David Hirsh’s speech at the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism – Jerusalem, 25 Feb 08

One of the reasons why so many people around the world are angry with Israel is because of the continuing occupation of Palestinian land and because Israel, which has state power, has not done enough to end the occupation. Such an occupation cannot be sustained without racism, violence and humiliation against the people who are occupied.

Jews are involved in a real conflict in the Middle East where not all the rights and wrongs are on one side, where neither nation has always acted wisely and where in the absence of peace, things can only get worse.

When Jews are involved in conflicts there is a danger that the ways people think about those conflicts get mystified in the language of antisemitism. Anti-Zionism is not a reasonable response to the actual situation; it is a response to a narrative of the actual situation which has become mystified by antisemitism.

Real human rights abuses are mystified as being genocidal like Nazism; institutional racism is mystified as being worse than apartheid; the occupation is mystified as being unique and as being a manifestation of a Zionist essence; Jewish power is mystified as an ‘Israel lobby’ capable of perverting the policy of the only super power on the planet against its own interest.

In Britain we have dealt a fairly heavy blow, for the moment, to the boycotters. In my view the main manifestation of antisemitism in the near future is going to be conspiracy theory.

The kind of antisemitism which really worries me is the kind which is difficult to spot. Governments can imprison those who commit racist assaults and they can ban hate-speech. But we cannot shut down the Guardian newspaper or my trade union or the Green Party.

Why not? Because contemporary antisemitism is not explicitly or obviously antisemitic.

We can respond that according to the EUMC working definition this or that piece in the Guardian is in fact antisemitic, irrespective of what people think. But the counter-response will be “of course, you wrote it”.

I am not against bringing legal or bureaucratic power to bear against antisemitism when that is possible – interestingly the boycott in my own union was ended with the help of a combination of the two. But we have to lead with a political fight, by making and winning arguments.

We should not base our strategy on the assumption that the powerful in the world – or in America – will be prepared to oppose antisemitism. We should not act as though the “lobby” rhetoric was true. It isn’t. Moshe Postone tells us that antisemitism can appear to be anti-hegemonic. But we shouldn’t act as though antisemitism was in fact anti-hegemonic.

We don’t aim to change the mind of Ilan Pappe or Saumas Milne but we do aim to change the mind of those who may be influenced by them. Yesterday John Mann said that the boycotters are afraid of us. And I think they are. They’re not afraid of being denounced as wild-eyed leftists or as antisemites or as self-haters. They love that.

But they are afraid of coming up against people who have a chance of influencing their own followers or of sewing doubt amongst those who they aim to influence. This is a difficult job. Thursday’s Guardian is a case-study in how difficult the job is.

The contemporary way of doing antisemitic conspiracy theory was given a stamp of professorial legitimacy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in 2006. They created a vocabulary which one could use to express conspiracy theory and which did not seem to be antisemtic.

Conspiracy theory is nearly always, today, articulated using the Livingstone Formulation, which claims that Jews play the antisemitism card in bad faith in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. In this way, anyone who raises a worry about contemporary antisemitism already stands accused of doing so maliciously; and they stand accused of doing so as part of a common plan with others. Livingstone’s formulation also denies the distinction between criticism and demonization.

Thursday’s Guardian had the rhetoric and the images of antisemitic conspiracy theory running through it, from the front page to the inside pages, to the leader. Antisemitism of this sort is not explicit, is not obvious, and is not self-aware. It is necessary to analyze and interpret a text to know whether it is antisemitic.

The substance of the exclusive story was that a civil servant had written the word “Israel” on the margin of a document in relation to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. The word “Israel” was removed before the draft document was made public. That’s it. That’s the story.

The front page headline is: ‘Labour kept criticism of Israel secret’ and it is illustrated by Israeli flags and Union Jacks; when you click the link on the website, it becomes ‘How Labour used the law to keep criticism of Israel secret’. A sub-headline informs us: ‘Israel’s weapons – a diplomatic no-go area’. And the leader brings together all of the soundbites and imagery of contemporary antisemitic conspiracy theory: censorship; suppression of the word ‘Israel’; cravenness of the Labour government (before the ‘lobby’); secret deliberation; an act of concealment; exploiting the loopholes; Israel regularly kicks up a fuss over far more minor matters; the blue pencil; decisions reached in secret; ‘Israel’ the banned word; how easily the tribunal can be influenced into concealing public material.

The central task that the Engage website has set itself is to rebut and de-code this kind of antisemitism so that it can be understood for what it is. We should not underestimate either how important or how difficult this task is.

We are involved in a political argument. We aim to change people’s minds. Our central task is to make sure that the intelligentsia is able to recognize antisemitism.

It should go without saying that as well as being able to recognize antisemitism, we should also know how to recognize other racisms too.

Fighting antisemitism is not the same thing as Israel-advocacy – although in a world where antisemitism appears in the language of hostility to Israel, they tend to become linked. Natan Sharansky may or may not be right when he says that on every campus “we need students able to defend Israel”.

But at this conference we are concerned with building a cadre of students on every campus who are able to recognize antisemitism. They are related but they are not the same thing.

We need to win people over by offering them something worth fighting for.

We need to champion freedom of speech and academic freedom, which work for, not against us.

We shouldn’t denounce human rights, we should insist that they are taken seriously.

We shouldn’t denounce anti-racism, we should insist on it.

We shouldn’t denounce liberal and socialist and democratic and universalist values; we should show how they have been perverted by antisemitism.

A fight for the particularist values of those who are already resigned to a ‘clash of civilizations’ is not right and will not be effective in opposing antisemitism.

We need to offer something to believe in which is worth fighting for; a worldview which can be embraced by people who want justice for the Palestinians as well as justice for Israelis, by people who hate Islamophobia as well as people who hate antisemitism.

I want to finish by endorsing what Abe Foxman said yesterday. We should pledge: “never again to be silent in the face of racism.”

David Hirsh

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