“Echoes of the Past into the Present”: Arguments in support of the ASA Boycott.

This is a guest post by Saul:

Reading through the arguments of those proposing and supporting the ASA’s boycott of Israel, one can only be struck by the correspondence of the structure of argumentation with those of what some today like to call ‘real’ antisemitism as well as racism and Islamophobia in general These correspondences appear in the following way.

First, they begin with a list of the litany of Israel’s crimes. Many of the crimes of which Israel is accused they are indeed culpable. However, in the context of boycott two points come to the fore. The first point turns on the widely debated question of ‘Why Israel’? As many have shown and many more acknowledged, none of the crimes committed by the Israeli state are either unique nor their most terrible expression. As many of those opposing the boycott have argued, this is no excuse not to bring them to light. Yet, many of these same people are uncomfortable with the fact that of all states who commit these and worse crimes, only Israel is singled out for boycott. The response to this concern is that it is being used to ‘deflect attention’ from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and constitutes the diversionary tactic of ‘whataboutery’.

As with so many other areas of the boycott discussions, the battleground of ‘whataboutery’ is neither new nor novel. It has been a component part of debates about Jews for a very, very long time. The lines of this debate have more or less remained the same. On the one hand, there are those that say that there is something ‘innate’ about Jews, Judaism and Jewishness and, more recently Israel, that sets it apart from the rest of the world and, as a consequence, deserves special or, if that word is now too emotive, unique treatment. More often than not, such allegations of uniqueness are presented as the reason or cause that, with the best will in the world, Jews or Israel should be denied the rights of those granted to non-Jews or states that are not ‘Jewish’. On the other hand, there are those that say that the differences that distinguish Jews from other religions and peoples and Israel from other states, are no reason, no excuse, to deny such rights, rights freely available to everyone else.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this contestation is Karl Marx’s polemic against Bruno Bauer around the question of Jewish emancipation in the 1840’s. As is well known, Bauer argued against Jewish emancipation. He argued that as long as Jews remained Jews they were to barred from being granted the same rights as those among whom they lived. There was, he declaimed, something unique, something special about Jews and Judaism that prevented them from the benefit of emancipation into the emerging nation-states of his time.

Bauer has posed the question of Jewish emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Jew who is to be emancipated and of the Christian state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Jewish religion, he analyzes the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity, he elucidates the essence of the Christian state……..

Marx’s devastating response to this exclusive and reactionary focus on the alleged nature of Jews and Judaism and only Jews and Judaism is perhaps the most succinct and positive use of what is now excoriated as pure whataboutery,

Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois [i.e., as a member of civil society, “bourgeois society” in German], “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen [‘citizen’ in French, i.e., the participant in political life] only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen [Staatsbürger], between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.

As with Bauer’s antisemitism, one of the consequences of demanding sole focus on Jews and only Jews, and, correspondingly today, Israel and only Israel, is exclusion, from the state and, today, from the community of states. As in the past, the call for boycott opens up an abyss between, on the one side ‘Israel’ and on the other side, the rest of the world. In contemporary terms, by placing the call for boycott of the need for international solidarity as a means of resisting Israeli criminality, the radical antisemitic vision of the division between Jews and humanity is re-articulated in the divide between Israel/Jewish Israelis and the rest of the world. Like Jews of the past, Israel is now recast as the ‘other’ of ‘humanity’.

The second main structural element of arguments made in support of the ASA boycott and one visible particularly in Claire Potter’s account of her Damascan moment, is the old tale of Jewish privilege. Of all the states in the world who receive US funding and financial assistance, Israel, it is said, is the most ‘privileged’. Israel receives more than any country in US military aid. Israel receives more support in the UN and security council than any other of its allies, etc.. These facts are, of course, true. But they are presented not as a consequence of past and present political considerations (for example, that US funding and support for Israel began, originally from the prior recognition of Israel by the then Soviet Union (the first country to recognise the Sate of Israel in 1948), the divisions of the Cold War, the rise of Arab pan-nationalism, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Islamicism and anti-Americanism, the obsessive focus of Israel in some of the UN instiutions, and so on). Instead, they are presented as instances of a specifically Israeli privilege (often, but not always, an argument connected to the alleged omnipotence of the ‘Israel’ or ‘Jewish Lobby’). Needless to say, this idea of Jewish privilege by the state is not new in the annals of both the history of antisemitism or of racism in general. For example, it was common currency in the debates surrounding and following Jewish emancipation. It also forms a core component of contemporary Islamophobia; that somehow the British state ‘prvileges’ the concerns of British Muslims.

This notion of Jewish/Israeli privilege connects with the third point; that one cannot say a bad word about Israel without being labelled an ‘antisemite’, See also Clare Short’s letter in support of Rev Stephen Sizer in the Jewish Chronicle, 20th December, 2013.

Other formulations in which this arguments is presented is the idea of the Shoah as a magic talisman warding off any and all negative comments about Israel. This theme is presented in its most crystalline form by Alex Lubin in this article in The Nation. He writes there that, ‘Israel’s creation in the violent crucible of the European Holocaust allows it always (!) to appear vulnerable, regardless of its oppressive actions’`1. Here, we can but note the sheer nastiness of the claim that Israel and those labeled its ‘supporters’ are guilty of cynically manipulating the most terrible event in the history of Jews and inverting it into nothing more than a ‘strategic advantage’. This belief in Jewish cynicism is again, an updated variant of the accusation leveled against Jews from the time of their emancipation onward that they exploited their past discrimination to wheedle those ‘privileges’ noted above from the State at the expense of all others. Even more relevant in the present context, however, is that this idea replicates almost exactly the antisemite Willhelm Marr’s claim in the late 19th century that ‘one cannot today criticise Jews [i.e. by which he meant his and others antisemitic assertions] without being called an antisemite’.2

The BDS movement constantly respond to accusations that its call to boycott Israel and only Israel taps in to antisemitic ways of thinking by claiming that, first, one must distinguish between ‘real’ antisemitism and ‘criticism of Israel’, and secondly, that they are free from the seductions offered by antisemitism in forwarding their own aims. As the structure of their arguments show (both in form and content) neither claim is sustainable.

1. The reference to the term ‘European Holocaust’ is interesting in the specific context of ASA. Not only does the term ‘European Holocaust’ imply denial of the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’ or Shoah – as opposed to the concept if genocide – but chimes in with a rather nasty debate a little while ago when US academics claimed that the studying and recognition of the genocides and brutalities suffered by the First Nations in what was to become the United States were being hindered by the mal fide of scholars of the Holocaust. (See Dan Stone; ‘Histories of the Holocaust, OUP, (2010) p. 210

2. See on this point, Moishe Zimmerman’s ‘Wilhelm Marr: The Patriach of Antisemitism,OUP, (1986)

‘Cynical Ploys’:The Familiarity of Alex Brummer’s Defence of the Daily Mail – Saul

This is a guest post by Saul:

Re-reading Alex Brummer’s defence of the Daily Mail I was struck by the following sentence,

But the real danger in these completely phoney allegations is that they detract from the genuine anti-Semitism that is suddenly on the march again in Eastern and Southern Europe.

For readers of Engage, this argument is hardly unfamiliar. Claims of antisemitism that are raised in discussions about certain comments of ‘critics of Israel’ are frequently met with the ideas that, not only, is the claim bogus or ‘phoney’ but, in so raising it, you are making the fight against ‘genuine’ antisemitism that much more difficult. Yet, if we delve a little deeper, we find that the assumptions underpinning Brummer’s defence is, in essence, no different from those that emerge from the other end of the political spectrum.

Regardless of those making the argument, at the heart of the distinction between ‘phoney’ and ‘genuine’ is the idea that those accused of raising ‘phoney’ claims of antisemitism are not simply right or wrong or not simply mistaken about the presence or absence of antisemitism. Rather, they are accused of bringing up the issue for nothing other than ulterior, nefarious, dishonourable and dishonest purposes. It is being raised as a ploy, a deceit, a lie. Thus, on the one hand we read, as way of illustration that,

the real purpose of the new antisemitism is to discredit and silence Israel’s critics in the US and elsewhere.

On the other hand, this comment from Brummer,

Indeed, the cynical attempts by Lord Kinnock, the political Left and the Labour Party to shift the debate about the Mail article that explored Ed Miliband’s late father Ralph’s views on politics, international affairs and economic models, to one about alleged anti-Semitism within the Associated Newspapers group is absolutely deplorable.

Despite the political chasm that separates them, both the author of the first sentence and Brummer agree on one fundamental point; when claims of antisemitism are made by either the right or the left, Zionists or non- and anti-Zionists, Jews or non-Jews they are to be rejected out of hand. They are nothing more than ‘cynical attempts’ the ‘real purpose’ of which is to defame and silence.

Furthermore, if the adoption of such underhand tactics were not enough, those  accused of knowingly raising ‘phoney’ claims of antisemitism with such malodorous intent are further accused of standing in the way of the struggle against ‘genuine’ antisemitism. Without such obstruction, those endowed with the gift to smell out a phoney claim from a hundred paces would at last be free to tackle head-on the type of authentic antisemitism that, as one of its fundamental precepts, warns against ever taking what a Jew says at face value.

Antisemitism doesn’t always come doing a Hitler salute : Jonathan Freedland

When the Ukip politician Godfrey Bloom referred to “Bongo Bongo land”, there were not many who denied the remark was racist. When the same man told women who failed to clean behind the fridge that they were “sluts”, most could see the comment was sexist. Yet when the target of an insult is a Jew or Jews, there is rarely such certainty. Unless antisemitism comes dressed in an SS uniform and doing a Hitler salute, we are regularly thrown into confusion. Suddenly we are in the seminar room, calling on experts to tell us whether or not this or that sentence was anti-Jewish, the debate usually ending without clear resolution. To add to the complexity, very often Jews disagree among themselves, with just as many willing to give the disputed word or deed a free pass as to condemn it.

Read the rest of it here.

David Ward, Israel, the Holocaust and the Jews – by Sarah AB

Many have already written eloquently and thoughtfully about David Ward’s indefensible comments about Israel, the Holocaust and ‘the Jews’. Mark Gardner and Paul Evans, for example, have explained exactly why these comments are so offensive, although David Ward still doesn’t seem to get it.

I was struck by this misleading headline in the Huffington Post.

Lib Dem MP David Ward ‘Condemned’ By Own Party For Criticising Israel Ahead Of Holocaust Memorial Day”

This completely misses the point, and implicitly supports those who argue either that accusations of antisemitism are deployed strategically to silence criticism of Israel or else that those making the accusations are quite extraordinarily sensitive.

Although Sara Nelson (who probably didn’t write the headline herself) goes on to offer a reasonable account of the incident, her piece reveals further ill-judged responses to Ward’s remarks. She links to a supporter of Ward, blogger Mark Valladares. He has now edited his article after coming in for some criticism.

It’s welcome that he reflected further and tried to express his views with more nuance. However I still see (and I didn’t catch the earlier version, though I gather it referred to the angry response to Ward as a ‘bandwagon’) problems in the edited post:

As usual, in any matter related to the Israel/Palestine debate, elements of the pro-Israel lobby, (or troublemakers in Guido’s case) have chosen to interpret these remarks as being a direct comparison of the holocaust with modern events in Gaza and the West Bank. If you’re minded to do so, you probably will. On the other hand, if you lean towards a pro-Palestinian position, you might welcome any recognition by a politician that the Israeli government is behaving in an unacceptable manner.”

 Although Ward did not absolutely state that Gaza was another Warsaw, the parallel was still implicit and Valladares does not even pick up on the way Ward refers to ‘the Jews’ as an undifferentiated group. Also – to offer just one counterargument to Valladares’s assertion that politicians never criticize Israel – the Chair of Labour Friends of Israel spoke out against Netanyahu’s controversial announcement on settlement building last month, as did Conservative Friends of Israel.

There’s then this confusing passage:

For me, David’s words act as a reminder that some pretty dreadful wrongs have been committed against both sides (and there are those who seek to equate them in terms of scale), and suggest that past events should influence future behaviour.”

 Is he now suggesting that the sufferings of the Palestinians might indeed reasonably be compared to the Holocaust ‘in terms of scale’, or is he rather weighing up the sufferings of Israelis and Palestinians?

 Then he asserts:

 It’s called nuance, and in an increasingly black and white political discourse, I welcome his attempt to demonstrate some respect towards both sides in this seemingly never-ending dispute, even if he has failed to express himself well.”

 Now, this is ridiculous. Many commenters, from a range of perspectives, demonstrate ‘respect towards both sides’, and it is very easy to do so without trivializing the Holocaust.

Returning to the Huffington Post piece, the comments were depressingly dominated by those who thought Ward had made a jolly good point, and those who thought it was somehow all the fault of ‘the Muslims’. 

Response from University of Johannesburg

Sociologist Peter Alexander, at the University of Johannesburg, has defended the boycott decision against this critique from David Hirsh.  (double click the image to make it bigger)

David Hirsh argued, amongst other things:

The boycott campaign is not motivated by anti-Semitism, but wherever it goes, anti-Semitism follows. One of its leaders, Bongani Masuku, a Cosatu official, has been found guilty by the South African Human Rights Commission of hate speech. Jews around the world are routinely treated as supporters of apartheid if they dare to oppose the boycott campaign.

When you educate people to boycott only Israel, when you tell them that all Israelis are responsible for human-rights abuses, when you mobilise a global campaign to say that Israel is uniquely racist, and when this campaign becomes central to progressive politics globally, you are, whether you know it or not, incubating anti-Semitic ways of thinking. When ears are closed to concern about anti-Semitism on the basis that such concern is a marker of secret support for Israeli human rights abuses, then you know there is a problem.

Peter Alexander does not relate to this argument and he doesn’t rebut it.  He simply denies it:

Hirsh’s view that UJ is “legitimising an anti-semitic boycott” and “incubating anti-semitic ways of thinking” smacks of a man who is losing an argument.  For myself I am proud to have spent half a century opposing racism including anti-semitism.

He doesn’t say why Bongani Masuku was found guilty of hate speech by the South African Human Rights commission.   He doesn’t make an argument or present any evidence.  He doesn’t show that he is aware that much hostility to Israel is manifested in the language of antisemitism, for example by Hamas, by Hezobllah, by the Iranian government.  He doesn’t show any evidence that he knows what has been going on within the University and College Union, where Jews who oppose the boycott have been bullied out of the “debate”.   He doesn’t show any awareness of what it is like to be a Jewish student on his own campus.  He just responds with haughty, unthinking, denial.

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.

For some Engage classics on contemporary antisemitism and boycotts against Israel, click here.

Israel is not like apartheid South Africa.  click here.

Hirsh’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.

What’s wrong with PACBI’s “call” for a boycott?  click here.

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.

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

double click on the image to make it readable


There is also this piece in the M&G, defending UJ’s boycott.

Westminster University Cancels Gilad Atzomon’s discussion of “Jewishness”

Gahda Karmi had already said she was pulling out.  She’s the one who thought that “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech on 21 April struck many as obnoxious, but in terms of understanding the 1948 roots of the Middle East conflict he was spot on.”  She also thought that after  ‘the Holocaust and all this business’, as she put it, masses of ‘alien’ Jews started to pour in to Palestine. These Jews were nothing like the Jews they were used to: these new Jews were pale and blue-eyed, but most of all they were ‘complicated’, ‘very difficult to deal with’, and they were bringing ‘their miserable lives’ with them.

John Rose had also said he was pulling out.  Remember John Rose, brought up in a “Zionist home”?

Alan (“some of my best friends are Jewish“) Hart was also billed to speak.

The star of the show was to be the antisemitic saxophonist, Gilad Atzmon.

The event had been promoted by groups including the Stop the War Coalition, the white nationalist Stormfront movement, and the Real IRA, according to the Jewish Chronicle report here.

Under Avraham Burg’s “anti-Semitic rug”

Former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg has written an article of a Eurocentric bent to the effect that antisemitism shouldn’t any longer be thought of as racism against Jews but as a bad-faith accusation made by Israel’s advocates against honest critics of Israel. He argues that for Jews to give any particular attention to antisemitism is both right wing and falls short of the kind of Jewishness to which he aspires.

Saul responds:

“In Israel, the notion of antisemitism has been utilised by the right – it is reactionary use of antisemitism; see the film “Defamation”.

The trouble is that many progressives in Israel – Burg included (recall he wrote on Israel needing to overcome the Holocaust) – are simply arguing the opposite: “If the right say x, we say not x.”

They lack any critical understanding both of the (contemporary) concept of antisemitism and its use outside Israel.

What would be interesting would be to follow the journey this article makes; that is, see who outside Israel quotes it and uses it.

What frustrates me more than anything, though, is the claim that those of us who raise the issue of antisemitism are nothing more than apologists for Israel or non-critics of the Israeli right. Like large parts of the global left, much of the Israeli left has got that wrong. They seem to think that criticism of Israel and the claim to antisemitism are two sides of the same coin, rather than two phenomena linked together through the situation in Israel.

Burg writes

There is an internal Jewish essence that is not dependent on external circumstances. It is buried deep below layers of historical trauma. But its heart still beats; in the form of humanism, responsibility for the peace of the world, universalism without boundaries. Israel’s establishment ought to enable the realization of this potential. For example, the state of those who were ostracized can do everything in its power to assist the present-day ostracized who have taken their place. It can be a partner in the creation of a world coalition against hatred. Precisely because of its memories.

Arendt traces the history of this sentiment and, rather astutely, calls it racist.

For myself, I think it is deeply Christian. A reworking of redemption through suffering. And, the fact that Jews/Israel have not been redeemed is once again fuelling the idea of a great Jewish refusal. So far, they have had two chances at redemption: Jesus and the Holocaust. They have refused to accept it twice. Jews are truly irredeemable, hence their call to universalism over all particularism other than the particularism of suffering, which they are selfishly clinging onto whilst everyone else has moved on. Once again, the Jews are an anachronism (as was said of post-Christ Judaism).

Yuck!”

On the need to be specific about discrimination

Cross-posted from Greens Engage.

A few weeks ago the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian & Cultural) of the United Nations General Assembly voted on a draft resolution concerning extra-judicial, arbitrary and summary executions. Every two years, this vote affirms the duties of member countries to uphold the right to life of all people and calls on them to investigate discriminatory killings.

For the past decade, the resolution has drawn explicit attention to sexual orientation among other groups which historically have been targeted for summary execution. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission describes this reference as an important part of:

“… a non-exhaustive list in the resolution highlighting the many groups of people that are particularly targeted by killings – including persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, persons acting as human rights defenders (such as lawyers, journalists or demonstrators) as well as street children and members of indigenous communities. Mentioning sexual orientation as a basis on which people are targeted for killing highlights a situation in which particular vigilance is required in order for all people to be afforded equal protection.”

However, the inclusion of sexual orientation is contested. This year an amendment, sponsored by Benin on behalf of the African Group, called for replacing the words ‘sexual orientation’ with ‘discriminatory reasons on any basis.’ The amendment was narrowly passed with support from countries which criminalise homosexuality.

Peter Tatchell, who suffered a homophobic beating in Moscow which prevented him from pursuing Green Party parliamentary candidacy, expressed his outrage.

Among many others concerned about the deletion is the Association of British Muslims:

“Removing this clause at this time will send quite the wrong signal to those regimes that indulge in these barbaric practices, implying as it does that United Nations is no longer concerned at the maltreatment of people because of their sexual orientation or considers it to be a lesser matter.

Referring to the Nazis, Paster Martin Niemoller once wrote, ‘First they came…’. Have we not learned anything since the tragedies of World War 2? Niemoller started out by saying, ‘First they came for the communist’s, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist’ Then, the socialists, trade unionists, Jews and other groups until finally he writes, ‘Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me’.

The Committee vote is to be ratified in December. The Association of British Muslims calls on member states of the General Assembly not to endorse the decision of its Third Committee, and to reinstate the deleted clause.”

Reverend Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said:

“The reference to sexual orientation was part of a list which highlights many of the groups that are targeted by killings – including those belonging to national or ethnic groups, human rights defenders and street children and members of indigenous communities. Until now it has been accepted that the mention of sexual orientation is required to draw attention to the fact that this is often the specific reason why individuals are killed. The removal of this reference sends a message that people do not merit protection based upon their sexual orientation and will further fuel homophobic hatred and violence.”

These arguments are also striking because they are exactly the same ones which can be made in response to ongoing efforts, gradually encroaching from the margins of British politics, to deny or otherwise minimise contemporary forms of persecution and discrimination against Jews.

This ghosting out of antisemitism also seeks to omit it as a consideration in official documents and campaigns, or subsume its specifics into more general statements which shine no light, cannot penetrate, and are destined to become platitudes. Like the UN Resolution on extra-judicial executions which deletes reference to gay people, a decision to remove antisemitism from consideration signals prejudice or an ominous readiness to cement political allegiances by indulging prejudice.

Let us not step backwards.

To end, an aside – it may interest readers to know that every representative from the Middle East voted for this amendment to whitewash persecution of gay people, except one. Israel’s voted to retain explicit reference to sexual orientation. In the alignments around this vote, some commentators will see only the usual confrontations and alliances between blocs of countries. This was Cuba’s official explanation, but it’s a view which is totally aloof from the lives – and deaths – of the people affected. If you are gay, it boils down to this: same-sex relations which other countries call ‘un-Christian’, ‘un-African’, ‘un-Islamic’, are not ‘un-Israeli’. Israel is the best place in the Middle East to be yourself if you are gay.

the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly voted on a special resolution addressing extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions. The resolution affirms the duties of member countries to protect the right to life of all people with a special emphasis on a call to investigate killings based on discriminatory grounds. The resolution highlights particular groups historically subject to executions including street children, human rights defenders, members of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority communities, and, for the past 10 years, the resolution has included sexual orientation as a basis on which some individuals are targeted for death.

BBC World Service Documentary on Contemporary Antisemitism

Part 1 is out now on iplayer and is well worth listening to – click here

With material from Malmo in Sweden, from Vilnius in Lithuania, from Anthony Julius, Howard Jacobson, Mark Gardner, David Hirsh, Brian Klug, Edie Friedman, Deborah Fink and Dovid Katz.

Broadcasts today at 16:32, and tomorrow, Thursday at 16:32, 00:32 and 0432

David Hirsh: The Livingstone Formulation

David Hirsh

David Hirsh (2010) ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism‘ Transversal 1/2010, Graz, Austria

The Livingstone Formulation, ‘playing the antisemitism card’ and contesting the boundaries of antiracist discourse

To download the whole paper as a pdf file, click here

Author:  David Hirsh is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He is co-convenor of the European Sociological Network on Racism and Antisemitism.  He has published on crimes against humanity, international humanitarian law and antisemitism.  He is the founding editor of the Engage journal and website and has written on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

This paper, publised in Transversal, the journal of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Graz, describes how the Livingstone Formulation operates as a way of de-legitmizing questions about contemporary antisemitism by means of ad hominem attack.  It is possible to relate seriously and rationally to charges of antisemitism but it is interesting how often people refuse to take the charges seriously and instead resort to this counter-accusation of malicious ‘Zionist’ intent. This mirrors the operation against which the Livingstone Formulation originally sets itself – which is the raising of the issue of antisemitism maliciously in order to de-legitimise criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.

The paper describes and analyses more than twenty documented examples of the Livingstone Formulation from public discourse.

This paper is concerned with a rhetorical formulation which is sometimes deployed in response to an accusation of antisemitism, particularly when it relates to discourse which is of the form of criticism of Israel. This formulation is a defensive response which deploys a counter-accusation that the person raising the issue of antisemitism is doing so in bad faith and dishonestly. I have called it The Livingstone Formulation.  It is defined by the presence of two elements. Firstly the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israel with what are alleged to be demonizing, exclusionary or antisemitic discourses or actions; secondly, the presence of the counteraccusation that the raisers of the issue of antisemitism do so with dishonest intent, in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. The allegation is that the accuser chooses to ‘play the antisemitism card’ rather than to relate seriously to, or to refute, the criticisms of Israel. While the issue of antisemitism is certainly sometimes raised in an unjustified way, and may even be raised in bad faith, the Livingstone Formulation may appear as a response to any discussion of contemporary antisemitism.

This paper is not concerned directly with those who are accused of employing antisemitic discourse and who respond in a measured and rational way to such accusations in a good faith effort to relate to the concern, and to refute it. Rather it is concerned with modes of refusal to engage with the issue of antisemitism. Those who argue that certain kinds of arguments, tropes, analogies and ideas are antisemitic are trying to have them recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate antiracist discourse. The Livingstone Formulation as a response tries to have the raising itself of the issue of antisemitism recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate discourse.  In this paper I describe and analyse a number of examples of the formulation which come from a number of profoundly different sources, including antiracist, openly antisemitic, antizionist, and mainstream ones.

I focus on the accusations and the counter accusations of malicious intent which are made in public debates around the issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict and antisemitism. It is widely accepted in the sociological literature on racism, and also in the practice of antiracist movements, that racism is often unintended and that social actors who are involved are often unconscious of the racism with which they are perhaps complicit or of which they are unconscious ‘carriers’. Antiracists are generally comfortable with the concepts of institutional, structural and discursive racism and they are comfortable with the idea that discourses, structures and institutions can be racist in effect, objectively, even in the absence of any subjective racist intent on the part of social actors. Yet a common response to the raising of the issue of antisemitism in relation to discourses concerning criticism of Israel is that if there is no antisemitic intent then there can be no antisemitism. Antisemitism is implicitly, then, often defined differently from other racisms as requiring an element of intent.

One thing that follows from this is that the raising of the issue of antisemitism is often conflated with the accusation of antisemitic intent. So the raising of the issue of antisemitism is often claimed to be an ad hominem attack, an accusation of antisemitic intent on the part of the ‘critic of Israel’. Yet while there is fierce resistance to the possibility of unintended antisemitism, those who employ the Livingstone Formulation accuse those who raise the issue of antisemitism of doing so with malicious intent and of knowing that their concerns are not justified, and of doing so for instrumental reasons.

It seems to follow that the use of the Livingstone Formulation is intended to make sure that the raising of the issue of antisemitism, when related to ‘criticism of Israel’ remains or becomes a commonsense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and a faux pas in polite antiracist company. A commonsense bundling of positions leads to a binary opposition in which either you remain within the bounds of rational and antiracist discourse, and so you are on the left, and a supporter of the Palestinians against Israeli human rights abuses, or, on the other hand, you are thought of as being on the right, a supporter of Israel against the Palestinians, and a person who instrumentalizes the issue of antisemitism. To raise the issue of antisemitism is to put yourself in the wrong camp. Having already indicated the complexities relating to accusations of intent, it is necessary to examine carefully to what extent this charge of intent may be justified.

In the 1990s Gillian Rose identified a phenomenon which she called ‘Holocaust piety’. It was common, she argued, to be unsympathetic to attempts to analyse the Holocaust using the normal tools of understanding, of social
science and of historiography. Instead, people tended to think about the Holocaust as a radically unique event which was in some sense outside of human history or ‘ineffable’ and so unreachable by social theory and by various forms of artistic and scholarly representation.  One of the consequences of Holocaust piety has been the construction of antisemitism itself as being an unimaginably huge and threatening phenomenon, beyond all other ordinary, worldly, threats and phenomena. A by-product of this is that the charge itself of antisemitism is in danger of being thought of as a nuclear bomb, a weapon, so terrible that it destroys not only its target but also the whole field of battle, the whole discursive space in which discussion proceeds. If to raise the issue of antisemitism is to unleash a nuclear bomb, then the issue is unraisable, as nuclear weapons are unusable. Under the conditions of Holocaust piety, it becomes difficult to relate in a measured and serious way to the issue of antisemitism. Either antisemitism is thought of as something radically different from ordinary ‘normal’ racism and then there is a temptation to be less vigilant against those other racisms than one is against antisemitism. Or the discussion of antisemitism is thought of as a weapon instead of an analytic or political question, which may be deployed to destroy ‘critics of Israel’ but which cannot be a serious question in itself. The weapon, instrumentally used, also destroys the very possibility of rational debate and analysis. The standard response to piety is blasphemy. The cartoon of Anna Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler, President Ahmadinejad’s exhibition of Holocaust denial and normalization in Tehran and the increasingly common phenomenon of characterising Israeli Jews as the new Nazis are examples of Holocaust blasphemy.

To download the whole paper as a pdf file, click here

David Hirsh: ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conrflict and about antisemitism

NB some more examples of the Livingstone Formulation and some interesting discussion in the comments box here

NB an article about the Livingstone Formulation from z-word is here

NB there was discussion of the Livingstone Formulation in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers

%d bloggers like this: