David Hirsh (2010) ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism‘ Transversal 1/2010, Graz, Austria
The Livingstone Formulation, ‘playing the antisemitism card’ and contesting the boundaries of antiracist discourse
To download the whole paper as a pdf file, click here
Author: David Hirsh is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is co-convenor of the European Sociological Network on Racism and Antisemitism. He has published on crimes against humanity, international humanitarian law and antisemitism. He is the founding editor of the Engage journal and website and has written on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.
This paper, publised in Transversal, the journal of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Graz, describes how the Livingstone Formulation operates as a way of de-legitmizing questions about contemporary antisemitism by means of ad hominem attack. It is possible to relate seriously and rationally to charges of antisemitism but it is interesting how often people refuse to take the charges seriously and instead resort to this counter-accusation of malicious ‘Zionist’ intent. This mirrors the operation against which the Livingstone Formulation originally sets itself – which is the raising of the issue of antisemitism maliciously in order to de-legitimise criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.
The paper describes and analyses more than twenty documented examples of the Livingstone Formulation from public discourse.
This paper is concerned with a rhetorical formulation which is sometimes deployed in response to an accusation of antisemitism, particularly when it relates to discourse which is of the form of criticism of Israel. This formulation is a defensive response which deploys a counter-accusation that the person raising the issue of antisemitism is doing so in bad faith and dishonestly. I have called it The Livingstone Formulation. It is defined by the presence of two elements. Firstly the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israel with what are alleged to be demonizing, exclusionary or antisemitic discourses or actions; secondly, the presence of the counteraccusation that the raisers of the issue of antisemitism do so with dishonest intent, in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. The allegation is that the accuser chooses to ‘play the antisemitism card’ rather than to relate seriously to, or to refute, the criticisms of Israel. While the issue of antisemitism is certainly sometimes raised in an unjustified way, and may even be raised in bad faith, the Livingstone Formulation may appear as a response to any discussion of contemporary antisemitism.
This paper is not concerned directly with those who are accused of employing antisemitic discourse and who respond in a measured and rational way to such accusations in a good faith effort to relate to the concern, and to refute it. Rather it is concerned with modes of refusal to engage with the issue of antisemitism. Those who argue that certain kinds of arguments, tropes, analogies and ideas are antisemitic are trying to have them recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate antiracist discourse. The Livingstone Formulation as a response tries to have the raising itself of the issue of antisemitism recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate discourse. In this paper I describe and analyse a number of examples of the formulation which come from a number of profoundly different sources, including antiracist, openly antisemitic, antizionist, and mainstream ones.
I focus on the accusations and the counter accusations of malicious intent which are made in public debates around the issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict and antisemitism. It is widely accepted in the sociological literature on racism, and also in the practice of antiracist movements, that racism is often unintended and that social actors who are involved are often unconscious of the racism with which they are perhaps complicit or of which they are unconscious ‘carriers’. Antiracists are generally comfortable with the concepts of institutional, structural and discursive racism and they are comfortable with the idea that discourses, structures and institutions can be racist in effect, objectively, even in the absence of any subjective racist intent on the part of social actors. Yet a common response to the raising of the issue of antisemitism in relation to discourses concerning criticism of Israel is that if there is no antisemitic intent then there can be no antisemitism. Antisemitism is implicitly, then, often defined differently from other racisms as requiring an element of intent.
One thing that follows from this is that the raising of the issue of antisemitism is often conflated with the accusation of antisemitic intent. So the raising of the issue of antisemitism is often claimed to be an ad hominem attack, an accusation of antisemitic intent on the part of the ‘critic of Israel’. Yet while there is fierce resistance to the possibility of unintended antisemitism, those who employ the Livingstone Formulation accuse those who raise the issue of antisemitism of doing so with malicious intent and of knowing that their concerns are not justified, and of doing so for instrumental reasons.
It seems to follow that the use of the Livingstone Formulation is intended to make sure that the raising of the issue of antisemitism, when related to ‘criticism of Israel’ remains or becomes a commonsense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and a faux pas in polite antiracist company. A commonsense bundling of positions leads to a binary opposition in which either you remain within the bounds of rational and antiracist discourse, and so you are on the left, and a supporter of the Palestinians against Israeli human rights abuses, or, on the other hand, you are thought of as being on the right, a supporter of Israel against the Palestinians, and a person who instrumentalizes the issue of antisemitism. To raise the issue of antisemitism is to put yourself in the wrong camp. Having already indicated the complexities relating to accusations of intent, it is necessary to examine carefully to what extent this charge of intent may be justified.
In the 1990s Gillian Rose identified a phenomenon which she called ‘Holocaust piety’. It was common, she argued, to be unsympathetic to attempts to analyse the Holocaust using the normal tools of understanding, of social
science and of historiography. Instead, people tended to think about the Holocaust as a radically unique event which was in some sense outside of human history or ‘ineffable’ and so unreachable by social theory and by various forms of artistic and scholarly representation. One of the consequences of Holocaust piety has been the construction of antisemitism itself as being an unimaginably huge and threatening phenomenon, beyond all other ordinary, worldly, threats and phenomena. A by-product of this is that the charge itself of antisemitism is in danger of being thought of as a nuclear bomb, a weapon, so terrible that it destroys not only its target but also the whole field of battle, the whole discursive space in which discussion proceeds. If to raise the issue of antisemitism is to unleash a nuclear bomb, then the issue is unraisable, as nuclear weapons are unusable. Under the conditions of Holocaust piety, it becomes difficult to relate in a measured and serious way to the issue of antisemitism. Either antisemitism is thought of as something radically different from ordinary ‘normal’ racism and then there is a temptation to be less vigilant against those other racisms than one is against antisemitism. Or the discussion of antisemitism is thought of as a weapon instead of an analytic or political question, which may be deployed to destroy ‘critics of Israel’ but which cannot be a serious question in itself. The weapon, instrumentally used, also destroys the very possibility of rational debate and analysis. The standard response to piety is blasphemy. The cartoon of Anna Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler, President Ahmadinejad’s exhibition of Holocaust denial and normalization in Tehran and the increasingly common phenomenon of characterising Israeli Jews as the new Nazis are examples of Holocaust blasphemy.
To download the whole paper as a pdf file, click here
NB some more examples of the Livingstone Formulation and some interesting discussion in the comments box here
NB an article about the Livingstone Formulation from z-word is here
NB there was discussion of the Livingstone Formulation in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections