Philip Spencer’s talk to the UCU meeting “Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Resistance Yesterday and Today.”

ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE HOLOCAUST

Talk to the UCU meeting.

Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Resistance Yesterday and Today.

27 January 2010

Professor Philip Spencer, UCU member and Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University.

I should like to thank the UCU for the invitation to come and talk today and about this topic. . It is always an honour and a privilege to talk on Holocaust Memorial Day, which is a very serious day for reflection and remembering. The Holocaust changed, or should have changed, the way we think about the world, about what was and is possible. It was a watershed of a kind, an unprecedented event, as Hannah Arendt was one of the first to describe it, in which a modern state deliberately sought to wipe a whole people, the Jews, from off the face of the earth, not just to oppress them or to exploit them or to force them out them from a particular area, or to steal their goods or resources or property (though they did that too and quite systematically at times) but to murder them, consciously, deliberately, intentionally.

We can remember this event for many reasons and in different ways and for different purposes – some general, some particular, and this is reflected in the different motifs that are, as it were, attached to the day from year to year. I want to focus today, here, in this context, on the question of anti-Semitism, on the hatred that was exhibited in the Holocaust, that lay behind the Holocaust, that drove the Holocaust, that made the Holocaust possible.

Before I start, however, let me correct a slight mistake in the title of my talk, which ends with a question mark which has somehow crept in. It should not be there. Anti-Semitism was, in my view, central to the Holocaust and I shall try to indicate how and why today. The Nazis were anti-Semites, of a particular, and indeed the most radical kind. They hated Jews in a particular and intense way and would not have killed them in such huge numbers if they had not been so. Anti-Semitism was central to the Holocaust – it was not incidental or marginal. It was central to Nazism, at the core of the belief system of the Nazi elite, a driving obsession. The Nazis may have downplayed it, on occasion, from time to time, but it was never anything but central to their belief system, to their way of thinking about the world, to what they saw as their most fundamental tasks.

THE LEFT AND THE HOLOCAUST

This was not always understood by everyone. For some time after the Holocaust, as Shulamit Volkov has observed, relatively little attention was actually given to this distinctive feature of Nazism. Attention (in the West) was largely given to what were seen to common features of Nazism and Stalinism as twin forms of totalitarianism, while in the East, Nazism was seen as a product of monopoly capitalism, and as a form of fascism (and not all forms of fascism, as we know from the Italian case for example, had anti-Semitism at their core).It was only really in the late 1960s that anti-Semitism began to assume any prominence in Holocaust historiography, that this core element of Nazi ideology began to be studied in depth.

But this lack of focus was also the case, in important respects, both before and during the Holocaust, and this too needs some thinking about, perhaps especially here today. Because it was perhaps particularly true on the left. This may be surprising, if not shocking to many of you here today. After all, the left generally (and here I think about both left wing intellectuals and activists – in political parties and trade unions), is often thought to have been in the vanguard of resistance to Nazism and indeed to fascism more generally.

At one level this is of course true – the left were, after all the target in many ways of the Nazis – they identified communism, socialism, and liberalism as evils to be abolished – books advocating these ideas were burnt; left wing organisations were made illegal; their leaders and activists beaten on the streets, arrested, sent to concentration camps where they were tortured and killed (although still of course largely treated much better than Jews, unless they happened to be Jews themselves).

The left resisted the Nazis – not, as we know, very effectively, not for example in a united, clear-sighted way but still it did resist, courageously, determinedly in many cases, and suffered for this resistance. But it did not see anti-Semitism as a central problem – not before the Holocaust, not during the Holocaust and, to some extent, not after the event either.

Let me just give a few examples

The most sophisticated exponents of leftwing thought at the time, in Germany , were probably the members of the Frankfurt School. The names may be familiar to some of you – Horkheiner, Adorno. Marcuse. The School’s great expert on Nazism was Franz Neumann, who in 1942 wrote a very famous, in many ways brilliant book about National Socialism – called Behemoth. In it, he wrote the following: the Nazis “will …never allow a complete extermination of the Jews”. Anti-Semitism was, in his view, but a means to an end, a “spearhead of terror…only the means to the attainment of the ultimate objective, the destruction of free institutions, beliefs and groups”. It was not fundamental to the Nazi project. He insisted that one could, without difficulty, indeed one had an obligation to, “represent National Socialism without attributing to the Jewish problem a central role”.

On the political front, things were not much better. The German social democrats largely downplayed anti-Semitism. They never mounted any direct action against Nazi anti-Semitism from the outset, before the Nazis came to power. The leadership systematically refused to give any direction on this issue to party members as the Nazis came to power. And, once in opposition, driven underground, they did not create or supply or smuggle into Germany much in the way of illegal material on anti-Semitism. On the contrary, they feared that raising the question would alienate people, make it harder to sustain or forge opposition. Better then to downplay it.

And as far as the Communist party was concerned, it was no different. As Jeffrey Herf has observed, “the persecution of the Jews … played only a minor role in communist thinking about the resistance”. Until Die Rote Fahne headlined a protest against Kristallnacht in November 1938, what was happening to the Jews was not a priority for communist propaganda and it did not remain one after that either.

We can find all sorts of reasons to explain this blindness but, blessed as we are with hindsight, we can see that it was a serious mistake, and one we would be wise not to repeat. Anti-Semitism was central to the Nazi world-view. And it was deadly. The Nazis really did hate Jews, hated them enough to kill them, in huge numbers; hated them enough to want to kill them all, wherever they could lay their hands on them.

In this, Nazi anti-Semitism was, not so much different from earlier forms of anti-Semitism, as more radical – more radical both in intent and in execution.

A word first about execution – just to remind ourselves of the scale of this killing. Some 6 million Jews murdered – from right across Europe. They were murdered by various means – not just in the gas chambers but before, alongside and after that by shooting (approximately 1 million already before the extermination camps were set up); by starvation and disease in the ghettoes; in the transports; and then, when the camps had to be abandoned (though not before they had tried to hide the evidence) in the death marches back to Germany.

The ambition was to kill them systematically. That is why the extermination camps were built – to organise this murder systematically, using a factory system. Only this was a factory that did not produce goods (at least that was not its primary purpose, although slave labour was also involved) but primarily to produce corpses, ashes, to produce not commodities but death itself.

This was a radical project – it was not just to expel them from Germany or from Europe but to wipe them from the face of the earth. This was a new idea, or rather it was an idea that only the Nazis fully embraced and tried to implement. There had been before those who imagined that the Jews could somehow or other could be got rid of; that the Jews here or there should be killed but, as Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassen noted some time ago, “even veteran anti-Semites found it hard to imagine that the Nazi regime seriously intended to make the Jewish people extinct”.

But they did. Now exactly when they came to this idea is a matter of some debate. Did they always intend to do it, or did it only crystallise at a particular moment in time, and why then? These are issues that continue to preoccupy historians, notably in the long-running debate between intentionalists and functionalists.

The view of one of the most eminent contemporary Holocaust historians, (originally a functionalist, albeit of a self defined moderate kind) Christopher Browning, is that this intent was arrived at in the late summer and early autumn of 1941, when the Nazis believed they were on the verge of total victory. It was conceived, he argues, in what he calls a “moment of euphoria” when they believed they could reshape the world according to their design. It was a world in which Jews had no place, none whatsoever. They had to be annihilated completely.

Why? Because the Jews were, in the minds of Hitler and the Nazi elite, responsible for all the evils that had befallen not just Germany, not just the Aryan race but humanity itself. The Jews were responsible for how Germany had come to the disastrous state it found itself in, defeated in the first world war, a war it should have otherwise won if it had not been “stabbed in the back” by the Jews . The Jews were responsible too for the second world war, no matter that this was started by the Nazis. The Jews were responsible for the continuation of the war when it should have been over; they were behind the decision of the British government to fight on when clearly beaten; they were behind the decision of the Americans to enter the war to support them (no matter that Hitler declared war on America) ; and they were behind too the Soviet government, the Jewish-Bolshevik menace they tried to destroy when they attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, an attack which so nearly succeeded because it took the Soviet regime so completely by surprise.

But the Jews were responsible more profoundly still, not just for these acts or these decisions by governments but for the entire systems which they ran – they were responsible both for the “plutocratic capitalism” embodied by America but also for Soviet communism, no matter that these seemed to everyone else to be diametrically opposed systems.

A new racial order, the Nazi utopia, could only come into being when all this had been swept away – American plutocratic capitalism, Soviet communism, liberal democracy, But all this could only be swept away if the Jews were eliminated entirely. This was, as Saul Friedlander has accurately defined it, a “redemptive anti-Semitism – the most radical form of anti-Jewish hatred”. It combined both racist ideas and religious notions of redemption and perdition, to form what he calls “an all-encompassing belief system”. It had “an apocalyptic dimension. The redemption of the Volk, the race or Aryan humanity would be achieved only with the elimination of the Jews”.

TAKING RADICAL ANTI-SEMITISM SERIOUSLY
It is not easy to understand this view of the world. It is, variously, paranoid, in attributing such demonic and malign power to Jews. It is an upside-down view of the world, which projects onto Jews what the Nazis were in fact doing or planning to do to others. It is a contradictory view of the world, in which the Jews were seen both as weak and feeble and as super-powerful, demonic even. And it is a closed view of the world, devoid of empirical evidence and not open to refutation of any kind.

And it is, as it was perhaps to the left in the 1930s, tempting to dismiss it in some way, as not serious, as hiding something else, some other intent or purpose. It is so deranged, so at odds with any meaningful view of the world, that it is hard to believe that people could actually believe such things, actually take them seriously, let alone as a guide to action, as a motivation.

It is much easier, perhaps, to treat all this as demogogy, as exaggeration, as hyperbole, as flights of (extremely unpleasant) fancy, as rhetoric. And this is what many people did at the time and indeed have done so since.

But this would, in my view, be a mistake. Because the Nazis did, really, believe these things, and believe in them strongly enough in the end (whenever this end was arrived at) to insist on this objective, the annihilation of the Jews over and above all others. The annihilation of the Jews was not a means to another end; it was an end in itself. It was an absolute, over-riding priority, to be pursued over and above any other objective, even including winning the war. Resources were devoted to killing the Jews when from a military point of view they would far better have been spent ferrying troops or arms to the front. Economically, notwithstanding the use of slave labour, the murder of millions on gas chambers made no economic sense at all.

If we are going to take this way of thinking seriously, to give it its weight, we need to break out of a narrowly utilitarian way of thinking ourselves. We need, perhaps especially, to pay attention to what the Nazis were saying. For they advertised their hatred quite openly. They made no secret of their hatred for the Jews. They said they hated them repeatedly, over and over again, more and more insistently as time went on. They may, at times have downplayed it for immediate instrumental purposes, but they returned again and again to these core ideas and themes, each time with greater force and intensity, just as these ideas were radicalised themselves with each political and military triumph.

PARTICIPATION AND COLLUSION
And others, of course, went along with it, even if they had not taken it seriously in the beginning, even if they did not themselves fully believe in any one of these ideas, let alone all of them. Gradually opposing voices fell silent (and they were not that strong to begin with). Fewer and fewer people contested what the Nazis were saying inside Germany as the 1930s were on; more and more people went along with it, and not just before the war but , increasingly, once the war had started. It turned out to be quite easy to get used to the disappearance of Jews, quite easy to take advantage of their disappearance to take over their property, at knock-down prices, quite easy to accept the loot sent home by soldiers in the family from plundered Jews across the continent – soldiers who we can see from letters sent home, had themselves taken on board much more of Nazi anti-Semitism than was once maintained (not least by former soldiers themselves).

But it was not only Germans who got used to this anti-Semitism. Almost everywhere the Nazis went, they found collaborators –among local nationalists, local racists, local Christians, local fascists. Some anticipated what could be done and took advantage of the climate created by the Germans, as we know from cases in Poland such as Jedwabne for example, where local anti-Semites took it upon themselves to slaughter Jews without German assistance. Others, for example in Lithuania or Latvia or the Ukraine, eagerly collaborated with the Germans in slaughtering Jews.

But this participation or collusion was not itself the driving force, any more than what was in many ways the more decisive participation of technocrats and civil servants and professionals of all kinds (including that of University lecturers, which we here should perhaps particularly remember). The Nazis could not have done what they did without this participation or this collusion, and considerable attention has been paid and must be paid to it, just as it has been paid and must be paid to the more general indifference that “greeted” the Holocaust. As Ian Kershaw, the author of the most authoritative biography of Hitler, so famously put it, “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference”.

But it was built by hate, by anti-Semitism. The driving force, the inspiration, the sustaining motivation came from convinced anti-Semites and anti-Semites who never hid or concealed their hatred.

And this brings me to my final point. We can look back on all this and take it seriously in a way that may not have been possible before or during the event. We know that the Nazis were serious about their anti-Semitism, serious enough to attempt to murder all the Jews they could lay their hands on. And we can look back and see that they advertised this hatred quite openly, and more and more as time went on.

And we can draw some conclusions from this. In a brilliant review of Hitler’s so-called second book, which was written a few years after Mein Kampf (it came out in the summer of 1928 actually), another great Holocaust historian, Omer Bartov, has done exactly this and I should like to quote him at some length if I may, before coming to my own conclusions in the context of this meeting.
“Must we”, Bartov asks, “ read another ranting book by Hitler?” And his answer is a definitive yes. “ This book is certainly as close to the heart of darkness as a book can be. But it should have been read in its time, and it should be read now. It was an explicit warning to the world of what could be expected from the Führer of what was to become for twelve terrible years the Third Reich. When Hitler wrote it, no one could tell whether his plans and fantasies would ever be transformed into reality…Yet it was difficult to believe that anyone in his right mind would try to translate such rhetoric into policy. It was generally thought that in power Hitler would be constrained by the realities of diplomacy, the limits of Germany’s power, the national interests of the Reich, and the military, economic, and political partners with whom he had to make policy. 
Today we know that this was a fatal misunderstanding, rooted more in wishful thinking than in the kind of realism on which contemporary observers prided themselves and expected would eventually keep Hitler, too, in his place. Today we know that Hitler said precisely what he meant to say”.
But Bartov goes on to say something else which we would do well, I think, to dwell on here today. And it is this. Whilst Hitler was a politician and attentive therefore to what was possible at any one time, to what he could get away with (and this explains why anti-Semitism was sometimes downplayed), it never went away. Hitler was not just a politician, a political leader of a peculiarly nasty regime. He was also a pathological mass murderer who caused the death of millions and so Bartov insists, “it is important to know that he did precisely what he promised to do. For we still do not seem to have learned a simple crucial lesson that Hitler taught us more definitively than anyone else in history: some people, some regimes, some ideologies, some political programs, and, yes, some religious groups, must be taken at their word. Some people mean what they say, and say what they will do, and do what they said. . When they say they will kill you, they will kill you”.
So what I want to say then, to end on, is this. If today, even after the Holocaust, perhaps especially even after the Holocaust, people say they hate Jews and they hate them enough to want to kill them, we need to take them seriously. They very probably mean what they say and they may very well do what they mean.
And the reason for this, in the Nazi case and I suggest now today too, is that anti-Semitism is not a means to another end; it is not a cover for something else; it is not to be understood as a response to this or that difficulty, to unemployment, to exploitation, or even, let me say it, to occupation. It is what it is.
There used to be an idea on the left that anti-Semitism was all or some of these things, that it was, as the great German socialist August Bebel once put it, “the socialism of fools”. It was and is no such thing. It was not and is not socialism of any kind, foolish or otherwise. It was and is a hatred of Jews, a hatred which in the minds of the Nazis was taken to a radical end (though that is not to say it cannot be radicalised anew, that it cannot be rearticulated and reshaped). In their minds, it was a murderous hatred, one that led them to organise the slaughter of millions. If it was once, mistakenly, not taken seriously, we would be wise not to make this mistake again.

The far right in Austria : Jobbik and FPOE strengthening collaboration

Jobbik and FPOE strengthening collaboration

By Karl Pfeifer

A small notice last Thursday in the weekly of the extreme right wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) about strengthening the collaboration between the Hungarian national-socialist Jobbik party and FPÖ was not picked up by the Austrian Media. I happened to be the first to publish a short report on January 27 in the Vienna weekly Falter.

Serious papers maintained that the FPÖ will reject racism and Anti-Semitism and would refuse to collaborate with the NPD in Germany, the National Front in France or Jobbik in Hungary. They were wrong.

Jobbik is openly and explicitly anti-Semitic while the FPÖ strives for social acceptance. Jobbik hallucinates about Jews wanting to occupy Hungary. Unlike the Nazis Jobbik does not maintain that biology prevents Jews from changing their behaviour; they even have a few ‘good’ Jews in their ranks, which serve as fig-leafs against the accusation of Anti-Semitism. Yet Jobbik is explicitly racist, to the point that its program proposes between other measures also the “segregation” of young Roma.

In Hungarian society there exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by (half-)educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. It looks as if – a few months before the elections due in April – such an underworld is ready to emerge from its depths and suddenly capture and dominate many usually sane and responsible people, who promptly give up any notion of sanity and responsibility in return. The danger is very real, as Jobbik and FPÖ are turning conservative and social democratic parties to the right – which is proven by the Austrian crackdown against immigrants and refugees, who seem to have replaced the Jews as scapegoat.

Robert Fine’s talk to the UCU meeting “Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Resistance Yesterday and Today.”

The antisemitism debate in Europe.

Talk to the UCU meeting.

Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Resistance Yesterday and Today.

27 January 2010

Robert Fine, UCU member and Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick.

Thanks to the UCU executive for organising this series of important meetings on antisemitism and for inviting me to speak on this occasion.

Re-remembering the Holocaust

When we remember the Holocaust, what is it that we try to keep in mind? Remembering the past is an act of investigation, study, selection, comparison, interpretation and reflection. The past is past but how we understand it has much to do with the present.

When I teach my course on the Sociology of the Holocaust I often refer to passage from Hannah Arendt’s fine book on the Eichmann trial where she writes:

‘the supreme crime it (the court) was confronted with, the physical extermination of the Jewish people, was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people, and … only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and antisemitism’.
The passage is not simple to decode but its gist,as I understand it, is this: the physical extermination of around six million Jewish people was both a crime against Jews and a crime against humanity; it was derived from the long history of European antisemitism and it was an attack on human plurality as such; it had to do with Europe’s longest hatred and also with Europe’s capacity to dehumanise other people. It has a particular meaning for Jews and a universal meaning for humanity.

Holocaust education has to do two things at once.  It has to bring out the universal lessons of the Holocaust – about racism, ultra-nationalism, genocide, the role of ordinary men, etc. – and it must tell the story of what happened to Jews.  These tasks are not remotely contradictory – any more than a focus on what happened to Armenians in Turkey or Moslems in Bosnia or indigenous peoples in South America lies in opposition to universal history.

In the aftermath of the war the antisemitic dimension of the destruction of European Jews was largely subsumed to narratives concerning the struggles of European nations against the Nazis. In some instances this allowed for new antisemitic campaigns to be waged under the umbrella of anti-Nazism or antizionism. After the Eichmann trial the old biblical term ‘Holocaust’ was recovered to refer to the destruction of Jews and to bring to the fore the antisemitic dimension of this event. There followed a tendency to sacralise the Holocaust, or if we use the phrase of my late friend and colleague, Gillian Rose, to preach a kind of ‘Holocaust piety’. The difficulty we all face today is how to combine the specificity of the event with its universal resonance.

Today we hear another yet more troubling refrain. It is that Holocaust memory has become exclusive: that it’s all about Jewish suffering; that it ignores the non-Jewish people who were also murdered by the Nazis; that Jews have become obsessed by their own suffering at the expense of others; that no longer is any universal meaning drawn from collective memory. It is said that today we suffer from a surfeit of Holocaust museums, films, histories and stories 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 genocide denial more generally. It is said that the Holocaust is now used instrumentally to protect Israel from criticism and justify the crimes Israel commits. At the extreme it is said that what Israel does to Palestinians is ‘like’ the Holocaust or that the victims of the Holocaust have now become the victimisers of the Palestinians.

These criticisms are alluring because they appear universalistic. Most of us would agree that memory of the Holocaust ought not to 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 ‘never again’ refers only to Jews. Memory of the Holocaust ought not to protect Israel from criticism. Concern over antisemitism ought not to blind us to other racisms. Collective memory of the Holocaust should not make us blind to the suffering of others. Emphasis on Jewish suffering should not subvert the universal meaning of the Holocaust. And to misquote W H Auden, those to whom evil is done should certainly not do evil in return.

We may all agree that memory of the Holocaust should serve rather as a ‘fire alarm’ alerting us all human atrocities and our need to confront them. But who says otherwise? Who does not share this view? I hear some of my colleagues say: ‘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 Palestinians; ‘they’ instrumentalise the Holocaust for their own political purposes. Who are the ‘they’ in question? The amorphousness of the ‘they’ designation is part of the problem.

There are, to be sure, certain Jewish ultra-nationalists who think only of Jewish suffering and ignore the suffering of others. Such blinkered views are generally true of how nationalists respond to racism against their own people. They do so in nationalistic ways. There is nothing I know that marks out Jewish nationalists here from the general phenomenon that opposition to racism against one’s own people can be nationalistic rather than antiracist, particularistic rather than universal. A critique of Jewish ultra-nationalism only makes sense alongside a critique of other forms of ultra-nationalisms in Europe and the Middle East. It must be distinguished from the notion that Jews or Israeli Jews think only of their own people and nothing of the suffering of others. This problem is not resolved by saying that the ‘they’ who ignore the suffering of others are ‘Zionists’ and ‘defenders of Israel’. We can of course defend the right of the state of Israel to exist and not be threatened by its neighbours without endorsing the views of Israeli ultra-nationalism. Slippage of this sort takes us from the realm of political argument into that of vilifying a whole nation.

2. Denying antisemitism

A now familiar refrain among ‘critics of Israel’ is that the question of antisemitism is only raised to devalue or deflect criticism of Israel. Within our own union I frequently hear this refrain. A UCU motion of 2007 on Israel included the words: ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as antisemitic’ and a motion of 2008 repeated that ‘criticism of Israel or Israeli policy is not, as such, antisemitic’. It seems fitting on this occasion that we reflect carefully about this refrain and what it means.

One colleague I was reading the other day wrote that ‘antisemitism charges are just part of the deal for anyone who speaks out for Palestine’ and added that ‘the important point in all this is that we keep speaking out for Palestine’. Well, it is important to speak out for Palestinians. But in the eyes of this colleague at least it is clear that he should not worry about antisemitism since the charge of antisemitism functions in his view only or mainly to demonize opposition to Israel. 

Another colleague wrote that the term ‘antisemitism’ has become little more than a rhetoric 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. Another laments that ‘by shouting antisemitism every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians’, defenders of Israel rob the word of its universal resonance.

The feeling expressed in all these statements is that the accusation of antisemitism is now used to trash anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government. It seems that the value of this coinage is undercut by its over-use. The struggle against antisemitism, once seen as central to the construction of a new Europe after the war, is increasingly disavowed since the charge of antisemitism merely serves to deflect or devalue criticism of Israeli occupation, Israeli human rights abuses, Israeli racism toward Arabs, and Israeli military force in Lebanon and Gaza. It would seem that the trouble with Europe is no longer antisemitism but talk of antisemitism. Sometimes we hear people speaking ‘as Jews’ and offering the authority of their Jewishness to confirm that criticism of Israel is not in fact antisemitic.

This emphatic insistence that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic but is labelled antisemitic by ‘defenders of Israel’ seems to me hugely problematic. Let me offer three reasons why I think we should reflect very hard about what’s going on.

First, emphatic denial that criticism of Israel is antisemitic is a way of saying that people only raise concerns and fears about antisemitism in bad faith. It insinuates that those who, rightly or wrongly, raise concerns over antisemitism, are not really concerned about antisemitism at all but only about defending Israel at all costs. It implies that since we cannot defend Israel overtly, we do so covertly and deceptively. The premise is that individuals and organisations which express a sense of alarm about the re-emergence of antisemitism in Europe are dishonest – especially when they connect antisemitism with ‘criticism of Israel’. Since there are a large number of bona fide bodies that have expressed alarm about the ties that bind criticism of Israel with antisemitism, it appears that they are conniving toward the same dishonest end.

Second, emphatic denial that criticism of Israel is antisemitic represents a disturbing tendency in some quarters to wear the charge of antisemitism as almost a badge of honour. It appears as a sign that you are a true friend of the Palestinians, rather than as a stimulus to self-reflection. Refusal to take antisemitism seriously must be a problem for a movement committed to antiracism, that is to say, to opposition to all forms of racism and not only to some. It represents a real regression from the principle established by the McPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 that if people sees themselves as victims of racism, this does not mean that they are victims of racism but it does mean that there is a duty on institutions to take seriously what is alleged. Emphatic denial of antisemitism encourages institutions not to take allegations of antisemitism seriously whether or not they are directly to do with Israel. There is no doubt in my mind that this has been a major problem within our own union.

Third, emphatic denial that criticism of Israel is antisemitic refuses to distinguish between legitimate and antisemitic criticism of Israel. Let me exemplify the problem by reference to the reports of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the British All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism and the OSCE. These reports have all accepted that criticism of Israel is not as such antisemitic but warn that criticism of Israel can and does sometimes overlap with antisemitism. No one who looks, for example, at David Duke’s website should need further persuasion on this issue. They say that criticism of Israel can become antisemitic if it takes the form, for example, of selecting Israel as uniquely evil or violent among nations, or holding Jews or Israeli Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel, or comparing the military occupation of Palestine with the Nazi extermination of Jews, or representing Israel through long established antisemitic myths of world conspiracy, control of the media, murder of non-Jewish children, etc. In such cases they maintain that the substitution of the word ‘Zionists’ for ‘Jews’ makes little substantial difference to the hostility in question. They also say, on an issue that is closer to home, that to campaign to boycott Israeli universities but no other overseas universities in the world is discriminatory and falls foul of anti-discrimination legislation.
These more or less official reports raise the issue of where legitimate political criticism of Israel stops and antisemitism kicks in. They may or may not have got it right; we may want to draw the line elsewhere; but let us not disavow the question itself. If we accept that some kinds of ‘criticism’ of Israel are manifestly antisemitic, for example, criticism based on the notion that Jews as such, by virtue of their Jewishness, are indifferent to the suffering of non-Jews, then the question is where we draw the line – not whether we draw one.

The reduction ad Hitlerum that we find in recent representation of Israelis as blood-thirsty Nazis laughing at the misery of Palestinians is a way of wiping the Israeli Jew off the moral map. There is a worrying tendency either to ignore these inquiries altogether or to deny the message they bring by trashing the messenger. Within two radical Jewish organisations, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices, colleagues have argued that the commissions that produced these reports were influenced by the ‘Israel lobby’, that they grossly exaggerated the threat posed by antisemitism in Europe, and that they gave excessive weight to the subjective claims of Jews to suffer from antisemitism. The punch line of all these criticisms is that the reports are wrong because they give credence to the notion that criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

If the outcome of these meetings is that we no longer hear the words: ‘criticism of Israel is not or is not as such antisemitic’, this would be hugely worthwhile. For at best such statements are glib and unserious. At worst, they sanction antisemitism in a way that we would never sanction racism.

3. On European self-identity

I never cease to be amazed at the ability of Europeans to recreate ourselves as the civilised continent, the ones who have learnt the universal lessons of the Holocaust, and to treat Jews as those who have failed to learn the lesson. European hubris sometimes takes the form of a constantly repeated narrative of progress which pays tribute to the success of the new Europe in transcending its longest hatred. It acknowledges that antisemitism was a monstrous feature of Europe’s past but insists that the conditions that gave rise to antisemitism have now come to an end with the defeat of Nazism, the rise of the European Union and the reunification of Europe. How often do we hear it said that in the new Europe antisemitism has been marginalised and delegitimised to such an extent that there is now no need to confront it.

The more radical discourse I hear is one that resists this liberal faith in progress and is far more sensitive to the recurrence of racism in European societies. It may declare that antisemitism has been replaced by Islamophobia as the real racism of the moment but it shares the conviction that antisemitism itself has run its course. 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 in its liberal or radical forms, the factual claim that antisemitism is no longer a problem in Europe only serves to exclude antisemitism from the list of racisms Europe now has to confront if a new postnationalist Europe is to be built. This rewriting of history, based on the assumption that antisemitism has been well and truly overcome in the new Europe, leaves out the multiple ways in which the past weighs upon the present.

Today 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, which 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.

It would be foolish to see the liberal establishment as exempt from antisemitic temptations. The new Europeans are quite capable of re-creating a moral division of the world between themselves and others that stigmatises others as ‘nationalist’ as much as it idealises themselves as ‘postnationalist’. It is not inevitable that the new Europe must be exclusionary in this way, witness the considerable efforts being made to monitor and combat racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, but the urge is internal to it. The representation of Israel in particular 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 new European can project all that is bad in European history – its colonial past, ethnic divisions, institutionalised racisms, excesses of superfluous violence, etc. – and preserve the good for themselves. 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 with the world. Representation of Israel as a pariah state or even a 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.

Antizionists ‘conspire’ just as Zionists do but the denial of antisemitism can no more be explained in terms of any conspiracy theory than can new antisemitism theory. Conspiracies exist but conspiracy theory explains nothing. The antisemitism denial of which I speak cannot be explained by any conspiracy to forge an anti-Israel alliance. Its roots are far more mundane and socially grounded. They lie in the experience most of us have that antisemitism have not been a day to day problem in much of Europe or the UK. They lie in the identity politics embraced by many radical Jews who are intent on absolving themselves, declaring they are not like the ‘Zionists’, making it clear that what the Jewish state does is not done in their name. They lie on the Left in a politics of anti-imperialism which divides the world between oppressor and oppressed nations without allowing any complication or indeed any intersubjective dynamics to enter this binary dichotomised picture of the world. They lie in the idealist philosophy of Rawlsian liberalism that measures the constitution and actions of a particular state against the ideal of what a rational state ought to be without comparing the justice and injustices of the Jewish state against the material practices of other states. They lie finally perhaps in the dynamics of political argument itself which tends to divide the world into opposing camps, leads the members of one camp to caricature the beliefs of the other, and to raise an essentially local struggle into the emblem or signifier of the camps themselves. Which side you are on is determined by your stance on Israel: ‘support’ it and you believe in racism and ethnic cleansing; ‘criticise’ it and you are on the side of progress.

4. Antisemitism and criticism of Israel

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 often seem worlds apart but this is not so. 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 favours to the Palestinian cause. In Europe it diminishes support for Palestinian rights because until now at least most people, consciously or intuitively, won’t have anything to do with a movement that has a whiff of antisemitism around it. In Israel it reinforces the grip of ultra-nationalists and religious extremists 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 much or more than they threaten the existence of Israel from without. In surrounding Arab states it allows reactionary rulers to divert social and political opposition into hatred of Jews and somehow to receive little international criticism for so doing. In the world generally it allows people to blame 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 is failing to meet.

We have to be careful not to invert the problem we are addressing. If ultra-nationalists in Israel racialise Arabs and turn them into a unitary category, the temptation is to respond with an act of reversal that turns ‘Zionists’ into an equally ‘otherised’ unitary category. We also have to be careful not to place Palestinians in a single identity script as victims 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 those who feel compassion for them to see this injustice as the formative experience in their lives and replace recognition of their agency with contempt for the people we charge with excluding and oppressing them. No human being is entirely ‘other’ than another, even where unequal social structures make this hard to see. No human being is entirely in solidarity with a whole people, however much he or she affords herself the right to speak on their behalf.

In Europe and the Middle East we see the rise of ultra-nationalism taking many forms – all of which are deeply threatening to our own universal values. What we call ‘antizionism’ today is an anti-nationalism of fools. It casts all the sins of ultra-nationalism onto Zionists and Israel. It won’t see antisemitism because it breaks their world view. In the past antisemitism provided a unifying ideology for a very diverse array of social and political grievances. Today the danger is that ‘antizionism’ may provide a point of unification around which sections of the far right, the anti-imperialist left, radical Islam and even the liberal establishment might coalesce.

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