David Hirsh in debate with Ilan Pappé, Nadia Naser-Najjab, Alan Johnson

This is the text of my talk this evening at Exeter University.  DH

David Hirsh

David Hirsh

Benedict Anderson described nation as a product of the shared imagination.  Stories, music, food, cinema, discussion, ritual: we negotiate and contest the shared understandings of community.

Nation is how we protect ourselves against external threat but it can also become an instrument of exclusion.

Hobsbawm insisted that those cultural phenomena are not free floating but they tie external material factors and social relations to our thoughts and to our feelings.

Shlomo Sand says that the Jewish people is invented.  He should read some sociology of nationalism which would explain how all nations are invented along with their claims to authenticity.

Newt Gingrich tells us that Palestine is invented.

If Sand and Gingrich had to teach on nationalism, they would know that the newness of Israel and Palestine are ways into understanding all nations; all nations are new, like Israel and Palestine.  They may reach into the past, but they are also connected to the material world and to objective social relations.

To treat Israel as a unique evil on the planet is a radical departure from the norms of both scholarly analysis and antiracist solidarity.

Some people say Israel is racist – essentially and fatally – because it wants to be both democratic and a state for the Jews.  Others say that antizionism is antisemitic  because it denies self-determination to the Jews which it grants as a democratic right to every other nation.

But sociology starts in the world, not in our own heads, definition follows observation.  We do not discover contradictions in order to condemn; we discover contradictions in order to trace them through, to see how they may play out, to see how they compare, to find ways of resolving them.

History requires that Israel is a Jewish state.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu was not the first to moralize that the Jews should know better after the Holocaust, than to oppress another people.

What did the Jews learn at Auschwitz?  Well, we don’t know because most of them were murdered there.  It was not a university.

One can reflect on the universal lessons of the Holocaust and take it as a warning against racism in general.

One can reflect on its particularities: why totalitarian thinking went for Jews in particular?

And one can reflect on the fact that many Jews learnt that next time they should have a state, an army and more powerful friends.

So, Archbishop, sorry, if few find shame in the creation of Israel as a state for the Jews.

No, the Arab Nationalist aim of “driving the Jews into the sea” is not a Zionist myth.

No, the Arab nationalist expulsion of Jews from the great cities of the Middle East is not a Zionist myth either.

Israel requires itself to be a democratic state.   From the declaration of Independence:

“…it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex …”

Does Israel fail to be democratic?  Does it fail to be Jewish?  Of course it fails to be democratic, of course it fails to be Jewish, as all states fall short of the claims they make for themselves.  The interesting part is how it has held together the contradictory requirements, how it has succeeded as well as how it has failed.

Israel is like other states, not unlike them.  Since Hegel we have understood that social life is a relationship, between principles and the human beings who articulate them, between human concepts and their human acutalizations.

There are two ways of relating to this conflict:

  • We can fight for a politics of peace and a politics of reconciliation between nations
  • Or we can join one nation in its fight for victory over the other

Scholars read narratives of nations with a sceptical eye.  Our job is not to stand aloof and prick the narratives of ordinary people, to show how their consciousness is false; our job is to understand actual consciousness, and to think about how it may develop.

During the peace process Israeli and Palestinian scholars made contact, forged trust, shaped narratives.  We aspire to be communities of scholars; we aspire to the universal; we have democratic ways of relating to each other.  Our elitism is egalitarian and inclusive; it revolts against essentialist and violent ways of constructing boundaries.

We build spaces where we can reason, where we can persuade, where we can laugh, where we can sit as equals, where we can learn and teach; spaces where violence is not the norm.

During the last five years we have seen what can happen to minorities in the Middle East.

  • We have seen states kill hundreds of thousands of their own people;
  • we have seen the genocide of the Yazidis
  • we have seen the sale of young women for rape
  • the filling of mass graves
  • the crucifiction of people with the wrong religion.

Israelis will not disarm, dismantle their state and rely, once again, on democratic civilization to guarantee their survival.  If you want Israel dissolved, you will have to support those who aim to do it against the wishes of its citizens.  A democratic or a secular state could not emerge from the conquest of Israel.

But we are here, in Exeter, not in the Middle East.  We are here to consider the campaign to exclude Israeli scholars from this campus.

In 2012, scholars were waiting for a panel to begin at the South African Sociological Association Conference.  A leading sociologist appeared:

“Which one is the Israeli?” he asked.

The Israeli made himself known.

He was then challenged to denounce Israel as an apartheid state.

When he declined to do so, the other participants in the session left the room and carried on their panel in another place.  The Israeli was left to give his paper to nobody.

This way of weaponizing the apartheid analogy is far removed from the methods of comparative study, of reason, of giving evidence, of relating to the work rather than to the person.

Steve Cohen explained the specific problem with the McCarthyite political test:

“Loyalty tests have a particular significance when forced on Jews. The significance is the assumption of collective responsibility, of collective guilt. Intrinsic to this is the requirement to grovel. Groveling, the humiliation of Jews, is fundamental to all anti-semitism.”

Ilan Pappe supports a boycott of Israelis from Exeter University.  He says:

“I think what’s really important is that a growing number of individual academics feel they can no longer tolerate co-operating with their Israeli counterparts, except for those who oppose current government policies.”

Pappe describes it as an issue of ‘feeling’ rather than of politics.  It is part of a ‘not in my name’ ethics of resistance: a retreat from a politics of changing things for the better.  It is co-opted as identity politics far from Israel and Palestine.

Ilan wants a political test for Israeli scholars.  He supports the kind of scene we saw in South Africa.

But most of the boycott campaign realises that the Political test is too transparent a violation of the norms of universities.  They dress their exclusion as an ‘institutional boycott’ of Israel.

But without the institutional support of a university, we could not be individual free scholars.

Haifa and Jerusalem Universities have about twenty per cent Arab students.  They are multicultural spaces.

To require Israeli scholars to disavow their institutions is little different from requiring them to jump through a political hoop.  This is not how we relate to scholars around the world.

Imagine walking into a conference and demanding that Pakistani scholars condemn Islamism and terrorism as a pre-requisite to giving a paper.

Or imagine that they would be asked to disavow their institution on the basis that it has links with the Pakistani military.

This is of course, unimaginable.  But it is imaginable for Jews.

To raise antisemitism in a discussion like this is more and more considered to be vulgar and outrageous.  As Howard Jacboson said, the standard response to the raising of antisemitism is “How very dare you!”

  • The boycott campaign seeks to exclude Israelis and only Israelis.
  • It seeks to characterise Zionists as racists and anyone who opposes antisemitism as Zionist.
  • It seeks to characterize Zionism as the key form of racism in the world.
  • The boycott campaign encourages people to relate to Jews who refuse to disavow Israel as though they were racists.
  • The boycott campaign imports antisemitic ways of thinking into democratic spaces.

Already this year we have seen meetings organised by gay American Jews being broken up by the boycott campaign.  They want to sit and discuss what it means to be gay in Israel, they want to talk about LGBT rights in the Middle East, they want to talk about how gay Israelis can make links with their Palestinians comrades.    The boycott campaign breaks up their meetings.

At King’s in January Ami Ayalon was making a case for Israeli peace with the Palestinians.  His meeting was broken up too, a window was smashed, he wasn’t allowed to speak, people weren’t allowed to listen.

With this assertion that Zionism is racism comes a withdrawal of solidarity from progressive Israelis.

  • Israelis involved in defending gay people against the Orthodox Jews or against Hamas are called racist.
  • Israelis involved in the trade union movement are called a racist.
  • Israelis who campaigns for peace with the Palestinians and an end to the occupation are called a racist.

The antizionists are more and more ridiculing antisemitism and the Jews who raise it as an issue.  Steven Salaita, a US scholar and antizionist tweeted:

‘Zionists:  transforming “antisemitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.’

French scholar Alain Badiou says that  there ‘could be no such thing as a far-left anti-Semitism – an absurd oxymoron…’.

In this way he shows his ignorance of the history of our own left wing movements, from Proudhon, Bakunin, Durhing and Bauer, whose antisemitism Marx opposed quite specifically, to Bebel and his opposition to the ‘Socialism of Fools’, to the Jew-hatred of the Stalinists, who learnt how to dress it up under anti-imperialist rhetoric and who invented the Apartheid slur.

Badiou responds to a critic of his antisemitism:  ‘I’ll simply give [him] a smack in the face if I ever come across him, ….’

An accusation of antisemitism, which ought to make us wonder and think and worry, needs only be responded to by violence:  discursive or physical.

Why was the Bataclan theatre attacked?

Why were the Eagles of Death Metal attacked?

The theatre had long been targeted by antizionists and Israel boycotters; it was owned by Israelis.   The band?  Had played music in Tel Aviv, explicitly breaking the so-called boycott.

A coincidence?  Perhaps.

Why was a kosher supermarket attacked in Paris?

Why was the only woman at Charlie Hebdo who was not spared, Jewish?

Why were Jews shot outside the Jewish museum in Brussels by a man who had come home from Syria?

Why were Jewish teachers and children murdered in Toulouse?

Why was a security guard outside of a synagogue in Denmark shot?

Oh, you say, this kind of antisemitic antizionism has nothing at all to do with our antiracist antizionism.

Tariq Ramadan, a French scholar argued that the killer of Jewish schildren at a school in France was not “driven by racism and antisemitism… He was merely attacking symbols.

People in Britain do not even know that the Bataclan had been targeted by Israel-haters for years.

President Obama called the killing of people in the kosher supermarket ‘random’.

We have a leader of the Labour Party who supports the boycott of Israel.

He says that Hamas and Hebollah are dedicated to peace and justice in the Middle East.

  • In spite of their antisemitism.
  • In spite of Hebollah’s current role in butchering Syrians.

Corbyn says that Raed Salah, a man who had employed medieval blood libel to incite Palestinains against Jews, is “far from a dangerous man”.

And the scholars?  Well Ilan Pappe too offered a scholarly defence, arguing that in this context, the medieval blood libel was anti Israel and not antisemitic.  Yes, this medieval blood libel, quoting Salah:

“…you should ask what used to happen to some of the children of Europe, whose blood would be mixed in the dough of the holy bread.”

Amira Hass joked this week about the Elders of Zion directing Israeli policy.

Anti-imperialist comedian Dieudonné jokes about Zyklon B, Yellow stars and the ‘Shoannanas’.

Out of the democratic discourse of criticism of Israel emerges a worldview, an “-ism”, antizionism.

Antisemitism always puts the Jews at the centre of everything that is wrong in the world.  Antizionism re-configures that Jew-centred frame.

Steven Salaita, the man who laughed at being called an antisemite, who said it was a dirty Zionist trick:

“Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power. It lends itself to top-down decision-making, to suppression of anti-neoliberal activism, to restrictions on speech, to colonial governance, to corporatization and counterrevolution—in other words, Zionism behaves in universities precisely as it does in various geopolitical systems.”

We need to pull back from this fantasyland in which Israel stands for, and stands behind, oppressive forces everywhere.

  • We need to support a politics of peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
  • not a politics of inciting hate;
  • not a politics which harks back to European antisemitism;
  • not a politics which jumps to the defence of antisemites;
  • not a politics which scorns and ridicules those who worry about antisemitism;
  • not a politics which hopes to deprive Israelis of the means by which they may need, one day, to defend themselves.

David Hirsh

Goldmsiths, University of London

4 Responses to “David Hirsh in debate with Ilan Pappé, Nadia Naser-Najjab, Alan Johnson”

  1. BlueStar (@bluestarpr) Says:

    Why must social justice movements confront anti-Jewish oppression?”

    The Left mistakenly writes off current-day Jewish oppression off as fake or minor because it’s not based on skin color, poverty or colonized status But despite not falling into any of these categories Jews have faced and continue to face racism and oppression around the world. Anti-Jewish oppression is doubly problematic because not only does it victimize individual Jews, it provides a smokescreen for wider oppression.

    Anti-Jewish oppression works to cover up the roots of injustice by making people think they’ve figured out who’s really pulling the strings: anti-Jewish oppression is designed as a way to keep people from understanding where the power lies. And it works.

    The point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front of the ruling classes to distract peoples’ rage. Ironically, this smokescreen works best when Jews are allowed some success and can be perceived as the ones “in charge” by other oppressed groups.

    The number of Leftists with real anti-Jewish beliefs may be tiny, but when the Left walks out on Jewish liberation, it isolates Jews from the one real strategy that can protect us from anti-Jewish targeting: Grassroots solidarity from people around the world. Without that, we turn to short-term tactics we can manage alone. That’s why you’ll see Jews pour their energy into building up a militarized Israel, with rights reserved for Jews. It’s the half-baked protection of having somewhere to go – of being able to flee every time we need to. But the Left also loses a historical ally.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      “It’s the half-baked protection of having somewhere to go…” Blue Star, sadly, it’s no longer half-baked. Not having a state to “run to” between 1933 and 1945 cost us 6 million people, some of them my relatives. The Nazis started out proclaiming that they just wanted rid of the Jews. Had German Jews actually had somewhere to go, many more would have survived, as might many others.

      And Israel having built up what has been claimed as the “best small army in the world” does, oddly enough, give the 8 million citizens of Israel a lot more protection than the Jews of Occupied Europe had. And, frankly, David H. has it right when he says (though he may have his tongue in his cheek when says it, tho’ I don’t when repeating it) “And one can reflect on the fact that many Jews learnt that next time they should have a state, an army and more powerful friends.”

      While I’m on that topic, what do you think would have happened to those hostages from the Air France plane hijacked to Idi Amin’s Uganda without the IDF & the IAF? That someone would have negotiated their release?

      Leaving aside far right antisemitism, which is easy to identify and oppose, August Bebel truly got it right when he called antisemitism “the socialism of fools”. Pity the likes of Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t woken from his Trotskyist/Maoist dream of world socialism in which barbaric terrorist are mistaken for freedom fighters.

      I apologise if I have mistaken some of your comments for your reality rather than an essay in irony.

  2. appcaerdydd Says:

    Excellent speech, belatedly read. Was Pappé’s piece or the whole thing recorded?

    Thank you,


  3. Richard Galber Says:

    Being that it was Exeter, what was the reaction to your and Alans contribution

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