I want a “Free Palestine”. I want it very much, I want it genuinely, I want it because it’s right and because many Palestinians who suffer absolutely deserve it; but also because it would be good for Israel, because it would be good for the whole Middle East, because it would be good for democratic politics and culture everywhere.
I also believe that the slogan “Free Palestine” can function as an antisemitic dog whistle. Both. What is a dog whistle? It makes a sound that only dogs can hear.
In politics, a dog whistle is an element of rhetoric that a particular constituency will hear and understand in a particular way, while other people watching might hear or see nothing significant or wrong. For example, Donald Trump:
“We have to have strong borders. We have to keep the drugs out of our country. Right now we’re getting the drugs, they’re getting the cash. We need strong borders. We cannot give amnesty. I want to build the wall. We need the wall. The Border Patrol. ICE. They wall want the wall. We stop the drugs. We shore up the border. My first act will be to get all of the Drug Lords, we have some bad ones. Bad Bad people in this country that have to go out. We’re going to get them out, we’re going to secure the border and once the border is secured at a later date we’ll make a determination as to the rest. But we have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get ’em out.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AneeacsvNwU
There are ways of reading that text in which it is entirely both true and innocent. In the abstract. In and of itself.I’m writing now for the people who can judge that in the context of the 2016 Presidential election, this speech was racist. I’m one of those people. Other people can scroll on. There are other posts for you.
This text is a dog whistle text. It means one thing to people who don’t know. And it means another thing to people who do know.
To racists, it’s exciting.
To antiracists, and to many Mexicans, it’s urgently and clearly threatening.
And to lots of people watching, it means that Trump wants to stop drugs coming into America.So the slogan “Free Palestine” may be, in and of itself, not only legitimate but exactly right.
Just as you might think that keeping Mexican Drug Lords out of America, who you might think are bad hombres, is also not only legitimate but exactly the right thing to do.
Personally, I’m very strongly in favour of Free Palestine. I want a free, democratic, Palestine, at peace with its neighbours.
Yet “Free Palestine” in particular contexts, can be an expression of support for the elimination of Israel.
I’m not even against that in principle, in the abstract, in and of itself. If there was a long lasting genuine peace, like there is for example between France and Germany, Israelis and Palestinians might decide to bring the border down. They might, they might not. If they do, they won’t have to deal with me denouncing them.
But this slogan is not genuinely about the elimination of Israel by consent. It is, in the world that exists, about eliminating what they say is the evil apartheid state of Israel, by any means necessary. And eliminating Israel without the consent of the Israelis could not result in a Free Palestine, it probably couldn’t be achieved at all, and if it was, it would not result in freedom but in genocide.
This is the academic work of obfuscation in which the Jerusalem Declarationists specialize.
They imagine in their minds, ‘Free Palestine’ in the whole territory, without an Israel. And they say that in the abstract, the slogan, “in and of itself”, is not “on the face of it”, antisemitic. And in the utopian fantasy which exists only in their minds, it is indeed, not antisemitic.
But, as we’ve seen this weekend, the slogan does not appear “in and of itself”, it appears in the world.
It often appears in such a way as we might judge that, guided by the IHRA principle of context, it could, according to context, be antisemitic.
When “Free Palestine” is the slogan of a gang of men who are cruising through Jewish neighbourhoods threatening sexual violence, it becomes an antisemitic slogan.
And when “Free Palestine” is set up as a loyalty test for Jewish academics, it becomes an antisemitic slogan.
When it is spray painted on the door of a synagogue, or on the remnant of a wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, it becomes an antisemitic slogan.
When it is shouted, relentlessly, all day long, at a Jewish teacher, by pupils, it becomes an antisemitic slogan.
And then, the people who made such a point of defending a movement which aims to exclude Jews from the community, by setting up an assumption that they’re Zionists, meaning racists, are themselves partly responsible for the hostile environment they’ve helped to construct.
Academics and left wing politicos understand the concepts of ‘hostile environment’, ‘institutional racism’ and ‘dog whistle’. They invented those concepts and they live by those concepts. But when it comes to antisemitism, they play dumb, like the dumbest, most deplorable, Trump fanatic. They cling to literalist, abstract readings of texts and they refuse to contextualise those texts in the complex, material, social, world of history and of power.