Engage started as a network of people that came together spontaneously to combat and reverse the Association of University Teacher’s decision in the UK to boycott Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities in 2005. While remaining a network of activists concerned with opposing the campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in general, its concerns have broadened.
Its opposition to the boycott campaign was centred initially around its website at liberoblog.com. This beginning evolved into the ‘Forum’ at EngageOnline.org.uk. The Forum offers a quick-response and continuous critique of a politics that rejects rational and careful thought on questions relating to Israel in the name of the irrational idealistic and loaded terms of “good” and “evil”.
Nowhere is this rejection more in evidence than in the use of the concept “Zionism”. More often than not, anti-Zionist discourse is content to denounce and represent “Zionism” through the mysticificatory terms of an ahistocical, totalising “evil”. In so doing, it denies its reality as an expression of diverse social and political phenomena.
Mirroring these concerns, the Engage Journal offers a collection of academic and political writing that challenges the swelling current of scholastic thought that draws its rhetoric and “critique” from the notion of Israel as the demonic force. It is within this challenging framework that the Journal will work through the dilemmas and difficulties of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Paradoxically, many on the left present the Israel/Palestine debate in terms reminiscent of George W. Bush’s now notorious comment that, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. One is forced to choose between one national narrative and the other – between “good” and “evil” – as if any position not exhausted by this opposition simply does not exist. The Engage Journal develops a paradigm that rejects the dominance of such Manichean thinking. It refuses ways of thinking that mystify and demonise either, on the one hand, Israelis or Jews or, on the other hand, Arabs, Palestinians or Muslims. It rejects the essentialism that presents one or other of these ‘sides’ as inherently and eternally racist, undemocratic or ‘fundamentalist’. Engage supports the praxis of democrats and anti-racists in both Israel and Palestine.
There is little doubt that much contemporary antisemitism in Western Europe and in the United States today draws on the language and themes of anti-Zionism. The anti-racist anti-Zionist discourse exists alongside openly antisemitic anti-Zionist discourses. The danger is that this “anti-racist” anti-Zionism could well culminate in the licensing and legitimising of what is, in sentiment if not in name, an antisemitic movement.
To many – some innocently, some not so innocently – this reference to anti-Zionism implies that Engage is either solely in the business of defending Israeli interests through characterising all criticism of Israel as antisemitic, or, in its more vulgar version, is nothing other than a “Zionist front” (whatever that may mean).
To others, again ranging from the naive to the malicious, Engage is to all intents and purposes, an unrepentant and relentless collection of anti-Zionist communards who will not be satisfied until Israel has been “wiped off the face of the earth”. Of course, both images are wide of the mark. They are also politically disingenuous.
There have always been antisemitic currents on the left and there have always been pro-totalitarian currents on the left. But these have never constituted the left.
One of the characteristics of this shameful tradition is to reduce the political and social concepts of liberty and democracy to nothing more than ramparts of a “superstructure” of domination and oppression. From this perspective these central markers of freedom are not only valueless but a mere sop “given” to the oppressed by their oppressors often in the name of some “shadowy” and malevolent force.
This strain of reaction is dangerous and damaging not only for Jews, but also to the aims and goals of the movements in which such ideas seek dominance. If history has taught us anything, it is that one personal or collective freedom can never be achieved at the expense of another; that the other’s unfreedom becomes, sooner or later, the defining characteristic of the apparently “free”.
An alternative left tradition treats liberty and democracy as real. Critique of these concepts is offered through the recognition of their extension and, at the present time, their defence. Not content with formal liberty and formal democracy, this tradition has always attempted to make these core values actual. Engage stands in this tradition of the left and, in so doing draws attention to, de-codes and combats the antisemitism and racism that makes itself felt (usually unintentionally) within the praxis of emancipation and liberation.
The Engage Journal will function as a forum for rigorous debate, aiming to forge conceptual and theoretical clarity. It will be a forum for the publication of scholarly research and a challenge to works of mystification and obscurantism. It will focus on challenging anti-Zionist constructions of the world and on the creeping anti-Zionist hegemony and anti-Zionist language and narratives within both academic and popular writings.
Faced with rising antisemitism in the 19th Century, Eleanor Marx used to declare, ‘I am a Jewess’. Faced with the Nazi occupation, the King of Denmark is said to have worn a yellow star. [it seems that this story is more apocryphal than true. Neverthelss, our point is clear – Ed.] If someone shouts that Engage is ‘Zionist’, racist, pro-apartheid and Nazi, because we thinks that Israel has the right to exist, then we will proudly answer, ‘Yes, we are Zionists’. If someone denounces us as Palestinian nationalists because we are in favour Palestinian independence, then we answer that we are proud to be considered Palestinian partisans. It is out of this concern with justice that the Engage Journal rejects the lure of a decisionism that demands a dramatic, gestural, but ultimately empty, call to “decide” and to decide “once and for all”. We reject the demonization of Israel and Jews as well as the simple reversal of that demonization that seeks to relocate it onto Muslims, Palestinians and Arabs.
David Seymour (Editor of the Engage Journal)
David Hirsh (Editor of Engage)