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


6 Responses to “The Palestine/Israel question and racialised discourses on Jews – Robert Fine”

  1. Jacob Arnon (@Jacob_Arnon) Says:

    I have been scratching my head trying to figure out how Robert Fine’s article as printed here could have as 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” and end by commenting that 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.”
    If Mr. Fine thinks that the behavior of Jews is not the cause of antisemitism why does he end by insisting that “the Israel-Palestine conflict (is)encouraging racialised conceptions of Jews.”
    I was flabbergasted by Professor Fine’s final embrace of the notion that the behavior of Jews in the “Israel/Palestine” conflict is “encouraging” a “racialized conception of Jews.”
    Moreover this “racialized conception of Jews” calls into question the “two state solution.” This isn’t how Professor Fine puts it, but it is clearly his meaning.

    The problem as I see it is the writer’s over reliance on Hannah Arendt (does he quote any other thinker?) as well as the title of the conference he is addressing:
    “The aim of this panel is to discuss ‘the role of the Palestine/Israel question in racialised discourses on Jews’.”
    Professor Fine does see the conflict as racializing the discourse on Jews (in Europe I presume) and he reacts to this by questioning his own support of the “two State solution” (rightly or wrongly—why wrongly?)

    One issue Mr. Fine fails to address is the fact that Israel from its inception has been under attack, blockade, boycotts from its Arab and leftist enemies and is now under boycott by many European Universities.
    If the Israeli public has responded to this wholesale vilification by moving to the right, it should come as no surprise. As much as I despise the Likud it’s ascendency and that of other right wing parties is the direct result of the racialized discourse that Professor Fine talks about.
    It seems to me that in his response the writer ever so subtly does what he claims he was not going to do: to blame Jews for the growing antisemitic discourse in Europe.
    Finally I would say that it is commendable of Robert Fine to include Islamophobia as a kind of racism such inclusion is wrong headed: Islam is not a race and the history of Muslim hatred and antisemitism are distinct and each needed to be tackled separately.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      “Islam is not a race”, Jacob Arnon notes, just above. And he is , of course, absolutely correct. But then Jews (including Israeli Jews) are not a “race” either, even allowing for the fact that biologists (let alone social scientists) cannot agree on what a human “race” is.

      That, I feel, is but a minor matter here.

      There is much to comment on here, starting with thanks for Robert Fine noting, yet again, what social scientists have been saying for decades: the behaviour of the despised out-group has absolutely nothing to do with the treatment it receives. It matters not a whit what Jews, African-Americans, etc, do, those who despise them will not change their attitudes towards them until the law makes it more costly to continue that behaviour than to change it.

      I do find it difficult (along with Jacob Arnon) to comprehend Robert Fine’s general point about Israel: it is plainly a parliamentary democracy, unlike, literally, every state that surrounds it. It is also, politically, stable. We (the outsiders) may not like and/or regret the governments its electorate returns, but tough: Israelis may not like the governments we (in the democratic West) return. That these governments have been, since the mid-1970s mostly (conventionally defined) right-wing ones is a factor, possibly, of the political system the Sochnut adopted in 1948. So what? Just look at the governments other voting systems have thrown up. And while I’m on the subject, have Israeli left-wing governments done so much better? Even trying to take in to account the assassination of the warrior turned peace-maker Rabin, which truncated the peace-process, did Arafat really want peace and a two-state solution?

      I have another quibble: Robert Fine cites Arendt as being disappointed with “Jewish banking houses in financing reactionary states after the French revolution.” In practice, the situation after the French revolution was hardly as modern and democratic as this statement might imply, especially after Napoleon staged his coup d’etat and made himself Emperor: even before that, the Reign of Terror was hardly a vision of peace on earth! That the Rothschild’s financed the British resistance to Napoleon’s grandiose plans for a French hegemony over Europe is hardly to be descried: Britain was struggling towards a version of parliamentary democracy – and we all know that Jews fare far better under such a a system than under authoritarian systems – and I, for one, prefer the outcome that occurred than a French victory. That Arendt came from a far more obviously (and Germanic) reactionary system might, just, have influenced her attitudes here.

      You might gather that I feel that Robert Fine overstates what comes across, unintentionally, as Israel’s fault for the current I/P stalemate.

  2. Judah Niclas Wenkel Says:

    The jewish, democratic nation state of Israel is built on a solid internationally legal foundation ; in 1919, The League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to create a national home for the jewish people Am Yisrael in the formerly turkish occupied territory of “palestine” with borders including the HaGolan, Judea, Samaria plus what`s now known as Jordan.
    In 1922 at The San Remo conference, The League of Nations, the international community reaffirmed and confirmed this british mandate ….. the same year the british gave the then area called Transjordan “independence” as a british protectorate in order to curry favors with arab dictators in the middle east.
    The year before that, contravening the mandate, the british gave away Hagolan to the french colonial power occupying Syria & Lebanon as a “friendly gesture” to the french.
    During the 1920s again contravening their mandate, the brits opening the floodgates for arab immigration into the mandate area, while at the same time restricting jewish immigration into our “national home”.
    In 1948, Eretz Yisrael was born and “The Hashmite Kingdom of Jordan” invaded, occupied and STOLE Judea, Samaria and a big part of Yerushalayim from our jewish nation.
    The rest, as we say, is history.
    My assertion is that Israel got all necessary international law on our side in claiming all of Yerushalayim, HaGolan, Judea and Samaria as integral parts of Eretz Yisrael … the national home of our jewish people / nation. 🙂

    • Alan Sommerstein Says:

      Then why hasn’t Israel annexed the West Bank? And if it does, what should be the status of the Arab inhabitants of that territory?

  3. ibngibril Says:

    When will the Jewish left get off its knees and stop being defesive in the face of neo nazi antisemitic, libellous attacks?

    Is Israel Colonialist?
    NO. The land aspirations have been set since the bible articulated the its borders. Even this is beyond the aspirations of serious politicians. Israel has no expansionist agenda.

    For colonialism read Article 1 of the Palestinian Constitution which states:

    “Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation. Arab Unity is an objective which the Palestinian People shall work to achieve”

    So the creation of a Palestinian state is but a part step to the creation of a Greater Arabia with Islam and Sharia law at its heart.

    Is Israel Apartheid?
    NO. Such a hypothesis denigrates the struggles of the Black & “Coloured” communities sturggles through the apartheid era. Israeli Arabs have more civil, political, economic and religious freedom in Israel than anywhere else in the Middle East.

    By contrast in the Palestinian territories sellng property to a Jew is a capital offence (along with being gay). It is illegal for Jews to live, work, own property there as with the vast majority of Arab Moslem states. Jews and israeli’s need no lessons in human rights from states and their supporters who flout the most basic laws and rules of humanity and civilization – not forgetting 27million black slave in Arab countries today

    I could go on. It is time we published a book of equivalences. Compare and contrast state by state the record of each. Let facts replace emotions and let us declare the decency and morality in absolute and relative terms.

    There is no point debating these people, just as there was no point social democrats debating Nazis. The aim of the other side is to debase Israel with their “when did you start beating your wife?”style questions. Stop dignifying their questions, get front-footed and stand firm.

    Shabbat Shalom


    • Mira Vogel Says:

      There is nothing essentially repressive about Arab culture – people of a state or population can change their minds, behaviours and constitutions over time. I can understand the fears about a Palestinian state becoming a more dangerous neighbour to Israel and I agree that Palestinian state building has far to go. I’ve also observed the Netanyahu-led coalition to be disruptive to that, interfering with movement, needlessly humiliating the Palestinian authorities, for example. These things are just a few of Israel’s contributions to the turbulence of Palestinian society, and a real shame. And you have to admit, Israeli society is more segregated than it used to be, not least due to settlement expansion. I have no illusions about the state of Palestinian politics, but this conflict is not simply an aggressor against a victim.

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