Palestine Solidarity, BDS and Antisemitism

This is a guest post by Ulrich Stephane Savary a Labour Party Campaigner in South Manchester, writer at Labour Vision and a member of Momentum and the Jewish Labour Movement.

When the second Intifada started in September 2000, I was in my first year at University. Having joined my local student union, I was really pleased to have been selected as delegate for my student union in the local Pro-Palestine Committee.  It was a great opportunity for me to show that I could help in organising a mass protest, with various left-wing organisations, trade unions, Christian, Jewish and Muslim organisations.  It also meant that I had to be ready to broker a deal with groups that don’t always agree with each other.  It is fair to say that I was aware that he French left, like the left in Britain often spend more time fighting each other than they do in working together.

So the first time I went to my Pro-Palestine Committee meeting, I knew what to expect. When I entered the room, full of trade unionists and left-wing activists all talking seriously about the influence of US imperialism in the Middle East, the role of successive French Government in the development of Zionism amongst the French Jewish Community before WW2, the allegedly corrupted leadership of Fatah and the courageous young Palestinians that were fighting the Israeli war machine with rocks, I felt like I was part of a group of people who knows, against those who don’t.  But I soon realised that all them, leaders of various small Trotskyists, Anarchists, and Alt-left organisations were arguing with each other about the role played by the working class in the imminent fall of Capitalism. They were all leaders of small talking shops, tiny so-called working-class parties, with only themselves and their group of followers to believe in them. But they had the passion of those who believe that the revolution will come sooner rather than later.  And when you are 19, you want to believe them, even if I couldn’t see the differences between them.

After ten minutes of this noisy and overexcited “brouhaha”, a group in their 50’s emerged from the back of the room to address the rest of the group. They were all members of the powerful CGT / CFDT, the main trade unions in France, and they were all members of either the French Communist Party as well as the Parti Socialiste.

The Trotskyists hated the CGT / CFDT group. The Anarchists, who hated the Trotskyists, hated them even more. The Alt-left left the room in disgust even before the any discussion had really started.  After all, they were viewed as bureaucrats, paid by the Union to work for their respective political parties. And the fact that both parties were in a coalition Government together didn’t help make them more popular amongst the “Bolsheviks”.

And yet, as soon as the CGT / CFDT group started to talk, the entire room listened to them. And they made a very simple and valid point. The meeting wasn’t about Israel itself, but was about our solidarity with the Palestinian people. Back then, it was important to get it right. One after another, they reminded the audience, that the far-right will try to use the events unfolding in Palestine as an excuse to attack the Jewish Community, any calls to boycott Israel will be used by them, in their war against the Jews in France or elsewhere.  Therefore, this committee wasn’t ready to support such things.  What they wanted instead was a principled socialist position on a conflict.

Today, some may find this outrageous, other would even consider this as the ultimate evidence of a so-called Zionist lobby that controls everything, both the left and the right at the same time. But in 2000 in France, in this room packed with so many different political organisations who loved to argue with each other’s, to me this seemed to be the correct political position.  Solidarity with the Palestinian people didn’t mean that all Israelis were to blame for the second intifada, so why punish those who were innocent. And this principled political position, 17 years later, is still mine.

When it comes to any political or social movement, socialists usually always start their political analysis from facts, then try to link these facts with what is called “class consciousness”, social classes that have different political and economic goals. This helps Socialists to analyse any social movement in relation to the economy and to the level of political consciousness of the actors of these movements. Karl Marx for instance, saw the political economy as the engine of mind. Therefore, consciousness reflects the political economy. A person’s thoughts tend to be shaped by his or her political and economic circumstances. That’s how all progressive social movements broadly speaking start.

Any Socialist I hope, would agree with me on that, and understand that our capitalist societies are divided between classes having different political and economic interests. However, when it comes to Israel, strong and proud socialists, tend to forget everything they know regarding social movements, the economy, Imperialism, and seem to believe that all Israelis, no matter their social conditions, no matter if they are right-wing or not, rich or poor, pro or against their own government are somehow collectively responsible for the action of their own governments.  If we applied this rather strange view on Britain, it would mean that the entire British population would be collectively responsible for the action of their past and present Governments.  No more class struggle, just a monolithic nation that act, think and fight together and must all be blamed.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and its hidden agenda.

That’s why when socialists give their support to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, they renounce any kind of socialist analysis of both Israel as a nation and of Zionism as a political and national movement.

What is the main purpose of this movement? They will claim, it is to support the Palestinian People in their struggle against both Zionism and Israel. Let’s take this argument seriously and examine the results of what this campaign has achieved since it started in July 2005.

Did we get an Independent Palestinian state because of the BDS movement? The answer is obviously no.  Are the Palestinians any closer to have their own Independent State from Israel?  The answer is no.  Twelve long years of campaigning have given no satisfactory results.  If the real goal of the BDS mobement ss to help the Palestinian in their struggle against Israel, then that strategy has failed to deliver.  Therefore, we should question the true goal of the BDS Movement. If after 12 long years of failing to deliver their primary goal, the BDS movement continues with its strategy of “bullying” anyone who wishes to do business, study or just live in Israel, it may mean they have a hidden agenda, something that I think should raise some concerns for all socialists. I would imagine that any socialist would understand that holding all Israelis responsiblr for the actions of their government, can only mean that the BDS movement true goal isn’t really to support the Palestinian people.

We should openly question the true motivation of an organisation, if after 12 years, it hasn’t achieved its goal. Yet, when it comes to the BDS movement, a parts  of the British left seem  unable to question the true motivation of this movement. And this is a serious concern.

But that’s not all. So many left-wing activists, in the broad sense of the term, will compare the political situation in Israel, with what happened in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, when the black population were considered as inferior by the white population.  It was a racist regime, where the black majority living in squalid conditions, couldn’t vote or  even sit on the same bus as the white minority.

Is Israel the “South Africa” of the middle East then? If this was the case, no Arab Israelis would have the right to vote. And yet, there are Arab Israelis members of the Knesset such as Masud Ghnam, Dr Jamal Zahalka or Ahmad Tibi. If Israel was really an apartheid state, there would be no Arab Israelis elected. Therefore, if Socialists argue that Israel is an apartheid state to explain why they continue to support the BDS Movement, then they are committing a gross political mistake, as they clearly don’t understand the true nature of Israel, as a modern liberal democracy.

What about those Israeli citizens who refuse to support the action of their Government in the West Bank? What about the thousands of Palestinian and Israeli women who have joined together to march through the desert for peace[5]? Don’t they deserve our support?

To be frank, I personally find the term apartheid inaccurate and inflammatory when applied to the struggle of the Palestinians.  It doesn’t help us to understand the true nature of the relationship between the 3.6 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank under military rule and the Israelis settlers who live under Israelis civilian law.  The Palestinians living in the West Bank are facing what we can characterise as a modern form of colonialism. And yes, Socialists should oppose it. But the left should also recognise that the Israeli society is as divided as any other society and doesn’t constitute a monolithic bloc around the Israeli government.  For us socialists, there is no such thing as national solidarity, but only national class struggle and international solidarity.

If this obsession with condemning Israel, does nothing to advance peace or help the Palestinians, it does however help to enforce the belief that Israelis are all guilty. We should be suspicious of any left-wing organisations obsessed with Israel, to the point that they don’t seem to vigorously campaign on any anything else.  And this obsession raises other questions. Why some sections of the British left continue to use a false definition of the nature of Israel.  Does it fit another political agenda, something that they don’t want to confess? Let’s say it, aren’t they a bit anti-sematic?  Of course, they will vehemently refute the term, and will accuse anyone who raises this as a “Zionist” like it was an insult.

The truth is that many on the left aren’t conscious that their own actions can reinforce anti-Semitism in Britain or elsewhere in the world, however some do embrace it plainly.

The Great International Zionist Conspiracy that will destroy Britain, the Labour Party and the world.

How many times have we seen labour party members, trade unionists or far-left activists claiming that the media is being controlled by Zionist or Israel. This is a recurrent theme of the British left. The BBC and with it, the mainstream media, are all seen to have a hidden agenda against the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn and the world in general. And often, they are all Zionists. What about our Parliament or the “right wing of the Labour Party”? Have a guess. They are all under the Zionist or Israelis lobby influence too. Zionists are seen everywhere, and I am sure that some may even believe that I am part of this conspiracy too.

Even if I have utter contempt for any so-called socialists that  use such disgusting anti-Semitic propaganda, to explain pretty much everything that is happening in the world, let’s for a moment take their point  seriously.

Believing that Israel, as a nation, can corrupt, control, international organisations and then dominate the entire European or American establishment, is basically believing that Israel is the most powerful nation on earth. If taken this seriously, we should all be asking how this tiny nation, who needs the US support to maintain its regional power, can have such power?

This defies logic.  In the hierarchy of Imperialist nations, Israel is no more than a small player. It is a regional power, like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are too. They don’t have the capacity to topple successive presidents in Africa, like France has done so many time since the 1960’s, they don’t have military bases in each continent, like USA have and they wouldn’t have been able to start a war with Argentina, and to win it, like United Kingdom did during the  Falklands War in 1982.  So how can any socialist explain that “Zionists”, no sorry Israel have such an influence.

The only logical explanation would be that all Zionists have some sort of magical powers.  They must be super humans too as how  could  anyone explain the Zionists can control the world from Tel-Aviv, New York, Paris, London and Frankfurt since 18th Century or even before, whilst no one can see them gathering together at some point.  The “illiterate socialists” who believe in a gigantic Zionist worldwide conspiracy, must also believe that Zionists have some sort of supernatural powers. There are no other explanations possible.

When it isn’t Israel itself, it is “the master of the puppets”, Rothschild himself that is behind everything.  Of course, Israel and Rothschild must be working together. They are all Jews, no sorry Zionists.

This anti-Semitic Left-Wing Conspiracy has no valid political ground, and yet it is what some “illiterate Socialists” want to believe.

What is their best line of defence? Anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitism. When it comes to Israel, for them, it means that Zionism isn’t truly Jewish, therefore it isn’t anti-Semitic to believe that Zionist control the world.

Sometimes they even see Israel as some sort of a capitulation to anti-Semitism. If Jews are leaving Europe to live in Israel, it’s because they refuse to fight for their own right to stay and live in Europe. Even if today many Jews see Israel as a safe place, a last resort against Anti-Semitism, this section of the anti-Zionist left will see them not as victims, but as defeatists, or worse.  Let’s not mention to them the Holocaust, to explain why so many Jews consider themselves as Zionists.  Some of them will even claim that Zionist and Nazis were working together against Jews, to create a situation where all Jews had to leave Europe.

Even if their Anti-Zionism wasn’t linked to their Anti-Semitism, it is a fact that the Anti-Zionist Left don’t want to offer any credible alternative to Zionism, as they don’t perceive it as a political, national movement worth of interest.  As Steve Cohen explained, in his fantastic book “That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti‐Semitic” the left has historically offered nothing more than so-called “assimilation” to fight against anti-Semitism.  Don’t be Jew and then you won’t be victims of anti-Semitism. Even today many on the left have nothing more to offer to the Jewish Community.

“It’s funny you don’t look anti-Semite”

The “Anti-Zionist Left” often uses other tricks to claim that those who oppose them are all wrong. Jewish and Socialist authors have been opposed to Zionism in the past. To be perfectly clear, and especially in the context of Europe before Hitler and the Holocaust, many socialist Jews were against Zionism. Today, some Jews are even deeply involved in the Anti-Zionist BDS Movement and the Anti-Zionist Left. Therefore, the conclusion that the “anti-Zionist” naturally draw is that Anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Zionist Left see the world as if it was divided between “good Jews” opposed to the “bad Jews”.  The “good Jews” must be against Israel as a state, and must spend their entire political lives opposing Israel. There is no escape because the Anti-Zionist left love using them as evidence that they aren’t anti-Semitic. All accusations of anti-Semitism are simply an attack organised by Israel, the Zionists or the “bad Jews”.

In his essay On the Jewish Question, one of the clearest example of acceptance of anti-Semitism to the point that the individual himself – here Marx- includes anti-Semitism as part of his thinking is this:

ʺWhat is the secular cult of the Jew? Hagglingʺ.

ʺWhat is his secular god? Moneyʺ.

ʺExchange is the true god of the Jewʺ.

ʺThe chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchantʺ.

ʺThe emancipation of the Jew is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaismʺ.

As Steve Cohen explained, this is not to make the reactionary claim that Marxism as a philosophy is anti-Semitic, but to show that victims of anti-Semitism can assimilate themselves to an anti-Semitic environment to the point that the victims themselves become anti-Semitic.

Therefore, when the “anti-Zionist left” uses Jewish writers as a line of defence against accusation of anti-Semitism, it only proves that they either don’t understand the true nature of anti-Semitism or that they are themselves anti-Semitic.

They aren’t good or bad Jews, but as soon as the “anti-Zionist left” makes this distinction between “anti-Zionist Jews” and “Zionist Jews”, the latter being the bad ones, they just show the true nature of their opposition to Israel.  It has little to do with the Palestinian people, but has everything to do with their own anti-Semitism.

Of course, I know that many good and decent people members of this section of the British Left truly believe that they aren’t anti-Semitic, however as Democratic Socialists, it our duty to re-evaluate our own political beliefs, especially when it considers an entire nation responsible for the mistakes of their own government, to the collective culpability of all Jews who are not anti-zionist

It is of the utmost importance that the left starts educating itself on antisemitism, as not understanding the true nature of anti-Semitism can lead to grave political mistakes which in return pave the way for discrimination and racism. If we, Socialists are serious about our support for Palestine, Palestinians and their fight for an independent state, as well as our commitment towards peace in the Middle East, we must step up our game, and work with all of those who truly want peace between Israel and Palestine.

[1] Mainly antifascist skinhead movement.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masud_Ghnaim

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamal_Zahalka

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmad_Tibi

[5] http://edition.cnn.com/2017/10/09/middleeast/israeli-palestinian-women-peace-march-desert/index.html

The Context of Boycotts

‘Liberal Delusion’ wrote this comment ‘below the line’ in an earlier thread. We thought it worth reproducing.

The BDS movement places the boycott in the context of SA (and so have to inflate Israeli human rights contraventions as ‘apartheid’). However, the vast majority of Jews place the idea of a boycott against Jews in a very different history; a history in which Jews have been singled out for allegedly unique crimes and unique wrongs despite the fact that they were no worse than many, if not all others and/or were total fabrications, and, as a consequence of these claims suffered ‘boycott’ – see e.g. the 1904 Limerick boycott where Jews were accused of price manipulation.

The problem is that when Jews raise these concerns, especially through the question – why Israel? – no sensible answer is given – the ASA’s comment, that ‘we have to start somewhere’ begs the question. (Despite the above response, the BDS movement is not supported by the PA or Hamas, and was, far from emanating from Palestine, devised by two members of the SWP here in London – and even if it did emanate from Palestinian civil society, that does not involve an immediate and unmediated response – what is right in Palestine, may not appear so right in a different context, and for very good reasons).
Rather than recognising this history and this sensitivity in its critical dealings with Israel, many BDSers simply claim that Jews are abusing this history of antisemitism (and anti-Jewish boycotts), of using ‘real’ antisemitism (and the Shoah) as a magic talisman to ward off ‘criticism’ (which is conflated by the BDS movement with exclusion) and of acting in bad faith.

In so doing, the BDS movement show that along with their support for Palestinians is an attempt to antagonise and confront non-Israeli Jews who, for those who disagree with their boycotting (what Claire Potter confused with scrutiny) are transformed into ‘supporters of Israel’ and for whom no quarter must be given.

If those in the US and Europe were serious about antisemitism and its history as well as being serious about Palestinian solidarity, they would actually realise what boycotts mean to Jews (and progressive forces in general). They would need to think of a new strategy, one that is not hostile to Jews, but which at the same time allows them (and many Jews) to move forward to achieving a just and equitable peace in the Middle East; a move forward that does not rely, replicate and bring into the present the antisemtism of the (not so distant) past.

Chip Berlet interviews David Hirsh on Contemporary Antisemitism and Conspiracy Theory

Chip Berlet’s interview with David Hirsh is on PublicEye.org.

This conversation happened on Monday, June 29th, 2009 but was not published until September 2012.

The Public Eye: Interview with David Hirsh

Chip Berlet is a US-based investigative journalist and expert on the far right and conspiracy theories.

David Hirsh is a Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. He is the author of Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections, The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, (YIISA) Working Paper Series #1, New Haven CT, 2007; and “Law Against Genocide” in Freeman, M, (ed) Law and Sociology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Hirsh did an MA in Philosophy and Social Theory at Warwick University and he wrote his PhD there on Crimes against Humanity and International Law. He was interviewed in June 2009.

= = =

BERLET: It seems that people who think of themselves as anti-racist and of some sort of progressive political bent have a hard time recognizing antisemitism, even if they recognize antisemitic statements they have a hard time seeing it in the same context of a broader global anti-racist struggle. Why do you think that is?

HIRSH: I think people are very good at recognizing some kinds of antisemitism. If it wears a Nazi uniform they understand it, if it’s right-wing they understand it, if it’s some sort of very simple worldview of racism and anti-racism. If it comes from the left and it comes from people who are anti-racist, then there’s often much more difficulty in recognizing and understanding what’s going on. There [are] many reasons for that.

One is that we think of antisemitism as being Nazism. Nazism was actually an unusual form of antisemitism; it was very clear, it allowed no exceptions; it allowed no escape for Jews. Most forms of antisemitism haven’t been like that., Christian antisemitism allowed people to convert to Christianity and therefore make themselves clean; also political antisemitism allowed Jews to put themselves on the right side of history. One of things we shouldn’t get too hung up on is the idea that antisemites are all like Adolph Hitler, because they’re not.

BERLET: In recent years, it’s been clear that a lot of folks on the left have been part of a global anti-Zionist struggle and they don’t seem to recognize the boundaries. There’s another question which is embedded within that [in], which there seems to be a misunderstanding of Zionism as a monolithic project that has remained unchanged since the late 1800s, and that creates all sorts of problems. Can you explain what you’ve written about that, in terms of the basic misunderstanding of [Zionism] being a monolithic project?

HIRSH: It’s actually very interesting, because although these anti-Zionists think of themselves as being very macho, Marxists [and] historical materialists, yet their narrative and how they explain Zionism is almost solely in terms of ideas. So it’ll be explained that Theodore Herzl had an idea in the late nineteenth century which it will be explained [as] a racist idea that Jews and other people couldn’t live together. And every subsequent manifestation of Zionism (or at least of what we don’t like about Zionism) is explained in terms of the idea that Herzl had. Now of course, one of the flaws of that kind of reasoning is that material things happened in Europe and in the Middle East and in Russia in the 20th century which transformed Zionism from a whole set of rather utopian movements into a really existing state. So, I think sure, we should look at the ideas and the fight over ideas that have been going on ever since the beginning of Zionism, but we also need to understand the social and material realties of Jewish life.

BERLET:Clearly one of the most significant things that happened was the Nazi genocide of Jews and others in WWII., The formula that has emerged in anti-Zionist circles recently is that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, especially. in Gaza, is tantamount to what the German Nazis did to the Jews during WWII., That seems to be historically inaccurate but it also changes the understanding that Zionism changed dramatically after WWII because of the Holocaust.

HIRSH: Well, one can do all sorts of strange things with analogies. The important thing about Nazism, the reason that Nazism is Nazism in the popular and political imagination, is because it set out to exterminate the Jews. And extermination is a project that’s even rather different from mass murder. So Nazism is known for extermination. Now the idea that what is happening in the Israeli-Palestine conflict is anything similar to that is just wrong. There’s no extermination, there never was a plan of extermination, and there is no mass murder and there is no genocide. So why do people keep raising that as an analogy?

It seems to me that one of the reasons people raise that as an analogy is because they think it has a particular effect on Jews when it is said that the Jews or Israelis have become similar to those who persecuted them. And of course it does have a particular effect on Jews. It has an effect of upsetting Jews. I think that that’s really the point of it, the point of it isn’t to come out with a serious [analysis]. There are all sorts of serious historical analogies for the rise of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism in the Middle East. One can look at Europe in the 19th century, one can look at the breakdown of the 0ttoman Empire, one can look at the Balkans, one can look at many, many things. It’s not similar to Nazism. Why do people say it’s similar to Nazism? They say it’s similar to Nazism in order to wind up the Jews, so actually the charge that the Israelis are the new Nazis is a kind of Jew-baiting. It’s literally that. It is a charge whose function is to upset and to annoy and to wind up.

I also find that it’s one of those things people think of, and they actually think they’re very clever when they think of it. They say ‘the Jews have become the Nazis.’ There’s a kind of kernel behind it [that] one can understand, the idea that if one has been subject to persecution then one should be able to recognize it and one should be less willing to become a part of something like that it in the future. But it seems to me a fundamentally flawed kind of logic, partly because one only has to ask the question what were the Jews supposed to learn at Auschwitz?

The question itself is fundamentally flawed. Auschwitz wasn’t any kind of positive learning experience, and the overwhelmingly majority of the Jews who had anything to do with the Holocaust learned nothing from it because they were killed by it. It wasn’t a learning experience and it wasn’t an experience which made people better, or more left-wing, or more anti-racist. There was no silver lining to the Holocaust.

What did people learn? People learned next time, don’t rely on western civilization to prevent antisemitism and genocide, next time have bigger friends, next time have a state with which you can defend yourself and next time have more tanks. Now that’s not my lesson it’s not my politics

The idea that the Jews should have learned something from the Holocaust is a kind of category error in thinking about the Jews as one people, as a unity. Because in truth different Jews learned different things from the Holocaust, and different Jews have different kinds of politics and different kinds of worldviews and different kinds of attitudes to what goes on. And the idea that the Jews collectively should think one thing or learn one thing is problematic. It’s an idea which comes up again and again, and I think it doesn’t make much sense.

I’m afraid to articulate the thought, what should the Blacks have learned from slavery? You just have to articulate the thought to realize what a vile kind of way of thinking it is, yet people say this about the Jews routinely – and some serious people. Jacqueline Rose, the well-known literary theorist and psychoanalyst, has asked these questions in the press in quite a kind of angry way, and has put forward the analogy between Jews and Nazis. In my own institution, I went down the corridor six months ago and was handed a leaflet saying that what was happening in Gaza was the same as what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. The leaflet advertise[d] a meeting for students at which a women who was presented as a Holocaust survivor was going to make this argument. And this meeting was very well-attended

Because there was a Jewish woman making the argument, and because she called herself a Holocaust survivor, people really thought that that came with a significant authority. If one raised the question about the appropriateness of that kind of discussion on campus, the answer would be very straightforwardly, well [she’s] a Holocaust survivor making this argument not us. How can you raise the question in that context?

BERLET: In terms of the consistency issue. If critics of the idea of the state of Israel – let’s define that [as a state resulting from] Zionism [which itself is] a project that has a lot of different historical moments and a lot of different aspects—but people will argue that the idea of the state of Israel is itself a form of colonialism and settlerism. And what I find dramatically obvious is that the same people who raise that argument do not raise it in the same way with countries like Australia, New Zealand or even the United States. And it seems that very often in these discussions people exceptionalize Israel. They run away from logical and sequential arguments that would be much more powerful if you wanted to be a critic, and yet they get away with it.

HIRSH: Well, I think the way you phrase it is very interesting…There’s an old Jewish joke which was around I believe in the 1920s that asks, what’s the definition of a Zionist? And the answer is a Zionist is one Jew who gives money to a second Jew so a third Jew can live in Palestine. Point being, Zionism was a utopian movement, it was a movement which didn’t have much mass purchase in Europe in the 1920s. Why? Because nobody wanted to go live in a swamp on the coastal plain of Palestine.

So Zionism was an idea, it was a political movement which one could be for or one could be against. One could be a Bundist, one could be a socialist – actually all of these movements were movements of the left, were radical movements, were anti-racist movements. And of course the [political] Right didn’t want to have anything to do with any of them.

Zionism was a minority and a rather utopian movement at that time – it was an idea with which one could agree or disagree and enter into discussions.

Things changed. After the experience of antisemitism in Europe, after the Holocaust when Europe attempted to wipe itself clean of Jews, after the pushing out of the Jews from the cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East, after the experience of antisemitism in Russia, after 1948 and the setting up of the state of Israel, after the wars of ‘48 and ‘56 and ‘67 and ‘73, Israel is no longer an idea, actually.

I think it’s very important because Israel is often talked about as though it is an idea or Zionism is an idea or Israel is some kind of a political movement. One will often hear people talking about “the Zionists”: The Zionists do this, the Zionists should be driven out, the Zionists think that.… I don’t use the term “the Zionists” in that way because I don’t think Israel is a political movement. Israel is a nation-state, rather like other nation-states. To talk about Israel as though it were a political movement is to ask whether it’s a good political movement or a bad political movement. And one doesn’t do that with Croatia or with France or with the United States – is the United States a good idea or a bad idea? Well, who cares— the United States exists. We oppose destructive kind of nationalism, we have a political program against racism, blah blah blah. But nation-states are not political movements and Israel isn’t a political movement.

BERLET: There are a bunch of settler nations in the world.….

HIRSH: Well, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of nations are settler-nations in some sense.; Nations classically and pretty well always have been carved out by national movements which aim to create an idea of nationhood which defines itself against people who didn’t fit into that idea of nationhood. It’s a classic and ordinary history for nation-states, and its not pleasant anywhere actually, and of course Israel has particular unique features to its history. It’s more recent than many states, but not than many others—because after the fall of the Soviet Union. for example, there was another huge wave of nationalism and the creation of nation-states and national self-determination. That came often with the defining of people who didn’t fit. So Israel isn’t anymore all that new, and isn’t in any sense unique.

I think there’s quite a lot at stake in the idea that Israel is unique. Antisemitism, I think, has always tried to understand and to construct the Jews as being centrally important to everything that happens in the world. The Jews are not centrally important to everything that happens in the world. Jews are a rather small and rather insignificant group of people, actually.

So antisemitism always created out of them a kind of huge threat, usually through conspiracy theory; or a huge threat because the Jews didn’t accept Jesus; or a huge threat because the Jews were heralds of modernity and therefore [behind] the breakdown of traditional values. So Jews [were always constructed] as centrally important to what happened in the world, and they’re not. And I think that when one sees the construction of Israel as though it were centrally important to everything that happens in the world, then one is in danger of seeing a similar pattern emerging.

One often sees people who claim that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to world peace, or even the key to peace in the Middle East. There was an interesting version of that in the … Observer. The morning after the election in Iran, there was an editorial which was very fresh, nobody really knew what had happened in the election [yet], and the editorial said, ‘the election may have been stolen by Ahmadinejad – it may have been stolen, there’s people in the streets, we don’t know what’s happened yet, time will tell. Whatever happens, the most important event is Bibi Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University next week about the peace process.’

Now, I don’t think that’s true – I don’t think a rather tedious speech by a rather tedious Israeli politician is more important than the stealing of an election in Iran and the fact that there’s a huge mass popular movement against that stealing of that election. Iran is hugely important in its own right, for Iranians. It’s an old state with a huge culture of its own, with a democratic tradition of its own, with a revolutionary tradition of its own. It’s a state where there’s been fighting over democracy for decades, where the busworkers from Tehran were brutally suppressed about a year ago when they went on strike, where’s there a tradition of the Left.

So why would the Observer newspaper just kind of say ‘well, we don’t know yet what’s going to happen in Iran, but the most important thing is Netanyahu’? The reason it does that, I think, is because that there’s such a temptation to understand Israelis and Palestinians as being symbolic of much, much bigger, much, much more important things. So the importance of Israelis and Palestinians is blown up out of all proportion.

What comes with that then is an idea that Palestinians become the symbolic oppressed of the whole world, and Israelis and the Jews who argue [on the side of Israel] become symbolic of the oppressors throughout the world. One can see very straightforwardly how that can lead easily to conspiracy theory and to a reconstruction of the Jews as being central to everything that goes wrong in the world. So a lot of these debates about uniqueness are very important because Israel and Palestine are treated as though they were unique by many people, by many anti-Zionists.

Anti-Zionists claim to be universalists and cosmopolitans and anti-nationalists, but in truth, the way they relate to Israel is not the way they relate to anywhere else on the planet. For example, the boycott [sanctions and divestiture movement]. If you look at the debate which happened over the boycott in my trade union recently it was interesting because there was a lot of rhetoric [about] the Israeli incursion into Gaza in December/January [2009] that was very, very unpleasant. The Israelis went in chasing after Hamas fighters and they killed a lot of people who were in and around the targets – [and] of course the targets base themselves in civilian areas.

So the war in Gaza was very, very unpleasant, and in my view the Israelis shouldn’t have been doing it. However, a month later in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan state did to the Tamil Tigers what the Israelis didn’t to Hamas – that is, they went in, they separated the fighters from the civilians, they put the civilians in camps, they killed many thousands of people, they shelled the camps, they finished off the fighters, they took their territory and then they went through the civilians one by one and found the Tamil Tigers and dealt with them.

Now I think that’s appalling, and I’m very pleased that the Israelis don’t behave like that in Gaza. So why is it that at my union conference there’s an emergency motion about Sri Lanka, and people talk reasonable sense about Sri Lanka: people get up and say there’s a history of colonialism and a peace movement which fell apart, there’s important things we have to understand about the conflict, what we have to do as a trade union is to forge links with Sinhalese and Tamil [the two major ethnic groups] trade unionists, and we need to fight for politics of peace and reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. [These are ideas reflecting] perfectly normal [and] reasonable trade union values.

The debate then moves straight on to Israel, and the debate hinges only around the idea of boycotting Israeli academics — the idea that Israeli academics need to be punished and Israelis needs to be shown that their academics are not part of a global academic community. What about the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka? Nothing. So [we have] a much more serious situation in Sri Lanka, but much more serious anger against Israelis than against the Sri Lankan state. And an anger which spreads not only to the Israeli state but to Israeli civil society, because one of the tropes of anti-Zionism is to portray Israel as though there’s no distinction between the people and the state. So who do we punish? We punish the people, the academics. Why? Because they are the state.

[That’s a] very threatening and menacing view, to say that working-class people or civil society or ordinary people in a city are the state. We don’t normally do that. Anti-Zionists do that with Israel and they shouldn’t do it.

BERLET: It would seem, conceptually, that attacking two large office buildings in downtown New York would be the same categorical error, that by punishing people in an office building which is viewed as the center of power is equally wrong. Once any group looks at a nation-state and says that they are a loci of power and therefore it is legitimate [to argue that] every civilian is a target. That’s a collapse of understanding how complicated nations, governments, [and] societies are.
With the issue of Israel it’s collapsed even further so that not only is it the state of Israel and the government of Israel and the Israeli people, but Jews worldwide [who] are all complicit in this “conspiracy.”

HIRSH: During the conflict in Gaza, one of the official spokesmen of Hamas actually said publicly that since the Israelis are killing Palestinian children, then the Hamas movement is calling for the killing of Jewish children across the world. One would think that that was a kind of big, important statement from an antisemitic movement which was promising to kill Jewish children across the world. It wasn’t taken seriously by anybody, by anti-racists, —nobody expressed surprise or shock, it was just said, ‘well, what do the Israelis expect’?

One of the things about 9/11 is that people are able to look symbolically again. The Twin Towers are raised to symbolize something in people’s imagination in a similar way that Israelis are raised to symbolized something in people’s imagination. But really who was in the office boxes of the twin towers? They were cleaners and technicians and all sorts of people; they weren’t all bankers, they weren’t all the architects of global capital. And of course similarly —even more clearly— when buses are blown up in Tel Aviv. Rich people in Tel Aviv don’t go around in buses [partly] because they get blown up. So there’s a symbolism to the blowing up of buses which has nothing to do with the reality of it. There’s a kind of likemindedness to it – ‘wasn’t it interesting to see the symbolism of capitalism in New York collapse; isn’t it interesting to see the Palestinians gaining some revenge’? It’s a kind of simple, likeminded symbolic thinking which has no relation to politics, to a serious political tradition of the left of anti-hegemonic politics which says … ‘we have to build a politics that doesn’t replicate what we’re fighting against.’

It’s often said ‘well what can one expect from Palestinians who endure occupation, one can only expect that they will be angry with Jews.’ And I have some sympathy with that, actually, although in truth many, many Palestinians don’t adopt that kind of racist politics. In Palestine there are…political discussions and many, many people find ways of expressing their politics and their resistance [other] than killing Jews.

Then there’s another level [of] that discussion, which is one might say that if you were brought up in a Palestinian refugee camp policed by Jewish Israelis, you might dislike Jews. But what about us, in universities outside of Palestine? What’s our responsibility in those discussions? And it seems to me that we have a particular responsibility to stand up against the kind of politics of hatred which is in some sense is understandable within Palestine.

BERLET: A point you’ve made is that in other forms of racism and oppression—institutionalized or systematic [forms]—it is very unusual to analyze the situation in terms of what the victims are doing to make people hate them. And yet that seems to be part of the equation of discussing not just the state of Israel and the politics of the government of Israel, but the whole Middle East conflict. [This is then] extended out to what is uncarefully described as the Jewish Lobby or the Zionist Lobby.

HIRSH: I think that’s a very important point. The argument goes that Israel behaves badly, and I don’t disagree with that. I think Israel often behaves badly, it often behaves stupidly, it often behaves in a way which is reckless of Palestinian life. I think in order to organize the kind of occupation that the Israelis find themselves organizing, a sort of daily regime of violence and humiliation and racism just goes along with that territory. That’s why it’s very important the occupation should come to an end and there should be a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

But having said that, I think the idea that because Israel behaves badly in Palestine then its reasonable for people to hate Jews, takes a whole other step. [This] is a logic which people buy into in different kinds of ways, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not. One doesn’t do that in other places. If one said ‘well, its reasonable to be misogynistic because women do nag a lot and they do get annoying, and if they stop nagging people would stop being misogynistic,’ there’s nobody who wouldn’t be able to see through that kind of logic. But the logic which says ‘well Jews behave badly in the Middle East and all over the world; they kind of act as a sort of lobby in order to defend that bad behavior… and therefore its not all too surprising that people hate them’, then that would be considered as some kind of legitimate argument amongst anti-racist circles. Why? There’s no reason for that I think. I think that one has to take seriously the transformation of hostility against human rights abuses into racist forms. One has to take that seriously.

I was in a debate with Seumas Milne who is a Guardian columnist …..I think we can go together some distance and I think we can agree that when the Palestinians are involved in fighting Jewish soldiers […] the hostility which they may feel [can be] manifested in a language of antisemitism or in a trope of antisemitism.

How do we deal with that, how do we understand that? Now it seems to me that Seamus Milne’s argument was what we have to do is translate it back into the language in which it was meant. He invents a rather Stalinist and a rather mystical notion of the real spirit of Palestinian resistance. And the real spirit of Palestinian resistance [Milne says] has been democratic and liberational. If it happens at one time or another to be expressed or manifested in the language of antisemitism, then what we need to do is translate it back into the real language of Palestine of resistance and liberation.

Now, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. I think that antisemitism may ….You know racism starts with something real in the world. It starts with some real grievance or some real hatred or some real thing and it becomes entrenched into a racial way of thinking. And it’s that transformation of real grievance into a racial way of thinking that we have to take apart and we have to oppose. One of the reasons we have to oppose that is because then it becomes a thing in itself. So white people who are worried about poverty or poor housing—if they then translate that into a racist narrative and say ‘well the blacks are taking our houses, the blacks are taking our jobs’ then one loses any possibility of fighting over good housing and good jobs.

Racism always has some kind of legitimate grievance somewhere in its history. But one has to take seriously the forms that it takes. And if hostility to the occupation in Palestine is articulated through the language of Jew-hatred then we have to take that seriously.

There was something else I wanted to say, to go back to your question. [It] is the idea of…institutionalized antisemitism, because I think that’s rather important. I don’t think people who do antisemitic things or who say antisemitic things in Britain today are Jew-haters, [I don’t think] they hate Jews. I think what they do is stumble into antisemitic ways of thinking of which they’re not really aware. So I think the question shouldn’t be ‘does somebody intend to harm Jews or does someone intend to feel a hatred of Jews?’ The question should be ‘what is the nature of the arguments people are making?’ If they are making a unique argument that Israeli Jews should be excluded from campuses; or if they’re saying Israel is the uniquely bloodthirsty state, or a uniquely child-killing state—then one should relate that back to where those kinds of ideas come from.

If one is saying that the Jews or the Israel lobby are responsible for the Iraq War, then one has to relate that back. The Jews have been held responsible for every war – there’s nothing new about this. In the Hamas charter it says explicitly the Jews were responsible for the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution and [for] global imperialism, for the First World War and for the Second World War….

In Britain there was a peace movement against the Boer War, and many people in that movement argued that the British Empire was being manipulated by Jewish diamond interests in Southern Africa.

Now I don’t think the people in the Stop The War coalition today have any clue that their talk about the Israel lobby is similar to [the rhetoric of] the people who were in the Stop The War coalition at the time of the Boer War….who said that behind this imperialist action is Jewish diamond interests. There’s no conception of the history in which people find themselves. So my point is that one shouldn’t ask ‘do people hate Jews?’ and one shouldn’t ask ‘do people know what they’re doing?’ – one should ask why are these tropes and these images being replayed and refound [today] when one talks about Israel and Palestine?

In a sense it shouldn’t surprise us – people have a hostility to Israel, some of it legitimate and some of it justified and some of it not. But putting that aside for one moment – if you want to express hostility to Israel and if you want to express hostility to the Jews who you think defend Israel’s human rights abuses, then available to you is a huge cultural reservoir of ways in which you can express hostility to Jews.

There’s conspiracy theory, there’s blood libel, there’s a whole set of ways of thinking. Now I can demonstrate that very often in rhetoric which is anti-Israeli, these tropes and these images from previous antisemitisms are replicated. Now if you’re replicating these tropes and these ideas and these images you may well not know that you’re doing it – you’re not doing it because you hate Jews or because you’re a convinced racist, you’re doing it because there is a reservoir of resources available to you if you want to make propaganda against Jews.

Let me give you one example. There was a poster which…had a picture of a Jaffa orange and it had blood coming out of the orange and it said ‘Don’t buy a Jaffa, squeeze the occupation’ – something like that. Now, anybody who knows anything about the history of antisemitism will know immediately that a combination of blood and food and Jews is already problematic. And the message of that poster is very clear – the message of that poster says that Jews are trying to give you food which is contaminated by the blood of the children that they’ve killed. Don’t buy it, don’t eat it, it should disgust you, it should encourage you and remind you to boycott Jaffa oranges.

There is a long history of this idea that Jews mix the blood of the people they kill and eat it—mix it with their food. Now, I don’t think that the person who designed this rather striking poster knows anything about that. I don’t think that the person who designed that poster is an antisemite. It’s quite conceivable that [the designer] has never heard of the blood libel. Yet they produce a classic blood libel image. So this should be a lesson to us that we need to be careful. Yet, just asking people to be careful very often elicits a kind of hostile and angry response. The response is absolutely standard – the response to anyone who raises the issue of antisemitism in relation to hostility to Israel, to Zionism— the response is that ‘you’re accusing me of antisemitism not because you believe there is antisemitism but in order to play the antisemitism card, in order to make it impossible to delegitimize criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.’

Anyone who’s ever called on this or that antisemitic comment…produces the same response. The response is to accuse the Jews who raise the issue of antisemitism of doing so in a despicably and dishonest way in order to close down free speech. [It is a] very serious allegation. It’s an allegation that in my work I’ve come across explicitly and implicitly. It’s an allegation that says that I’m not an academic…not a sociologist. I’m just some kind of scribbler for Israel.

This same [experience] happened to Harold Jacobson, the novelist. Howard made a very serious critique of Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children.” The play made an argument that the conflict in Gaza was a result of the neurotic ways in which Jews bring up their children to be unconcerned about the killing of the “Other”—about the killing of Palestinian children. Howard Jacobson made this [serious critique of the play and] he said the play was antisemitic. Caryl Churchill replies ‘Well he would say that wouldn’t he, it’s the usual tactic.’ Meaning Howard Jacobson [is] not an intellectual, he’s not a novelist, he’s not interested really in talking about antisemitism. He’s really interested in doing is using antisemitism as a kind of despicable tactic to defend Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza.

BERLET: This is a question I struggle with. How do you approach a criticism of Israel or Zionism in a constructive way when you think some form of demonization or scapegoating is involved? Or a conspiracy theory that ties back to these historic tropes about Jews having power and control and plotting subversive [activities]. [Especially when we live in] a society that doesn’t teach people about the history of allegation against the “Other.” A lot of these criticisms that talk about global Jewish power track back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

[In the] United States prior to [the Protocols] the same narratives were used against faceless plutocrats during the Populist movement and later deformed into open antisemitism. But all the way back to the late 1700s when in both France and Scotland there were books written that made the exact same allegations against the “Other.” In this case being the Freemasons [and the] Illuminati.

We as a society have replicated…these analogues to the Protocols. We know there are techniques people use to demonize an “Other,” and yet we don’t seem to be teaching schoolchildren that this is in fact one of the techniques that they should be aware of and not copy.

HIRSH: I think it’s very interesting because I think one of the things about the society in which we live, about modernity, is that it looks a bit like a conspiracy. We live in a world where the power is in the hands of a small number of people, and it looks as though the media does their bidding and does what’s in their interests. It looks like the whole of society is set up for the benefit of the powerful. So it’s not idiotic to believe in a conspiracy. But there’s a history to this, and the history is very interesting.

People like Max Weber and Emil Durkheim and Karl Marx invented structural accounts of how the world works to explain how a minority of people take all the power to themselves which didn’t rely on conspiracy theory. I think there’s an argument which says sociology itself was invented in order to undercut conspiracy [theory]; and possibly quite explicitly to undercut antisemitic conspiracy theory. Marx—whether you like Marx or you don’t like Marx—he offers a structural account of capitalism which doesn’t rely on a conspiracy of the few interests. I teach Marx to our first-years, and it’s quite difficult to teach because a lot of them they come away with the idea that that’s precisely what [Marx] does. They write in their essays, ‘well there are a small number of rich people who exploit everybody else’ and they come out with conspiracy theory. But of course Capital is much more interesting than that.

More recently… there’s something interesting that’s happened to Marx and Durkheim and Weber and social theory; which is that the critiques of social theory and structure have…come to the fore.

It’s actually very easy to critique anything about the world that exists.

You and me, we’re clever guys; we can sit down and critique democracy. And we can critique law, and we can critique social theory. We can show that the powerful are in charge even if law says that everybody is equal. We can take very thing apart. We can even take the idea of truth apart. We can show how truth is related to power, and how knowledge is related. We can do all that.

The problem is that if one critiques everything simply negatively then one ends up with nothing. I think it’s a kind of rather frightening view that people like George Orwell, for example, were very aware of. George Orwell was very aware that the people who critiqued everything in bourgeois society the most successfully were the totalitarians.

It was the totalitarians who said ‘we don’t believe in bourgeois law, it’s just a trick. We don’t believe in bourgeois democracy, it’s just a trick, we don’t believe in truth, it’s just a trick. We know who really runs the world.’

Those kinds of ideas, and the collapse of structural ways of trying to understand the world, [have made it] illegitimate to try to understand the world. And this is true on a popular level, but also in a serious professorial level.

So it doesn’t surprise me that when everything is critiqued then we move back to conspiracy theory, because all we are left with is power. If all notions of authority or democracy or law or anything become dissolved into power, than the question becomes ‘well, who are the powerful?’ And then take your pick: the Jews, the gays, the Muslims, whatever.

But I think there is a kind of bigger underlying problem, which leads towards this way of thinking, and I think it’s a cynicism about the values of democracy, but [also about the] values of the Left. The Left I was brought up in was a place where we tried to understand how the world worked, and we tried to change the world. Changing human beings was part of changing the world. Now it’s evident that there is a totalitarian moment to that as well. But I think we need to keep hold of that problem, but also keep hold of the original problem.

As my good friend Robert Fine [in Political investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt] puts it we have to hold the critique of existing society in one hand—and we also have to understand the critique of the critique. We have to understand that the people who have most successfully critiqued existing society were the totalitarians: the Stalinists and the Nazis. So I don’t think there’s anything surprising about the rise of conspiracy theory.

Chip Berlet’s interview with David Hirsh is on PublicEye.org.

This conversation happened on Monday, June 29th, 2009 but was not published until September 2012.

Alice Walker’s Apartheid Analogy – Jonathan Judaken

Alice Walker’s recent decision not to allow an Israeli publisher, Yediot Books, to translate The Color Purple into Hebrew was a missed opportunity. The opening paragraph of her letter to the publisher indicated her reasons:

As you may know, last Fall in South Africa the Russell Tribunal on Palestine met and determined that Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.  The testimony we heard, both from Israelis and Palestinians (I was a jurist) was devastating.  I grew up under American apartheid and this was far worse.  Indeed, many South Africans who attended, including Desmond Tutu, felt the Israeli version of these crimes is worse even than what they suffered under the white supremacist regimes that dominated South Africa for so long.

Her whole argument hangs on an analogy: Israel is an apartheid state like South Africa. The analogy is the centerpiece of the growing BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel, modeled on the success of the anti-apartheid campaign.

The untranslatable Afrikaans appellation for South African’s racial state has indeed become the term of the moment for opposition to Israel. The magical label “apartheid” serves to denounce in a single word. Jacques Derrida, the famous French philosopher who coined the much-abused term “deconstruction,” once contributed an article to a catalog of an art exhibit protesting apartheid, which he titled, “Racism’s Last Word.”

Walker’s stance on the translation of her book is a good opportunity to think through “racism’s last word,” something Walker’s facile denunciation certainly has not done, but that demands doing. For all those committed to undoing the Israeli occupation thinking through this analogy is a neglected imperative. The risk for those who reflexively oppose Israel without reflectively thinking about the terms of that opposition is that the analogy they rest upon would be deconstructed.

Walker should have allowed The Color Purple to be translated. She should have seized it as a chance to actually reflect on the equation in political discourse between racism, apartheid, and Israel. Rather than a momentary splash of publicity for her cause, translating the book would have enabled sustained and ongoing reflection on the issues the book raises, which are the very heart of her protest.

This is important for if you want to upend the injustices towards Palestinians, convincing Israelis of the abiding oppression that they participate in is certainly going to have to be part of the equation. Moving Israeli public consciousness, along with raising global consciousness, should surely be part of the goal of this protest, if the desire is to change the situation of Palestinians.

What is more, if the apartheid analogy holds, then Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel could have aided in this. The first obstacle would have been the technical problems raised by the translation of her book. Written as an epistolary novel, the idiom of the narrator is that of its protagonist, Celie, a fourteen-year-old victim of rape, incest, and the institutionalized violence that was wound into the fabric of the Jim Crow South. Capturing her moving idiosyncratic language in Hebrew would have been a huge accomplishment in its own right, translating into the language of Israelis the experience of blacks under “American apartheid.”

If this could be done, the question remains whether readers in Israel would have followed Walker in seeing the connections between their world and that of Celie’s: between Israeli occupation and Palestinian oppression and Jim Crow racism. Here there is an imaginative leap that Walker might have actually addressed in a preface, explaining to an Israeli public the relevance of Celie’s tale for the political configuration that defines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

My gambit is that Walker could not actually perform this task. She would certainly have to do without the hyperbole that characterizes her protest. For surely anyone who actually thinks through the analogy is not going to claim that the occupied territories are “worse” for Palestinians than what Celie suffers, let alone the more brutal, state-sanctioned racism of apartheid.

Sure there are analogs. This is what permits an unexamined analogy to take hold. It is why when Peter Beinart made the call “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements” he had a point. But his protest is different from Walker’s because it does not reduplicate the “us vs. them,” homogenizing rhetoric that buttresses racism. Beinart not only speaks from a place of empathy for Israel and Zionism (as the Jewish liberation movement), but he makes crucial distinctions in his call to action. He acknowledges the brutalities and contradictions that characterize the Israeli occupation of non-democratic Israel. But he makes no blanket condemnation of Israel.

Thinking through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands attending to its tragic dimensions, which are underpinned by an irreconcilable pair of narratives both of which have legitimacy. This is something that Jean-Paul Sartre, who headed up the original Russell Tribunal, understood in his stance on the conflict. As such, part of what differentiates the situation in Israel/Palestine from Jim Crow racism and apartheid is that it is not an either/or, black or white problem.

Without attention to the distinctions between Celie’s world, Desmond Tutu’s world, and that of Palestinians today, it is going to remain easy for the majority of Americans and Brits to dismiss the BDS movement. What is called for now is a sustained reflection on the analogy that underpins that movement. It is a pity that Alice Walker, of all people, has not aided us in doing that thinking.

Jonathan Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in Humanities at Rhodes College.

Why call Israel an Apartheid State? – Guest Post by Sharmini Brookes

Sharmini Brookes

 ‘Is Israel the New Apartheid?’ was the topic of debate at the 21st Wednesday Seminar of the Departments of Sociology, Anthropology and Development at the University Of Johannesburg (UJ).  In March of this year the UJ senate of 72 members voted 60-40% to allow their formal institutional arrangement with Israel’s Ben Gurion University to lapse after a debate that referred to Israel as an Apartheid State and justified boycotts on the same grounds as those imposed by anti-Apartheid activists on South Africa.  The vice-chancellor, Professor Ihron Rensburg denies this is a boycott (as individual academics are allowed to continue relationships) but it is a very public censure of an institution and will inhibit full and free dialogue amongst individual academics as those who wish to do so will court the opprobrium of their peers for voluntarily maintaining links with what is now viewed as a pariah state.

‘It is wrong to refer to Israel as an Apartheid State’ said the speaker against the motion, Benjamin Pogrund, author, journalist and campaigner with the Israeli Centre for Dialogue.  He accepted that there were problems of discrimination in housing, education, land ownership and citizenship but that these were the consequence of the 1948 war for the survival of the Jewish State and not of any consciously articulated government policy of racial discrimination and separate development as instituted by Hendrik Verwoerd and his predecessors in South Africa.  Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the creation of the State of Israel, then supported by the UN, did violate the right of self-determination for Palestine and has been the source of continuing conflict ever since.

The speaker for the motion, Naeem Jeenah, Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre and formerly lecturer at Wits University, insisted that it was legitimate to call Israel an Apartheid State based on article 2 of the UN Convention on Apartheid.  However, as Benjamin Pogrund noted, this is an expanded description of situations some of which resemble those experienced under Apartheid and which could equally apply to a number of existing countries where human rights are regularly breached.  What it fails to recognize is the conscious and deliberate policy that made South Africa unique.

In addition, the assumption that the Apartheid regime was brought down by the success of the international boycott campaign is false.  Governments and companies continued their relations with South Africa while paying lip service to anti-apartheid rhetoric and the Sullivan principles until the mass uprisings in the 1980’s by the indigenous black population made continued investment unprofitable.  The final death blow to Apartheid was delivered with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of a communist threat to capitalism.  It was the convergence of black unrest with the death of communism that brought De Klerk to the negotiating table and not the self-regarding boycott campaign.

The attempt of so-called liberals and pro-Palestinian groups to label Israel as Apartheid is a lazy attempt to win support by piggy-backing on this popular international revulsion against Apartheid in the 80’s rather than to consider the more complicated reality of the situation in the Middle East.

It is a tragic and revealing irony that Zionism, presented as the salvation of persecuted Jews throughout the world, but in reality a desperate resort resulting from the failure to progressively transform the societies in which the Jews resided, has not led to security for Jewish Israelis nor has it challenged anti-Semitism.  Nevertheless, whatever the rights and wrongs of the original creation of the Zionist state, Israel and Israelis exist and cannot be wiped off the earth.  That Arabs and Israelis do live and work together in Israel is a fact and it is not inconceivable that a negotiated settlement can be achieved where both can live in peace if only external forces kept their noses out and allowed the locals to work towards their own solution.   Unfortunately, the use of the loaded term ‘Apartheid’ with the Israeli state is not only wrong but tragically serves to isolate progressive Israelis from all contact with enlightened individuals in the rest of the world and hinders any chance of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Sharmini Brookes  15/09/11      

Battle of Ideas Committee member and convenor

Eric Lee, Kim Berman, Salim Vally on Israel and apartheid

Eric Lee writes on his blog:

I visited South Africa twice in recent years, both times as the guest of the trade union movement. On my second visit, to Cape Town, I found myself walking along a beautiful beach with a leader of South Africa’s Communication Workers Union. He told me that under apartheid, if he’d be found walking on this beach, he could have been shot. This was a whites-only beach. That’s what apartheid means. It means you can be shot for walking on the wrong beach.

As for “apartheid Israel,” suffice it to say that my two sons were born in a hospital that serves the residents of the Jezreel Valley — Jews and Arabs. The staff, including doctors and nurses, were a mix of all ethnic groups and religions, as were the patients. There was no segregation, no separate facilities, no differences at all in how Jews and Arabs were treated.

Does this mean that Israel is a perfect society, a real paradise on earth for everyone? Of course not.

But if one cannot see the difference between running the risk of being shot for being on the “wrong” beach — and having your child born in a hospital full of Jews and Arabs working together — if you can’t see that difference, you understand nothing at all.

See the whole piece, on Eric Lee’s blog.

Eric’s piece relates to Kim Berman’s open letter to Salim Vally, originally published onEngage.

Salim Vally’s reply is here, on the UJ website

David Hirsh on the UJ boycott; and letter responding to a boycotter;  and on how it is progressing at UJ; and Hirsh on the apartheid analogy.

For the Engage archive on the Israel / Apartheid analogy click here.

John Strawson on UJ.

For  the debate around the South African campaign for an academic boycott of Israel, with Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack click here.

 

 

RIP Arthur Goldreich

“Arthur Goldreich, 82, who helped the anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela hide on a farm by posing as his employer, died May 24 in Tel Aviv. No cause of death was reported.”

“In his autobiography, Mandela describes the South African-born Mr. Goldreich as having fought in the 1940s with the military wing of the Jewish National Movement in Palestine. Mandela says Mr. Goldreich provided some guerrilla expertise to the then-nascent armed wing of the African National Congress.”

More in the Washington Post.  via HP

%d bloggers like this: