John Strawson: “I support the Palestinians – and I left Labour this week over anti-Semitism”

This piece, by John Strawson, is from Jewish News. 

This week I left the Labour Party due to the failure of the National Executive Committee to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition and examples of anti-Semitism.

Despite the pleadings of the Jewish community, the Labour Party instead arrogantly adopted its definition which effectively licenses forms of anti-Semitism.

It created a test of anti-Semitic “intent,” not in the IHRA definition, which would be difficult to prove while allowing for comparisons to be made between the Israel and the Nazis.

Worse, if this were possible, it would allow members to claim that the creation of Israel itself was a racist endeavour.

For me this was crossing a line and transformed the party I had been a member for decades into an institutionally anti-Semitic organisation.

The Labour party leadership claims that the reason for the not adopting the full IHRA definition and examples is because it wants to ensure free speech on Israel and Palestine.

Yet the IHRA definition explicitly says that “criticism of Israel similar to that levered against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

As a staunch supporter of Palestinian self-determination and an opponent of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory after the 1967 war, I regularly criticise Israeli policy.

For a period of 11 years I was involved in a European project supporting Birzeit University’s Institute of Law.

I was a visiting professor teaching at the Institute and participating in conferences several times a year.

I was there during the worst of the second Intifada and I know something about how dreadful the humiliations and oppression of occupation are.

I agree with the International Court of Justice that the wall that has been built on Palestinian territory is illegal.

However, I can make all these criticisms without resorting to anti-Semitism or calling for the destruction of Israel.

In any event anti-Semitism hardly aids the cause of the Palestinians.

There is also another fundamental principle; the creation of the Israel was ethically correct.

The Marxist Isaac Deutscher called it a “historic necessity.”  As the United Nations partition plan recognised, Jews, have the right to self-determination.

The rationale for Israel was the profound anti-Semitism that ran through the sinews of Europe over centuries.

Those who support Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) often attack Israel as a racist state – something the Labour party definition would allow – but Israel is not a racist state, it is a refugee state.

In the last three years the Labour party has become the largest organisation circulating anti-Semitism.

It has been enabled by Jeremy Corbyn who has not only refused to fight it but has become complicit with it.

As he is my MP I have written to him several times. In his last letter to me dated April 24 2018, he wrote, “the evidence of my sincerity in dealing with this problem will be in the elimination of anti-Semitism in our movement.”

I now understand that what he actually meant was that anti-Semitism would be eliminated by a weaker definition.

This piece, by John Strawson, is from Jewish News. 

Also by John Strawson:

Zionism and Apartheid: The Analogy in the Politics of International Law – John Strawson – Engage Journal Issue 2 – May 2006

John Strawson on the University of Johannesburg’s boycott decision

Perry Anderson’s House of Zion: A Symposium | John Strawson

Why I am against the boycott, by John Strawson – 18 May 2005

Understanding Labour’s disavowal of the IHRA definition

This piece, by David Hirsh, is from Jewish News. 

In September 2001 at the global conference against racism in Durban there was a campaign to construct Zionism as the key racism on

David Hirsh

the planet. Opposition to antisemitism was presented as incompatible with opposition to racism. Jews were said to be white, Israel racist, and both were constructed as enemies of antiracism. 9/11 followed a week later and the peace process collapsed at the end of that year.

A number of Jewish NGOs pushed back against the splitting of antiracism from anti-antisemitism. They wanted left wing, pro-Palestinian and Jihadi antisemitism to be taken as seriously as that from the right and the fascists. The Jewish NGOs won a hearing within the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) and the EU (European Union) but not within the UN (United Nations).

They drafted a definition which could help monitor and oppose antisemitism, especially in the newly democratic countries of Europe. This was eventually adopted by the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), the British Government and the US State Department.

Sometimes the IHRA definition is criticized for being political. But in the world as it is, how could a definition of antisemitism be anything else?  The point is what are its politics?  And what are the politics of those who denounce it?

In such a contested realm, no definition could substitute for political judgment. There can be no app for your phone to tell you what is antisemitic. The IHRA definition offers a framework which can be helpful in making an informed judgement.

It offers examples of things which may be considered, depending on context, to be antisemitic. It says that denying Jewish self-determination may be antisemtic if it is claimed that any state of Israel would necessarily be a racist endeavour. It says that it may be right in some contexts to judge that comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis is antisemitic. It offers less controversial examples too. And then it emphasises the point that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’.

Opponents of the definition say that some of the things they want to do, like denouncing Israelis as Nazis, and treating people they say are Zionists as one would treat racists, are deemed antisemitic under the definition. They say that even though the definition is clear that criticism of Israel is legitimate, it does not really mean it. They imply that even within the definition of antisemitism itself, the Jews are up to something sinister.

In April 2009, President Ahmadinejad made an antisemitic speech at the UN. Seumas Milne, now a key advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, denounced those states which protested against the speech by walking out, in the following terms: ‘what credibility is there in Geneva’s all-white boycott?’ Milne was pushing the Durban understanding that opposition to left or Jihadi antisemitism was likely to be a kind of white supremacism, perpetrated by the powerful and functioning to silence the voice of the oppressed.

You don’t have to treat the IHRA definition as holy to be angry about Labour’s disavowal. People are angry because Labour is sacrificing its antiracist tradition to legitimize those of its members and allies who want to do things which the definition warns against. Labour doesn’t like the definition because it is a political definition which describes and opposes political antisemitism.

The biggest specific problem with Labour’s homemade definition is that it declares that hostility to Israel could only be antisemitic if motivated by antisemitic intent. This is a radical break from everything which is accepted in the scholarly study of racism and in antiracist practice.

The Macpherson finding that there was a problem of institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police was ground breaking because it recognised that there were threatening forms of racism which were not motivated by racist hatred. There could be institutional and discursive racism, racism in thoughtless common sense and racism in norms and practices which just seemed normal. The investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder was not messed up by the police because of malicious intent but because there was racism which was real but was not conscious.

The kind of antisemitism which is now legitimate in the Labour Party is pushed and defended by people who think of themselves as opponents of antisemitism. They have no antisemitic intent and so would not be found antisemitic by a tribunal using the homemade definition. Yet they still ostracize those who oppose antisemitism and they are responsible for a culture which nurtures and licenses antisemitic ways of thinking.

You could not even prove that Ken Livingstone himself is motivated by antisemitic intent.  He probably isn’t.

Macpherson did not say that the victims of racism should be allowed to define their own oppression.  What he said was that any investigation should start by taking the experience of victims seriously.

As the letter by 69 diverse rabbis shows there is an overwhelming consensus within the Jewish community in opposition to Labour antisemitism.  From all denominations, from all political parties, from the Union of Jewish Students to the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust and the Jewish Leadership Council, Jews are fundamentally in agreement on this question.  This is not a case of two Jews three opinions, it is a case of 270,000 Jews, one consensus, and a tiny but noisy “asaJew” opposition determined to undermine it.

The refusal of the Party to accept the IHRA definition is symbolic of its refusal to oppose left antisemitism. Today’s Labour Party is led by people who embrace political antisemitism. Their politics on this issue comes from the Soviet Union, from Durban and from the Iranian regime for whom Jeremy Corbyn worked as a propagandist. He did not mis-speak when he claimed that his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah were dedicated to peace and justice; that is his worldview and has been for decades. Corbyn isn’t going to endorse a definition of antisemitism which may influence people to judge his political friends to be antisemitc.

  • David Hirsh is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism
This piece, by David Hirsh, is from Jewish News. 

Robert Fine 1945-2018

Robert Fine died today.  Robert was a friend and teacher to many of us.  Robert was one of the most important social theorists of our time.

Robert was also one of the political and intellectual forces behind Engage: behind the campaign against the academic boycott of Israel, against BDS and against antisemitism.

If people don’t know Robert or his work, then they can still engage with his writing.

One of the great things about Robert’s work is that it is both absolutely serious and brilliant, but it is also accessible. He has always written to engage people with important things, never to impress precocious grad students.

His book on left antisemitism, written with Philip Spencer, is ‘Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish Question’. It is a defence of the Marxist and critical tradition against the ‘socialism of fools’ that is now, so sadly, as important as ever.

His book ‘Cosmopolitanism’ is an overview of a key concept of contemporary social theory and it distils much of what is important to his work and his view of the world into one paperback.

His book on Hegel, Marx and Arendt, ‘Political Investigations’ creates a framework for thinking about the critique of contemporary society, while keeping hold of the critique of the critique – in other words, how to think about making the world better while learning the lessons of how such projects have made it much worse. Marx claimed to be turning Hegel on his head; Fine argues that Marx was much more a follower of Hegel than he knew; that Marx’s capital should be read side by side with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – not read as a correction to it.

Before apartheid in South Africa was defeated, Robert wrote, with Dennis Davis, ‘Beyond Apartheid – Labour and Liberation in South Africa’ – a critique of apartheid, a sociology of the anti-apartheid movement and also a critique of some of the politics of the ANC – and a specifically socialist take on the liberation movement – work some of whose warnings are even now being shown to have been important.

And before that he wrote an absolute classic, from which students are still taught about Marxist theories of law, ‘Democracy and the rule of law’ – also a critique of liberal theories and practices of law, but at the same time a critique of anti-Liberal Marxism.

I think Robert would have loved the idea that people who didn’t know his work might still start reading it, teaching it and engaging with it now.

Here are links to some of the things he wrote on contemporary antisemitism:

On Doing the Sociology of Antisemitism –

“Sociologically speaking, I have been a bit of a fly-by-night. Instead of devoting 40 years of my life to the study of One Thing, I have flown from prisons and asylums, to police and the law, to Marx and the Enlightenment, to South Africa and the nonracial unions, to Trotskyism and Stalinism, to nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and to Kant and Hegel. It keeps me busy but is perhaps not to be recommended as career trajectories go. My saving grace, if I have one, is that beneath the Many Things there is, I feel, One Thing to which I kept coming back.

This brings me to another of my ‘topics’ that I have begun to explore in recent years. It is the question of antisemitism. I have to say that of all my subject matters I have attempted to research, this has been by far the most fraught, troubled and anxiety-producing.   So I thought that rather than bottle it up in the corner of my study, I would share it with my European colleagues and ask those of you interested what you think about this particular concern.

My experience is that, with a certain proviso, it’s basically ok to speak about antisemitism in the past but it gets trickier to speak about it in the present.”

Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism – Robert Fine – Engage Journal Issue 2 – May 2006  –

“I don’t want to draw any direct connection between Marx’s battles with left-wing anti-Semitism in his time and the battles with anti-Semitism which go on in our own times. … However, I would wish to draw the following loose connections. First, modern, political anti-Semitism is a creature of the left as well as the right. We should abandon any fond hope that the universalism of the left inures it to anti-Semitic temptations. Second, there is a strong tradition of anti-Semitism on the Left. Indeed, the most intelligent and radical currents of left (including Marx) have placed the battle against anti-Semitism at the centre of their political thinking. Third, the significance of anti-Semitism on the Left lies not only in what was known as the Jewish question as such, but in helping to sow the seeds of totalitarian thinking and practice in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist circles. And finally, there is a deep and enduring connection between the reconstruction of socialism as an enlightened, cosmopolitan radicalism and the overcoming of anti-Semitism in all its shapes and forms.”

Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel – Robert Fine  –

“In the metonymic use of apartheid, Israel is not called by its own name or understood in its own right but rather through the name of something seemingly associated in meaning with it. This rhetorical device has in turn been converted through processes of slippage into the metaphoric use of ‘apartheid’ in order to designate the core being of Israel. The attempt to portray an equivalence between Israel and apartheid has been further pursued through the synecdoche in which the part – say the shooting of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli soldiers or land seizures and attacks on ordinary Palestinian civilians by Israeli settlers – is taken for the whole and then analogised with apartheid.”

The Palestine/Israel question and racialised discourses on Jews – Robert Fine

“Hannah Arendt put the matter in a typically robust way when she wrote that to treat the behaviour of Jews as the source of antisemitism is ‘the malicious and stupid insight of antisemites, who think that this vile tenet can account for hecatombs of human sacrifice’. Arendt added that ‘the foundations of antisemitism are found in developments that have very little to do with Jews’. This does not mean that some people do not use the actual behaviour of some Jews as material for their antisemitic phantasies, just as other people use the actual behaviour of some Muslims as material for their Islamophobic phantasies. Racism is a versatile beast that grabs hold of what it can. The history of every category of people contains misdeeds that can serve as fuel for the racist imagination, although the racist imagination is not limited to such real or imagined misdeeds.”

Fighting with phantoms – a contribution to the debate on antisemitism in Europe –

“The point of departure of this paper is the polarization of ways of thinking about antisemitism in Europe, between those who see its recent resurgence and those that affirm its empirical marginalization and normative delegitimation. The historical question raised by this polarization of discourses is this: what has happened to the antisemitism that once haunted Europe? Both the current camps—’alarmists’ and ‘deniers’, as they are sometimes known, or, perhaps more accurately, new antisemitism theorists and their critics—have the strength to challenge celebratory views of European civilization. One camp sees the return to Europe of an old antisemitism in a new and mediated guise. The other sees the return to Europe of a rhetoric of antisemitism that is not only anachronistic but also delusory and deceptive. Overshadowing this debate is the memory of the Holocaust and the continuing presence of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The aim of this paper is to get inside these discourses and deconstruct the dualism that generates homogenizing and stigmatizing typifications on either side. The spirit of Hannah Arendt hovers over this work and the question of the meaning of her legacy runs through the text.”

Robert Fine debates with the boycotters at Leeds University.

Robert Fine debates the boycott of Israel in the South African context.

Robert’s contribution to “Whitewashed”, was perhaps his last work before he became ill; I think the last video of him talking.

Call for Papers – ESA RN31 mid term conference

Deadline 6 June

RN31 European Sociological Association, Ethnic Relations, Racism & Antisemitism

A safe place for the study of contemporary antisemitism, racism and ethnic relations, and the interconnections between them
Come along to Ferrara in September.

David Hirsh speaking in Trier, Essen and Vienna

ESA RN31 Mid Term Conference. Ferrara, Italy. September 5-6

Come to the European Sociological Association network on Ethnic Relations, Antisemitism and Racism conference.

Ferrara Italy. Sep 5-6.

A safe space for the scholarly study of contemporary antisemitism.

Follow this link for the Call for Papers:

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