Historical Materialism Conference 2009 : A DEBATE ON ZIONISM, ANTISEMITISM AND THE LEFT

Chair: Sebastian Budgen
John Rose
Robert Fine
Shlomo Sand

Here’s Robert Fine’s Speech.

I want to speak today not so much about Zionism and antisemitism themselves but rather about how we think and talk about antisemitism and Zionism. I want to speak more about ourselves and our place in the world than about the rights and wrongs of the existential struggles taking place in the Middle East.
My point of departure is a familiar refrain among critics of Israel that antisemitism is raised as a problem only by those who wish to invalidate criticism of Israel. Let me illustrate this refrain through a few quotations – three from my union, two from academics, two from politicians:

Antisemitism charges are just part of the deal for anyone who speaks out for Palestine.  The important point in all this is that we keep speaking out for Palestine… no one is fooled by this demonizing of all opposition to Israel…  (UCU activist). 

Criticism of Israel cannot be construed as antisemitic (UCU motion 2007)

Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy is not, as such, antisemitic (UCU motion 2008).

The charge of antisemitism is used to translate what one is actually hearing, say a protest against the killing of children and civilians by the Israeli army, into hatred of Jews. (Judith Butler)

By shouting antisemitism every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians, defenders of Israel rob the word of its universal resonance. If you criticise Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of antisemitism. Indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn’t just arouse antisemitism. It is antisemitism. (Tony Judt)

For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been. (Ken Livingstone)

I am sick of being accused of anti-Semitism when what I am doing is criticising Israel and the state of Israel. (Jenny Tongue)

What is common to these quotations is a deep scepticism about the alarm Jews and non-Jews express about the growth of antisemitism and about the ties that sometimes bind the growth of antisemitism to negative representations of Israel and Zionism. The argument that the charge of antisemitism serves only to invalidate criticism of the Israeli occupation and human rights abuses is a way of saying that people only raise fears of antisemitism in bad faith. An emphatic insistence that antizionism is not antisemitic, but is labelled antisemitic by ‘defenders of Israel’, presupposes that antisemitism is no longer real, it has become (at least in this context) a political ploy. In some quarters the charge of antisemitism is now almost a badge of honour rather than an occasion for self-reflection. Quite often individuals speak ‘as Jews’ and offer the authority of being Jewish to confirm that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic either in its motives or effects.

From the perspective of the left, a refusal to take antisemitism seriously seems to me a problem for a movement that wishes to be consistently antiracist. From the perspective of a European the idea that it is no longer antisemitism that is troubling Europe but talk of antisemitism seems to me an equally troubling notion.
Let me illustrate my argument through two reports on antisemitism issued by the EU Monitoring Commission (now called the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights) and more saliently through responses made to them by critics of Israel. The European commissioners fully accepted that criticism of Israel is not as such antisemitic, but warned that criticism of Israel can and sometimes does overlap with antisemitism. No one who looks at David Duke’s website should need further persuasion on this issue. The commissioners also argued, however, that liberal and left wing criticism of Israel can also turn into antisemitism if such criticism takes a particular shape or form: for example, if Israel is selected as uniquely evil or violent among nations; or if all Jews or all Israeli Jews are held collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel; or if the military occupation of Palestine is compared with the Nazi extermination of Jews; or if Israel is represented through long established antisemitic myths of world conspiracy, control of the media and murder of non-Jewish children. The commissioners maintained that in such cases substitution of the word ‘Zionist’ for ‘Jewish’ may make little substantial difference to the hostility in question.

These reports raise the question of where legitimate political criticism of Israel stops and antisemitism kicks in. They may or may not have got it right but we should not deny the validity of these concerns. However, the more critical responses to these reports argued that the commissions that produced them were influenced by the Israel lobby, grossly exaggerated the threat posed by antisemitism in Europe, gave excessive weight to the subjective claims of Jews to suffer from antisemitism, and most important gave spurious credence to the notion that criticism of Israel is a form of antisemitism. I think we would all agree that some kinds of ‘criticism’ of Israel – for example, that Jews are congenitally indifferent to the suffering of others or have a blood lust for murdering non-Jewish children or that Jews have no right to live in the Middle East – are antisemitic. It all depends on here we draw the line.

Inside Europe denial of antisemitism in connection with ‘criticism’ of Israel has been closely linked with a rewriting of the post-history, if we can call it so, of the Holocaust. It is said that commemoration of the Holocaust is too exclusive, that it is all about Jewish suffering, that it ignores the millions of non-Jewish civilians also murdered under Nazi rule. It is said that that no universal meaning is drawn from collective memory of the Holocaust, that we suffer from a surfeit of Holocaust museums, films and histories as if this were the only injustice we need to remember. It is said that it is inconsistent to make Holocaust-denial illegal but not denial of other genocides. Why for instance does the Armenian genocide not receive the same attention? It is said finally that memory of the Holocaust serves as an alibi or excuse for current Israeli human rights abuses, or that Jews have collectively become so self-obsessed by their own suffering that they are constitutionally blinded to the suffering of Palestinians.

The normative premises of this kind of criticism of the uses of the Holocaust are unexceptionable. Memory of the Holocaust ought not privilege the suffering of Jews at the expense of other sufferings. The cry of ‘Never Again’ ought not to be converted into an injunction that this crime should never again be done to Jews. The memory of the Holocaust ought not protect Israel from criticism. Concern over antisemitism ought not blind us to other racisms. In brief, those to whom evil is done should not do evil in return. This normative standpoint appears consistently universalistic.

But who says otherwise? Who is it that does not share this universalistic view on life? We are told: ‘they’ are sensitive only to the mass murder of Jews, ‘they’ turn the Holocaust into an excuse to ignore other crimes, ‘they’ shout antisemitism every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians. Who are ‘they’? The amorphousness of the designated enemy is part of the problem, but the target is clear enough: they are the ‘Zionists’. Zionists are said to instrumentalise the Holocaust for their own purposes.

Now it may be true of certain right-wing Jewish nationalists that they think only or mainly of Jewish suffering and ignore or downplay the suffering of others. But I would wish to make two points. First, it is generally true of nationalists that they respond to racism against their own people in their own nationalistic ways. This is a common enough phenomenon. There is nothing that marks out Jewish nationalists here from the general phenomenon that opposition to racism against ones own people may not be consistently antiracist. Second, to move from a critique of right wing nationalism to the notion that Jews or Israeli Jews only think of their own people is perilously close to a move from a political argument to an antisemitic argument. I think we would all agree on this. And if we move to the notion that ‘Zionists’ only think of their own people, we are not much better off since the term ‘Zionist’ serves more as a term of abuse than as one with any political referent.
Collective memory of the Holocaust does not of course consume our capacity for compassion or makes us blind to the suffering of others. Compassion is not a fixed quantity of capital and memory of the Holocaust equally serves as a ‘fire alarm’ alerting us to other atrocities. Emphasis on the particularity of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust does not subvert its universal meaning.

I would agree that there has been a tendency since the 1960s to sacralise the Holocaust, a tendency to indulge in a kind of ‘Holocaust piety’, as Gillian Rose memorably put it. This should be resisted. The Holocaust is a historical event, part of European history. Indeed, there are ties that bind what Europe did to others outside Europe (colonised peoples) to what Europe did to others in Europe (Jews). But does this mean that Holocaust commemoration is invalid if it does not refer to what ‘the Jews’ are doing to Palestinians or does not draw parallels between the Warsaw ghetto and Gaza? Surely not.

I never cease to be amazed at the ability as Europeans to recreate ourselves as the civilised continent – the ones who have learnt the universal lessons of the Holocaust – and to treat the Jews as those who have failed to learn the lesson. This European hubris can take the form a liberal narrative of progress which pays tribute to the success of the new Europe in transcending its so-called ‘longest hatred’. It usually acknowledges that antisemitism was a monstrous feature of Europe’s past, but insists that the conditions that gave rise to genocidal antisemitism have now come to an end with the defeat of Nazism, the rise of the European Union and the reunification of Europe.

While the strength of the Left is to resist this faith in progress and to explore the ways in which European racism is a recurring phenomenon, it also shares with liberals the conviction that antisemitism has run its course. What many on the left say is that antisemitism has been replaced by Islamophobia as the ‘real racism’ of the moment. The race question, we are told, is no longer whether Jews can be good Germans or good Brits but whether Muslims can be good Europeans.

Either way, either in its liberal or radical forms, the factual claim that antisemitism is no longer a problem in Europe serves to exclude antisemitism from the list of racisms Europe now has to confront if a new (non-racist) Europe is to be built. It deadens the nerve of outrage.

This rewriting of European history leaves out the multiple ways in which the past weighs upon the present. Far too much weight is placed on the assumption that antisemitism has been overcome by the rise of the new Europe. On the one hand, we see the re-emergence of ultra-nationalist parties in Europe. We might think, for example, of the Tories’ new friends in the EU, the Conservatives and Reformists grouping, led by the Polish politician, Michal Kaminski, who began his political journey in a neo-Nazi organisation, wore fascist antisemitic symbols and continues to hold that Poles should not apologise for the 1941 pogrom at Jedwabne until Jews have apologised for the wrongs they inflicted on Poles. Or we might think of the Latvian affiliate to this grouping, the For Fatherland and Freedom party, that has been a prime mover behind annual parades celebrating the Latvian legion of the Waffen-SS. We know that Kaminski and the For Fatherland and Freedom party are but the tip of a large and ugly iceberg of a growing nationalist politics in Europe.

On the other hand, the liberal establishment of the new Europe is not exempt from its own exclusions. The conceptual dichotomy between an allegedly postnational Europe and its nationalistic Others re-creates a moral division of the world between us and them, which can stigmatise the other as much as it idealises ourselves. It is not inevitable that the new Europe must be exclusionary in this way but the urge is internal to it. The representation of Israel as the incarnation of the negative properties Europe has succeeded in overcoming is a case in point. ‘Israel’ and ‘Zionism’ serve as vessels into which the European can project all that is bad in European history – its colonial past, ethnic divisions, institutionalised racisms, excesses of superfluous violence – and preserve the good for ourselves.

In European thought there has long existed a conviction that if we can only rid ourselves of some alien element – be it the bourgeoisie, parasites, terrorists or Jews – then all will be well. Representation of Israel as a pariah state or pariah people can perform a similar mythic function for a European consciousness anxious to divest itself of the legacy not only of its own past but also its present.

The denial of antisemitism cannot be explained by any conspiracy to forge an anti-Israel alliance. Its roots are more mundane. They lie in the genuine sense of outrage many of us rightly feel about human rights abuses committed by Israelis and about the need for justice for Palestinians. They lie in the experience most of us have that antisemitism is not a day to day problem in the UK. They lie in a politics of identity in which radical Jews declare that we are not like them and that what the Jewish state does is done ‘not in our name’. They lie in a politics of anti-imperialism which divides the world between oppressor and oppressed nations without allowing any complication or intersubjective dynamic to enter this binary picture. They lie in an idealist philosophy that leads us to measure the constitution and actions of a particular political state against the ideal of what a rational state ought to be. When we discover that the Jewish state falls short of the democratic secular ideal, we make our judgments on this basis rather than compare the justice and injustices of the Jewish state against the material practices of other states. They lie in the dynamics of political argument itself which tends to divide the world into opposing camps and leads us to caricature the beliefs of the other camp. It lies, as I have intimated, in the old European hubris of idealising ourselves by projecting onto others the barbarities (past and present) we cannot face up to.

I have focused in this polemic on Europe but let me end on this note. The struggle for justice for Palestinians and the struggle against antisemitism are not worlds apart. They belong to one another and draw from the same sources. As far as justice for Palestinians is concerned, the antisemitism question is not a red herring. It is a key to breaking out of the current impasse. Antisemitism does no good whatever for the Palestinian cause. In Europe it diminishes support for Palestinian rights. In Israel it reinforces the grip of nationalistic right wingers who know very well how to exploit antisemitism for their own ends. In Palestine it reinforces the grip of fundamentalist leaderships that threaten the freedom of Palestinians from within as well as the existence of Israel from without. In Arab states it allows reactionary rulers to divert social and political opposition into hatred of Jews. In the Middle East more generally it blames Israel and Israel alone for the suffering of Palestinians as if the end of Israel and beginning of justice for Palestinians were one and the same thing. It diverts from the real responsibilities of power that Israel has and is failing to meet.

We have to be careful not to invert the problem we are addressing. If some ultra-nationalists in Israel or elsewhere racialise Arabs and turn them into a unitary category, the temptation we must resist is to respond with an act of reversal that turns ‘Zionists’ into an equally otherised unitary category. We have also to be careful not to place Palestinians in a single identity script as victims of Israel and hear only the voice we want to hear. I am not suggesting that Palestinians are not victims but they are not only victims and not only victims of Israel. The problem we need to tackle is that our sense of injustice about the treatment of Palestinians can incline us to see that injustice as the formative experience in their lives and replace recognition of their agency with our contempt for the people we charge with excluding and oppressing them.
The critical space I am calling for has to include a concern for our common humanity alongside a concern for inequality and power. No human being is entirely ‘other’ than another, even where unequal social structures make this hard to see. Gillian Rose put it well:

The ‘other’ is equally the distraught subject searching for its substance, its ethical life.

Colloquium I: Aspects of Antisemitism in the UK

International Study Group
Education and Research on Antisemitism

Colloquium I: Aspects of Antisemitism in the UK

Saturday, 5 December 2009, 2 pm
Bedford Square Building Royal Holloway University of London, Room G3, 2 Gower Street, London WC1E 6DP

2.15 pm
Lesley Klaff
Antisemitism on Campus: A Modern Perspective

3.15 pm
Philip Spencer
Antisemitism and Holocaust Memorial Day

4.15 pm
Gunther Jikeli
Antisemitism Among Young Muslims in London

For further details, please email

  • london@iibsa.org or contact
  • Hagai van der Horst (hagaivdh@googlemail.com),
  • Doerte Letzmann (d.letzmann@rhul.ac.uk) or
  • Gunther Jikeli (g.jikeli@iibsa.org)

Flyer for Colloquium I.

The organisers tried hard to avoid scheduling this event for a Saturday, and will do all they can to prevent this happening for future events.

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