‘Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-semitic’ – a commentary by Norman Geras

'Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-semitic' -  a commentary by Norman GerasThe latest move in UCU towards a boycott of Israeli academics includes the proposition that ‘criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are [sic] not, as such, anti-semitic’. This may be seen as successor to the claim embodied in an earlier motion: namely, that ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic’. It certainly improves on that earlier claim, which was false. Criticism of Israel can sometimes, quite properly, be construed as being anti-Semitic. It can be construed as being anti-Semitic when it is in fact anti-Semitic – as it is, for example, when it contains openly anti-Semitic tropes such as that the Jews control the world, or the world’s media, or the world’s banks, or that they are apes and pigs, and so forth.

The latest proposition, I repeat, improves on this earlier claim, for in saying that criticism of Israel or Israeli policy is not, as such, anti-Semitic, it says only that that criticism is not anti-Semitic in itself, and this is true. It is true without qualification. Wherever criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, as it plainly sometimes is, it is anti-Semitic because of something additional about it than its merely being criticism of Israel: it is so because the terms of it contain anti-Semitic themes, and/or because it is excessive (comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, for example), and/or because it betrays double standards, being targeted on Israel to the exclusion of other similar or worse cases and with the aim of punishing Israeli academics and only Israeli academics.

I don’t think we should put in question the truth of this proposition. It risks playing into the hands of people who argue that we don’t tolerate any criticism of Israel without raising the charge of anti-Semitism – an accusation which is demonstrably false. What is wrong with the statement that criticism of Israel or Israeli policy is not, as such, anti-Semitic, is not that it’s untrue, but that in the context in which it appears it’s a piece of rank hypocrisy. The proposers of the UCU motion no longer have the cheek to say, in the face of plain facts, that there cannot be anti-Semitic criticism of Israel, so they say only that criticism of Israel isn’t necessarilyanti-Semitic. But in saying this they blithely pass over and indeed seek to obscure:

(a) that those of us opposing the boycott have never claimed that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic;

(b) that, even if it isn’t necessarily so, there is, these days, some anti-Semitic criticism of Israel about, which, as avowed anti-racists, the boycotters of UCU should feel an obligation to counteract rather than just behaving as if it had no relevance to the campaign they are relentlessly pursuing;

(c) that what they are themselves proposing – a boycott directed at the academics of one country and one country only – is aimed at academics who are mostly Jewish, and that they have never been able to come up with a satisfactory account of why the academics of countries other than Israel which have appalling human rights records should not be the subject of their boycotting efforts;

(d) that a boycott which punishes Israeli academics goes beyond ‘criticism’.

In these circumstances the proposition in question has roughly the same status in the context of the UCU motion that, mutatis mutandis, the disclaimer ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ has come to have in the self-deceiving conversation of people harbouring low-level forms of anti-Jewish prejudice.

Norman Geras is professor emeritus in politics at the University of Manchester and he blogs at Normblog.

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