The Palestine/Israel question and racialised discourses on Jews – Robert Fine

Robert Fine’s talk at ‘Anti-Jewish and Anti-Muslim Racism and the Question of Palestine/Israel’.

Robert Fine

Robert Fine

The aim of this panel is to discuss ‘the role of the Palestine/Israel question in racialised discourses on Jews’.   The starting point of my contribution to this discussion is to say simply that antisemitism is not caused by the behavior of Jews any more than Islamophobia is caused by the behavior of Muslims or anti-Black racism is caused by the behavior of Black people.  This may seem obvious but I feel it is worth restating because the temptation to lay the blame for racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia on the victims often sneaks in through a back door.

In terms of the Palestine / Israel question, this means we should no more attribute antisemitism to the Israeli occupation of Palestine than we would attribute the cause of Islamophobia to the fact that Hamas has an antisemitic constitution or the fact that some politically fundamentalist Muslims murdered journalists, Jews and police people in Paris.

Hannah Arendt put the matter in a typically robust way when she wrote that to treat the behaviour of Jews as the source of antisemitism is ‘the malicious and stupid insight of antisemites, who think that this vile tenet can account for hecatombs of human sacrifice’. Arendt added that ‘the foundations of antisemitism are found in developments that have very little to do with Jews’. This does not mean that some people do not use the actual behaviour of some Jews as material for their antisemitic phantasies, just as other people use the actual behaviour of some Muslims as material for their Islamophobic phantasies. Racism is a versatile beast that grabs hold of what it can. The history of every category of people contains misdeeds that can serve as fuel for the racist imagination, although the racist imagination is not limited to such real or imagined misdeeds.

Arendt acknowledged that in the late nineteenth century the pioneers of antisemitism picked up on the actual history of European Jews, especially rich European Jews, to feed their antisemitic imagination. However, she maintained that the antisemitic movements, which emerged in the wake of the First World War and paved the way for the Holocaust, became increasingly remote from any social reality. Eventually, in Arendt’s words, antisemitism ‘emancipated itself from all specific Jewish deeds and misdeeds’; it became ‘severed from all actual experience concerning the Jewish people’.

Similarly, we can acknowledge that today antisemitism sometimes draws its material from the actual behaviour of Israel and its supporters, even if it grossly distorts these experiences, and at other times it emancipates itself from all specific ‘Zionist’ deeds and misdeeds and becomes pure phantasy. For the sake of time, I ask you to fill in examples of each, but I hope we can agree that, whatever we think of Zionism or the actions of Zionists, it is no more responsible for antisemitism in the 21st century than rich Jews were responsible for antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

This may be more important to say than we realise, since the history of socialism offers significant examples of Marxists and other radicals ascribing hatred of Jews to the actual harmfulness of ‘the Jews’ themselves. This is why some Marxists were as critical of philosemitism as they were of antisemitism.

Jews do not have to behave like saints to be free from responsibility for antisemitism. Again we can take a leaf out of Arendt’s book. Arendt was critical of the political behaviour of ‘Court Jews’ for financing European monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries and then of Jewish banking houses in financing reactionary states after the French revolution. This did not, however, diminish her repudiation of antisemitic stereotypes that exploited these practices to portray Jews as ‘a secret world power which makes and unmakes governments’, as ‘the secret force behind the throne’, or as possessors of a wealth that held Europe ‘in its thrall’. These stereotypes converted a particular moment of Jewish history, one that was normatively ambivalent, into the fictitious form of a noxious Jewish essence.

Arendt was also critical of a coterie of middle class Jews in the modern period who, she felt, valued assimilation so highly that they were ready to assimilate even to the antisemitism of the society around them. She wrote with some scorn of the indifference to antisemitism or even the complicity with antisemitism that was to be found among some highly educated Jews. She wrote of a tendency within the Jewish intelligentsia that was prone on the one hand to ‘slavish’ expressions of exaggerated patriotism and gratitude to ‘whatever government happened to be in power’, and on the other hand to dismiss concerns expressed by Jews about antisemitism on the grounds that antisemitism was an outmoded prejudice inexorably coming to an end in the present. She was dismayed by the eagerness of a certain wing of assimilated Jewry to close their eyes to the new forms of antisemitism arising around them. Arendt commented repeatedly on the political failure of such ‘assimilationist’ currents to acknowledge, understand or confront the rise of a new antisemitism, and on the advantage this gave to antisemites.

Following Arendt, we do not have to paint Israel in pastel colours, as it were, to relieve it of responsibility for racialised representations of Israel. We ought to criticise the occupation of another people’s land, the abuses committed against Palestinians who live on that land, the human rights abuses that flow from the occupation, the discrimination aimed at the Palestinian minority inside Israel, the recently enhanced rendition of Zionism as an ethnic form of nationalism, the new constitutional emphasis on the Jewish rather than ‘Jewish democratic’ character of the state, the disregard for civilian life that was shown by certain elements of the Israel army, the growth of anti-Arab racism inside Israeli society, and persecutory practices like destroying the houses of families of Arabs (but not Jews) suspected of terrorism.

In resisting antisemitic representations of these oppressive actions, we should try to understand the conflictual social relations in which they are inserted rather than present them as ‘results’ of the original sin of Zionism. Israel is by no means the only or the worst perpetrator of these abuses and Zionism is by no means the only or worst nationalism. It is true that criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic but what passes as ‘criticism’ of Israel certainly can be antisemitic.

Criticism of any ‘country’ can be racist in one way or another. In my own old research there was much to criticise about the Mugabe regime in postcolonial Zimbabwe, but the notion that ‘Africans cannot rule themselves’ certainly put criticism on an unacceptable raciological terrain. It seems to me that collective stereotypes about ‘the Muslims’, ‘the Arabs’, ‘the Jews’, ‘the Germans’ are all at risk of expressing racially charged forms of ‘criticism’. When I hear collective stereotypes about ‘the Israelis’ or ‘the Zionists’, I appreciate everything depends on the context in which these expressions are used, but the risk of racialisation seems to me the same.

In the 1960s and 1970s a refrain we heard within the left was that whereas all other capitalist societies could, as it were, be ‘saved’ by socialist revolution, the innermost nature of Israeli society was so wrong, so ill founded, that it was beyond rescue. This is why some of our fellow leftists declared that Israel had to cease to exist and demanded the destruction of the Israeli state. We should not lose sight of our abnormal and dangerous this demand is. Even if we put on the Marxist glasses of those times and look at Israel as a colonial state, colonial states were to be won for socialism through the path of revolution. Their existence as states was not questioned. They were not condemned to be annihilated.

It only makes sense to demand the destruction of the Jewish state if one treats its deficiencies as innate and eternal. This is why the idea of a two-state solution, that is, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was treated as anathema by the antizionist left, since it implied that Israel as a Zionist state would still prevail.

Today we often hear expressions of support for civic rather than ethnic nationalism, for postnationalism rather than nationalism, for anti-colonialism rather than occupation in leftist discussions of Israel. I agree with these demands, but I cannot agree that a failure to meet these demands means that Israel is not allowed to exist. Nowhere else except in relation to Israel would this conclusion be drawn. It does not involve much imagination to think about the advantages antisemitic movements would be keen to take from singling out the state of Israel for delegitimation.
I am pessimistic about the way antisemitic conclusions are being drawn from the Israel-Palestine conflict. I take some heart from the show of popular outrage expressed in France in part against the murder of four Jewish shoppers simply because they were Jews. The current election in Israel also offers some opportunity for more liberal forces that exist in Israeli society to gain political representation, but there is plenty of reason to think that this opportunity will once again be wasted – in part because of the weakness of international solidarity in Europe and America.

My sense is that the struggle for democracy and social justice in Israel and in Palestine is getting tougher, not easier. Tendencies toward military authoritarianism, inter-communal forms of violence, the disintegration of nation states and to the triumph of superstition over reason and law raise really difficult questions for democracy in the Middle East generally. It seems to me that these tendencies cannot easily be contained and that their echoes can be heard both in Israel and in Europe. I feel that a radical rethink is needed in how we understand the role of the Israel-Palestine conflict in encouraging racialised conceptions of Jews. Rightly or wrongly I would still look to a two-state solution, and also a more nuanced and troubled relation between victim and victimizer than we are currently exposed to. Our solidarity with those who reject both racism and antisemitism is more urgent than ever and I want to end by commending Nira and the other organisers for taking this initiative.

Robert Fine

Warwick University


The UCU continues to equivocate over antisemitism

The University and College Union (UCU) voted to reject and indeed denounce the EUMC working definition of antisemitism back in 2011. Then in 2012 they produced a leaflet which seemed designed to fill the gap left by the spurned working definition. I described its many inadequacies here.

One of the major problems with this leaflet was its failure to engage with the way in which criticism of Israel or Zionism can be a vector for antisemitism. The new leaflet does make some acknowledgement of this phenomenon. For example it includes in its list of ‘discriminatory language or behaviour’:

Targeting Jews or Jewish organisations for anti-Israel protests. For example, a ‘Free Palestine’ slogan is legitimate political debate. Daubed on the wall of a synagogue, it is an antisemitic act.

This is a start. The UCU’s guidance would at least help people to identify a proposed ‘Gaza protest’ outside a synagogue in Cambridge as antisemitic.

But, as Ronnie Fraser points out here, this clause is unsatisfactory:

holding Jews collectively to blame, eg for the actions of the Israeli Government. Many Jews do not support the actions of the Government of Israel.

There was simply no need for that second sentence. Is it legitimate to hold some (non-Israeli ) Jews to blame for the actions of the Government of Israel? Just how critical does one have to be to pass this particular purity test?

Like its earlier incarnation this leaflet wastes a lot of space on generic gumf and bland platitudes. This is a pity, as two clauses in particular seem to need some further unpacking. The first is this:

Deliberate distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation of religious concepts and teaching.

What exactly is being referred to here? Possibly the blood libel – if so, that could usefully have been spelled out. Or perhaps the authors had debates about shechita slaughter or circumcision in mind. It would have been helpful to say a bit more about these issues, and the very different motives which may drive critics of these practices.

This clause is also unhelpfully compressed:

Denial or trivialisation of the Holocaust; use of Holocaust imagery in describing Jews; accusing Jews of exaggerating the Holocaust.

The first and third elements are clear enough, but what is meant exactly by ‘use of Holocaust imagery in describing Jews’.? Does it only target taunts themed around the suffering of victims or does it also identify parallels between Jews/Israel and Nazis, correctly, as antisemitic?

According to Ronnie Fraser, a draft of this new leaflet included a fifth clause:

Judging Jews according to a different standard often manifests as explicit comparisons between what is perceived to be the collective action of Jews (usually the Israeli Government) and the action of Nazis.

I very much agree with him that this should have been left in. For, as it stands, this leaflet seems to avoid confronting key antizionist manifestations of antisemitism. Taunts about ‘Zionazis’ and elisions between Nazis and Israelis do indeed hold Jews to a different standard, and are often targeted (not that they are excusable in any context) even against people who are quite critical of Israel’s policies but who make a stand against disproportionate and distorted attacks on Israel.

Given that those responsible for drawing up the leaflet solicited views of UCU members and others, and seemed to spend several months mulling over responses, the ‘improvements’ which have been made are decidedly underwhelming.