Perspectives

I wasn’t taking notice of much in 1987 when Paul Simon, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others brought the Graceland Tour to London’s Royal Albert Hall. Joel Berlinger’s new documentary ‘Paul Simon – Under African Skies’ and the revival of Graceland in Hyde Park this month has been an occasion to revisit the cultural boycott of South Africa which intensified towards the end of the apartheid era.

I haven’t seen the film yet but Women Are From Mars, Raymond Soltysek, and Erik Lundegaard have written well about the ethical dilemmas. The joy, release and political impact of the music comes through strongly.

~~~

On the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 17th July 2012, 08:53, which UK residents can listen to for the coming week) Ekow Eshun and Diran Adebayo discuss the term ‘choc ice’. Ekow Eshun takes the view that the term dates from a time when black people who made it to prominent positions or broadened their interests were often regarded with suspicion by others. He argues that to give ‘choc ice’ any currency – either as insult or as a social category – can only normalise the old narrow views of black people. He appeals for political responsibility.

This reminded me of the debates between those Israel supporters who conspicuously identify as Zionists in response to Israel eliminationists, and those others who feel that Zionism should be thought of as a historical movement whose purpose ended with the establishment of Israel, and that to give ‘Zionism’ any currency can only normalise Israel eliminationism. So, language matters. The difference is that Israel eliminationists have a big stake in getting the term ‘Zionist’ into common parlance whereas I think ‘choc ice’ is (as Diran Adebayo observed before being interrupted and misunderstood by Sarah Montague) a word bandied around by people who feel they’ve been denied their entitlement to ethnic or race loyalty – more like when ‘self-hating Jew’ is used as an insult.

 

Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community – David Hirsh

David Hirsh

Is the Merchant of Venice an antisemitic play or is it a play which intimately depicts the anatomy of persecution, exclusion and bullying?

A classic speaks differently to each individual and in each new context.  On Monday I saw The Merchant of Venice performed by Habima, the Israeli National Theatre.  The venue was the replica of Shakespeare’s wooden, roofless, Globe Theatre.  It was a hot London night and the noise of flying machines occasionally confronted our fantasies of authenticity, if the fact that the performance was in Hebrew didn’t.

But first more context.  London is, after having been the hub of the British Empire, now a multicultural world city.  The Globe is hosting companies from all over the world to perform Shakespeare in their own languages; Shakespeare from Pakistan, South Africa, Georgia, Palestine, Turkey, China and everywhere else.

Since some rather nasty medieval stuff, London and Jews have got on fairly well.  London stood firm against Hitler, and the local Blackshirts too; it didn’t mind much whether Jews stayed separate or whether they immersed themselves in its vibrancy; it didn’t feel threatened, it didn’t worry, it just let Jews live engaged lives.  But London’s very post-nationalism, and its post-colonialism, has functioned as the medium for a rather odd new kind of intolerance.

Sometimes, we define our own identities in relation to some ‘other’.  Early Christianity defined itself in relation to the Jews who refused to accept its gospel, and it portrayed them as Christ-killers.  If people wanted to embrace modernity, then they sometimes constructed themselves as being different from the traditional Jew with his beard and coat, standing against progress.  Yet if they were afraid of the new then they could define themselves against the modernist Jew.  Nineteenth Century nationalists often defined the Jew as the foreigner.  Twentieth Century totalitarianisms, which had universal ambition, found their ‘other’ in the cosmopolitan Jew.

These processes created an invented image of ‘The Jew’ and the antisemites portrayed themselves as victims of ‘The Jew’.  Antisemitism has only ever portrayed itself as defensive.

Some people who love London’s relaxed, diverse, antiracism look for an ‘other’ against which to define themselves.  They find Israel.  They make it symbolise everything against which they define themselves: ethnic nationalism, racism, apartheid, colonialism.  London’s shameful past, not to mention in some ways its present, is cast out and thrust upon Israel.  London was within a few thousand votes last month of re-electing a mayor, Ken Livingstone, who embraced this kind of scapegoating.  [For more on post-national Europe’s use of Israel as its nationalist ‘other’, see Robert Fine.]

We can tell that this hostility to Israel is as artificially constructed as any antisemitism by looking at the list of theatre groups against which the enlightened ones organized no boycott.  Antizionists have created a whole new ‘-ism’, a worldview, around their campaign against Israel.  Within it, a caricature of Israel is endowed with huge symbolic significance which relates only here and there to the actual state, to the complex conflict and to the diversity of existing Israelis.  If the Palestinians stand, in the antizionist imagination, as symbolic of all the victims of ‘the west’ or ‘imperialism’ then Israel is thrust into the centre of the world as being symbolic of oppression everywhere.  Like antisemitism, antizionism imagines Jews as being central to all that is bad in the world.

One of the sources of energy for this special focus on Israel comes from Jewish antizionists.  For them, as for many other Jews, Israel is of special importance.  For them, Israel’s human rights abuses, real, exaggerated or imagined, are sources of particular pain, sometimes even shame.  Some of them take their private preoccupation with Israel and try to export it into the cultural and political sphere in general, and into non-Jewish civil society spaces where a special focus on the evils of Israel takes on a new symbolic power.  But the ‘as a Jew’ antizionists are so centred on Israel that they often fail to understand the significance of the symbolism which they so confidently implant into the antiracist spaces of old London.

When I see a production of the Merchant of Venice, it is always the audience which unsettles me.  The play tells two stories which relate to each other.  One is the story of Shylock, a Jewish money lender who is spat on, excluded, beaten up, and in the end mercilessly defeated and humiliated.  The other is an apparently light-hearted story about an arrogant, rich, self-absorbed young woman, clever but not wise, pretty but not beautiful, and her antisemitic friends.  Shakespeare inter-cuts the grueling detailed scenes of the bullying of Shylock, with the comedic story of Portia’s love-match with a loser who has already frittered away his large inheritance.

Shakespeare offers us an intimately observed depiction of antisemitic abuse, and each time the story reaches a new climax of horribleness, he then offers hackneyed and clichéd gags, to see if he can make us laugh.  It is as if he is interested in finding out how quickly the audience forgets Shylock, off stage, and his tragedy.  And the answer, in every production I’ve ever seen, is that the audience is happy and laughing at second rate clowning, within seconds.  And I suspect that Shakespeare means the clowning and the love story to be second rate.  He is doing something more interesting than entertaining us.  He is playing with our emotions in order to show us something, to make us feel something.

Now, the audience at this particular performance was a strange one in any case.  It felt to me like London’s Jewish community out to demonstrate its solidarity with Israel and to protect the Israeli cousins from the vulgarities which their city was about to offer.  The audience was uneasy because it did not know in advance what form the disruption was going to take.    In the end, the atmosphere was a rather positive and happy one, like an easy home win at football against an away team which had threatened a humiliating victory.  Solidarity with Israel meant something different to each person.  One man ostentatiously showed off a silky Israeli flag tie.  Others were Hebrew speakers, taking the rare opportunity in London to see a play in their own language.  Some in the audience would have been profoundly uncomfortable with Israeli government policies but keen to show their oneness with those parts of their families which had been expelled from Europe two or three generations ago and who were now living in a few small cities on the Eastern Mediterranean.

The audience may not have been expert either in Shakespeare or in antisemitism.  Most people think that the Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play.  Shylock is thought to be an antisemitic stereotype, created by Shakespeare for audiences to hate.  Are we supposed to enjoy the victory of the antisemites and the humiliation of the Jew?  But what was this audience thinking?  If it is simply an antisemitic play, why would we be watching it, why is the Israeli National Theatre performing it?  And if it is a comedy, why aren’t the jokes funny, and why does Shakespeare offer us a puerile game show rather than some of his usual genius?

I don’t think this audience really cared much.  It was there to face down those who said that Israeli actors should be excluded from the global community of culture, while actors from all the other states which had been invited to the Globe were celebrated in a festival of the Olympic city’s multiculturalism.  So, the audience was happy to laugh loudly and to enjoy itself.  We saw on stage how Shylock’s daughter was desperate to escape from the Jewish Ghetto, the darkness and fear of her father’s house, the loneliness of being a Jew.  We saw how she agreed to convert to Christianity because some little antisemitic boy said he loved her, we saw how she stole her father’s money so that her new friends could spend it on drunken nights out.   And we saw Shylock’s despair at the loss and at the betrayal and at the intrusion.  Perhaps his unbearable pain was also fueled by guilt for having failed his daughter since her mother had died.

And then the audience laughed at silly caricatures of Moroccan and Spanish Princes, and at Portia’s haughty and superior rejection of them.  And now, not representations of antisemites but actual antisemites, hiding amongst the audience, unfurl their banners about “Israeli apartheid”, and their Palestinian flags, and they stage a performance of their own.  How embarrassing for Palestinian people, to be represented by those whose sympathy and friendship for them had become hatred of Israel; to be represented by a movement for the silencing of Israeli actors; to be represented by those who show contempt for Jewish Londoners in the audience, who de-humanize them by refusing to refer to them as people but instead simply as ‘Zionists’.  And a ‘Zionist’ does not merit the ordinary civility with which people in a great city normally, without thinking, accord to one another.

The artistic director of the Globe had already predicted that there might be disruption.  There often was, he said, at this unique theatre.  Pigeons flutter onto the stage but we ignore them.  And today, people should not get upset, they should not confront the protestors, they should allow the security guards to do their job.

One protestor shouted: ‘no violence’, as the security guys made to take her away.   They took a few away, the actors didn’t miss a word and the audience, largely Jewish but also English, showed their stiff upper lips and pretended nothing had happened.  Some time later another small group of protestors, who had wanted to exclude Israelis from this festival because of their nationality, stood up and put plasters over their own mouths to dramatize their own victimhood.  Antisemites always pose as victims of the Jews, or of ‘Zionism’ or of the ‘Israel lobby’.  And the claim that Jews try to silence criticism of Israel by mobilizing a dishonest accusation against them is now recognizable as one of the defining tropes of contemporary antisemitism.

Meanwhile, on stage, the antisemitic Christians are positioning themselves as the victims of Shylock.  They have spat on him, stolen from him, corrupted his only daughter, libeled him, persecuted him and excluded him.  Now he’s angry.  He’s a Jew, so he can be bought off, no?  They try to buy him off.  But for Shylock, this is no longer about the money.  It is about the desperate anger of a man whose very identity has been trampled upon throughout his life.  And at that moment, I could sympathise with him more than ever.  I imagined my own revenge against the articulate poseurs who were standing there pretending to have been silenced.  Shylock is a flawed character.  But how much more telling is a play which shows the destruction of a man who is powerless to resist it?  Racism does not only hurt good people, it also hurts flawed and ordinary people and it also has the power to transform good people into angry, vengeful people.  Obviously these truths can be followed around circles of violence in these contexts, from the blood libel, christ-killing and conspiracy theory, to Nazism, to Zionism and into Palestinian nationalism and Islamism.  Only the righteous ones imagine it all comes out in the end into a morality tale of good against evil.

What are they thinking, the protestors?  Do they understand the play at all?  Are they moved by the sensitivity of the portrayal of the anatomy of antisemitic persecution?  Perhaps they are, and they think that Shylock, in our day, is a Palestinian, and Jews are the new Christian antisemites.  One man exclaimed, full of pompous English diction: ‘Hath not a Palestinians eyes?’  He was referring to the wonderful universalistic speech with which Shylock dismantles the racism of his persecutors.  This protestor mobilized the words given by Shakespeare to the Jew, against actually existing Jews.  The experience of antisemitism was totally universalized, as though the play was only about ‘racism in general’ and not at all about antisemitism in particular.  And the point, that a longing for vengeance is destructive and self-destructive, no matter how justified it may feel, was of course, totally missed.

Somebody replied with comedic timing: ‘Piss off!’ Everybody cheered. There was an understanding that the boycotters had mobilized all the disruption they had to mobilize and that they had failed really to make an impression.

Or do the protestors think that this is an antisemitic play?  Perhaps they felt that this was the ‘Zionists’ rubbing the history of antisemitism in the faces of London and then by proxy, the Palestinians.  Isn’t that the source of Zionist power today?  Their ability to mobilize Jewish victimhood and their ownership of the Holocaust.  This, again, is an old libel, that the Jews are so clever and so morally lacking, that they are able to benefit from their own persecution.  When will the world forgive the Jews for antisemitism and the Holocaust?

The climax of the play sees Antonio, the smooth-tongued antisemitic merchant who has borrowed money which he now cannot pay back, tied up in the centre of the stage like Christ on the cross.  And the antisemites demand that the Jew displays Christian forgiveness.  But the Jew, who has been driven half mad by antisemitic persecution, does not forgive: he wants his revenge.

Naturally, the antisemites, who have state power in Venice, are never going to allow him his revenge.  Portia, the clever, erudite, plausible, antisemite offers a wordy justification, and before you know it, Antonio is free, and Shylock is trussed up ready for crucifixion.  And the Christians do not forgive either, they show no mercy.  They humiliate Shylock, they take his money, and they force him to convert to Christianity.  He ends up on his knees, bareheaded, without his daughter, without his money, without his livelihood and he says: ‘I am content’.

And what do I see?  I see another Jew, in the 21st Century, preparing a court case in which he too may be humiliated by a clever form of words.  Ronnie Fraser, a member of the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union which represents university workers in Britain, is taking a case to court later this year and he may well end up being portrayed as the wicked, powerful Zionist looking for revenge, in a British courtroom.    Represented by Anthony Julius, he is taking a case to court later this year in which he argues that the campaign which wanted to silence the Habima theatre company is, in effect if not intent, antisemitic, and it has created a situation inside his trade union where antisemitic ways of thinking and antisemitic norms of institutional governance have become ordinary.  This case will be huge and the stakes are high.

The antizionist elite, with all its access to the media and with all its Jewish, political, celebrity and intellectual support, will portray itself as being silenced by Ronnie the ‘Zionist’ and it will ask the court to set aside all the evidence of antisemitism in favour of a smart but ambiguous form of words.

Portia said that Shylock could have his pound of flesh but only if he could extract it without spilling a drop of blood.  The form of words in Fraser v UCU which would humiliate the plaintiff would be that while he is protected from antisemitism by the Equality Act of 2010, hostility to Israel is not antisemitic.

The day after the performance, one of the leading boycotters, Ben White, tweeted a picture of the beautiful Jewish face of Howard Jacobson, an opponent of the exclusion of Israeli actors from London.  White added the text: “If you need another reason to support a boycott of Habima, I present a massive picture of Howard Jacobson’s face”.

Faced with this, it is hardly controversial to insist that ‘criticism of Israel’ can sometimes be antisemitic.  Let’s hope Ronnie’s judge does not take advice from a contemporary Portia.

David Hirsh

Sociology Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

note: my reading of The Merchant of Venice is largely indebted to David Seymour’s Law and Antisemitism.

“Goldsmiths Made Me a Fundamentalist” – Noam Edry

On Thursday 14 July you are all invited to the opening of my show “Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life”, a mini solo-show at the rear of the Baths Studios of Goldsmiths College as part of the MFA Fine Art Degree Show. It comprises of painting, sculpture, video and live performances all dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict from my own Israeli point of view. Call it a Zionist show, call it what you like. If anyone would have told me two years ago, when I came to London to start my MA in Fine Art, that I would be making a show about the conflict, I would have laughed straight away. I had always thought of myself as a-political. I never thought I had an opinion about politics, right, wrong, I only knew one thing: that I didn’t know. That things were not as simple or clear-cut as a black and white painting and that there were so many other issues I could address as an artist.

But then on my first day at Goldsmiths I was confronted by propaganda posters on the student union walls calling my country an “apartheid state”. It was the first time I had heard of it. Apartheid. How? In what way? I went to art school in Jerusalem with fellow Arab artists. We built our exhibitions together side by side, helping each other. I served in the Israeli army with Arabs and ate the same oily army food with them, and consoled myself with the same Arabic coffee that we brewed together in a small makeshift pot. My own army commander was Druze. All of a sudden I felt threatened and unwelcome here in Britain. I grew up in London from the age of five until I was seventeen but this was a very different London than the one I remembered so fondly.

In the first year at Goldsmiths I lay low, I tried fitting in, I refused to make work about my Israeli identity or anything that had to do with it. But it was simply not good enough. Because I was constantly confronted with questions, accusations, labels. It would happen on the way back from a party or over a casual cup of coffee. I saw more posters and protests and boycotts slandering my home, the place that made me who I am, a place that was barely recognisable in those posters. I saw the crass misrepresentation of my region and its de-legitimisation on a daily basis and I felt powerless. I did not have the words, I did not have the flashy slogans and the fashionable labels.

When I attended a meeting of the Palestine Twinning Campaign at Goldsmiths I felt like it was 1939 all over again. I was expecting a real dialogue but instead they were calling for academic boycotts of Israel, they were rallying young students who were desperate to be passionate about something to silence people like me; to silence artists and intellectuals who believe in human beings and mutual tolerance, who are the real hope for peace and for a bright future. I was horrified. What next? Would they start burning Israeli books? I promptly made the work “Save the Date” where I dressed up as a giant boycotted Israeli date and pleaded with my fellow artists to eat me. I performed it twice at Goldsmiths but the second performance was boycotted by the students. What utter absurdity, I thought: to boycott a performance about boycotting!

Documentation of the performance “Save the Date” will be screened at my upcoming show opening this Thursday. Also on show will be “Coffee Stand”, a work that challenges the demonising of Israel on UK campuses. The stand will be situated at the entrance to my show and manned by Israeli and Jewish volunteers, who will serve Arabic-Israeli coffee to members of the public. They will wear T-shirts designed and hand-printed by me with the text: “I come from the most hated place on earth” and on the back: “(second to Iran)”. Those who wish to take part by wearing a t-shirt at the show will be given one for keeps. You are all welcome to come and see it. There will also be a holistic therapist ready to rehabilitate your left side. Those who have tried it have felt the change.

I hope to generate real dialogue here, a conversation over a friendly cup of coffee, to show the faces of those directly affected by the hate-campaign, the demonization and the de-humanisation. Because, after all, what does it mean to hate a country? What is a country if not its people? What does it mean to hate a person simply because of the place where he/she was born? What good does it do?

I believe in human beings. I believe that each and every one of us seeks happiness.  If people want to be passionate about a cause they should know what it is they are rallying for. And make sure they are not trampling on someone else in the process. Passion is good when it is channelled in positive ways. When tolerance and well-being is the real goal and not the adrenaline rush of a good fight.

There is an Israeli voice in Goldsmiths. There is a Jewish voice in Goldsmiths. It is loud and it is here and it will not be silenced.

Noam Edry

 “Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life” opens Thursday 14 July 6-9pm at the Goldsmiths MFA Degree Show

 Baths Building, Laurie Grove, New Cross, SE14 6NW

Opening times: Friday 15 – Monday 19 July 10am-7pm, Sunday 18 July 10 am – 4pm

 The Coffee Stand opens for the duration of the Private View, Thursday 14 July 6-9pm

And then every day Friday15-Monday 19 from 12noon – 3pm

 Hope to see you all there!

Sarah Annes Brown – more on UCU and the EUMC working definition of antisemitism

From Sarah Annes Brown’s further reflections on the University and College Union and the EUMC’s working definition of antisemitism:

“The working definition notes that, with all these possible diagnostic criteria, the overall context must be taken into account when making a judgement. One probably isn’t going to fret too much about the ‘overall context’ of a call to genocide. But it is true that some of the criteria are calculated to help identify rather less threatening cases, including the accidental use of an antisemitic trope, which – just like a single chance use of the epithet ‘narcissistic’ to describe a homosexual – should probably be overlooked. But where there is a whole cluster of subtle innuendos in a single article the Working Definition can help pinpoint a real problem. For in order to be truly useful any guidelines for helping identify prejudice must go beyond the obvious. For example, burning a mosque is pretty clearly Islamophobic, but what about criticising Halal slaughter? Here, as with antisemitic tropes, there would be a need to look at the overall context. The issue of Halal food is certainly often manipulated by anti-Muslim bigots – but that fact shouldn’t be used to close down debate about animal welfare. “

Read it all.

Letters about UCU’s rejection of EUMC Antisemitism guidelines

From a piece in the Times Higher,

Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to vice-chancellors on 1 June.

“Following these developments, and in light of UCU’s history of behaviour, we now believe it to be an institutionally racist organisation,”

Sarah Annes Brown writes:

“Delegates at the UCU congress voted overwhelmingly for a motion to reject the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s (EUMC) working definition of anti-Semitism, a set of guidelines drawn up in 2005.

The motion states that despite not being ratified by the UK government or by the European Union, the definition is being used by bodies such as the National Union of Students and local students’ unions in relation to activities on campus.

“Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.”

It goes on to say: “that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (eg, in educating members or dealing with internal complaints); that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved; that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination”.

This motion is related to the UCU’s longstanding preoccupation with an academic boycott of Israel. Many members have resigned over this matter and others have expressed great disquiet. The union has refused to deal with members’ concerns and in 2009 voted down a motion to investigate the resignations.

In the same year, it invited Bongani Masuku, international relations secretary of COSATU (South Africa’s equivalent of the TUC), to speak at a seminar to discuss a boycott of Israel, even though the South African Human Rights Commission had deemed that Masuku’s statements amounted to hate speech against the country’s Jewish community.

It seems quite bizarre for the union to proscribe any consideration of the working definition, to dismiss the whole document and to resolve to disassociate itself from it in any relevant public discussion.

Should this really be a priority for members when higher and further education face unprecedented cuts and a radical overhaul of fees?

Sarah Annes Brown, Professor of English literature, Anglia Ruskin University”

 

Ben Gidley – The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union

In response to the University and College Union’s Congress Motion 70 to banish the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism, Ben Gidley, an academic who studies racism, has a piece in the Dissent blog Arguing the World, titled ‘The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union‘, which we have permission to reproduce in full.

~~~

My trade union, the University and College Union (UCU, representing professionals in further and higher education in the United Kingdom), has its annual congress this weekend, and, under the title “Campaigning for equality,” will be debating a number of motions on racism and discrimination, including one on how anti-Semitism should be defined.

Unions need policies on such things, because union case work, on relations between employees and management and among colleagues, often involves discrimination and harassment that may be racist. At times like now, when there are huge cuts in higher education and academics are being placed under ever more performance pressure by management, harassment and workplace tensions can increase, and these issues become even more important.

But there are many difficulties in addressing racism.

Racism is mercurial. It mutates over time. Pseudoscientific racial theories are now spouted only by marginal cranks. Notions that different races are different species have come and gone; eugenics has come and gone; words like “Aryan” and “Semitic” are starting to sound quaint. The period since the 1980s has seen the rise of cultural racism, or racism that focuses on cultural differences rather than biological ones.

Racism is promiscuous. It will use whatever materials it has at hand. In the age when the Church dominated European ways of thinking, racism used a Biblical language; Jews were attacked as Christ-killers, black people were condemned as under the curse of Ham. With the modern rise of scientific disciplines, racism had access to a whole new language. When that language was discredited by the Nazi genocide, new forms of expression were found—those others don’t share our way of life, they cook food that smells, they control the media, or they have a culture of criminality.

Racism proceeds through euphemism and code. At various points, “aliens,” “cosmopolitan,” “Zionist,” and “finance capital” have served as euphemisms for Jews; while the Nazis spoke about sub-humans, today’s anti-Semites mutter about Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs. Sometimes it is impossible to distinguish the code from what’s behind it—are Muslims hated by racists in Western Europe because of their perceived color and culture, or are North Africans and South Asians hated because they are Muslim?

Some racists wear Ku Klux Klan uniforms, or shave their heads and perform Nazi salutes. But others wear suits and ties and talk about “free speech” or the “rights of the indigenous people.” We’re not against black people, says the British National Party, we’re just for white people. We’re not fascists, says the rebranded National Front in France, we even have a black candidate.

Libraries full of books and journals full of articles are devoted to debating, dissecting, and defining racism in general, and tracking its specific mutations. For every definition or classification proposed, there are qualifications, exceptions, counterexamples, refutations. No one-page definition would be universally accepted by scholars.

But in the streets, in the workplace, and in the courts of law, you need something more straightforward. When a grassroots civil society organization monitors racist incidents, when a union is asked to represent a colleague that has been the victim of racist bullying, when a lawyer prosecutes a racially aggravated crime, when an editorial assistant has to moderate an op-ed comment thread where temperatures have been raised—you might need some kind of working definition to rule the incident in or out. If all racists looked like booted boneheads or evil Nazis, these people would have an easy job.

A few principles have emerged from the anti-racist movement to help decide a case. Three are particularly relevant. First, the victims of racism should have at least some say in defining racism. This principle is reflected, for example, in British law. Following the racist murder and failure to prosecute the killers of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, in London, there was a thorough review of the case that profoundly changed how the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom addresses these issues, presided over by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny.

The ensuing Macpherson Report in 1999 recommended that a racist incident be defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person,” and reported, recorded, and investigated as such. Of course, the offense taken by someone who sees him or herself as a victim can never be a sufficient criterion for ruling and convicting someone of a racially motivated or aggravated crime, but the victim’s voice should be heard and constitutes at least prima facie grounds for taking the allegation seriously. And this principle also means, for instance, that black people should have a role in defining anti-black racism, that Jews should have a role in defining anti-Semitism, and so on.

Second, racist intent is not necessary for a statement or action to be racist. Acting in good faith, believing oneself not to be racist, and being ignorant of what constitutes racism do not exempt us. In fact, anti-racists have long argued that racism is so pervasive that we are all often unconsciously racist. We are not aware of the implications of our words and actions, of the connotations they have, of the harm they might cause. The issue that matters, in other words, is racist deeds and words, not racist people. Combating racism does not require an inquisition into our souls; it requires attention to the impact of our actions. This principle is taken further in the concept of “institutional racism,” defined initially by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, whose words were drawn on in the Macpherson report, which defined it as the

collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

The key word here is “unwitting”: it is not racist intent that matters, but the harm done. Saying “some of my best friends are black” doesn’t let you off the hook.

Third, context matters. A word might be racist in one context but not another. This principle is well established in British case law around racially aggravated crimes. For instance, in the case Director of Public Prosecutions v M 2004, the Divisional Court held that the phrase “‘bloody foreigners’ could, depending on the context, demonstrate hostility to a racial group.” This was cited in Rogers v Regina 2007, when one of the judges, Baroness Hale, said, “The context will illuminate what the conduct shows.” For example, the word “Zionist” means something very different in the name of the Zionist Federation than it would if a BNP member were to walk into a synagogue and shout, “Kill the Zionists.”
DEFINING ANTI-SEMITISM has become one of the most difficult instances of defining racism. This is partly because of the particularly strange mutation of anti-Semitism in recent years, including the emergence of what has contentiously been called “the new anti-Semitism.”

Far-right anti-Semitic movements increasingly borrow the language of anti-Zionism as a cover for their racism, and far-right anti-Semitic ideas have in turn increasingly gained traction among anti-Zionists. For example, anti-Zionists have taken up the old Christian anti-Semitic “blood libel” myth, while neo-Nazis have taken up ideas from the anti-Zionist movement, such as the idea of an all-powerful “Israel lobby.” So, while the British Chief Rabbi’s claim that we are experiencing a “tsunami of anti-Semitism” is almost certainly exaggerated, it is certainly the case that there has been a surge in the last decade.

This surge has mainly been seen in different sorts of places than where anti-Semitism has traditionally been encountered. In fact, it is often expressed by the intelligent, thoughtful, anti-racist academics who make up UCU’s rank and file.

In 2008, for example, a union activist circulated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory taken from the website of the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke to hundreds of union members on its activist list. When this was mentioned on a blog, rather than apologizing, she took the advice of a senior union member and threatened legal action, getting the blog closed down. To my knowledge, this activist was never censured within the union. (In contrast, leading campaigners against an academic boycott of Israel were excluded from the same email list for minor infringements of etiquette.) Several Jewish academics resigned in what they saw as the rise of a culture of institutional anti-Semitism.

The following year, a senior union member posted an article to a website circulating another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, complaining that Jews are overrepresented in Parliament and that Tony Blair’s New Labour project is in thrall to Zionist money distributed by suspicious “shape-shifting” financiers. A couple of months later, a UCU branch secretary, speaking at a UCU congress fringe meeting, promoted yet another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: lawyers ruling on union boycott policy have “bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can’t be tracked down.” Again, no censure from the union. The same year, UCU hosted South African trade unionist Bongani Masuku, allowing him to address UCU members on boycotting Israel, despite the fact that the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) had found Masuku guilty of hate speech against Jews.

These incidents might suggest that there is a need for action and robust guidance on anti-Semitism within the union. Instead, the leadership has insisted on seeing all these instances as nothing other than legitimate criticisms of Israel. In 2006, the union executive published a formal statement denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming that “defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate, and in the context of Higher Education, to restrict academic freedom.” This was formalized as union policy at its 2007 congress, which resolved that “criticism of Israel cannot [emphasis added] be construed as anti-semitic”—a motion that seems to me to deny the obvious reality that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The following year, another policy passed, clarifying it: “Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are [sic] not, as such, anti-semitic.” Again, the resolution did not acknowledge that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

By 2009, there had been so many resignations from the union because of this sort of thing that a motion was put to the congress noting the resignations and mandating that the national executive investigate the causes. This was rejected by a large majority.

When it was pointed out to UCU that its guest Bongani Masuku had been criticized by the HRC, rather than taking this institution and its findings seriously, the UCU dismissed this as “stuff doing the rounds on the internet”—shocking ignorance of post-apartheid South Africa for a union whose leaders regularly use the apartheid analogy to describe Israel, but also an a priori refusal to take racism against Jews as seriously as other racisms. A motion to UCU congress noting the HRC’s findings and disassociating congress from Masuku’s anti-Semitic views was formally rejected by an overwhelming show of hands. This near-unanimity in rejecting criticism of anti-Semitism led to a number of resignations from the union, from Jewish colleagues who took it as a sign that anti-Semitism was thoroughly institutionalized in it.

The culture in the UCU has been to dismiss in advance any criticism of racism against Jews, seeing it as merely a tactic to smother debate and criticism. While a handful of anti-Zionist Jews have applauded this, many academics from the Jewish community have felt increasingly isolated, their own understanding of racism not taken seriously, violating the principle that the victims of racism should have some voice in its definition. The a priori dismissal of allegations of anti-Semitism follows what David Hirsh has called “the Livingstone formulation”—the claim that allegations of anti-Semitism are made in bad faith to stifle debate. By alleging that Jews are merely crying anti-Semitism to stop people talking about Israel, the UCU leadership cries Israel to stop people talking about anti-Semitism.
WHICH BRINGS us up to the present, and the latest motion on anti-Semitism. This motion notes “with concern [that] the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism,’ while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status,” is being used by student unions in relation to campus activities. It states a belief that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Then it resolves that the union do three things: not make use of the definition (“e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints”), disassociate itself from the definition in anypublic discussion on the matter in which the UCU is involved, and “campaign for an open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.”

Every clause of the motion is deeply problematic. What is this “so-called” EUMC working definition? The EUMC was the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an agency of the European Union. It was itself preceded by the Commission on Racism and Xenophobia (CRX), established in 1994, known as the Kahn Commission. The CRX became the EUMC in 1998 with an official mandate from the European Commission. Among other things, the EUMC published one of the most important studies of Islamophobia in Europe, in 2002, summarizing several separate reports on specific aspects of Islamophobia from the member states of the EU. In 2007 the EUMC became the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The FRA has continued the important work of the EUMC in documenting anti-Roma racism and homophobia across Europe.

It reports annually on discrimination and fundamental rights in the EU, and therefore reports on anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents. It is only natural that it should seek a standard, usable, operational definition of anti-Semitism, just as its massive Islamophobia report set out a working definition of that form of racism. To this end, it published a one-page working definition in 2005. This has been adopted by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism in 2006, by several branches of the National Union of Students (NUS), and more recently by the NUS itself.

The text defined anti-Semitism thus: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” In the fifth line, it continued: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” Note, not “do” but “could,” and not Israel as such but Israel “conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” It proceeds to give examples of what anti-Semitic incidents might look like. These include stereotyping Jews, including the myth of a “world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media,” as well as holding all Jews responsible for the actions of some Jews.

Then, it gives examples of how anti-Semitism might manifest itself with regard to Israel, which David Hirsh summarizes concisely:

It may, in some contexts, be anti-Semitic to accuse Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their union; to say Israel is a racist endeavour; to apply double standards; to boycott Israelis but not others for the same violations; to say that Israeli policy is like Nazi policy; to hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel.

And here too there is a caveat in the working definition: these might be anti-Semitic, “taking into account the overall context.” In other words, talking about hidden Lehman Brothers bank accounts might be completely legitimate in the context of analyzing the subprime collapse, but not when talking about the politics of people who just happen to be Jews and have no connection to the bank, at a time when conspiracy theories about it are circulating on the Internet.

After the list of examples, the report insists, “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled at any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This sentence is important, and its existence refutes the second clause of the UCU motion, that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Not only does the motion name no instances when this has happened (because it is highly unlikely any such instances have ever occurred), but the working definition itself explicitly avoids the claim that criticism of Israel “in itself” is to be regarded as anti-Semitic.
FOR ALL the reasons I’ve made clear in this article, any definition of any racism is bound to be imperfect, and the EUMC working definition is no exception. I would not want it to be included without amendment in employment law, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for it to be adopted by the UK government—and, indeed, I’ve not heard of any of the working definition’s advocates arguing it should be. (In fact, it would be bizarre if the British state did adopt it formally, as the government has affirmedthat it includes anti-Semitism among the racisms covered by the Macpherson definition of a racist incident discussed above—an incident “perceived to be racist by the victim.” That definition is significantly broader than the EUMC’s.)

But the EUMC definition is a guide, a working definition, and this makes it useful in deciding when, for example, to take seriously and investigate an internal complaint. The working definition could never be used to definitively rule an incident in or out. Its uses of “could” and “context” make this clear. The specific context of an internal complaint would always have to be the determining factor. To resolve to make no use of the document in such circumstances is therefore ridiculous. Similarly, it might be useful in an education setting as a heuristic device for examining different manifestations of racism—also perversely ruled out by the motion.

For the union to disassociate itself from the working definition in any public discussion of anti-Semitism is beyond ridiculous. It means insisting that all of the organizations that do take the working definition seriously—the Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom; the NUS; the Union of Jewish Students; the Fundamental Rights Agency; the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—are dismissed in advance. It undermines their work on anti-Semitism, and it undermines their vital work on anti-Roma racism, Islamophobia, and other racisms.

In the workplace, as the CST’s director writes, this “will serve to (even) further alienate Jews from the union; and it will make it (even) harder for anti-Semitism to be raised there as a matter of concern….[I]t carries the implication that people who complain about anti-Semitism in any Israel-related context are likely to be a bunch of liars, dancing to a pre-ordained tune.”

As an academic who studies racism, I find it bizarre that my union cannot accept that there is even the faintest possibility that institutional racism might exist in our own ranks, even after a series of clearly documented incidents and a shocking number of resignations by Jewish members who perceive it as such. This motion, if passed, will in fact legitimate racism in the union and stop any allegation of anti-Semitism—in debates or in the workplace—from being taken seriously. That the motion will be tabled in a session entitled “Campaigning for equality” is ironic, but the irony tastes bitter indeed.

This piece by Ben Gidley is at Dissent’s Arguing The World blog.

Call for Papers – ESA Network on Ethnic Relations, Racism And Antisemitism – Geneva Sep 2011

Research Network 31, for the study of Ethnic Relations, Racism and Antisemitism, is a network of the European Sociological Association.

The network has met every two years at the major conferences of the ESA.  It emerged in 2005 in Torun, it met in 2007 in Glasgow and in 2009 in Lisbon.  It has also had successful independent mid term conferences in 2008 in Paris and in 2010 in Belfast.

The network is based within sociology but happily includes scholars from other disciplines.  The network has a European focus but its concerns and its participants are also global.

The network is a safe antiracist space for scholars to study antisemitism, racism, and ethnic relations alongside each other in a supportive and intellectual environment.  It has also focused in particular on thinking about the relationships between these different forms of exclusion, bigotry or prejudice.

Abstracts can be submitted now for the meeting in Geneva from 7-10 September 2011.  The deadline for abstract submission is February 25.

The General call for papers is here on the ESA website.

The particular call for papers for the network on Ethnic Relations, Racism and Antisemitism is here on the ESA website.

Please share this call with colleagues of yours who might be interested in contributing.

Please come.

RN co-ordinators: Veronique Altglas v.altglas@qub.ac.uk ,  Robert Fine Robert.fine@warwick.ac.uk and David Hirsh d.hirsh@gold.ac.uk

%d bloggers like this: