This is the text of David Hirsh’s presentation to the Experts’ Forum of The London Conference on Combatting Antisemitism, 16 February 2009, hosted by the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Before we talk about discourse, let’s remember that there is a real conflict in the Middle East between Jews and their neighbours. There is a fight over land – over the land upon which Israel has established itself – and over the occupied territories, upon which Palestine has been establishing itself.
There is also a fight over narrative. Both Israelis and Palestinians are recently constituted nations – they have constituted themselves around shared stories of how they came into being and shared understandings of the threats to their continued existence – they are shared stories which define national identity. That is of course not to say that all narratives are equally true – rather that between the fixed points of truth, there is huge and contested scope for remembering and forgetting, embellishing and denying.
Within both nations there are intertwined but incompatible dreams of peace and dreams of victory. The task for those who fight for peace is to help re-shape these broad narratives so that they are compatible one with the other.
Everyone knows the shape of the peace – it is a two state solution. It is a peace between a sovereign Israel in the pre-’67 borders and a sovereign Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The more the peace looks unattainable, the more it is necessary to remind everyone that there is no other way out – there is no “one state solution” waiting in the wings.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine plays itself out both on the battlefield but also on the terrain of these stories of nationhood. It should surprise nobody that over the last 80 or 100 years of conflicts, there has been a tendency for people within each nation to construct those who are seen as the “enemy” in bigoted and in racialized terms.
Within Israel there is a virulent tradition of racism against Arabs and against Muslims.
Within Palestine there is a virulent tradition of antisemitism.
But within neither nation is racism and bigotry the only political current – both have proud and significant histories of movements which fought for peace and against bigotry.
We’re not surprised that when there is an ongoing, bloody, hand-to-hand conflict over a piece of land – that there is a tendency amongst those involved to construct ‘the other’ as being essentially evil.
One of the aggravating features, however, of the Israel/Palestine conflict, is that everyone, all over the world, seems to think they are involved.
Not only do Jewish families around the world – many of whom ended up where they did and not in Israel only for contingent reasons – often feel themselves to be connected to Israel and to its fate; not only do Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims around the world feel themselves to be harmed when Palestinians in Palestine are harmed; but there also seems to be a tendency for narratives of Israeli and Palestinian nationhood to transform themselves into universal narratives - rather than narratives which bind together small and insignificant nations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Some hold the view that the settlement of this conflict is a pre-requisite for the settlement of most other conflicts in the world.
For example British Parliamentarian Clare Short said:
“I … believe that US backing for Israeli policies of expansion of the Israeli state and oppression of the Palestinian people is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world.”
What is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world? Not poverty? Not Aids? Not the subjugation of women or gay people? Not racism, ethnic cleansing or genocide? Not military occupation and the denial of statehood – in gnereral? No, for Clare Short “US backing for Israeli policies” is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world.
Some people think that this conflict stands, symbolically, for all other conflicts – and so Palestinians come to symbolize “the oppressed” and Israeli Jews come to symbolize “the oppressors”.
Some people think that Israel is the embattled outpost of “Western civilization” – and so constitutes the global frontline in the war against “Muslim” terror and threat. But of course the point is to avoid and to oppose the construction of a separate “Judeo-Christian world” and a separate “Muslim world” – not to act as though war between the two is already inevitable.
One thing which distinct antisemitisms in different times and places have had in common is the understanding that Jews are central to all that is wrong with the world.
Christian antisemitism thought of Jews as the betrayers of the universal God, the rejectors of the universal God, and the murderers of the universal God.
Anti-Enlightenment antisemitism thought that Jews lurked behind the melting of all that was solid in traditional society into air.
Pro-Enlightenment antisemitism hoped that Jews as a collective would, with indecent haste, melt into air.
Left wing antisemitism thought of Jews as being behind capitalism – or now, it is tempted to think of “Zionists” as being behind imperialism.
Right wing antisemitism thought of Jews as being behind Communism or the breakdown of “decent” values – or as being a threat to the authentic national interest.
Soviet antisemitism accused Jews of betraying the revolution.
Nazi antisemitism accused Jews of constituting an infection to the body of humankind.
Whatever it is Jews are accused of – they are accused of being central to all that happens in the world.
And now, for whatever reasons – interesting and complex reasons actually – the Israel/Palestine conflict is thought by many to be a problem of global significance – and this widepsread belief has serious consequences.
In truth Jews are a rather small and ordinary people – and not central to anything. In truth the Israel/Palestine conflict is a rather small, local and insignificant conflict – albeit extremely nasty in its own way and for those who it affects.
We have seen that ways of thinking about the conflict are important to the nations involved. And we have seen how each nation has “diaspora” people which feel themselves also to be involved.
Now we can see that ways of thinking about the conflict seem to take on a significance to everyone, not only those who are involved. And with the emergence of these vast, global narratives, comes some of the racialized hostility to Jews, Arabs and Muslims which we can see within the conflict itself.
There is a political project to designate Israel as the new apartheid South Africa – and to build a global movement for “boycott divestment and sanctions” based on the model of the anti-apartheid movement. This project seeks to make the destruction of Israel into the key and pre-eminent demand for anti-hegemonic politics everywhere. Israel must be destroyed in the same way as the old apartheid regime was destroyed. The project is to treat Israel as though it were the central evil on the planet and to build a global movement to destroy it.
We can see clearly that two different and incompatible ways of describing the conflict have emerged.
One holds that the job of antiracists is to help to destroy the evil of “Zionism” – which is said to be necessarily racist – or like apartheid – or like Nazi Germany. We must, we are told, take sides with the Palestinians against the Israelis and work towards the destruction of the Israeli state – and the non-violent means of working for Israel’s military defeat – as 325 British academics recently stated in the Guardian newspaper – is “Boycott Divestment Sanctions” – in other words the exclusion of Israeli Jews – and only Israeli Jews – from the economic, scholarly, cultural and sporting life of humanity.
This discourse is wholly hostile to the one outlined earlier: that we need to find a peace between Israel and Palestine and that we need to support those in each nation who oppose bigotry, racism, violence and despair.
On the one hand there is a politics of peace and reconciliation – an achievable politics of finding a solution to an actual conflict.
On the other hand there is a politics of rooting out the evil of so-called “Zionism” – which stands for all oppression. This view casts Israelis and Palestinians in their global and symbolic roles and so it sacrifices any conception of their real interests to the grander and more tragic ones created for them.
Of course within both Israel and Palestine there are political currents eager to accept their own designation as being globally important and universally symbolic.
And we know that when Jews are involved in a conflict, and when that conflict is inflated in grandeur and is thrust to the centre of all things – that it becomes tempting for many to grasp at ready-made ways of thinking – or discourses – about Jews. And we see these ready-made ways of thinking about Jews being employed – often without knowing it – by people for whom Israel and Palestine have become global-symbolic issues.
It is all too tempting when one is trying to articulate hostility to Israelis – to draw on the old and half-forgotten vocabulary of antisemitism.
When hundreds of Palestinians are dying in the conflict who are under the age of 18 it seems so natural to accuse the Jewish state of child-killing. I suspect many who accuse Israel of having a policy of gratuitously murdering non-Jewish children do not even know of the blood libel, which has re-appeared against Jews over the last ten centuries in every conceivable context, and which is a re-telling of the story that the Jews murdered the innocent Christ, out of pure evil.
The mechanism here is one familiar to all racisms. It starts with a real-world event – too many Palestinians under 18 die in the conflict – the real-world events are then mystified into the language of antisemitism to produce Israel as the essentially child-killing state, and the hundreds of blood-libel images which demonize those who are designated as “Zionists”.
When there are Jewish names in Bush and Obama’s cabinets, when the peace movement fails to stop wars, when the American media demonizes Palestinians as terrorists, when Lehman Brothers is at the vanguard of a global economic crash – it seems so natural to wonder about Israeli influence and Israeli interest. And again, really-existing influence and interest are so easily mystified into the language and into the images of the secret and powerful conspiracy of “Zion”.
British Parliamentarian Jenny Tonge said:
“The pro-Israeli Lobby has got its grips on the Western World, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a certain grip on our party.”
Although she uses the phrase “Israel lobby” and not “Jews” – what she articulates is classic antisemitic conspiracy theory.
And when called on her antisemitism, she said the following:
“I am sick of being accused of anti-Semitism when what I am doing is criticising Israel and the state of Israel.”
She uses antisemitic rhetoric and then she accuses those who point this out of trying to “play the antisemitism card” in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. This defence to a charge of antisemitism is what I have called the Livingstone Formulation.
When those who speak for “the oppressed” are antisemitic it is so easy to downplay, to “understand”, to deny, to render insignificant that fact – because some are so hungry – so wishful – to see in Hamas and in Hezbollah and in Ahmadinejad’s regime in Iran – really-existing forces which can challenge the hated status quo in the west. We have of course seen it all before: the temptation to see in some “really existing socialism” a force which can defeat our own hated national bourgeoisie.
People want the angry, anti-Western Islamist rhetoric to articulate their own anger and their own resentment – they want it so much that they are able to suspend reality a little. And the price of this suspension of reality is that they must keep quiet about antisemitism.
Increasingly antisemitism is not thought of as an evil against which vigilance is appropriate – but as an indicator of a dishonest “Zionist” trick –the “playing of the antisemitism card”. Many “antiracists” have come naturally to recognize the word “antisemitism” as a way of recognizing those who pretend to support the oppressed but who don’t really.
The “Zionists” – and the overwhelming majority of Jews are Zionists – in at least one of the many senses of the much abused word – “The Zionists” are accused of taking part in a dishonest conspiracy to use the discourse of antisemitism in a racist way.
And this should not come as a surprise. One aspect of antisemitism has always been its ability to appear as anti-hegemonic – as radical. You don’t necessarily need to be an antisemite to be radical. But you do need to downplay the significance of antisemitism. You need to “contextualize” it carefully and to distinguish it from that which is “real” and which is “important”.
The kind of antisemitism which I have been describing is, at the moment, a problem on the level of discourse rather than on the level of violence. It is largely an elite phenomenon rather than a mass phenomenon. It needs to be opposed on the level of discourse.
We need to de-construct contemporary antisemitic discourse. We need patiently to explain why it is antisemitic – because it is not obvious to those who are seduced by it. We need to educate people about the history of antisemitism and about the tropes of antisemitism.
It should go without saying that we need to oppose antisemitism – which is an archetypal form of racism – as antiracists.
It is right – and it is also effective – to challenge the politics of war against Israel and “the Zionists” – with a discourse of peace and reconciliation.
We shouldn’t replace idle and menacing dreams of victory over “Zionism” with idle and menacing dreams of victory over Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims.
We should fight for the universal values of peace, antiracism and democracy.
Instead of inverting the demonization of Israelis and of Jews, we should subvert it.
Golsmiths, University of London
For Antony Lerman’s view of the conference, click here.