This is a version of a paper that David Hirsh gave at the FFIPP conference on 24 September 2005
Nearly all contemporary antisemitism is manifested through the language of anti-Zionism. Now, skinheads in Berlin affect a concern for Palestinian rights; Tory grandees and Republican isolationists worry that the Zionists and the Jews are pulling the world into new global wars; Labour grandees too, like Tam Dalyel. Open racists like David Irving and David Duke, as well as the BNP, parrot George Galloway’s arguments for opposing the war in Iraq and its connections to Zionist influence. Hizb’ut Tahrir and other fundamentalist groups make openly antisemitic propaganda on our campuses.
It seems that everyone is now an “anti-Zionist”.
The boundaries between different anti-Zionist discourses are porous, and ideas and concepts that become commonsense or hegemonic within some, tend to circulate and take on new meanings in others. Ideas do not float freely but become instantiated in social movements. The authors of ideas do not necessarily keep control of how their ideas are used or actualised.
This raises questions of political responsibility – how we should take responsibility for the ways that our ideas might become actualised.
It also raises the possibility of institutional antisemitsm on the left; understanding antisemitism as an emergent property of a movement rather than as a subjective hatred of Jews.
Every anti-racist in Britain, after McPherson, understands that the Metropolitan Police has a problem with institutional racism and this is about the practices of the Met, not about the racist beliefs of officers.
But suggest the possibility of institutional antisemitism on the left, and the same anti-racists look at you with the outraged expression of a Police federation spokesperson.
The police are responsible for the practices of policing.
Our movement is responsible for the politics, the narratives and the worldviews that it argues for.
Antisemitism in our movement is not expressed through racist practices but through racist narratives, politics and worldviews.
We need to insist on the existence of a space for the legitimate and necessary criticism of what Israel is doing – and we need to guard this space against those who would like to silence all criticism of Israeli policy with the the shout of “antisemite!”
But we also need to insist that those who criticise Israel understand that they are operating within a world where the demonization of Israel is the central mode of operation of contemporary antisemitism.
The days when left and liberal critics of Israeli policy can flatly deny the relevance or the importance of anti-Zionist antisemitism are over.
Left critics of Israel have to understand clearly the difference between criticism and demonization; they have to understand the way that contemporary antisemitism operates; they have to educate themselves in the way that antisemitic discourse operates; they have to challenge antisemitism within the Palestine Solidarity Movement and within the alliances that it makes.
In the absence of this conscious vigilance, the Palestine Solidarity Movement will remain marginal and will be unable to play a significant role in supporting the Palestinians or in bolstering the Israeli peace movement.
We have to draw the boundary between demonization and criticism very clearly and very consciously.
Demonization of Israel singles it out as being uniquely racist when, sadly, its institutional racism is not at all unique. There is a long list of states and movements that are much greater human rights abusers than Israel.
Demonization of Israel singles it out as the only illegitimate state. Other states do bad things: Israel’s bad things are epiphenomena of its racist essence (or its psychological trauma).
Demonization of Israel defines Israeli nationalism as a form of racism. Many in the Palestine Solidarity Movement have long insisted that “Zionism Equals Racism”.
The effect of this is to encourage and to license people to treat those Jews who think that Israel has the right to exist, as though they were racists. And the vast majority of Jews do support the right of Israel to exist. In this way, anti-Zionism sets itself up for a fight with Jews.
And Zionism=Racism is also inflated into Zionism=Nazism. There is not now, and never has been, a genocide of Palestinians. The claim that Zionism=Nazism, that Sharon=Hitler, that Israel has the same attitude to Palestinians that Nazism had to the Jews of Europe is false. Israel has never made any attempt to kill the Palestinians. There are no Israeli gas chambers, there are no Israeli Einsatzgruppen, there are no Israeli concentration camps, there is no Israeli project to rid the earth of Palestinians.
Yet some people in our movement insist on a principled position of relating to the vast majority of Jews as though they were supporters of the Nazis.
Demonization is about relating to Israel as though it were a unique evil in the world.
Criticism is about relating to Israel as though it were a state that does bad things.
Sharon claims that all criticism of Israel is a manifestation of anti-Semitism. The boycotters say that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. Both sides miss the point. Criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, but sometimes it is exactly that.
Most critics of the boycott in the AUT are also critical of Israeli policy. But criticism that demonizes Israel and Jews lets Sharon off the hook; it moves the discussion onto ground where he can respond with righteous indignation.
At the same time, it damages the most open and anti-racist spaces in Israel and pushes the already demoralized Israeli left toward the right.
When Israel attacked the Palestinian militants at Jenin it did so with little concern for the welfare of the civilian population. Anyone who read the account of one of the armoured bulldozer drivers in Yediot would learn something horrible about how the bulldozing of whole city blocks is carried out by the IDF.
But Sharon was never held to account for this. Instead people shouted Genocide! Holocaust! Massacre! – which did not remotely describe the event. And Sharon does not have to respond to anti-Semitic nonsense. And the anti-Semitic nonsense closed off the space for legitimate criticism. Which was never heard.
We need to open the space for criticism of Israel, not help Sharon to close it.
The boycott campaign was not motivated by antisemitism, it was motivated by concern for the oppressed.
But it was, nevertheless, effectively antisemitic. It demonized Israel. It singled out Israel and Israeli academics for special treatment with no morally or politically relevant reason for doing so.
Israel is not, as the boycott suggests, the worst human rights abuser, or the most racist state in the world.
Those who agree that Israel should be singled out fail to agree on why. Some say that the Jews should know better; some say that Israel claims to be a democracy and so should be held to a higher standard than states that do not; some say that Israel plays a particular role at the vanguard of global imperialism.
Some say that Israel is particularly culpable because it occupies something that is called “Muslim land”.
The most common reason for singling out Israel is that, as a Jewish state, is by definition racist. This is not a claim about what Israel does, but an existential claim about what Israel is.
Racist policy is presented as the inevitable product of a racist essence (even by people who are usually opposed to essentialism).
The boycotters learned nothing from their defeat. They reacted with a new barrage of antisemitic rhetoric, insisting that they were defeated by a well-funded global Zionist lobby that pressured the AUT. They won the debate, they said, but were unable to counter the shadowy power of Jews and Zionists. Engage are denounced as “Zionist scabs”. The boycott was in fact, defeated by a thoughtful and democratic rank and file uprising in the AUT.
The rhetoric of the boycotters was reminiscent of events in Poland in March 1968. Under the cover of solidarity with Palestinians, the Polish state purged the Jewish intelligentsia. Jewish intellectuals were challenged to declare themselves anti-Zionist. Most of them refused, and many left the country.
The distinction between demonization and legitimate criticism cannot be understood as a fight between the left and the right. Rather it is a fight between two souls of the left.
There is a long tradition of anti-Semitism on the left and in the labor movement—the “socialism of fools” as August Bebel called it. Marx took apart the antisemitic ultra-leftist Bruno Bauer in “On the Jewish question”. The Stalinists in the 1930s organized antisemitic campaigns and ran the “doctors trials” in the 1950s. Before the Second World War, Oswald Moseley came out of the Labour Party to campaign on an anti-Semitic platform in the East End of London (sounds familiar?).
Since 1967 left anti-Semitism has worn the clothes of anti-Zionism. In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union sent Jews who wanted to live in Israel to the Gulag.
Since the collapse of the peace process, the attacks of September 11, and the War Against Terror, left and liberal currents that consider America to be the central force for evil in the world have become stronger; they have made both tacit and formal alliances with political Islamism and they have been responsible for a renewed focus on Israel and Jews as the vanguard of global imperialism.
Left anti-Zionism inflates Israel into a symbol for all that is wrong with a world dominated by US imperialism. The details of the peace process or other actual, real life political developments are rendered insignificant because the conflict is understood only though this symbolism.
Conversely, the Palestinians have come to symbolise all victims and their struggle has become the defining struggle against imperialism.
Real Jews and real Palestinians are replaced in the left anti-Zionists imagination by symbolic Zionists and symbolic victims.
All anti-Semitism nowadays uses the language of anti-Zionism.
This is the world in which we operate and we have to be aware of that.
Demonization of Israel’s existence is antisemitic.
Criticism of Israel’s actions is absolutely necessary.
We have to be clear about where the boundary between criticism and demonization lies.
Many fail to recognize that the boundary even exists.
That renders them unable to guard the space for legitimate criticism.
Anti-Zionism is more than ideas -ideas are instantiated in a social movement. Social movements are motivated emotionally as well as logically.
If you build a social movement that is antisemtic, even if it doesn’t know it, then you will, in the end, create antisemites.
At this moment we can see actual, conscious antisemitism beginning to emerge out of the anti-Zionist movment.
And we can see that a significant proportion of the anti-racist left hasn’t noticed or doesn’t think its important.
Lecturer in sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London