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.