On socialist, sociological and Jewish communal denial – David Hirsh

People who aspire to lead within the Jewish community have a special responsibility to defend that community and to develop a keen nose for antisemitism, which may constitute a threat to that community.

Sociologists have a particular responsibility to approach the subject of antisemitism seriously, applying the methodological tools and the intellectual judgment and knowledge which their discipline and tradition offers.  The foundations themselves of sociology lie partly in the project to replace conspiracy theory with structural analysis.  Sociology has developed sophisticated ways of thinking about race and racism: structural, discursive, institutional and to varying degrees, unconscious.

People who consider themselves to be on the left live in a movement and a tradition which is far from immune to antisemitism and conspiracy theory and they have a specific responsibility to know their history, to understand their present and to educate their youth.  Moishe Postone explains the temptation of antisemitism as follows:

As a fetishized form of oppositional consciousness, it is particularly dangerous because it appears to be antihegemonic, the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination. It is as a fetishized, profoundly reactionary form of anti-capitalism that I would like to begin discussing the recent surge of modern antisemitism…

Moishe Postone, History and Helplessness

Too often, instead of taking the kind of analytical care with antisemitism which is required, people who usually begin with the external world, find themselves beginning, and sometimes ending too, with introspection.  They look within their own heads and find themselves innocent of antisemitism, which they think of only as conscious Jew-hatred.  Normally, they are well aware that external and objective social phenomena must be treated as such, but in the case of antisemitism, all that they know is jettisoned in favour of a kind of moralistic certainty of their own cleanliness.  They adopt a kind of angry, self-confident rage against anybody who dares to look, in a scientific and methodological way, at actual effects and actual outcomes and actual discourses, rather than satisfying themselves with subjective feeling.  The heat of the rage and the fear of rational discussion is proportional to the proximity of the critic to antisemitic ways of thinking or to the fear its presence may engender within them; the heat and rage disables our ability to employ the usual methods of our discipline and of our movement.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim expresses his preference for analysing external and objective social facts to satisfying himself with a study only of subjective intention, in the following way:

“Intent is too intimate a thing to be more than approximately interpreted by another.  It even escapes self-observation.  How often we mistake the true reasons for our acts!  We constantly explain acts due to petty feelings or blind routine by generous passions or lofty considerations….  Besides, in general, an act cannot be defined by the end sought by the actor, for an identical system of behaviour may be adjustable to too many different ends without altering its nature.”

Durkheim, On Suicide

I have written about how sociological method can help us to understand antisemitism as a complex and external phenomenon, and one which can be difficult to pin down, here:

 Hirsh, David. 2013. Hostility to Israel and Antisemitism: Toward a Sociological Approach.  Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, 5, pp. 1401-1422. [Article]

Yet sometimes, today’s leaders and intellectuals reject this method in favour of moral outrage, bluster and thinly veiled threats against anybody who suggests that there may be antisemitic ways of thinking or outcomes lying unseen and unacknowledged within what appears as mere criticism of Israel.  It is thoroughly discomforting  for Jews to believe that there is antisemitism in the wider community, for Sociologists to believe that there is antisemitism within their own discipline and for socialists to believe that there is antisemitism within their own movement.  For obvious reasons there is a huge temptation to go into denial about our own national, political and disciplinary families and to rely on feeling rather than analysis.

One way of protecting this state of denial and of avoiding an engagement with the evidence of antisemitism is what I have called the Livingstone Formulation.  It is a phenomenon by which people who raise the issue of antisemitism may be confronted by quick, angry and morally superior denial.  It is recognisable by the tendency to allege the bad faith, rather than an error of judgment, of the person who raises the issue of antisemitism.  The accusation is that Jews allege antisemitism, knowing that it isn’t really there, in a secret plan to try to silence criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.  Jews are accused of the despicable tactic of playing the antisemitism card and so of knowingly crying wolf.  This counter-accusation of bad faith saves everybody from the daunting prospect of making difficult judgments about our own environments and of having to engage with the concrete questions which are raised.  If one denies, denounces and accuses the accuser, one can avoid actually thinking through the specific examples which require consideration.    I have written about the Livingstone Formulation  and its different forms and usages here:

Hirsh, David. 2010. Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism The Livingstone Formulation, ‘playing the antisemitism card’ and contesting the boundaries of antiracist discourse. Transversal, 1, pp. 47-77. ISSN 1 607-629X [Article].

Yet the angry and blanket denial about the antisemitism which is close to us ratchets up to ever higher levels.  The effect is to drive the people who raise the issue of antisemitism outside of what are recognised as the boundaries of legitimate, polite or intellectual discourse.  A person is likely to be denounced in highly personalized terms as a bully, as a Zionist, as an apologist for Israeli racism, an agent of a foreign power, and it is declared that he should no longer be allowed to be part of the discussion.

Yet the ad hominem bluster hides a fear of serious intellectual engagement.  As Hegel puts it in the famous Preface to his Philosophy of Right:

If a content is to be discussed philosophically, it will bear only scientific and objective treatment; in the same way, the author will regard any criticism expressed in a form other than that of scientific discussion of the matter itself merely a subjective postscript and random assertion, and will treat it with indifference.

Hegel, Philosophy of Right

I have contributed to discussions about defining antisemitism here:

Hirsh, David. 2012. Defining antisemitism down: The EUMC working definition and its disavowal by the university & college union. Fathom, 1(1), pp. 30-39. [Article]

I have contributed to discussions about the relationship between antisemitism and hostility to Israel here:

Hirsh, David. 2007. Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections. Working Paper. Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Occasional Papers, New Haven, CT.

The debates between me, Norman Geras and Martin Shaw on the antisemitism in the boycott movement are here:


The debates regarding the Israel boycott movement in South Africa are online here:


David Hirsh and Chip Berlet discuss antisemitism and conspiracy theory here:


David Hirsh

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