandela says Mr. Goldreich provided some guerrilla expertise to the then-nascent armed wing of the African National Congress.”

More in the Washington Post.  via HP

Ben Gidley – The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union

In response to the University and College Union’s Congress Motion 70 to banish the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism, Ben Gidley, an academic who studies racism, has a piece in the Dissent blog Arguing the World, titled ‘The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union‘, which we have permission to reproduce in full.

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My trade union, the University and College Union (UCU, representing professionals in further and higher education in the United Kingdom), has its annual congress this weekend, and, under the title “Campaigning for equality,” will be debating a number of motions on racism and discrimination, including one on how anti-Semitism should be defined.

Unions need policies on such things, because union case work, on relations between employees and management and among colleagues, often involves discrimination and harassment that may be racist. At times like now, when there are huge cuts in higher education and academics are being placed under ever more performance pressure by management, harassment and workplace tensions can increase, and these issues become even more important.

But there are many difficulties in addressing racism.

Racism is mercurial. It mutates over time. Pseudoscientific racial theories are now spouted only by marginal cranks. Notions that different races are different species have come and gone; eugenics has come and gone; words like “Aryan” and “Semitic” are starting to sound quaint. The period since the 1980s has seen the rise of cultural racism, or racism that focuses on cultural differences rather than biological ones.

Racism is promiscuous. It will use whatever materials it has at hand. In the age when the Church dominated European ways of thinking, racism used a Biblical language; Jews were attacked as Christ-killers, black people were condemned as under the curse of Ham. With the modern rise of scientific disciplines, racism had access to a whole new language. When that language was discredited by the Nazi genocide, new forms of expression were found—those others don’t share our way of life, they cook food that smells, they control the media, or they have a culture of criminality.

Racism proceeds through euphemism and code. At various points, “aliens,” “cosmopolitan,” “Zionist,” and “finance capital” have served as euphemisms for Jews; while the Nazis spoke about sub-humans, today’s anti-Semites mutter about Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs. Sometimes it is impossible to distinguish the code from what’s behind it—are Muslims hated by racists in Western Europe because of their perceived color and culture, or are North Africans and South Asians hated because they are Muslim?

Some racists wear Ku Klux Klan uniforms, or shave their heads and perform Nazi salutes. But others wear suits and ties and talk about “free speech” or the “rights of the indigenous people.” We’re not against black people, says the British National Party, we’re just for white people. We’re not fascists, says the rebranded National Front in France, we even have a black candidate.

Libraries full of books and journals full of articles are devoted to debating, dissecting, and defining racism in general, and tracking its specific mutations. For every definition or classification proposed, there are qualifications, exceptions, counterexamples, refutations. No one-page definition would be universally accepted by scholars.

But in the streets, in the workplace, and in the courts of law, you need something more straightforward. When a grassroots civil society organization monitors racist incidents, when a union is asked to represent a colleague that has been the victim of racist bullying, when a lawyer prosecutes a racially aggravated crime, when an editorial assistant has to moderate an op-ed comment thread where temperatures have been raised—you might need some kind of working definition to rule the incident in or out. If all racists looked like booted boneheads or evil Nazis, these people would have an easy job.

A few principles have emerged from the anti-racist movement to help decide a case. Three are particularly relevant. First, the victims of racism should have at least some say in defining racism. This principle is reflected, for example, in British law. Following the racist murder and failure to prosecute the killers of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, in London, there was a thorough review of the case that profoundly changed how the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom addresses these issues, presided over by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny.

The ensuing Macpherson Report in 1999 recommended that a racist incident be defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person,” and reported, recorded, and investigated as such. Of course, the offense taken by someone who sees him or herself as a victim can never be a sufficient criterion for ruling and convicting someone of a racially motivated or aggravated crime, but the victim’s voice should be heard and constitutes at least prima facie grounds for taking the allegation seriously. And this principle also means, for instance, that black people should have a role in defining anti-black racism, that Jews should have a role in defining anti-Semitism, and so on.

Second, racist intent is not necessary for a statement or action to be racist. Acting in good faith, believing oneself not to be racist, and being ignorant of what constitutes racism do not exempt us. In fact, anti-racists have long argued that racism is so pervasive that we are all often unconsciously racist. We are not aware of the implications of our words and actions, of the connotations they have, of the harm they might cause. The issue that matters, in other words, is racist deeds and words, not racist people. Combating racism does not require an inquisition into our souls; it requires attention to the impact of our actions. This principle is taken further in the concept of “institutional racism,” defined initially by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, whose words were drawn on in the Macpherson report, which defined it as the

collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

The key word here is “unwitting”: it is not racist intent that matters, but the harm done. Saying “some of my best friends are black” doesn’t let you off the hook.

Third, context matters. A word might be racist in one context but not another. This principle is well established in British case law around racially aggravated crimes. For instance, in the case Director of Public Prosecutions v M 2004, the Divisional Court held that the phrase “‘bloody foreigners’ could, depending on the context, demonstrate hostility to a racial group.” This was cited in Rogers v Regina 2007, when one of the judges, Baroness Hale, said, “The context will illuminate what the conduct shows.” For example, the word “Zionist” means something very different in the name of the Zionist Federation than it would if a BNP member were to walk into a synagogue and shout, “Kill the Zionists.”
DEFINING ANTI-SEMITISM has become one of the most difficult instances of defining racism. This is partly because of the particularly strange mutation of anti-Semitism in recent years, including the emergence of what has contentiously been called “the new anti-Semitism.”

Far-right anti-Semitic movements increasingly borrow the language of anti-Zionism as a cover for their racism, and far-right anti-Semitic ideas have in turn increasingly gained traction among anti-Zionists. For example, anti-Zionists have taken up the old Christian anti-Semitic “blood libel” myth, while neo-Nazis have taken up ideas from the anti-Zionist movement, such as the idea of an all-powerful “Israel lobby.” So, while the British Chief Rabbi’s claim that we are experiencing a “tsunami of anti-Semitism” is almost certainly exaggerated, it is certainly the case that there has been a surge in the last decade.

This surge has mainly been seen in different sorts of places than where anti-Semitism has traditionally been encountered. In fact, it is often expressed by the intelligent, thoughtful, anti-racist academics who make up UCU’s rank and file.

In 2008, for example, a union activist circulated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory taken from the website of the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke to hundreds of union members on its activist list. When this was mentioned on a blog, rather than apologizing, she took the advice of a senior union member and threatened legal action, getting the blog closed down. To my knowledge, this activist was never censured within the union. (In contrast, leading campaigners against an academic boycott of Israel were excluded from the same email list for minor infringements of etiquette.) Several Jewish academics resigned in what they saw as the rise of a culture of institutional anti-Semitism.

The following year, a senior union member posted an article to a website circulating another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, complaining that Jews are overrepresented in Parliament and that Tony Blair’s New Labour project is in thrall to Zionist money distributed by suspicious “shape-shifting” financiers. A couple of months later, a UCU branch secretary, speaking at a UCU congress fringe meeting, promoted yet another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: lawyers ruling on union boycott policy have “bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can’t be tracked down.” Again, no censure from the union. The same year, UCU hosted South African trade unionist Bongani Masuku, allowing him to address UCU members on boycotting Israel, despite the fact that the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) had found Masuku guilty of hate speech against Jews.

These incidents might suggest that there is a need for action and robust guidance on anti-Semitism within the union. Instead, the leadership has insisted on seeing all these instances as nothing other than legitimate criticisms of Israel. In 2006, the union executive published a formal statement denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming that “defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate, and in the context of Higher Education, to restrict academic freedom.” This was formalized as union policy at its 2007 congress, which resolved that “criticism of Israel cannot [emphasis added] be construed as anti-semitic”—a motion that seems to me to deny the obvious reality that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The following year, another policy passed, clarifying it: “Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are [sic] not, as such, anti-semitic.” Again, the resolution did not acknowledge that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

By 2009, there had been so many resignations from the union because of this sort of thing that a motion was put to the congress noting the resignations and mandating that the national executive investigate the causes. This was rejected by a large majority.

When it was pointed out to UCU that its guest Bongani Masuku had been criticized by the HRC, rather than taking this institution and its findings seriously, the UCU dismissed this as “stuff doing the rounds on the internet”—shocking ignorance of post-apartheid South Africa for a union whose leaders regularly use the apartheid analogy to describe Israel, but also an a priori refusal to take racism against Jews as seriously as other racisms. A motion to UCU congress noting the HRC’s findings and disassociating congress from Masuku’s anti-Semitic views was formally rejected by an overwhelming show of hands. This near-unanimity in rejecting criticism of anti-Semitism led to a number of resignations from the union, from Jewish colleagues who took it as a sign that anti-Semitism was thoroughly institutionalized in it.

The culture in the UCU has been to dismiss in advance any criticism of racism against Jews, seeing it as merely a tactic to smother debate and criticism. While a handful of anti-Zionist Jews have applauded this, many academics from the Jewish community have felt increasingly isolated, their own understanding of racism not taken seriously, violating the principle that the victims of racism should have some voice in its definition. The a priori dismissal of allegations of anti-Semitism follows what David Hirsh has called “the Livingstone formulation”—the claim that allegations of anti-Semitism are made in bad faith to stifle debate. By alleging that Jews are merely crying anti-Semitism to stop people talking about Israel, the UCU leadership cries Israel to stop people talking about anti-Semitism.
WHICH BRINGS us up to the present, and the latest motion on anti-Semitism. This motion notes “with concern [that] the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism,’ while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status,” is being used by student unions in relation to campus activities. It states a belief that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Then it resolves that the union do three things: not make use of the definition (“e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints”), disassociate itself from the definition in anypublic discussion on the matter in which the UCU is involved, and “campaign for an open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.”

Every clause of the motion is deeply problematic. What is this “so-called” EUMC working definition? The EUMC was the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an agency of the European Union. It was itself preceded by the Commission on Racism and Xenophobia (CRX), established in 1994, known as the Kahn Commission. The CRX became the EUMC in 1998 with an official mandate from the European Commission. Among other things, the EUMC published one of the most important studies of Islamophobia in Europe, in 2002, summarizing several separate reports on specific aspects of Islamophobia from the member states of the EU. In 2007 the EUMC became the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The FRA has continued the important work of the EUMC in documenting anti-Roma racism and homophobia across Europe.

It reports annually on discrimination and fundamental rights in the EU, and therefore reports on anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents. It is only natural that it should seek a standard, usable, operational definition of anti-Semitism, just as its massive Islamophobia report set out a working definition of that form of racism. To this end, it published a one-page working definition in 2005. This has been adopted by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism in 2006, by several branches of the National Union of Students (NUS), and more recently by the NUS itself.

The text defined anti-Semitism thus: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” In the fifth line, it continued: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” Note, not “do” but “could,” and not Israel as such but Israel “conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” It proceeds to give examples of what anti-Semitic incidents might look like. These include stereotyping Jews, including the myth of a “world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media,” as well as holding all Jews responsible for the actions of some Jews.

Then, it gives examples of how anti-Semitism might manifest itself with regard to Israel, which David Hirsh summarizes concisely:

It may, in some contexts, be anti-Semitic to accuse Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their union; to say Israel is a racist endeavour; to apply double standards; to boycott Israelis but not others for the same violations; to say that Israeli policy is like Nazi policy; to hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel.

And here too there is a caveat in the working definition: these might be anti-Semitic, “taking into account the overall context.” In other words, talking about hidden Lehman Brothers bank accounts might be completely legitimate in the context of analyzing the subprime collapse, but not when talking about the politics of people who just happen to be Jews and have no connection to the bank, at a time when conspiracy theories about it are circulating on the Internet.

After the list of examples, the report insists, “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled at any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This sentence is important, and its existence refutes the second clause of the UCU motion, that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Not only does the motion name no instances when this has happened (because it is highly unlikely any such instances have ever occurred), but the working definition itself explicitly avoids the claim that criticism of Israel “in itself” is to be regarded as anti-Semitic.
FOR ALL the reasons I’ve made clear in this article, any definition of any racism is bound to be imperfect, and the EUMC working definition is no exception. I would not want it to be included without amendment in employment law, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for it to be adopted by the UK government—and, indeed, I’ve not heard of any of the working definition’s advocates arguing it should be. (In fact, it would be bizarre if the British state did adopt it formally, as the government has affirmedthat it includes anti-Semitism among the racisms covered by the Macpherson definition of a racist incident discussed above—an incident “perceived to be racist by the victim.” That definition is significantly broader than the EUMC’s.)

But the EUMC definition is a guide, a working definition, and this makes it useful in deciding when, for example, to take seriously and investigate an internal complaint. The working definition could never be used to definitively rule an incident in or out. Its uses of “could” and “context” make this clear. The specific context of an internal complaint would always have to be the determining factor. To resolve to make no use of the document in such circumstances is therefore ridiculous. Similarly, it might be useful in an education setting as a heuristic device for examining different manifestations of racism—also perversely ruled out by the motion.

For the union to disassociate itself from the working definition in any public discussion of anti-Semitism is beyond ridiculous. It means insisting that all of the organizations that do take the working definition seriously—the Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom; the NUS; the Union of Jewish Students; the Fundamental Rights Agency; the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—are dismissed in advance. It undermines their work on anti-Semitism, and it undermines their vital work on anti-Roma racism, Islamophobia, and other racisms.

In the workplace, as the CST’s director writes, this “will serve to (even) further alienate Jews from the union; and it will make it (even) harder for anti-Semitism to be raised there as a matter of concern….[I]t carries the implication that people who complain about anti-Semitism in any Israel-related context are likely to be a bunch of liars, dancing to a pre-ordained tune.”

As an academic who studies racism, I find it bizarre that my union cannot accept that there is even the faintest possibility that institutional racism might exist in our own ranks, even after a series of clearly documented incidents and a shocking number of resignations by Jewish members who perceive it as such. This motion, if passed, will in fact legitimate racism in the union and stop any allegation of anti-Semitism—in debates or in the workplace—from being taken seriously. That the motion will be tabled in a session entitled “Campaigning for equality” is ironic, but the irony tastes bitter indeed.

This piece by Ben Gidley is at Dissent’s Arguing The World blog.

Response from University of Johannesburg

Sociologist Peter Alexander, at the University of Johannesburg, has defended the boycott decision against this critique from David Hirsh.  (double click the image to make it bigger)

David Hirsh argued, amongst other things:

The boycott campaign is not motivated by anti-Semitism, but wherever it goes, anti-Semitism follows. One of its leaders, Bongani Masuku, a Cosatu official, has been found guilty by the South African Human Rights Commission of hate speech. Jews around the world are routinely treated as supporters of apartheid if they dare to oppose the boycott campaign.

When you educate people to boycott only Israel, when you tell them that all Israelis are responsible for human-rights abuses, when you mobilise a global campaign to say that Israel is uniquely racist, and when this campaign becomes central to progressive politics globally, you are, whether you know it or not, incubating anti-Semitic ways of thinking. When ears are closed to concern about anti-Semitism on the basis that such concern is a marker of secret support for Israeli human rights abuses, then you know there is a problem.

Peter Alexander does not relate to this argument and he doesn’t rebut it.  He simply denies it:

Hirsh’s view that UJ is “legitimising an anti-semitic boycott” and “incubating anti-semitic ways of thinking” smacks of a man who is losing an argument.  For myself I am proud to have spent half a century opposing racism including anti-semitism.

He doesn’t say why Bongani Masuku was found guilty of hate speech by the South African Human Rights commission.   He doesn’t make an argument or present any evidence.  He doesn’t show that he is aware that much hostility to Israel is manifested in the language of antisemitism, for example by Hamas, by Hezobllah, by the Iranian government.  He doesn’t show any evidence that he knows what has been going on within the University and College Union, where Jews who oppose the boycott have been bullied out of the “debate”.   He doesn’t show any awareness of what it is like to be a Jewish student on his own campus.  He just responds with haughty, unthinking, denial.

For  the debate around the South African campaign for an academic boycott of Israel, with Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack click here.

For some Engage classics on contemporary antisemitism and boycotts against Israel, click here.

Israel is not like apartheid South Africa.  click here.

Hirsh’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.

What’s wrong with PACBI’s “call” for a boycott?  click here.

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.

For the Engage archive on the Israel / Apartheid analogy click here.

double click on the image to make it readable


There is also this piece in the M&G, defending UJ’s boycott.

John Strawson on the University of Johannesburg’s boycott decision

John Strawson

The decision of the University of Johannesburg to actually implement a boycott of Ben Gurion University is indeed a major coup for the boycott campaign. It is also highly symbolic as it has been campaigned for and supported by such high profile anti-apartheid activists – and indeed heroes – such as Desmond Tutu and Faird Esack. It offers the boycott supporters and apparently firm link between Israel and apartheid.

However, this is analogy is in fact built on sand. In the debate, which was well dealt with by Robert Fine, Desmond Tutu thought it was correct to ask Jews to reflect on their own past of suffering. Whether or not Jews as Jews can make this reflection, what those of us with some knowledge of apartheid South Africa could ask the boycotters to consider the actual history of the University of Johannesburg. The core of the University of Johannesburg was the Rand Afrikaans University which was opened in 1968 as an academic project which was explicitly part of the apartheid project of the then ruling National Party. Its main buildings are in the shape of a laager – the defensive shape that wagons formed when under attack during the Great Trek. Its intellectual project was to counter the “liberalism” of the University of Witwatersrand which is also in Johannesburg and to propagate apartheid in the academy across all subjects.

I think we need to ask those who support this boycott whether they really think that Ben Gurion University shares the antecedents of the University of Johannesburg. It is evident that Ben Gurion University as an institution has simply not acted as a project to support to the colonial occupation of the Palestinian Territories – and its academics have included ironically some of the Israelis most associated with calls for the boycott, such as Neve Gordon – and his excellent book “Israel’s Occupation” (2008) speaks for itself.

Ben Gurion University is not in the same mould of the Rand Afrikaans University. The boycotters should know their own South African history better.

John Strawson, author of Partitioning Palestine, Reader in Law, UEL

More from John Strawson:
Zionism and Apartheid
The boycott campaign is about fuelling hatred of Israel
Why I am against the boycott
on sweeping victories and crushing defeats
reply to ‘Jews for Justice’ on the Lebanon war- and ensuing debate

2nd part of the BBC World Service Documentary by Wendy Robbins Now Available

To listen to the second part of the series, on Holocaust obfuscation and normalisation, click here

Holocaust denial, it was thought, was put to rest with the humiliation in court of David Irving.

However, denial is rampant in the Middle East, and across Europe there is a political manipulation of the Holocaust, its trivialisation or obfuscation, and its labelling as just one genocide among many.

In this episode, Wendy Robbins visits Lithuania where 95% of its Jews didn’t end up in concentration camps, but instead were herded – often by their neighbours – into specially-dug pits, and shot. Yet the popular Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius doesn’t even mention it.

As the Baltic states look for an identity in the wake of independence from the communists, the Holocaust is being politically manipulated. The public wearing of swastikas is legal and the few remaining Holocaust survivors are being hounded as “war criminals.”

The programme website is here.

The first part of the series is here.

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