Some comments on the “Israel must lose” letter – David Hirsh

David Hirsh

David Hirsh

[Correction: I apologize for having mistakenly claimed that this letter was also signed by the antisemite Gilad Atzmon. I misread the web page. In fact Atzmon signed the letter below in The Guardian – DH]

This letter, signed by a large number of academics, represents yet another milestone in the escalation of the demonization of Israel in British public life.

It is signed by a number of serious and well respected people such as Etienne Balibar, Conor Gearty, Eric Hobsbawm, Ernesto Laclau, Eyal Weizman, Nira Yuval-Davis, Slavoj Zizek and Paul Gilroy.

It is also signed by the usual list of people who spend their time spreading hatred of Israel and trying to have Israelis “boycotted”, such as Mona baker, Haim Bresheeth, Alex Callinicos, Keith Hammond,Ted Honderich, Ilan Pappe, Hilary Rose, and Richard Seaford.

The letter is incoherent. The final paragraph begins with the following:

We believe Israel should immediately and unconditionally end its assault on Gaza, end the occupation of the West Bank, and abandon all claims to possess or control territory beyond its 1967 borders.

This paragraph clearly favours a two state solution to the conflict and a peace between the two nations. In the previous paragraph the signatories articulate their concern for Israel’s security:

Israel must accept that its security depends on justice and peaceful coexistence with its neighbours, and not upon the criminal use of force.

So far so good. All this, the call for an immediate ceasefire, an unconditional withdrawal from the occupied territories, the characterization of its use of force as criminal – all this is within the bounds of serious and legitimate criticism. But it is incompatible with the sharp end of the letter.

The massacres in Gaza are the latest phase of a war that Israel has been waging against the people of Palestine for more than 60 years.

Here the signatories make it clear that they consider the State of Israel itself, not only the occupation, to be illegitimate. They make it clear that they believe that Israel’s use of force to sustain the occupation is part of the same war as the defensive wars with which Israel has managed to guarantee its survival. They, like the Israeli far right, deny any politically significant distinction between the occupied territories and Israel itself (see This is Really Two Wars).

Israel must lose. …we are obliged to take sides … against Israel, and with the people of Gaza and the West Bank. …We must do what we can to stop Israel from winning its war.

The signatories pledge to do what they can to ensure the military defeat of Israel.

Apparently they want Israel to be defeated militarily in Gaza and in the West Bank, they want Israeli troops to be sent home to Israel and they want that to be the basis for a new peaceful co-existence in the Middle East.

Here the signatories are imagining that the conflict is between an imperialist occupier on the one hand (the oppressors) and a national resistance movement on the other (the oppressed). They want to support the war of the oppressed against the oppressors. They want, modestly, to put their weight behind the movement for Palestinian national liberation without acting as imperialist outsiders, telling them how to fight their struggle.

But they are clever people, mostly, and they know full well that the conflict is more complicated than that.

They know that Palestine is politically divided between Hamas and Fatah.

They know that Hamas is, as well as being a nationalist movement, an antisemitic movement which is constitutionally and practically committed to killing the Jews in the Middle East and instituting an authoritarian Islamic state throughout Israel and Palestine.

They back some of this aspiration, insomuch as only half of them half believe that Israel has a right to exist, and they all know that if Israel did not exist then the Jews of Israel would be in grave danger.

They know that a military defeat for Israel would put the Jews of Israel at great risk. And yet they call for it.

They pretend to believe that a military defeat for Israel at the hands of Hamas or perhaps Hezbollah or perhaps Iran, could lead to a peace agreement which could guarantee Israel’s security. But most of these signatories are too clever and too well-read to believe that.

The letter is phrased in a curiously ‘quantitative’ language:

It is not enough to urge the renewal of dialogue and to acknowledge the concerns and suffering of both sides.

Dialogue, ceasefire, peace, a two state solution are not enough. They want to go further. Beyond dialogue is military victory for Hamas. Beyond ceasefire, beyond peace, beyond a two state solution, is war. Peace is not enough; they want victory. And they understand clearly how to build a movement against peace and for war:

We call on the British government and the British people to take all feasible steps to oblige Israel to comply with these demands, starting with a programme of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Boycott is war against Israel by other means.

And the global campaign for the military defeat of Israel is also a genocidal campaign. And these signatories know it. They know what the military defeat of Israel would mean. And yet they call for it.

David Hirsh
Goldsmiths, University of London
Editor, Engage

NB Bob from Brockley’s response to this letter is well worth reading too.

25 Responses to “Some comments on the “Israel must lose” letter – David Hirsh”

  1. Mark Says:

    And of course it is worth noting the fate of those who are defcenceless against Islamists, Dafuri’s, women and gays in Iran etc

    I have reached the conclusion that we are now no longer dealing with many of Israel’s opponents, with views that are political in any meaningful sense – this is about pathology.

  2. Andy Dowland Says:

    Hi David,
    I’m on the Engage mailing list because I am opposed to any boycott of Israelis and against all forms of racism and anti-semitism, but cannot agree with your misrepresentation of the Guardian letter as promoting genocide against Jews.

    The letter may be signed by people that you or I do not agree with, but that does not mean that the letter is automatically wrong. The Israeli Government is committing war crimes in Gaza right now, it is not anti-semitic to state that.

    I respect your opinion, but if that it is the view of Engage that criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is anti-semitism, then I cannot in good conscience call myself a supporter of Engage. A good friend does tell a friend when he’s wrong.

  3. Bernard Maro Says:

    In France, Etienne Balibar has always been part of the campaign demonizing Israel. Sorry to disappoint you, David.

  4. David Hirsh Says:


    I didn’t make the case against this letter based on who signed it but based on what it was they said.

    I didn’t say that it was antisemitic to state that the “Israeli Government is committing war crimes”. I stated the opposite: “…the characterization of [Israel’s] use of force as criminal – all this is within the bounds of serious and legitimate criticism.”

    I did say that to call for the military defeat of Israel is potentially genocidal.

    It is genocidal because everyone serious knows that the military defeat of Israel would put Israeli Jews in grave danger for their lives.

    The force fighting against Israel at the moment is Hamas. Hamas is genocidal and is constituted by a genocidal document. This doesn’t tell us all we need to know about Hamas but it tells us something important.

    And it tell us something important about the call for a military defeat of Israel.

    Therefore I don’t think that to characterize a call for the military defeat of Israel as genocidal is a “misrepresentation”. Particularly when that call claims that the current war is 60 years old and therefore that the state of Israel is illegitimate.

  5. David Hirsh Says:

    Andy, I have always been clear that what we need is clarity on the distinction between criticism of this or that policy or action of Israel on the one hand and other things, such as demonization or campaigns for exclusion on the other.

    I do not think it is fair to claim that I have ever said – or that Engage has ever held the position – that criticism of the Israeli government is anti-semitic.

    Here’s a piece I wrote on the topic some time ago:

  6. Richard Says:

    There are signatories to this letter who do not suppoprt 2 states, people who believe Israel has no right to exist whatever. Yet they are happy to sign it. They are happy to sign it because they fully understand the implications and the scenario that the demands of the letter would result in. They understand that a 2 states settlement is not what would happen.This is why they have signed it. It hasn’t fooled them and it hasn’t fooled you David.

  7. Richard Says:

    Andy “I respect your opinion, but if that it is the view of Engage that criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is anti-semitism, then I cannot in good conscience call myself a supporter of Engage. A good friend does tell a friend when he’s wrong.”

    Hi Andy. Engage does not and has never said “that criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is anti-semitism”.

    If you think Engage has then can you back it up with any examples from the website or anything ever written by Engage ?

  8. David Says:

    David Hirsh says:

    “Here the signatories make it clear that they consider the State of Israel itself, not only the occupation, to be illegitimate.”

    I don’t think they’re saying anything of the sort. Why else would they call for Israel to withdraw from the occupied lands to the pre-1967 borders? You have taken the rather loose definition of “60 years war” and run with it for all it’s worth. My understanding of what they are saying is that Israel must lose in this present, cynical and opportunist (pre-Bush’s departure), not to mention criminal (use of bake and shake phosphorous shells) assault on the defenceless citizens of Gaza. They are not, in anyway, calling for what you extrapolate, namely an invasion/genocide of Israel.

  9. Andy Dowland Says:

    Hi Richard,
    I’m very happy to hear David say that he doesn’t hold that position and neither does Engage. It was how I took his original comments.

  10. Richard Says:

    Thanks for your reply Andy.
    If David Hirsh thought that criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians was antisemitic then that would make David , myself and other people involved in Engage antisemites. We have all criticised policies of Israeli governments – be it in writing or as speakers at meetings.

  11. Englender Says:

    There was an article recently published in The New Republic about Slavoj Zizek by the respected writer Adam Kirsch, “The Deadly Jester” which is directly relevant to the discussion about antisemitism:

    Zizek replied in the following issue of TNR:

  12. Bill Says:

    I think David might be a little too kind given the dual claim that they have “some security concerns” but want an unconditional withdrawal from all territories with no reference to security for Israel but anyway…

    Touching on Englander’s comments form yesterday, letters like this do more than just further the the already yawning chasm between academia and the rest of the universe outside of the campus bubble. Non academics don’t get us on a good day. When sober academics read letters like that one, we have to wonder to whom we’re sending our advisees and students across campus — and mind you this isn’t the first such letter I’ve seen signed by a me-too gang (and it goes well beyond Israel) where I’ve had to start thinking uncomfortable thoughts like that. I might be able to deal with someone who thinks gravity is a social construct or who rotates one xeroxed viewgraph over another to prove the universe leans towards a circular (no really!) but someone so orgasmic in their hate towards Israel or anyone else to send a letter like that? Can they compartmentalize that that level of venom so doesn’t spill over into other areas? Apparently not since they are now targeting Jewish british academics. How would they evaluate a student who was going abroad to study Israel (or an Israeli student), a jr faculty member up for tenure/promotion who was Israeli or sympathetic to Israel (at any level, from “Engage levels” of critical honesty to Daniel Pipes) or better still kept his or her opinions to his or her particular discipline area rather then sign such letters when “invited” to do so? What other ideas don’t they permit since people like this don’t limit their Big-P meets little-p politics to one area. I wouldn’t fire ’em and likely here we can’t since so many of them would be tenured. But can I trust them to handle themselves professionally in areas adjacent or totally separate from this issue? Reasonable doubt exists, and damage caused by such letters can be more harmful to the academy than outside actions against the institutions or unions.

  13. j.r. Says:

    Andy Dowland states above that “The Israeli Government is committing war crimes in Gaza”. Perhaps he is privy to evidence and legal opinion that is not generally available. However it is evident to anyone who follows the news that Hamas has been committing war crimes for eight years with its indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians, and for far longer with its suicide-murder attacks. As far as I am aware the Guardian letter signatories have never complained about these war crimes. They state “We must do what we can to stop Israel from winning its war.” I wonder what they can do. Will they become suicide bombers? Help to smuggle rockets? The bottom line is that the defeat of Israel by Hamas, on Hamas’ terms, means the annihilation of Israel, and nothing less. This appears to be what the signatories of this letter are calling for.

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  16. Gil Says:

    Further to Englender’s above post re Slavoj Zizek. I’ve just read the exchange in TNR between Zizek and a TNR editor who takes Zizek to task for some unsavoury comments about Jews and antisemitism.

    Now, I have to admit that I haven’t read any of Zizek’s books. However, from the TNR review and the above subsequent exchange between Zizek and the TNR person it appear that Zizek has said some very questionable things about the Jewish people. He seems to be blaming the victims for their persecution. In additon, he seems to be calling for the elimination of Zionists. I’m willing to put this down to my wider ignorance about his work but I wonder why David Hirsh says that Zizek is ‘well repsected’?

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  18. Bernard Says:

    I reckon the people that signed their named to that letter in the Guardian have a problem which can be traced back to to what psychoanalysts called the “comfort blanket syndrome.”Broadly speaking head mechanics believe that comfort blankets, familiar objects, usually retained from childhood, provide, er am, comfort at times of great stress.
    Quite a few adults have retained their comfort blankets. Likewise, do you re-call those horrendous Yasser Arafat /PLO scarf’s from the 80s.Many young men and women wore them. I remember them at the break of day as Yeats might intone, doc martin boots, combat jackets, a copy of London Calling by zee Clash, roll your own fags, pubs closing at 10pm on a Sunday night.But at least we had the auld Yasser scarf wrapped around our collective skulls, symbolizing solidarity with a movements ambition to slaughter their Jewish neighbours, The moral certitude of those carefree days, the lack of ambiguity; all Jews, even Lenoard Cohen, who signed up for the Yom Kippur war, (for the Jews) were homicidal maniacs, and the PLO, like our own brand of facists here in Ireland, the IRA, fun loving freedom fighters. And then it was all over in a flash, alas, the advent of adulthood.I believe that authors of the letter to the Guardina still have their Yasser
    scarf’s, their comfort blankets if you like, which they reach back to in times of great stress in the middle east.
    Do you boys and girls that inked your namen to that Guardian letter still have your Yasser scarf’s? Do you arise at the break of day, your lower lip quivering like the former PLO chief, scarf draped around your shoulder, still infusing you with moral certitude after all these years.Do you work yourself into a lather of self righteous indignation as you post, the words dribbling out of the corner of your mouths into a crescendo of fevered adjectives on your keywords.
    Hmmmm, the old Yasser scarfs, I reckon there are hundreds of thousands of them lying abandoned in attics throughout Ireland and Britain – like pictures of Dorian Gray.

  19. Ros Morris Says:

    From what I can see from the letter in The Guardian, it is an encitement to commit murder. These people will, it seems, be only too happy for my daughter, my sister, my brother-in-law, my nephews, nieces, great nieces and great nephews be exterminated so that Hamas can win a war against Israel. For something like this to appear in a mainstream British newspaper is disgraceful and this newspaper should be prosecuted.

  20. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    And, Ros, while some of these people are too young to know better (they _should_ but they don’t), people like Eric Hobsbawm really should know better. He survived the Holocaust because his parents took him and his siblings out of central Europe to Egypt, so he “missed” the Holocaust. While he doesn’t even qualify as an “emigre”, he must have had relatives who didn’t read the writing on the wall, didn’t leave, and as a result died long before their time.

    Yet he has the gall, the unmitigated nerve, to condemn the Israelis for ensuring that the number of the dead doesn’t reach 7 or even 8 million. Indeed, he evenndemab]nds that the Israelis must lose, so that not only your relatives, but my wife’s cousins, and every one else’s relatives must die.

    And I thought that increasing age brougfht an increasing dread of death. I know (like Woody Allen) it does with me, but Hobsbawm clearly cares _less_, as he grows older.

  21. Wolfgang Remmel Says:

    Dear Mr. Hirsh,

    your write: This letter, signed by a large number of academics …

    To me it seemed a very small number (if a hundred people, say, gather in one place it looks a lot, but is still small if you consider the population they are taken from).
    And the letter was almost completly ignored by the (natural) scientist.
    I found
    Computer science: 1
    Physics: 1
    Mathematics: 2
    Not very impressive numbers.

    Wolfgang Remmel

  22. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Wolfgang, that means that the really worrying thing is that so many in what the Americans call “the liberal arts” (social scientists, philosophers, historians, and so forth) found the letter appealing. They are educating those who will be the next generation of political leaders, and at least some of those who will be business leaders.

    So much for expecting those who are not scientists to be just as intellectually rigorous as “proper” scientists.

    I know that I (as a retired sociologist) try to be just as rigorous, which is why I comment as I do; but that so many of my fellow social scientists aren’t as rigorous worries and disturbs me.

  23. Bill Says:

    Before we blame everything on the people in the so-called “humanagonies” there are a goodly number of science and engineering profs (and I’m a sci/eng guy myself) who are as hermetically sealed in the academic bubble the worst liberal arts stereotype. Just because they didn’t sign that particular letter doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have signed it if asked to. Circulation of petitions and letters tend to be along closed circles and cliques so it’s not surprising that the signers are mostly out of a monoculture.

  24. Sue R Says:

    I took it that the signatories of the letter represented the influence of the SWP within institutions of higher education. That and pro-Iranian academics. I don’t knodw if it is anti-semitism that prompts people to sign a letter like this, in the case of one of the signatories (who is known to me personally), I would say it is naivite.

  25. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Sue R, I don’t think that Eric Hobsbawm is in or influenced by the SWP. I suspect that he is a “non-Jewish Jew”, somehow managing to ignore his heritage and especially his lucky escape from Europe, and I’m sure there are others on the list like him. One thing he isn’t is naive.

    He’s entitled to be such a person, his heriatage is, after all, an accident of birth from his point of view. What he does seem naive about is the unstated assumption that his signature on such a letter would make him a “good Jew”, one who will escape from the consequences of that heritage because of his disavowal of Zionism.

    After all, Shakespeare had Cinna the poet die for his bad poetry (in “Julius Caesar”) even though he wasn’t a conspirator against Caesar.

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