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.

“Echoes of the Past into the Present”: Arguments in support of the ASA Boycott.

This is a guest post by Saul:

Reading through the arguments of those proposing and supporting the ASA’s boycott of Israel, one can only be struck by the correspondence of the structure of argumentation with those of what some today like to call ‘real’ antisemitism as well as racism and Islamophobia in general These correspondences appear in the following way.

First, they begin with a list of the litany of Israel’s crimes. Many of the crimes of which Israel is accused they are indeed culpable. However, in the context of boycott two points come to the fore. The first point turns on the widely debated question of ‘Why Israel’? As many have shown and many more acknowledged, none of the crimes committed by the Israeli state are either unique nor their most terrible expression. As many of those opposing the boycott have argued, this is no excuse not to bring them to light. Yet, many of these same people are uncomfortable with the fact that of all states who commit these and worse crimes, only Israel is singled out for boycott. The response to this concern is that it is being used to ‘deflect attention’ from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and constitutes the diversionary tactic of ‘whataboutery’.

As with so many other areas of the boycott discussions, the battleground of ‘whataboutery’ is neither new nor novel. It has been a component part of debates about Jews for a very, very long time. The lines of this debate have more or less remained the same. On the one hand, there are those that say that there is something ‘innate’ about Jews, Judaism and Jewishness and, more recently Israel, that sets it apart from the rest of the world and, as a consequence, deserves special or, if that word is now too emotive, unique treatment. More often than not, such allegations of uniqueness are presented as the reason or cause that, with the best will in the world, Jews or Israel should be denied the rights of those granted to non-Jews or states that are not ‘Jewish’. On the other hand, there are those that say that the differences that distinguish Jews from other religions and peoples and Israel from other states, are no reason, no excuse, to deny such rights, rights freely available to everyone else.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this contestation is Karl Marx’s polemic against Bruno Bauer around the question of Jewish emancipation in the 1840’s. As is well known, Bauer argued against Jewish emancipation. He argued that as long as Jews remained Jews they were to barred from being granted the same rights as those among whom they lived. There was, he declaimed, something unique, something special about Jews and Judaism that prevented them from the benefit of emancipation into the emerging nation-states of his time.

Bauer has posed the question of Jewish emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Jew who is to be emancipated and of the Christian state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Jewish religion, he analyzes the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity, he elucidates the essence of the Christian state……..

Marx’s devastating response to this exclusive and reactionary focus on the alleged nature of Jews and Judaism and only Jews and Judaism is perhaps the most succinct and positive use of what is now excoriated as pure whataboutery,

Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois [i.e., as a member of civil society, “bourgeois society” in German], “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen [‘citizen’ in French, i.e., the participant in political life] only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen [Staatsbürger], between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.

As with Bauer’s antisemitism, one of the consequences of demanding sole focus on Jews and only Jews, and, correspondingly today, Israel and only Israel, is exclusion, from the state and, today, from the community of states. As in the past, the call for boycott opens up an abyss between, on the one side ‘Israel’ and on the other side, the rest of the world. In contemporary terms, by placing the call for boycott of the need for international solidarity as a means of resisting Israeli criminality, the radical antisemitic vision of the division between Jews and humanity is re-articulated in the divide between Israel/Jewish Israelis and the rest of the world. Like Jews of the past, Israel is now recast as the ‘other’ of ‘humanity’.

The second main structural element of arguments made in support of the ASA boycott and one visible particularly in Claire Potter’s account of her Damascan moment, is the old tale of Jewish privilege. Of all the states in the world who receive US funding and financial assistance, Israel, it is said, is the most ‘privileged’. Israel receives more than any country in US military aid. Israel receives more support in the UN and security council than any other of its allies, etc.. These facts are, of course, true. But they are presented not as a consequence of past and present political considerations (for example, that US funding and support for Israel began, originally from the prior recognition of Israel by the then Soviet Union (the first country to recognise the Sate of Israel in 1948), the divisions of the Cold War, the rise of Arab pan-nationalism, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Islamicism and anti-Americanism, the obsessive focus of Israel in some of the UN instiutions, and so on). Instead, they are presented as instances of a specifically Israeli privilege (often, but not always, an argument connected to the alleged omnipotence of the ‘Israel’ or ‘Jewish Lobby’). Needless to say, this idea of Jewish privilege by the state is not new in the annals of both the history of antisemitism or of racism in general. For example, it was common currency in the debates surrounding and following Jewish emancipation. It also forms a core component of contemporary Islamophobia; that somehow the British state ‘prvileges’ the concerns of British Muslims.

This notion of Jewish/Israeli privilege connects with the third point; that one cannot say a bad word about Israel without being labelled an ‘antisemite’, See also Clare Short’s letter in support of Rev Stephen Sizer in the Jewish Chronicle, 20th December, 2013.

Other formulations in which this arguments is presented is the idea of the Shoah as a magic talisman warding off any and all negative comments about Israel. This theme is presented in its most crystalline form by Alex Lubin in this article in The Nation. He writes there that, ‘Israel’s creation in the violent crucible of the European Holocaust allows it always (!) to appear vulnerable, regardless of its oppressive actions’`1. Here, we can but note the sheer nastiness of the claim that Israel and those labeled its ‘supporters’ are guilty of cynically manipulating the most terrible event in the history of Jews and inverting it into nothing more than a ‘strategic advantage’. This belief in Jewish cynicism is again, an updated variant of the accusation leveled against Jews from the time of their emancipation onward that they exploited their past discrimination to wheedle those ‘privileges’ noted above from the State at the expense of all others. Even more relevant in the present context, however, is that this idea replicates almost exactly the antisemite Willhelm Marr’s claim in the late 19th century that ‘one cannot today criticise Jews [i.e. by which he meant his and others antisemitic assertions] without being called an antisemite’.2

The BDS movement constantly respond to accusations that its call to boycott Israel and only Israel taps in to antisemitic ways of thinking by claiming that, first, one must distinguish between ‘real’ antisemitism and ‘criticism of Israel’, and secondly, that they are free from the seductions offered by antisemitism in forwarding their own aims. As the structure of their arguments show (both in form and content) neither claim is sustainable.

1. The reference to the term ‘European Holocaust’ is interesting in the specific context of ASA. Not only does the term ‘European Holocaust’ imply denial of the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’ or Shoah – as opposed to the concept if genocide – but chimes in with a rather nasty debate a little while ago when US academics claimed that the studying and recognition of the genocides and brutalities suffered by the First Nations in what was to become the United States were being hindered by the mal fide of scholars of the Holocaust. (See Dan Stone; ‘Histories of the Holocaust, OUP, (2010) p. 210

2. See on this point, Moishe Zimmerman’s ‘Wilhelm Marr: The Patriach of Antisemitism,OUP, (1986)

Nisht ahin un nisht aher* – Saul

This is a guest post by Saul:

Just when I thought the long 20th century was over, up it pops again in the shape of the Daily Mail’s attack on the memory of one of the most humane Marxist thinkers of the 20th century, Ralph Miliband. From one perspective that century can be defined as one enduring ‘Jewish Question’. In the present context, that question can be defined as what to do with the Jews? It was with the demise of the three ‘great’ Empires and the rise of increasingly hostile nation-states in which the nation came to dominate the state, that the Jews came to be recast as a specifically modern ‘problem’. To quote Zygmunt Bauman, as ‘non-national nations’ and despite all references to ‘assimilation’ nationalists never accepted ‘their’ Jewish citizens as ‘true’ nationals, as truly belonging to the new national communities. Their allegiance – their ‘love of country’ – was always already in doubt. Indeed, the more they assimilated, the more they became just like everyone else, the more their loyalty came to be questioned. The resonances of this nationalist way of thinking contained in the attack on Miliband is clear for all to see.

However, it is also clear that just as the nationalist right calls into question Ralph Miliband’s inclusion within the English (or is that British?) nation, so too I should imagine would sections of the current internationalist, ‘anti-imperialist’ left. According to Colin Schindler in this week’s Jewish Chronicle, in a typically intense discussion following the ‘six day war’ in 1967 with the Belgian Jewish Marxist Marcel Liebman and co-author, Miliband not only defended Israel’s right to exist but also its right to self-defence. Needless to say, in today’s climate, Miliband would be recast in the (increasingly loose use of the term) as a ‘Zionist’. As such, he would be open to hostile vilification, elements of which would include the accusation that his ‘Zionism’ meant that his commitment to internationalism was nothing more than mere appearance, cloaking nothing more nor less than the ‘truth’ of his Jewish nationalism and his support for ‘Zionist imperialism’ and the ‘Zionist colonial settler state’. As someone who would not agree with the idea of the ‘original sin’ of Israel, his loyalty to and ‘love’ of the working-class as well as to the oppressed peoples of the world (including, of course, the Palestinians) would be ‘unmasked’ as nothing more than a fraud and a lie.

Just as the nationalist right refuse Ralph Miliband a place in the ranks of ‘the English’ and characterise him as a man ‘who did not love England’, so sections of the contemporary anti-Zionist and ‘anti-imperialist’ left would exclude him from the ranks of the International Labour Movement and correspondingly present him as a man ‘who did not love humanity’. Excluded from England by the nationalist right and excluded from humanity by the internationalist left, Miliband would be nish’d to hin and nish’d to he(a)r, neither here nor there. Taken together, he would, as Hannah Arendt phrased it, be denied a place in the world.

* (Yiddish) [trans: Neither here nor there, in limbo.)

 

Hostility to Israel and Antisemitism: Toward a Sociological Approach – David Hirsh

This paper, by David Hirsh, is published in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, JSA Vol 5#1 2013.

Download the paper on PDF by clicking here. Read the rest of this entry »

David Ward, Israel, the Holocaust and the Jews – by Sarah AB

Many have already written eloquently and thoughtfully about David Ward’s indefensible comments about Israel, the Holocaust and ‘the Jews’. Mark Gardner and Paul Evans, for example, have explained exactly why these comments are so offensive, although David Ward still doesn’t seem to get it.

I was struck by this misleading headline in the Huffington Post.

Lib Dem MP David Ward ‘Condemned’ By Own Party For Criticising Israel Ahead Of Holocaust Memorial Day”

This completely misses the point, and implicitly supports those who argue either that accusations of antisemitism are deployed strategically to silence criticism of Israel or else that those making the accusations are quite extraordinarily sensitive.

Although Sara Nelson (who probably didn’t write the headline herself) goes on to offer a reasonable account of the incident, her piece reveals further ill-judged responses to Ward’s remarks. She links to a supporter of Ward, blogger Mark Valladares. He has now edited his article after coming in for some criticism.

It’s welcome that he reflected further and tried to express his views with more nuance. However I still see (and I didn’t catch the earlier version, though I gather it referred to the angry response to Ward as a ‘bandwagon’) problems in the edited post:

As usual, in any matter related to the Israel/Palestine debate, elements of the pro-Israel lobby, (or troublemakers in Guido’s case) have chosen to interpret these remarks as being a direct comparison of the holocaust with modern events in Gaza and the West Bank. If you’re minded to do so, you probably will. On the other hand, if you lean towards a pro-Palestinian position, you might welcome any recognition by a politician that the Israeli government is behaving in an unacceptable manner.”

 Although Ward did not absolutely state that Gaza was another Warsaw, the parallel was still implicit and Valladares does not even pick up on the way Ward refers to ‘the Jews’ as an undifferentiated group. Also – to offer just one counterargument to Valladares’s assertion that politicians never criticize Israel – the Chair of Labour Friends of Israel spoke out against Netanyahu’s controversial announcement on settlement building last month, as did Conservative Friends of Israel.

There’s then this confusing passage:

For me, David’s words act as a reminder that some pretty dreadful wrongs have been committed against both sides (and there are those who seek to equate them in terms of scale), and suggest that past events should influence future behaviour.”

 Is he now suggesting that the sufferings of the Palestinians might indeed reasonably be compared to the Holocaust ‘in terms of scale’, or is he rather weighing up the sufferings of Israelis and Palestinians?

 Then he asserts:

 It’s called nuance, and in an increasingly black and white political discourse, I welcome his attempt to demonstrate some respect towards both sides in this seemingly never-ending dispute, even if he has failed to express himself well.”

 Now, this is ridiculous. Many commenters, from a range of perspectives, demonstrate ‘respect towards both sides’, and it is very easy to do so without trivializing the Holocaust.

Returning to the Huffington Post piece, the comments were depressingly dominated by those who thought Ward had made a jolly good point, and those who thought it was somehow all the fault of ‘the Muslims’. 

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.

= = =

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.

Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community – David Hirsh

David Hirsh

Is the Merchant of Venice an antisemitic play or is it a play which intimately depicts the anatomy of persecution, exclusion and bullying?

A classic speaks differently to each individual and in each new context.  On Monday I saw The Merchant of Venice performed by Habima, the Israeli National Theatre.  The venue was the replica of Shakespeare’s wooden, roofless, Globe Theatre.  It was a hot London night and the noise of flying machines occasionally confronted our fantasies of authenticity, if the fact that the performance was in Hebrew didn’t.

But first more context.  London is, after having been the hub of the British Empire, now a multicultural world city.  The Globe is hosting companies from all over the world to perform Shakespeare in their own languages; Shakespeare from Pakistan, South Africa, Georgia, Palestine, Turkey, China and everywhere else.

Since some rather nasty medieval stuff, London and Jews have got on fairly well.  London stood firm against Hitler, and the local Blackshirts too; it didn’t mind much whether Jews stayed separate or whether they immersed themselves in its vibrancy; it didn’t feel threatened, it didn’t worry, it just let Jews live engaged lives.  But London’s very post-nationalism, and its post-colonialism, has functioned as the medium for a rather odd new kind of intolerance.

Sometimes, we define our own identities in relation to some ‘other’.  Early Christianity defined itself in relation to the Jews who refused to accept its gospel, and it portrayed them as Christ-killers.  If people wanted to embrace modernity, then they sometimes constructed themselves as being different from the traditional Jew with his beard and coat, standing against progress.  Yet if they were afraid of the new then they could define themselves against the modernist Jew.  Nineteenth Century nationalists often defined the Jew as the foreigner.  Twentieth Century totalitarianisms, which had universal ambition, found their ‘other’ in the cosmopolitan Jew.

These processes created an invented image of ‘The Jew’ and the antisemites portrayed themselves as victims of ‘The Jew’.  Antisemitism has only ever portrayed itself as defensive.

Some people who love London’s relaxed, diverse, antiracism look for an ‘other’ against which to define themselves.  They find Israel.  They make it symbolise everything against which they define themselves: ethnic nationalism, racism, apartheid, colonialism.  London’s shameful past, not to mention in some ways its present, is cast out and thrust upon Israel.  London was within a few thousand votes last month of re-electing a mayor, Ken Livingstone, who embraced this kind of scapegoating.  [For more on post-national Europe's use of Israel as its nationalist 'other', see Robert Fine.]

We can tell that this hostility to Israel is as artificially constructed as any antisemitism by looking at the list of theatre groups against which the enlightened ones organized no boycott.  Antizionists have created a whole new ‘-ism’, a worldview, around their campaign against Israel.  Within it, a caricature of Israel is endowed with huge symbolic significance which relates only here and there to the actual state, to the complex conflict and to the diversity of existing Israelis.  If the Palestinians stand, in the antizionist imagination, as symbolic of all the victims of ‘the west’ or ‘imperialism’ then Israel is thrust into the centre of the world as being symbolic of oppression everywhere.  Like antisemitism, antizionism imagines Jews as being central to all that is bad in the world.

One of the sources of energy for this special focus on Israel comes from Jewish antizionists.  For them, as for many other Jews, Israel is of special importance.  For them, Israel’s human rights abuses, real, exaggerated or imagined, are sources of particular pain, sometimes even shame.  Some of them take their private preoccupation with Israel and try to export it into the cultural and political sphere in general, and into non-Jewish civil society spaces where a special focus on the evils of Israel takes on a new symbolic power.  But the ‘as a Jew’ antizionists are so centred on Israel that they often fail to understand the significance of the symbolism which they so confidently implant into the antiracist spaces of old London.

When I see a production of the Merchant of Venice, it is always the audience which unsettles me.  The play tells two stories which relate to each other.  One is the story of Shylock, a Jewish money lender who is spat on, excluded, beaten up, and in the end mercilessly defeated and humiliated.  The other is an apparently light-hearted story about an arrogant, rich, self-absorbed young woman, clever but not wise, pretty but not beautiful, and her antisemitic friends.  Shakespeare inter-cuts the grueling detailed scenes of the bullying of Shylock, with the comedic story of Portia’s love-match with a loser who has already frittered away his large inheritance.

Shakespeare offers us an intimately observed depiction of antisemitic abuse, and each time the story reaches a new climax of horribleness, he then offers hackneyed and clichéd gags, to see if he can make us laugh.  It is as if he is interested in finding out how quickly the audience forgets Shylock, off stage, and his tragedy.  And the answer, in every production I’ve ever seen, is that the audience is happy and laughing at second rate clowning, within seconds.  And I suspect that Shakespeare means the clowning and the love story to be second rate.  He is doing something more interesting than entertaining us.  He is playing with our emotions in order to show us something, to make us feel something.

Now, the audience at this particular performance was a strange one in any case.  It felt to me like London’s Jewish community out to demonstrate its solidarity with Israel and to protect the Israeli cousins from the vulgarities which their city was about to offer.  The audience was uneasy because it did not know in advance what form the disruption was going to take.    In the end, the atmosphere was a rather positive and happy one, like an easy home win at football against an away team which had threatened a humiliating victory.  Solidarity with Israel meant something different to each person.  One man ostentatiously showed off a silky Israeli flag tie.  Others were Hebrew speakers, taking the rare opportunity in London to see a play in their own language.  Some in the audience would have been profoundly uncomfortable with Israeli government policies but keen to show their oneness with those parts of their families which had been expelled from Europe two or three generations ago and who were now living in a few small cities on the Eastern Mediterranean.

The audience may not have been expert either in Shakespeare or in antisemitism.  Most people think that the Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play.  Shylock is thought to be an antisemitic stereotype, created by Shakespeare for audiences to hate.  Are we supposed to enjoy the victory of the antisemites and the humiliation of the Jew?  But what was this audience thinking?  If it is simply an antisemitic play, why would we be watching it, why is the Israeli National Theatre performing it?  And if it is a comedy, why aren’t the jokes funny, and why does Shakespeare offer us a puerile game show rather than some of his usual genius?

I don’t think this audience really cared much.  It was there to face down those who said that Israeli actors should be excluded from the global community of culture, while actors from all the other states which had been invited to the Globe were celebrated in a festival of the Olympic city’s multiculturalism.  So, the audience was happy to laugh loudly and to enjoy itself.  We saw on stage how Shylock’s daughter was desperate to escape from the Jewish Ghetto, the darkness and fear of her father’s house, the loneliness of being a Jew.  We saw how she agreed to convert to Christianity because some little antisemitic boy said he loved her, we saw how she stole her father’s money so that her new friends could spend it on drunken nights out.   And we saw Shylock’s despair at the loss and at the betrayal and at the intrusion.  Perhaps his unbearable pain was also fueled by guilt for having failed his daughter since her mother had died.

And then the audience laughed at silly caricatures of Moroccan and Spanish Princes, and at Portia’s haughty and superior rejection of them.  And now, not representations of antisemites but actual antisemites, hiding amongst the audience, unfurl their banners about “Israeli apartheid”, and their Palestinian flags, and they stage a performance of their own.  How embarrassing for Palestinian people, to be represented by those whose sympathy and friendship for them had become hatred of Israel; to be represented by a movement for the silencing of Israeli actors; to be represented by those who show contempt for Jewish Londoners in the audience, who de-humanize them by refusing to refer to them as people but instead simply as ‘Zionists’.  And a ‘Zionist’ does not merit the ordinary civility with which people in a great city normally, without thinking, accord to one another.

The artistic director of the Globe had already predicted that there might be disruption.  There often was, he said, at this unique theatre.  Pigeons flutter onto the stage but we ignore them.  And today, people should not get upset, they should not confront the protestors, they should allow the security guards to do their job.

One protestor shouted: ‘no violence’, as the security guys made to take her away.   They took a few away, the actors didn’t miss a word and the audience, largely Jewish but also English, showed their stiff upper lips and pretended nothing had happened.  Some time later another small group of protestors, who had wanted to exclude Israelis from this festival because of their nationality, stood up and put plasters over their own mouths to dramatize their own victimhood.  Antisemites always pose as victims of the Jews, or of ‘Zionism’ or of the ‘Israel lobby’.  And the claim that Jews try to silence criticism of Israel by mobilizing a dishonest accusation against them is now recognizable as one of the defining tropes of contemporary antisemitism.

Meanwhile, on stage, the antisemitic Christians are positioning themselves as the victims of Shylock.  They have spat on him, stolen from him, corrupted his only daughter, libeled him, persecuted him and excluded him.  Now he’s angry.  He’s a Jew, so he can be bought off, no?  They try to buy him off.  But for Shylock, this is no longer about the money.  It is about the desperate anger of a man whose very identity has been trampled upon throughout his life.  And at that moment, I could sympathise with him more than ever.  I imagined my own revenge against the articulate poseurs who were standing there pretending to have been silenced.  Shylock is a flawed character.  But how much more telling is a play which shows the destruction of a man who is powerless to resist it?  Racism does not only hurt good people, it also hurts flawed and ordinary people and it also has the power to transform good people into angry, vengeful people.  Obviously these truths can be followed around circles of violence in these contexts, from the blood libel, christ-killing and conspiracy theory, to Nazism, to Zionism and into Palestinian nationalism and Islamism.  Only the righteous ones imagine it all comes out in the end into a morality tale of good against evil.

What are they thinking, the protestors?  Do they understand the play at all?  Are they moved by the sensitivity of the portrayal of the anatomy of antisemitic persecution?  Perhaps they are, and they think that Shylock, in our day, is a Palestinian, and Jews are the new Christian antisemites.  One man exclaimed, full of pompous English diction: ‘Hath not a Palestinians eyes?’  He was referring to the wonderful universalistic speech with which Shylock dismantles the racism of his persecutors.  This protestor mobilized the words given by Shakespeare to the Jew, against actually existing Jews.  The experience of antisemitism was totally universalized, as though the play was only about ‘racism in general’ and not at all about antisemitism in particular.  And the point, that a longing for vengeance is destructive and self-destructive, no matter how justified it may feel, was of course, totally missed.

Somebody replied with comedic timing: “Piss off”.  Everybody cheered.  There was an understanding that the boycotters had shot off all their ammunition now, but the target was left untouched.

Or do the protestors think that this is an antisemitic play?  Perhaps they felt that this was the ‘Zionists’ rubbing the history of antisemitism in the faces of London and then by proxy, the Palestinians.  Isn’t that the source of Zionist power today?  Their ability to mobilize Jewish victimhood and their ownership of the Holocaust.  This, again, is an old libel, that the Jews are so clever and so morally lacking, that they are able to benefit from their own persecution.  When will the world forgive the Jews for antisemitism and the Holocaust?

The climax of the play sees Antonio, the smooth-tongued antisemitic merchant who has borrowed money which he now cannot pay back, tied up in the centre of the stage like Christ on the cross.  And the antisemites demand that the Jew displays Christian forgiveness.  But the Jew, who has been driven half mad by antisemitic persecution, does not forgive: he wants his revenge.

Naturally, the antisemites, who have state power in Venice, are never going to allow him his revenge.  Portia, the clever, erudite, plausible, antisemite offers a wordy justification, and before you know it, Antonio is free, and Shylock is trussed up ready for crucifixion.  And the Christians do not forgive either, they show no mercy.  They humiliate Shylock, they take his money, and they force him to convert to Christianity.  He ends up on his knees, bareheaded, without his daughter, without his money, without his livelihood and he says: ‘I am content’.

And what do I see?  I see another Jew, in the 21st Century, preparing a court case in which he too may be humiliated by a clever form of words.  Ronnie Fraser, a member of the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union which represents university workers in Britain, is taking a case to court later this year and he may well end up being portrayed as the wicked, powerful Zionist looking for revenge, in a British courtroom.    Represented by Anthony Julius, he is taking a case to court later this year in which he argues that the campaign which wanted to silence the Habima theatre company is, in effect if not intent, antisemitic, and it has created a situation inside his trade union where antisemitic ways of thinking and antisemitic norms of institutional governance have become ordinary.  This case will be huge and the stakes are high.

The antizionist elite, with all its access to the media and with all its Jewish, political, celebrity and intellectual support, will portray itself as being silenced by Ronnie the ‘Zionist’ and it will ask the court to set aside all the evidence of antisemitism in favour of a smart but ambiguous form of words.

Portia said that Shylock could have his pound of flesh but only if he could extract it without spilling a drop of blood.  The form of words in Fraser v UCU which would humiliate the plaintiff would be that while he is protected from antisemitism by the Equality Act of 2010, hostility to Israel is not antisemitic.

The day after the performance, one of the leading boycotters, Ben White, tweeted a picture of the beautiful Jewish face of Howard Jacobson, an opponent of the exclusion of Israeli actors from London.  White added the text: “If you need another reason to support a boycott of Habima, I present a massive picture of Howard Jacobson’s face”.

Faced with this, it is hardly controversial to insist that ‘criticism of Israel’ can sometimes be antisemitic.  Let’s hope Ronnie’s judge does not take advice from a contemporary Portia.

David Hirsh

Sociology Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

note: my reading of The Merchant of Venice is largely indebted to David Seymour’s Law and Antisemitism.

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