An email to a friend and colleage about the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ – David Hirsh

Dear Xxxx,

It’s good to hear from you, but I wish it were in better circumstances. I agree with you that the Jerusalem Declaration moment is symbolic of something bad.

Perhaps in America the political polarisation of the Jewish community has been more marked, and for obvious reasons. In Britain we were squeezed out of the broad left, completely, but in America the broad left went for Biden, who is not at all antisemitic politically, and Jews were able to remain part of efforts to fight, and defeat Trump. In Britain we couldn’t defeat the populist right, and the populist right defeated the populist left. For the moment.

I fear that we might be in between the first and second spikes of populism. What feels like an ebbing of the populist moment might turn out to be like last summer was with respect to Covid. We need to be ready for a resurgence of populism and we need to understand that right and left populism are similar, and have a similar attractions to antisemitic ways of picturing the ‘enemy of the people’.

I noticed with some despair that Xxxx Xxxx signed the JD. I also noticed that other people who should know better signed it. People with big reputations, people with big Chairs, people with weight amongst Jews. 

The idea that they would sign a declaration that lists the key elements of contemporary antisemitism and then declares them to be not “in and of themselves” antisemitic, is bizarre. Imagine a “definition” of racism or of sexism that did the same. Imagine listing the key elements of racist and sexist culture and then saying that “in and of themselves” they are not racist.  It is a very basic mistake.

And there is literally nothing wrong with IHRA. IHRA is very tame. It says: “these are examples of the kinds of things that we know are antisemitic; if you see a case like that then you should make a judgment”. Adopting IHRA says: “we understand that this kind of antisemitism is significant and we undertake to look out for it”. Sure, some people might try to “use” IHRA to do other things, but IHRA is not usable to do other things; not unless you have a notion of overwhelming and frightening Jewish Power. 

I’m a bit reluctant to centre this battle on ‘Jewish culture’. I think one of the errors that is made again and again is the assumption that antisemitism is really, deep down, related to some kind of ‘Jewish Question’. Rich Jews give money to Jewish Studies because they think that’ll be good for the Jews. But it isn’t, because studying Jews doesn’t help us to understand antisemitism. I can’t believe that these generations of streetwise Jewish businessmen have got this so badly wrong. 

Is it too simple, then, to reply to you that Netanyahu is not responsible for antisemitism? Antisemitism is a mystification of what particular Jews do, it is not a rational or unmediated response to what Jews do. Antisemitism is a fetishized form of oppositional consciousness, as Moishe Postone said; it is mis-directed. It may be too simple but it is a crucially important first point to make.

Why does Netanyahu keep winning elections? I don’t know, I’m not an expert in Israeli politics. But one reason is because the Israeli left has shown itself incapable of coming near to offering an alternative.

We, the broad left, lost; the peace process lost. The Israeli right is partly to blame, but it’s also true that there are probably more significant reasons why we lost. The Palestinian left was much weaker, and it lost much more completely. The Palestinian nationalists failed to build a Palestinian national movement capable of making a deal. Nobody ever believed that those who spoke for Palestine actually spoke for Palestine​. Israelis were reluctant to make concessions because they couldn’t trust that the people to whom they made concessions would be able to deliver what they had conceded in return. The wider Sunni-Shia conflict, the Saudi-Iran conflict, is a much more important determinant of what happens in the Middle East than Israel is. And minorities all over the Middle East, of which one is Jewish, are at risk. 

So yes, Netanyahu has been bad. But maybe there are reasons why the left have been unable to defeat him. And maybe the collapse of the process which was meant to end the occupation is not primarily down to the Israeli right. Again, what goes wrong in the world for Jews is not only a result of what Jews do. 

It’s so tempting always to imagine that antisemitism isn’t a mad irrational threatening thing which we can’t control; some of us are tempted to imagine that if Jews behave better then there will be less antisemitism. This is not a healthy response.

Yes, Netanyahu is awful. But our response, the response of the Jewish left, is our choice, our judgment.

Fundamentally Jews in America and Jews in Europe cannot do much to end the occupation. I’m not actually convinced that Jews in Israel can either. Sure, they should have done more, but they still might not have succeeded.  And now the broad Jewish left says that IHRA – an inoffensive and tame statement about contemporary antisemitism – is Trumpist in its essence! How much more wrong could it get than that? 

But what we can do is understand antisemitism. The Jerusalem Declaration doesn’t understand antisemitism. Rather, it offers antisemitism a deal, a co-existence with it in the hope that in alliance with left antisemitism, we’ll be able to defeat right wing populism, together, as one happy family.

Best wishes
David Hirsh

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