Is the British labour movement ‘institutionally anti-semitic’?
Robert Fine and Eric Lee are speaking at the AWL’s ‘Ideas for Freedom’ event on Saturday 9 July.
Is the British labour movement ‘institutionally anti-semitic’?
Robert Fine and Eric Lee are speaking at the AWL’s ‘Ideas for Freedom’ event on Saturday 9 July.
“On Friday evening, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek gave a lecture in a bookstore in Central Tel Aviv teeming with familiar faces of leftwing activists. It was hosted by Udi Aloni, an Israeli-American artist and BDS activist, who just completed a book entitled What Does a Jew Want, which is edited by Zizek.
Many seem to have come with the expectation to hear Zizek rip into Israel and use his wry wit and charisma in such a bourgeoises Tel Aviv setting to endorse the BDS Movement. Indeed when Udi Aloni introduced Zizek, he identified himself as an activist on behalf of BDS and said he chose the bookstore as a venue in order to not cooperate with any formal Israeli institution.
However, Zizek did not officially endorse or even talk much about BDS – and when he did it was because he was prompted to during Q&A. His two clear statements about BDS were that a) he is not 100% behind it and b)he supports a movement that is initiated jointly by Palestinians and Israeli here in the region.
Rather, Zizek spent almost two hours with the crowd’s undivided attention talking about antisemitism, capitalism and the place of the Jew in the world. He warned that antisemitism is “alive and kicking” in Europe and America and asserted that the State of Israel should worry more about Christian right antisemitism rather than wasting its energy on self-proclaimed Jewish anti-Zionists. He said that the Christian Zionists in America are inherently antisemitic and that Israel’s willingness to embrace their support is baffling.
After establishing the deep-rooted vitality of antisemitism, he mentioned that he has no patience for those who excuse Arab antisemitism; that even the most oppressed and poor Palestinian should not be tolerated for being antisemitic. He also spoke about his well-known argument regarding Zionist antisemitism, whereby Zionists use antisemitic language towards fellows Jews in accusing them of not being Zionist enough. This was his main critique of Israel – its witch hunt against those Jews it finds not “Zionist enough.”
Raincoat Optimist comments:
“What to some might appear like Zizek withholding sympathy for Palestinians, is in actual fact highlighting the paternalism and snobbery of some pro-Palestinians, who believe those who are lesser off than them should be pitied, left to their own devices, and if they express antisemitic views, well, who can blame them, ‘eh, after all they don’t know any better do they, they’re poor – and as all people know poor people are stupid and don’t deserve to be told they’re wrong to blame the Jews for their plight.”
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.
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.
Gahda Karmi had already said she was pulling out. She’s the one who thought that “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech on 21 April struck many as obnoxious, but in terms of understanding the 1948 roots of the Middle East conflict he was spot on.” She also thought that after ‘the Holocaust and all this business’, as she put it, masses of ‘alien’ Jews started to pour in to Palestine. These Jews were nothing like the Jews they were used to: these new Jews were pale and blue-eyed, but most of all they were ‘complicated’, ‘very difficult to deal with’, and they were bringing ‘their miserable lives’ with them.
John Rose had also said he was pulling out. Remember John Rose, brought up in a “Zionist home”?
Alan (“some of my best friends are Jewish“) Hart was also billed to speak.
The event had been promoted by groups including the Stop the War Coalition, the white nationalist Stormfront movement, and the Real IRA, according to the Jewish Chronicle report here.
This piece by David Hirsh is published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.
The campaign to boycott Israel has won a victory by persuading the University of Johannesburg to end its scientific collaboration with Ben Gurion University (BGU). In Britain, the campaign has made headway among some trade union activists but no university anywhere has considered actually refusing to work with people based at Israeli institutions. Such a policy would break anti-racist law in Britain and violate the norm that the work of scholars is what counts, not their national origin.
South African support is priceless for the boycotters because they make their case worldwide by saying that a boycott of Israel would be similar to the ANC’s boycott of apartheid. Heroes of the anti-apartheid movement back the campaign and anti-Zionist Jews try to indemnify it against the whiff of anti-Semitism that lingers around it. People assume that if South Africans say Israel is apartheid and if some Jews say that the boycott is legitimate, then they are probably right.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, says that UJ’s decision “is a commendable step in the direction of ending relations with Israeli institutions” and it adds, breathlessly. “This decision is guaranteed to resound around the globe!” So it is surprising that Ihron Rensburg, the principal of UJ, says that UJ does not “subscribe to an academic boycott of Israel”. David Newman, a dean at BGU, sees it differently: “ostensibly, UJ objects to the policies practiced by BGU … but in reality, it’s the first institutional boycott of an Israeli university.”
Rensburg’s attempt to spin the decision is disappointing. It relies on a spurious distinction between “institutional links” and “individual engagements”. But universities are self-managed collectives of academics who research and teach. Scholars are supported, and their academic freedom is underwritten, by their institutions. You cannot have a victimless boycott against universities without boycotting individuals. BGU, in the desert, is renowned for its work on water systems in arid conditions. Some of its scientists were helping to develop, with UJ colleagues, ways of bringing fresh, clean water to more South Africans. UJ has decided, for political reasons, to end this collaboration.
UJ scholars should be able to recognise an apartheid institution. The Rand Afrikaans University, from which it is descended, was set up as an apartheid project. Even its buildings were symbolically laid out in the shape that the wagons formed when under attack during the Great Trek.
Israeli universities are not part of a racist project; they are autonomous academic institutions like others across the democratic world. BGU does not support the occupation of the Palestinian territories. It has stood up against those on the Israeli right who seek to interfere with its academic norms and antiracist practices. It defends its own critical scholars, even those who go round the world calling on people to boycott their colleagues. Twenty percent of BGU students are Arabs and scholars at the university are involved in many joint projects with Palestinian colleagues.
Israel is not an apartheid state. Jews were forced out of European and Middle Eastern countries by racist boycotts and violence, including exclusions from universities. They went to Israel as refugees not imperialists. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was never inevitable and neither nation is free from responsibility for the oppression and the bloodshed. If the conflict is to be ended, it will be through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Israel and Palestine are not, like South Africa, a single but divided nation. Compare the ANC charter, which guaranteed in advance rights for minorities in a democratic state, to the Hamas charter, which calls for the killing of Israelis and the creation of an Islamist state.
Umberto Eco, the Italian intellectual, considers it “fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government”. No wonder then, that UJ pretends this is not what it is doing.
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.
UJ has chosen to boost the international campaign to exclude Israelis, and nobody else, from the global academic community. It is legitimising an anti-Semitic boycott, it is distorting the memory of the anti-apartheid struggle and it is depriving South Africans of clean-water technology.
Dr David Hirsh is lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Hirsh is also the founding editor of http://www.engageonline.org.uk
A guest post by Lewisham Councillor Michael Harris on Bob From Brockley relates how, on Holocaust Memorial Day, John Hamilton of Lewisham People Before Profit heckled a rabbi to include Gaza in a list of genocides he was commemorating. Comparing what is endured by Gazans to the systematic attempt to kill off an entire people is blatantly wrong. And, as Bob From Brockley comments, we can “seriously doubt Hamilton would shout out “Gaza” if the speaker had been an Imam talking about genocides”. It is an appalling thing to have suggested, intolerable on Holocaust memorial day.
And if this was simply inept advocacy for Palestinians, it’s also an indication of how far the prejudiced idea that Jews in general are culpable for the circumstances of Palestinians has infused this good cause with antisemitism.
With material from Malmo in Sweden, from Vilnius in Lithuania, from Anthony Julius, Howard Jacobson, Mark Gardner, David Hirsh, Brian Klug, Edie Friedman, Deborah Fink and Dovid Katz.
By Mark Gardner
Recent posts on CST Blog have included sections and summaries from CST’s recently released report, Antisemitic Discourse in Britain in 2009. (The full pdf can be accessed here. 58 pages, including graphics.) The next section of the report that was due to be shown here, was that covering Abuse of the Holocaust. (These report pages 20-27 can be accessed here.)
By ugly coincidence, however, the Morning Star newspaper has recently featured an exchange of letters that epitomises some of the most challenging and upsetting aspects of Abuse of the Holocaust. The exchange led to the Morning Star’s 18 November edition publishing a letter under the disgusting headline
Israel is happy to exterminate Palestinians
The letter-writer, George Abendstern, insists that he was correct to have previously depicted Israel perpetrating “a final solution”. The evolution – or rather, degeneration – of this exchange of letters is a startling example, in miniature, of historical and moral inversions that all too often pollute anti-Zionist discourse.
The fact that the letter writer, George Abendstern, is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany (and a long standing anti-Zionist activist) merely adds to the suitability of this letters exchange as a point of wider comparison. Afer all, Jews (including Holocaust survivors and Israelis) have consistently played a leading role as theorists and activists in the demonisation of Zionism and Zionists: including Abuse of the Holocaust.
The fact that the headlines given to the letters are chosen by the Morning Star, serves to illustrate how Jewish concerns over Zionism and Israel are then understood and utilised by those around them.
(Note – dates given below are all as they appear in the Morning Star’s on-line edition.)
This little examplar began on 21 October when Professor Theodore Macdonald wrote
…Even before the abominable atrocities of the nazis, it was increasingly obvious that the Jews needed their own state in order to evade persecution. That truth was cynically used by British imperialism.
…Though the Balfour Declaration was unjust, we cannot keep revisiting historical errors. The Israelis need a recognised state. So do the Palestinians. An independent Palestine is an essential precondition for world peace.
(As an aside, it should be noted that despite the above content, the Morning Star called this letter “Jewish state not valid“.)
Abendstern’s response on 4 November, included this
Theodore Macdonald writes (M Star October 22) that “it was increasingly obvious the Jews needed a state of their own.”
Why? The Jews are not a nation – as the Israeli writer Schlomo Sand said in his book The Invention Of The Jewish People.
They are an amalgam of people professing the Jewish faith.
…[Zionist Jews]…are going to Palestine not for economic reasons but because their extremist and racist views drive them to call the land of Palestine their own.
These people – many from Russia and the US – have no regard for the indigenous people of Palestine and may yet turn to the “final solution.” This the world has to prevent.
So, here we have the denial of Jewish nationhood (however you define that term), legitimised by an Israeli Jewish writer; the ommission of the Holocaust and all other antisemitism as a previous or current motive for Jews to emigrate to Israel; and a very deliberate warning that this “may yet turn to the final solution” – all by a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.
Phil Katz, author of Freedom From Tyranny – Against Fascism And The Falsification Of History wrote to voice his concerns. His letter of 8 November was accurately titled
‘Final solution’ is not a term for casual use’
…George Abendstern (M Star November 5) plumbs new depths with his reference to an Israeli “final solution.”
…In [my book] I show what a “final solution” really is, while Mr Abendstern uses the term without a shred of evidence.
…the Prague Declaration Movement…uses historical revisionism, anti-communism and Holocaust denial and specialises in using terms such as “genocide” and “final solution” in a way which deliberately obscures their meaning….to erase the outcomes of Nuremberg by saying that the Soviet Union conducted “final solutions” in the Ukraine and Poland.
…The aim is to gut such specific terms of all meaning so that the real culprits go free and in order to confuse the young and those who want to oppose capitalism.
…We import its terminology and tactics of obfuscation into our pantheon of things to throw against Israel – and presumably other reactionaries – at our peril.
George Abendstern’s partner, Linda Clair, (also Jewish and a long standing anti-Zionist activist) responded in the next day’s paper. This time, the Morning Star didn’t beat about the bush with airy-fairy phrases such as “Final Solution”. Instead, (despite Clair not actually using the term) it saw fit to cut to the heart of the matter and abuse the Holocaust, titling Clair’s letter as
Israeli road could lead to a holocaust
To be semantic, Israel’s road would not lead to The Holocaust – that real Holocaust, after all, is already taken - no, Israel’s road “could” (not would) lead to “a holocaust”.Clair’s letter was along similar lines, but of course without the gut wrench of the holocaust sucker punch. Clair cited two Israelis, Ilan Pappe and Gideon Levy, and then got down to “final solution” business, premised upon her partner’s Jewish refugee identity
…The Israelis have massacred many thousands of Palestinians since 1947 and continue to do so.
If knowingly bombing populated areas with white phosphorus does not stem from the same mentality as the gas chambers did I would like to know the difference.
Methods of mass killing have moved on since 1945. The effect is the same.
…Mr Abendstern (M Star November 5) was born in Germany in 1930 and is not unfamiliar with the term “final solution.”
His commitment to justice for the Palestinians and his understanding of zionism mean he knows only too well where the Israeli road could lead if the world stands silently by.
Then, on 18 November, two more letters. One, from Roger Fletcher, accused Phil Katz of
pedantry and sectarianism against a valued Palestine activist
…It is patently obvious and is in fact documented that zionism aims to exterminate the Palestinian people.
Note, Fletcher states “exterminate”. This is no longer about colonialism or imperialism, dispossession and replacement. It has degenerated to being about extermination. It is not that Israel’s actions “could lead to a holocaust”: it is, rather, that “Zionism aims to exterminate the Palestinian people”. (Indeed, this is allegedly“patently obvious” and “in fact documented”.)
George Abendstern now also uses the “H” word: but in a manner that suggests he understands its importance, had deliberately refrained from previously doing so, but has now been provoked beyond all patience
Phil Katz (M Star November 10) writes about all things except the matter in hand – the brutal and genocidal colonisation of Palestine.
…I would urge Mr Katz to turn to his history books.
Long before the nazis coined the phrase “final solution” the zionists at their 1897 Basel conference made no secret of what they had in mind for the Palestinians.
Had they had the means they would by their own admission have finished them off in 1948.
What the zionists are presently undertaking is slow strangulation.
…Finally Mr Katz obviously has a problem with the term “final solution.”
Fine by me – shall we call it a “holocaust” instead?
Abendstern’s letter is bad enough in its own right, but the Morning Star sees fit to degrade the exchange even further, because this is what it chose to entitle as
Israel is happy to exterminate Palestinians
Of course, Abendstern’s letter says nothing about smiling Israeli conscripts happily herding Palestinians into gas chambers. If, however, the Morning Star is unable to empathise with Jewish perspectives on Holocaust abuse, they could consider the catastrophic destruction wrought by the Nazis’ hatred of communism and socialism, including the fact that the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were initially tested upon 600 Soviet prisoners-of war and 250 sick Poles.
(The originally intended blog post, a summary of the Abuse of the Holocaust section from CST’s Discourse Report will follow in coming days.)
From Ran Greenstein:
Thanks again for your considered and reasonable contribution to the debate.
Here is – in brief – my response, with headings to highlight remaining
1. Zionism as a national movement and a colonial project
You say that Zionism was one among many European nationalist
movements, all of which contained “strong exclusionary forces”. You
add that many new independent states combine “a vibrant sense of
national freedom with exclusion of those deemed not to belong to the
nation in question”. In addition, most countries in the Middle East
are defined in ethnic or religious terms and are exclusionary to
various degrees. You use these points to argue that Israel is not
unique in displaying exclusionary tendencies.
You are right that exclusionary policies are not unique, but you
ignore a crucial aspect of the Israeli state that makes it stand out:
it was born out of a project that saw immigrants – mostly of European
origins – moving into a territory populated by local non-European
people, and displacing them (politically and physically). As a result,
Israel is viewed as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating
indigenous populations and territories to settler rule. Regardless of
the subjective consciousness of settlers, they are perceived in this
light in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the
wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for
the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own
struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to
understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, look no further.
2. The Nakba as ethnic cleansing
You acknowledge the exclusionary consequences of Zionist policies
towards Palestinians but regard the notion of “ethnic cleansing” as an
exaggeration. What better term do you propose to refer to the
flight/expulsion of 80% of the indigenous population of what became
the State of Israel in 1948? What better term for their prevention
from returning to their homes, villages and towns (frequently located
a few miles away from their new refugee camps)?
3. Israel’s ‘drift to the right’
You recognize the “drift to the right” in Israel, but claim it is not
unique. In several European countries there is a drift to “an
increasingly ultra-nationalist right wing”. What you fail to consider
is that the nationalist right-wing in Israel argues that it is
resurrecting the original Zionist vision of exclusion. It describes
itself as a guard against any relaxation of segregation and
inequality. Its rallying cry is the need for an undiluted “Jewish
state” in the spirit of Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Of course, they may be
wrong or manipulative. But, ask yourself, what is it in the original
Zionist vision that allows them to claim it today to justify
anti-democratic abuses and exclusions? Why do their claims and
campaigns resonate with a large section of the Israeli-Jewish public,
born and raised on Zionist ideology?
4. ‘Singling out’ Israel
You raise the point that many Jews were ill-treated in Arab and
Islamic countries, that Christian existence increasingly is under
attack, and that democracy is threatened due to the rise of religious
fundamentalism and secular authoritarianism in the Arab world. All
true. You then ask “From where then does the singling out of Israel
The simple answer is that Israel ‘singles out’ itself by its policies:
it is unique in excluding the indigenous majority of its population in
order to clear the way for a group of settlers, who used force to
become a majority. That the settlers did not regard themselves as
foreigners, and in their minds they were returning to the land of
their ancestors, made no difference to the concerns of the locals: can
you think of a different response offered by any indigenous group in
Asia, Africa and the Americas to the prospect of European-originated
To be precise, what is unique is not the historical context – many
states were born in violence and conflict – but the re-enactment of
the founding act of exclusion of 1948 on a daily basis. Take for
example this week’s Knesset bill, sponsored by members of Kadima
(hailed by some deluded people as a liberal alternative to Likud):
“The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday
unanimously approved a bill which gives the right to absorption
committees of small communities in Israel to reject candidates if they
do not meet specific criteria. The bill has sparked wide condemnation
and many believe it to be discriminatory and racist, since it allows
communities to reject residents if they do not meet the criteria of
‘suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook’, which in effect
enables them to reject candidates based on sex, religion, and
socioeconomic status.” In the minds of all participants in the debate
there was not the slightest doubt what the target was: preventing
Arabs from joining Jewish settlements that control the bulk of land in
Israel. But let us be fair. The exclusion is not complete: “The
committee’s chairman, David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), responded to
claims the bill was meant to reject Arabs from joining Israeli towns.
‘In my opinion, every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would
happen if my refrigerator stopped working on Shabbat?”
Can you think of another country (Western or otherwise) in which such
parliamentary debate can take place today? My point is not that racism
is extreme in Israel. Rather, it is that current legislation reflects
the uninterrupted practice of Zionist settlement from its inception.
The socialist, egalitarian Kibbutzim and collective Moshavim were/are
just as exclusionary as the unabashed racists under the leadership of
Lieberman and Yishai, who receive the tacit support of Netanyahu,
Livni and Barak. They all follow what Israeli historian and analyst
Meron Benvenisti called “the genetic [historical-cultural] code of a
settler society” (see here the useful discussion by ‘The Magnes
Zionist’ on http://www.jeremiahhaber.com/).
5. Does Jewishnsess matter?
You say: “What is really unique about Israel is the Jewishness of the
Jewish state as opposed to the Arabness of an Arab state or indeed the
Britishness of the British state.” No. What is unique is that Israel
alone is based on historical dispossession of the indigenous
population, which continues to this day. Israel is not the only – or
worst – oppressive regime. It is not the only – or worst – state that
practices discrimination and violation of human rights. It is not the
only – or worst – state that emerged out of a violent colonial-type
conflict. It is not the only – or worst – state that dispossessed
indigenous people. But, it is indeed the only state that continues to
re-enact such historical dispossession today, in an ever intensified
You say: “you do not ask why of all states it is Israel that is
selected out for not meeting this ideal” (of non-ethnic inclusive
democracy). But of course you know very well that Israel is not unique
in this respect: I happen to live in a state that experienced
precisely that kind of selection. How can you make an argument about
‘Jewishness’ as a reason for excessive criticism, when you are fully
aware that Afrikaners (or white South Africans generally) were
subjected to similar – and frequently much harsher – treatment?
If the Jewish state of Israel is treated in the same way as the white
Republic of South Africa was treated, it cannot possibly be because of
what they do not share (‘Jewishness’). It can only be because of what
they do share: exclusionary policies towards their indigenous
6. What is to be done and how
Finally, you agree that change is necessary, but say that “the idea of
transformation from an ‘exclusionary ethnic state’ to ‘an inclusive
democratic state’ does justice neither to the past nor the future. In
this scenario the darkness of the past goes along with unlimited trust
in the future.” I am afraid that this has nothing to do with my
understanding of politics. What I call for is a process of political
struggle and change, proceeding through education, growing awareness,
and numerous campaigns, which would culminate – hopefully – in an
overall change of the system. It is likely to be a slow, gradual and
painful process. It is not a messianic transformation from one extreme
to another, and it should build on all the positive – but partial –
achievements of past struggles.
Most Jews in Israel are indeed fearful of this prospect, and most
Palestinians embrace nationalism and religion rather than non-ethnic
inclusive democratic notions. So change is not likely to be immediate,
easy or unproblematic. It may be a journey of a thousand miles, but
even such a journey must begin with one step, as long as we are moving
in the right direction (see today’s useful insights by historian
Dimitri Shumski on the need for an Israeli democratic state in
http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1195906.html – only in Hebrew
for now, but surely to be translated).
Where can we go from here despite our disagreements? Towards a common
struggle on what we agree on: the need to fight the occupation, the
need to make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, the need
to respect international human rights law, the need to redress
historical injustices. Whether the academic boycott is a useful step
to take in this struggle is a minor point. Don’t let it distract us
from the more substantial task of transforming Israel into a democracy
that acts for the benefit of all its residents, past and present.
And this, hot off the press, the most irreverent independent
e-magazine in Israel:
Yossi Gurvitz, “Introducing ethnic segregation: the Q’aadan curse”:
And, Ami Kaufman, “Every Jewish community needs its nigger”:
From Robert Fine:
Sorry once more for the delay in replying to your note. I won’t respond directly to each of the points you make – and to do them justice may require a historical knowledge I only wish I had – but offer you my general thoughts.
What strikes me most about your way of seeing your home country is the harshness of the language you use about it and its people – settler colonial state, exclusion, ethnic cleansing, segregation, racism, etc. – and the readiness with which you dismiss what you call the ‘subjective consciousness of settlers’. It seems to me that the story you construct about Israel is not false but lacks reflectivity.
First, it is selective in the way it picks out certain aspects of Israeli history and society at the expense of other aspects. A ‘Zionist’, so to speak, could equally well pick out these other aspects to construct the conventional laudation of Israel’s achievements in building modernity (democracy, a vibrant economy, worldliness, etc.) in its part of the Middle East. Neither story is right when turned into an absolute, not the ‘Zionist’ tale but not yours either. The point is not to say that one story is right and the other wrong, but to be open to the equivocations, the limits, of both.
Second, your story is interpretive in the way it characterises the elements that it does select. Take, for example, the epithet you use to describe those who came to Israel in its early days: ‘European settler colonists’. Clearly the status of Jews as ‘European’ has not been unproblematic over the centuries. On the contrary, it has been fragile and often denied, no more so of course than when the Nazis organised the murder of ‘European’ Jews. Equally it is difficult to accept that the status of Jews as ‘colonial’ can be the whole story at a time when some Jewish people formed one small part of a world revolution against European colonialism and for national independence. I don’t want to deny that there is a ‘colonial’ aspect to Jewish history in the Middle East, especially in relation to the exclusion of Palestinians and occupation of Palestinian land, only to say that your interpretation appears to me as one-sided as that of the ‘Zionists’ you criticise. I am not convinced, for instance, that it does much to illuminates the history of ethnic conflict in the Middle East to say either that the exclusion of Palestinians from Israel or the exclusion of Jews from Arab countries was a case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ – except, that is, in those instances when extreme violence was employed: like the massacre of over a hundred Palestinians by the Irgun in 1948 in Deir Yassin and the subsequent expulsion of the inhabitants of the village.
Third, it seems to me that your story offers a deeply unequal distribution of compassion and blame. All the compassion is for Palestinians, all blame for Israeli Jews. The two appear interlinked: the more you blame the Israelis, the more you feel for the Palestinians; the more you feel for the Palestinians, the more you condemn the Israelis for their suffering. In this scenario compassion for the victim becomes your justification for condemning those you declare victimisers (in this case Israeli Jews and only Israeli Jews) and on the other hand for substituting your voice for the many voices of the victims. Paradoxically, both sides end up dehumanised in this scenario: one side demonised, the other, as it were, ‘victimised’. Palestinians become only victims and victims only of Jews. This is not to deny that Palestinians are victims but I do protest against the epithet of victimhood overshadowing all other aspects of Palestinian subjectivity. Conversely Israelis becomes only victimisers. Against the pathos of ‘Zionist’ narratives of Jewish suffering no space is left for compassion, and against ‘Zionist’ narratives of only responding to Arab aggression no space is left for understanding the multiple subjectivities of Israeli Jews – or for that matter of Jews elsewhere.
You make many valid points. Of course Israel has and always has had its fair share of bigots, racists, ultra-nationalists and fundamentalists, but democracy in Israel is not simply a sham. It’s easy to say that today’s exclusion goes back to an original Zionist idea but the damage this does is not only to the complexities of history, it is also to democracy. It blunts the nerve of outrage to dismiss what right wingers in the Israeli government are now trying to impose on Israeli Palestinians as simply the same old logic of Zionist exclusion. In any event exclusion itself is not an absolute evil. The case I am making is that if we want to end the occupation and make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, one step in this direction is to understand where different people are coming from, not to construct a tale of nationally defined villains and victims. It seems to me we need to place the issues we have discussed side by side, to let them breathe, not to squash them into a single non-negotiable narrative. The erasure of qualifications creates a comfortably reductive story, but to enable people to live together in peace requires that we assign to Israelis the same capacity to be ambivalent, wrong, thoughtful, anxious, wounded, reactive and strategic as we do to Palestinians.
To return to the question that triggered this dialogue, I was reading this morning a public letter written by a fellow academic, Denis Noble, resigning from our University College Union because of its boycott campaign against Israeli academic institutions. He writes that successive boycott resolutions passed by our union ‘discriminate against certain colleagues (Israelis) on the grounds of their nationality… and hold Israeli colleagues responsible for, and punish them for, the actions of their government via a type of reasoning (guilt by association) that is never applied to the academics of any other country’. Surely this is right. We can all accept that the Israeli government is guilty of human-rights violations and that the union is entitled to criticise it, but as the author of this letter goes on to write, it is instructive to compare motions supporting boycott of Israel with motions about China, a country which has also occupied the territories of a different national group for many years and encourages its own nationals to establish settlement in the occupied territory. The motion on China reaffirms that UCU “will continue to condemn abuses of human rights of trade unionists and others” but at the same time recognises “the need to encourage collegial dialogue” with Chinese institutions. We must ask ourselves why these double standards exist, why Israel is singled-out in this kind of way.
Finally in your letter you write understandably that ‘regardless of the subjective consciousness of settlers, they [Israelis] are perceived in this light [as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating indigenous populations and territories to settler rule] in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, look no further’. You may well be right that many people in the non-Western world see the situation in Israel/Palestine through this anti-colonial lens. However, our task, as I see it, is not to confirm that this simulacrum of anti-colonialism is the real thing but to reach out beyond these categories to some foundation of human experience.
Best wishes, Robert Fine
On September 29 the University of Johannesburg’s ruling body met to discuss a proposal from the boycott campaign that it should sever its research links with Ben Gurion University. It set an ultimatum for BGU and it postponed the decision for six months. To read Desmond Tutu’s support for this move, click here.
Click here for the response of David Newman, who is Dean of Social Science at BGU. This proposal in South Africa sparked renewed debate on the Engage website.
David Hirsh wrote a critique of a piece by Neve Gordon on academic freedom in Israel. Read it here. David Hirsh wrote a second piece tracing Neve Gordon’s journey from sharp critic of the boycott campaign to important supporter. Read it here.
Last year Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli campaigner for Palestinian rights, published a critique of the Israel-apartheid analogy and a critique of the boycott campaign, which related explicitly to the positions of Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon. Read it here.
Farid Essack also responded to Robert Fine in the South African press.