Antisemitism, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech – Robert Fine – 16 May 2007

Antisemitism, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech - Robert FineFaculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP) organized a seminar on Monday in association with the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities entitled “Anti-Semitism and Israel: Responding to Censorship – Freedom, Speech and Action”. Robert Fine was a speaker at the event and here is his contribution:

Let me begin by thanking the organisers for inviting me to speak on this platform and acknowledge that I claim no special expertise for the views I am about to express. They are framed by a threefold conviction: first, that analysis of any conflict situation ought to be intersubjective and not look to blame one side or the other independently of the context in which they operate; second, that occupation is as corrupting for the occupier as it is oppressive for the occupied and that occupation has an internal dynamic toward increasing instability as well as human cruelty; third, that the primary responsibility for seeking a solution to the present misery lies with the occupier – it is the responsibility of power.

The particular issue that brings us to this meeting is the definition of anti-Semitism recently offered by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and by the all-party parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism. As I understand these reports, which we should remember are not academic studies, both maintain that criticism of Israel can and sometimes does have anti-Semitic dimensions and conversely that anti-Semitism can and sometimes does take the form of hostility to Israel. As part of a wider project of tracing the recent trajectory of anti-Semitism, the EU report and the parliamentary commission invite us to consider where legitimate criticism of Israel stops and something more dangerous and possibly antisemitic begin. They attempt, more or less adequately, to formulate their own discursive criteria: they are particularly concerned about current constructions of Israel or Zionism which make reference in a slightly mediated form to long established anti-Semitic myths: those of a world Jewish conspiracy, Jewish control of the media, the global power of Jews, the unique evil of Jews, blood libel, and so forth. They see a family resemblance between these old antisemitic images and the singling out of Israel out as uniquely evil among nations, or holding either all Israeli Jews or all world Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel, or the association of the practices of Israeli military occupation with the Nazi extermination of Jews. Their overall concern is that the substitution of the word ‘Zionists’ for ‘Jews’ may sometimes make little substantial difference.

I should add that there is nothing radically new in any of these claims. Concern about the possible antisemitic character of certain forms of anti-Zionism (like Soviet-led ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigns) and indeed the evocation of the idea of a ‘new anti-Semitism’ go back at least to the 1960s. I think we should treat with considerable caution the thesis of a ‘new anti-Semitism’.

The key apprehension expressed in the announcement to this meeting, as I read it, is that the drawing of a link between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism has the potential ‘to effectively stifle individual and collective political action and critique in relation to Israel’s actions in Palestine’ and that it brings ‘issues of hate speech and racism … and the freedom to engage in legitimate political critique… into direct conflict’. My apprehension lies not in the reports, whose limitations have been analysed in detail by Rosemary Bechler, but rather in how we respond to them. I am troubled by what I see as a tendency to downplay anti-Semitism itself (for example, by arguing that the physical protection of synagogues is unnecessary) and to discredit those who are concerned about anti-Semitism – especially on the grounds that they are not really concerned about anti-Semitism but only about silencing and restricting criticism of Israel. This response seems to me misguided. When an individual Jew feels that she or he is the victim of anti-Semitism, just as when a black person feels she is the victim of racism, this is not enough by itself to validate the actual existence of anti-Semitism, but it should certainly make us alert to its possibilities. I don’t think our first response should be to say either that it is paranoiac or that it is duplicitous.

It should go without saying that the campaign against anti-Semitism, as with other forms of racism, is not only an issue for Jews but for any democratic movement. Today, whatever views we have of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it makes no sense to abstain from or decry resistance to anti-Semitism simply because some unscrupulous people might use it to try and silence legitimate and just criticism of Israeli society and politics.

In any event, and this is my main point, alertness to the dangers of anti-Semitism does not restrict our capacity for critical thought in general or in relation to Israel. On the contrary alertness to the dangers of antisemitism enables criticism. It opens the space for criticism to be based on universal grounds rather than on some racist, nationalist or other particularistic premise. It allows criticism to be more persuasive precisely because it cannot be seen as a manifestation of anti-Semitic ideology. It welcomes people into the debate.

Critical thought must always be reflective of its own premises. However critical we are of Israel or Israeli policies, however much solidarity we may feel toward Palestinians, I think it is crucial that we are willing to entertain at least the possibility that anti-Semitism may be at play in our own responses. To repudiate in advance the very idea that there may be a link between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, or to denounce those who perceive such a link as merely serving to deflect criticism of Israel, seems to me wrong-headed. Indeed, it would be surprising if opposition to ‘Zionism’ (defined, say, as the right of Jews to their own state) did not sometimes overlap with anti-Semitism.

It is politically important to be open to reflection on the relation between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel not least because anti-Semitic criticism does nothing for Palestinians. For example, a number of activists and journalists have posed the question of why the Palestinian cause has historically failed to attract the popular support it ought to attract in the West or why the ‘genocide’ said to be taking place in Gaza has not created the uproar it ought to create. I have heard it said that that this is because ‘Zionists control the media’ or some other hoary chestnut. Even this response reveals a more plausible explanation – that exaggerated talk of genocide and conspiratorial talk of Zionists controlling the media make many people nervous about getting associated with a movement that may, consciously or unconsciously, have antisemitic connotations. In short, the collective attempt to make us alert to the question of antisemitism is to my mind an unqualified good for the achievement of justice for Palestinians.

It is not surprising to find that anti-Semitic sentiments exist among some sections of the Palestinian movement itself (including Hamas). However, it is not our job to naturalise, let alone condone, such manifestations of political anti-Semitism. Luckily we have the distance to hear and reflect upon the extremely troubling narratives told by Palestinians. We are not ourselves directly subjected to their experience. It is therefore far less excusable for us not to counter any such antisemitic tendencies. We should in particular abandon the myth, which seems ‘orientalist’ to me, that declares that the Arab world or Islam is culturally immune to anti-Semitism and that any manifestation of anti-Semitism in this context is either an understandable response to oppression or an import from the West. The history is complicated but in my view modern political anti-Semitism should be understood as the product of more universal factors, including the disintegration of multi-national empires, in which Jews, Christians and Moslems co-existed in some form or other, and the rise of nationalist movements after the First World War which provided full membership of the state only for members of their own nation and reserved no place for other peoples. I think this has been largely true, though in different ways, both in Europe and in the Arab world. The myth of the non-existence of Arab anti-Semitism constitutes a curious denial of agency to Arabs and an inverted form of disrespect.

Anti-Semitic criticism of Israel is also dangerous domestically since it provides a focal point around which otherwise disparate political forces may unite: the Far Right, certain sections of the anti-imperialist Left, certain forms of Islamic radicalism and even in my view certain types of postnational liberalism which heap all the sins of nationalism in our post-national age on one particular nation, Israel, as if this nation has a unique and particular illegitimacy. Clearly this is not an outcome anyone here would welcome, for the linking of these forces around a common ‘anti-Zionism’ would constitute a real threat to democratic politics. How far this process has already gone in different European countries is a matter for further investigation. In France for example the sociologist, Michel Wieviorka, concludes that so far the convergence between the Far-left, the Far Right and Islamism is limited and comments on how we tend to oscillate between the temptations to minimise or amplify the phenomenon. Brian Klug is certainly right when he argues against the idea that anti-Semitism is a “single, unified phenomenon”. Think, for instance, of the differences between the antisemitism of the Far Right in France and that to be found among some marginalised Maghrebi youth in the suburbs of Paris. To campaign actively against antisemitism is one way we can all make sure that antisemitism does not become a single unified phenomenon. Sometimes we find ourselves with allies we don’t want and when we do, this should come as a warning shot.

Finally, where the dividing line between legitimate criticism and demonisation lies, is and should be, a matter for open and public international debate. In my view, for instance, a key factor in the fight against anti-Semitism is to maintain the crucial political distinction between the form and actions of the Israeli state and that of Israeli civil society, however much support the actions of the state may appear to have among the people. In this respect the growing unpopularity of the Lebanese war inside Israel is an interesting case. The use of language is important in this respect. The language of ‘destruction’ must give way to that of transformation or democratisation.

This is one reason I oppose the proposal for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. For it is ultimately based on the unfounded assumption (as it was by the way in the case of South Africa) that there is no space for an independent and critical civil society. I am simply bemused how those of us who claim, rightly or not, to have had our voice silenced in the past and value our freedom of expression as a right we must exercise in practice, can favour denying to other people the same freedom of expression we want for ourselves. The point is not to lock people into positions or prevent them from talking across positions, but as the call for this meeting quite rightly insists, to develop dialogue across positions. Far from being opposed, the campaign for justice for Palestinians and the campaign against antisemitism are one and the same.

Robert Fine
Warwick university

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