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.

Philip Mendes on Jewish antizionism

Jews in a whisper – Roger Cohen

This piece, by Roger Cohen, is from the New York Times.

IN his novel “Deception,” Philip Roth has the American protagonist say to his British mistress: “In England, whenever I’m in a public place, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and someone happens to mention the word ‘Jew,’ I notice that the voice always drops just a little.”

She challenges him on this observation, prompting the American, a middle-aged writer, to say, yes, that’s how “you all say ‘Jew.’ Jews included.”

This prompted a memory: sitting with my mother in an Italian restaurant in the upscale London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood circa 1970 and asking her, after she had pointed to a family in the opposite corner and said they were Jewish, why her voice dropped to a whisper when she said the J word.

“I’m not whispering,” Mom said and went on cutting up her spaghetti so it would fit snugly on a fork.

But she was — in that subliminal, awkward, half-apologetic way of many English Jews. My parents were South African immigrants. Their priority was assimilation. They were not about to change their name but nor were they about to rock the boat. I never thought much about why I left the country they adopted and became an American. It happened. One thing in life leads to another. But then, a year ago, I returned.

I was at my sister’s place and a lodger of hers, seeing I had a BlackBerry, said, “Oh, you’ve got a JewBerry.” Huh? “Yeah, a JewBerry.” I asked him what he meant. “Well,” he shrugged, “BBM — BlackBerry Messenger.” I still didn’t get it. “You know, it’s free!”


None of this carried malice as far I could see. It was just flotsam carried on the tide of an old anti-Semitism. The affable, insidious English anti-Semitism that stereotypes and snubs, as in the judgment of some gent at the Athenaeum on a Jew’s promotion to the House of Lords: “Well, these people are very clever.” Or, as Jonathan Margolis noted in The Guardian, the tipsy country squire commenting on how much he likes the Jewish family who just moved into the village before adding, “Of course, everybody else hates them.”

Of course.

Jewish identity is an intricate subject and quest. In America, because I’ve criticized Israel and particularly its self-defeating expansion of settlements in the West Bank, I was, to self-styled “real Jews,” not Jewish enough, or even — join the club — a self-hating Jew. In Britain I find myself exasperated by the muted, muffled way of being a Jew. Get some pride, an inner voice says, speak up!

But it’s complicated. Britain, with its almost 300,000 Jews and more than two million Muslims, is caught in wider currents — of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political Islam. Traditionally, England’s genteel anti-Semitism has been more of the British establishment than the British working class, whereas anti-Muslim sentiment has been more working-class than establishment.

Now a ferocious anti-Zionism of the left — the kind that has called for academic boycotts of Israel — has joined the mix, as has some Muslim anti-Semitism. Meanwhile Islamophobia has been fanned by the rightist fabrication of the “Eurabia” specter — the fantasy of a Muslim takeover that sent Anders Breivik on his Norwegian killing spree and feeds far-right European and American bigotry.

Where then should a Jew in Britain who wants to speak up stand? Not with the Knesset members who have met in Israel with European rightists like Filip Dewinter of Belgium in the grotesque belief that they are Israel’s allies because they hate Muslims. Not with the likes of the Jewish writer Melanie Phillips, whose book “Londonistan” is a reference for the Islamophobes. Nor with those who, ignoring sinister historical echoes, propose ostracizing Israeli academics and embrace an anti-Zionism that flirts with anti-Semitism.

Perhaps a good starting point is a parallel pointed out to me by Maleiha Malik, a professor of law at King’s College London. A century ago, during the Sidney Street siege of 1911, it was the Jews of London’s East End who, cast as Bolsheviks, were said to be “alien extremists.” Winston Churchill, no less, argued in 1920 that Jews were part of a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development.”

The lesson is clear: Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.

That — not fanning Islamophobia — is the task before diaspora Jews. To speak up in Britain also means confronting the lingering, voice-lowering anti-Semitism. When Roth’s hero returns to New York, he finds he’s been missing something. His lover, now distant, asks what.


“We’ve got some of them in England, you know.”

“Jews with force, I’m talking about. Jews with appetite. Jews without shame.”

I miss them, too.

This piece, by Roger Cohen, is from the New York Times.

The tipping point for UCU -David Hirsh

institutional racism?

Ronnie Fraser, a Jewish UCU member who has been bullied, scorned, ridiculed and treated as though he was a supporter of racism and apartheid for ten years,  is going to sue the UCU His letter to Sally Hunt, written by Anthony Julius, says that UCU has breached ss. 26 and 57 (3) of the Equality Act 2010:

That is to say, the UCU has “harassed” him by “engaging in unwanted conduct” relating to his Jewish identity (a “relevant protected characteristic”), the “purpose and/or effect” of which has been, and continues to be, to “violate his dignity” and/or create “an intimidating, hostile, degrading humiliating” and/or “offensive environment” for him.

The letter alleges a course of action by the union which amounts to institutional antisemitism and it gives examples: annual boycott resolutions against only Israel; the conduct of these debates; the moderating of the activist list and the penalising of anti-boycott activists; the failure to engage with people who raised concerns; the failure to address resignations; the refusal to meet the OSCE’s special represenative on antisemitism; the hosting of Bongani Masuku; the repudiation of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism.

The Equality Act 2010 codifies our society’s rejection of racism even in its subtle and unconscious forms; it is one of the most important victories of the trade union movement and of antiracist struggle.  The Equality Act is our Act, passed by a Labour government, a weapon designed to help antiracist trade unionists to defend workers who are subjected to racism.

How is it that a union is itself charged with its violation?  The story begins with the campaign to boycott Israeli academia.  It began to take root in the predecessor unions AUT and Natfhe after the collapse of the peace process between Israel and Palestine.  By 2005, AUT Congress passed motions to boycott Haifa and Bar Ilan Universities on spurious grounds.  There was a mass membership revolt in the union, an unprecedented recall conference was called, there was a whole day of debate, following debates on campuses up and down the country and the boycott movement was democratically defeated.  But then Congress shrunk back to its usual size, the hard core activists reasserted their control and the mood to single out Israelis for punishment gained ground on the British left more generally.

There has been an unhappy and unstable stalemate in the union since.  UCU Congress passes resolutions to support boycotts of Israel and only Israel; the boycotters and the Socialist Worker Party are allowed their demagogy, but they know that the leadership of UCU won’t ever implement a boycott because they all know that it would violate antiracist law in the UK.  The rhetoric ratchets up, the Jews are bullied out and the union does nothing at all to help Israelis or Palestinians.

With the boycott campaign, which is antisemitic in its effect though not in its intent, comes an antisemitic poltical culture.  Anyone who opposes the boycott is accused of being an apologist for Israeli human rights abuses; Jews who do not define themselves as antizionists are suspected of being Zionists; Zionists are denounced as supporters of racism, oppression, war, apartheid. Nazism and imperialism.  People who are concerned about antisemitism are routinely accused of raising the issue in bad faith in order to try to de-legitimise what is always called “criticism of Israel”.

Now we have reached a tipping point.  The government has found UCU’s weak spot, its institutional racism, and it has begun targetting it.

What will UCU do?  There are two factions inside the decision making structures of the union.  There are the hard core antizionists and then there are the grownups.

The antizionists will storm with anger that UCU is being sued.  They will say that it is a matter of principle that UCU should defend its independence from the courts and that it should defend its own democratic structures and its right to make whatever policy it chooses.  They will say that the Israel lobby is conspiring against the union, that it is hugely powerful, that it is in cahoots with those who want to privatise education, that it is playing the antisemitism card in bad faith and that it is putting trade union solidarity at risk.  They will say that there is no question of antisemitism in the union and they will at all times try to construct the question as a debate about Israel and Palestine. The antizionists will be tempted to treat their right to demonize Israel as more important than building a united defence of education.  They will say that the fight against the Zionists is the same fight as the fight against the education cuts.

The grownups in the union, including the trustees, and including the lawyers who will advise the leadership, will want to settle this court action and to make it go away.  They will be worried about the immense cost to the union of defending its antisemtic record in front of a tribunal, both in terms of money and also in terms of humiliating publicity.  They will be worried about the rules of disclosure.  They will wonder what the emails between Tom Hickey and Matt Waddup and Sally Hunt and Mike Cushman might reveal if they were made available to Ronnie Fraser.  They will remember that the union’s legal advice was withheld even from the National Executive Committee.  They will remember that internal complaints by members of the UCU regarding institutional antisemtism were passed to a committee chaired by Tom Hickey, one of the central people responsible for the antisemitic culture in the union.

But what are Ronnie’s terms?  The reinstatement of the EUMC definition; an apology from the union for its record of institutional antisemitism; a new code of conduct concerning Jewish members; an ongoing campaign of education within the union about the relationship between antisemitism and antizionism.

It would appear that Ronnie is ready to go to a tribunal.  He must know that it will be difficult for the leadership of the union to agree to these terms.   Evidently he wants his day in court and he wants to prove his case.

The antizionists will also believe they can win in court.  And they will believe that they can blame the Zionists for the huge cost of defending their antisemitic record and for the disruption to UCU unity which will become even worse than it is now.  They will think that it is enough to parade a couple of dozen Jewish antizionist academics before the tribunal who will say that the union has an unblemished record on the question of antisemitism.

The grownups will not believe that they can successfully defend UCU’s record on antisemitism before a tribunal and they will know that there is a good chance that UCU will be found by an antiracist tribunal to have breached our own hard-won equality legislation.  They will imagine how the antizionist Jews will cope with unrelenting and forensic cross-examination as to the relationship between criticism of Israel, demonization and antisemitism. They will understand that the usual demagogy will fail to impress a tribunal.

The leadership of the union is now between a rock and a hard place.

Will UCU allow itself to be led into a train-wreck in court by the antizionists?  Or will the grownups be allowed to open negotiations over how they will recognize, apologze for, and deal with UCU’s problem of institutional antisemitism?  But this course of action would be greeted by antisemitic howls from the conspiracy theorists, who would say that Zionist power has forced the union to admit to that of which it is not guilty.  Who in the union has either the power or the authority to lead UCU out of this predicament?

David Hirsh

Goldsmiths UCU

Here is Ronnie Fraser’s speech to UCU Congress 2011.

Here are links to some of the evidence concerning institutional racism in UCU.

Tories target UCU’s weakspot

Richard Kuper, ‘Asa Jew’…

UPDATE: Writing of the usual quality from Antony Lerman:

…But the truth is that, given the genesis of the ‘working definition’, which in my view was a scandal, the fulminations of the Jewish establishment, the CST, Engage, John Mann MP, the World Union of Jewish Students etc. over the UCU vote are farcical. Certainly, the UCU activists who pressed for the adoption of Motion 70 are not angelic philosophical types approaching this issue with nothing but defence of the purity of academic research in mind. They have a political agenda in relation to Israel-Palestine and they’re fighting for it and their tactics are not pretty. It’s not an agenda I share, but as Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent a few years in the UK combating proposals to institute a boycott of Israeli academic, concluded, it’s a political fight that needs to be fought with political arguments, not with accusations of antisemitism.

The critics of the UCU decision don’t seem to understand this. They think nothing of accusing Jews who see things differently from them of being antisemitic. At one moment they tell us the ‘working definition’ is ‘the EU definition’ (which it isn’t and it never was). The next moment they tell us it’s only advisory and is a work in progress. They manipulate the findings of the report of the Macpherson inquiry into the killing of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence and falsely claim it decreed that only members of the group who experience racism can define what that racism consists of – so that anyone who denies Jews exclusive rights to define what is and what is not antisemitism – i.e. the UCU – is antisemitic.

Lerman’s whole piece is well worth reading, it is a classic of the genre.  Here.


Richard Kuper is one of the leading voices in Jews for Justice for Palestinians.  He is fond of speaking “as a Jew”.  He has written a piece on the EUMC working definition:

“… the EUMC working definition has little to do with fighting antisemitism and a lot to do with waging a propaganda war against critics of Israel. It is time it was buried and the UCU decision to take it on is hopefully a step in that direction. The fight against antisemitism should not be muddied by those who confuse criticism of Israeli violations of human rights and international law with hatred of Jews. It is clearly no such thing.”

The whole thing is well worth reading, here.

Robert Fine responds to Richard Kuper’s piece:

To my mind this article misses the point. UCU’s decision to ‘redefine’ antisemitism and to ditch the EUMC definition is based on the absurd proposition that no criticism of Israel – from any source, of any kind – can be construed as antisemitic. What the much reviled EUMC definition says is that some forms of ‘criticism’ of Israel should be recognised as antisemitic and it makes a provisional stab at providing criteria to help us judge where criticism ends and antisemitic abuse kicks in. These criteria are not perfect but they provide a start. Take an analogy. Criticism of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe is of course legitimate but some kinds of ‘criticism’ – e.g. ‘criticism’ based on the notion that black people don’t have the capacity to govern themselves – is manifestly racist. It doesn’t require a ‘behind closed doors’ conspiracy to see this. UCU doesn’t object to the particular criteria the EUMC offered some years back; rather they object to the whole project of distinguishing antisemitic abuse and political critique when it come to Israel. UCU should be utterly ashamed of themselves for what they have done and antiracists should campaign to have this resolution repealed.

Richard Kuper was wheeled out in the debate at UCU Congerss by Sue Blackwell, when she told Congress that it was his position that concern for antisemitism was an affection of those who were trying to lead a “strong fightback by Israel and its supporters” against criticism.

Richard’s piece is also endorsed by Ran Greenstein: “Another (better and more thorough) effective refutation of the manufactured hysteria of pro-Israel-state-apologists, by Richard Kuper”.

Why do the  ’68 radicals, like Richard Kuper find themselves totally incapable of recognising antisemitism when they see it?

David Hirsh on the Livingstone Formulation.

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

Howard Jacobson:

“When it comes to Jewish anti-Zionists, their Jew-hatred is barely disguised, not in what they say about Israel but in the contempt they show for the motives and feelings of fellow-Jews who do not think as they do. There is, of course, nothing new in such schismatics; Jews have been railing against one another and indeed against Judaism from its inception. It was a Jew who invented Christianity.”

“Monotheism probably explains this enthusiasm for dissent. The Jewish God demands a oneness it can feel like a positive duty to refuse. It might even be to our greater glory that we splinter with such regularity and glee. In our variousness is our strength.”

“But then let’s call the thing that drives us by its proper name. Hiding behind Israel is a cowardly way for a Jew to express his anti-Jewishness. That half the time he is battling his psychic daddy and not his psychic homeland I don’t doubt, though I accept that, in political discourse, we have to pretend that what we are talking about is what we are taking about.”

“But here is the beauty of being a novelist —- I can have fun ascribing pathology to whom I like. I know what’s really bothering them. They are my creations, after all.”

More from Ran Greenstein and Robert Fine

The links to the debate so far are all here.

From Ran Greenstein:

Dear Robert,

Thanks again for your considered and reasonable contribution to the debate.

Here is – in brief – my response, with headings to highlight remaining

1.      Zionism as a national movement and a colonial project

You say that Zionism was one among many European nationalist
movements, all of which contained “strong exclusionary forces”. You
add that many new independent states combine “a vibrant sense of
national freedom with exclusion of those deemed not to belong to the
nation in question”. In addition, most countries in the Middle East
are defined in ethnic or religious terms and are exclusionary to
various degrees. You use these points to argue that Israel is not
unique in displaying exclusionary tendencies.

You are right that exclusionary policies are not unique, but you
ignore a crucial aspect of the Israeli state that makes it stand out:
it was born out of a project that saw immigrants – mostly of European
origins – moving into a territory populated by local non-European
people, and displacing them (politically and physically). As a result,
Israel is viewed as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating
indigenous populations and territories to settler rule. Regardless of
the subjective consciousness of settlers, they are perceived in this
light in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the
wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for
the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own
struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to
understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, look no further.

2.      The Nakba as ethnic cleansing

You acknowledge the exclusionary consequences of Zionist policies
towards Palestinians but regard the notion of “ethnic cleansing” as an
exaggeration. What better term do you propose to refer to the
flight/expulsion of 80% of the indigenous population of what became
the State of Israel in 1948? What better term for their prevention
from returning to their homes, villages and towns (frequently located
a few miles away from their new refugee camps)?

3.      Israel’s ‘drift to the right’

You recognize the “drift to the right” in Israel, but claim it is not
unique. In several European countries there is a drift to “an
increasingly ultra-nationalist right wing”. What you fail to consider
is that the nationalist right-wing in Israel argues that it is
resurrecting the original Zionist vision of exclusion. It describes
itself as a guard against any relaxation of segregation and
inequality. Its rallying cry is the need for an undiluted “Jewish
state” in the spirit of Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Of course, they may be
wrong or manipulative. But, ask yourself, what is it in the original
Zionist vision that allows them to claim it today to justify
anti-democratic abuses and exclusions? Why do their claims and
campaigns resonate with a large section of the Israeli-Jewish public,
born and raised on Zionist ideology?

4.      ‘Singling out’ Israel

You raise the point that many Jews were ill-treated in Arab and
Islamic countries, that Christian existence increasingly is under
attack, and that democracy is threatened due to the rise of religious
fundamentalism and secular authoritarianism in the Arab world. All
true. You then ask “From where then does the singling out of Israel

The simple answer is that Israel ‘singles out’ itself by its policies:
it is unique in excluding the indigenous majority of its population in
order to clear the way for a group of settlers, who used force to
become a majority. That the settlers did not regard themselves as
foreigners, and in their minds they were returning to the land of
their ancestors, made no difference to the concerns of the locals: can
you think of a different response offered by any indigenous group in
Asia, Africa and the Americas to the prospect of European-originated

To be precise, what is unique is not the historical context – many
states were born in violence and conflict – but the re-enactment of
the founding act of exclusion of 1948 on a daily basis. Take for
example this week’s Knesset bill, sponsored by members of Kadima
(hailed by some deluded people as a liberal alternative to Likud):
“The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday
unanimously approved a bill which gives the right to absorption
committees of small communities in Israel to reject candidates if they
do not meet specific criteria. The bill has sparked wide condemnation
and many believe it to be discriminatory and racist, since it allows
communities to reject residents if they do not meet the criteria of
‘suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook’, which in effect
enables them to reject candidates based on sex, religion, and
socioeconomic status.” In the minds of all participants in the debate
there was not the slightest doubt what the target was: preventing
Arabs from joining Jewish settlements that control the bulk of land in
Israel. But let us be fair. The exclusion is not complete: “The
committee’s chairman, David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), responded to
claims the bill was meant to reject Arabs from joining Israeli towns.
‘In my opinion, every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would
happen if my refrigerator stopped working on Shabbat?”

Can you think of another country (Western or otherwise) in which such
parliamentary debate can take place today? My point is not that racism
is extreme in Israel. Rather, it is that current legislation reflects
the uninterrupted practice of Zionist settlement from its inception.
The socialist, egalitarian Kibbutzim and collective Moshavim were/are
just as exclusionary as the unabashed racists under the leadership of
Lieberman and Yishai, who receive the tacit support of Netanyahu,
Livni and Barak. They all follow what Israeli historian and analyst
Meron Benvenisti called “the genetic [historical-cultural] code of a
settler society” (see here the useful discussion by ‘The Magnes
Zionist’ on http://www.jeremiahhaber.com/).

5.      Does Jewishnsess matter?

You say: “What is really unique about Israel is the Jewishness of the
Jewish state as opposed to the Arabness of an Arab state or indeed the
Britishness of the British state.” No. What is unique is that Israel
alone is based on historical dispossession of the indigenous
population, which continues to this day. Israel is not the only – or
worst – oppressive regime. It is not the only – or worst – state that
practices discrimination and violation of human rights. It is not the
only – or worst – state that emerged out of a violent colonial-type
conflict. It is not the only – or worst – state that dispossessed
indigenous people. But, it is indeed the only state that continues to
re-enact such historical dispossession today, in an ever intensified

You say: “you do not ask why of all states it is Israel that is
selected out for not meeting this ideal” (of non-ethnic inclusive
democracy). But of course you know very well that Israel is not unique
in this respect: I happen to live in a state that experienced
precisely that kind of selection. How can you make an argument about
‘Jewishness’ as a reason for excessive criticism, when you are fully
aware that Afrikaners (or white South Africans generally) were
subjected to similar – and frequently much harsher – treatment?

If the Jewish state of Israel is treated in the same way as the white
Republic of South Africa was treated, it cannot possibly be because of
what they do not share (‘Jewishness’). It can only be because of what
they do share: exclusionary policies towards their indigenous

6.      What is to be done and how

Finally, you agree that change is necessary, but say that “the idea of
transformation from an ‘exclusionary ethnic state’ to ‘an inclusive
democratic state’ does justice neither to the past nor the future. In
this scenario the darkness of the past goes along with unlimited trust
in the future.” I am afraid that this has nothing to do with my
understanding of politics. What I call for is a process of political
struggle and change, proceeding through education, growing awareness,
and numerous campaigns, which would culminate – hopefully – in an
overall change of the system. It is likely to be a slow, gradual and
painful process. It is not a messianic transformation from one extreme
to another, and it should build on all the positive – but partial –
achievements of past struggles.

Most Jews in Israel are indeed fearful of this prospect, and most
Palestinians embrace nationalism and religion rather than non-ethnic
inclusive democratic notions. So change is not likely to be immediate,
easy or unproblematic. It may be a journey of a thousand miles, but
even such a journey must begin with one step, as long as we are moving
in the right direction (see today’s useful insights by historian
Dimitri Shumski on the need for an Israeli democratic state in
http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1195906.html – only in Hebrew
for now, but surely to be translated).

Where can we go from here despite our disagreements? Towards a common
struggle on what we agree on: the need to fight the occupation, the
need to make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, the need
to respect international human rights law, the need to redress
historical injustices. Whether the academic boycott is a useful step
to take in this struggle is a minor point. Don’t let it distract us
from the more substantial task of transforming Israel into a democracy
that acts for the benefit of all its residents, past and present.

And this, hot off the press, the most irreverent independent
e-magazine in Israel:

Yossi Gurvitz, “Introducing ethnic segregation: the Q’aadan curse”:

And, Ami Kaufman, “Every Jewish community needs its nigger”:

Best Wishes

Ran Greenstein

From Robert Fine:

Dear Ran

Sorry once more for the delay in replying to your note. I won’t respond directly to each of the points you make – and to do them justice may require a historical knowledge I only wish I had – but offer you my general thoughts.

What strikes me most about your way of seeing your home country is the harshness of the language you use about it and its people – settler colonial state, exclusion, ethnic cleansing, segregation, racism, etc. – and the readiness with which you dismiss what you call the ‘subjective consciousness of settlers’. It seems to me that the story you construct about Israel is not false but lacks reflectivity.

First, it is selective in the way it picks out certain aspects of Israeli history and society at the expense of other aspects. A ‘Zionist’, so to speak, could equally well pick out these other aspects to construct the conventional laudation of Israel’s achievements in building modernity (democracy, a vibrant economy, worldliness, etc.) in its part of the Middle East. Neither story is right when turned into an absolute, not the ‘Zionist’ tale but not yours either. The point is not to say that one story is right and the other wrong, but to be open to the equivocations, the limits, of both.

Second, your story is interpretive in the way it characterises the elements that it does select. Take, for example, the epithet you use to describe those who came to Israel in its early days: ‘European settler colonists’. Clearly the status of Jews as ‘European’ has not been unproblematic over the centuries. On the contrary, it has been fragile and often denied, no more so of course than when the Nazis organised the murder of ‘European’ Jews. Equally it is difficult to accept that the status of Jews as ‘colonial’ can be the whole story at a time when some Jewish people formed one small part of a world revolution against European colonialism and for national independence. I don’t want to deny that there is a ‘colonial’ aspect to Jewish history in the Middle East, especially in relation to the exclusion of Palestinians and occupation of Palestinian land, only to say that your interpretation appears to me as one-sided as that of the ‘Zionists’ you criticise. I am not convinced, for instance, that it does much to illuminates the history of ethnic conflict in the Middle East to say either that the exclusion of Palestinians from Israel or the exclusion of Jews from Arab countries was a case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ – except, that is, in those instances when extreme violence was employed: like the massacre of over a hundred Palestinians by the Irgun in 1948 in Deir Yassin and the subsequent expulsion of the inhabitants of the village.

Third, it seems to me that your story offers a deeply unequal distribution of compassion and blame. All the compassion is for Palestinians, all blame for Israeli Jews. The two appear interlinked: the more you blame the Israelis, the more you feel for the Palestinians; the more you feel for the Palestinians, the more you condemn the Israelis for their suffering. In this scenario compassion for the victim becomes your justification for condemning those you declare victimisers (in this case Israeli Jews and only Israeli Jews) and on the other hand for substituting your voice for the many voices of the victims. Paradoxically, both sides end up dehumanised in this scenario: one side demonised, the other, as it were, ‘victimised’. Palestinians become only victims and victims only of Jews. This is not to deny that Palestinians are victims but I do protest against the epithet of victimhood overshadowing all other aspects of Palestinian subjectivity. Conversely Israelis becomes only victimisers. Against the pathos of ‘Zionist’ narratives of Jewish suffering no space is left for compassion, and against ‘Zionist’ narratives of only responding to Arab aggression no space is left for understanding the multiple subjectivities of Israeli Jews – or for that matter of Jews elsewhere.

You make many valid points. Of course Israel has and always has had its fair share of bigots, racists, ultra-nationalists and fundamentalists, but democracy in Israel is not simply a sham. It’s easy to say that today’s exclusion goes back to an original Zionist idea but the damage this does is not only to the complexities of history, it is also to democracy. It blunts the nerve of outrage to dismiss what right wingers in the Israeli government are now trying to impose on Israeli Palestinians as simply the same old logic of Zionist exclusion. In any event exclusion itself is not an absolute evil. The case I am making is that if we want to end the occupation and make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, one step in this direction is to understand where different people are coming from, not to construct a tale of nationally defined villains and victims. It seems to me we need to place the issues we have discussed side by side, to let them breathe, not to squash them into a single non-negotiable narrative. The erasure of qualifications creates a comfortably reductive story, but to enable people to live together in peace requires that we assign to Israelis the same capacity to be ambivalent, wrong, thoughtful, anxious, wounded, reactive and strategic as we do to Palestinians.

To return to the question that triggered this dialogue, I was reading this morning a public letter written by a fellow academic, Denis Noble, resigning from our University College Union because of its boycott campaign against Israeli academic institutions. He writes that successive boycott resolutions passed by our union ‘discriminate against certain colleagues (Israelis) on the grounds of their nationality… and hold Israeli colleagues responsible for, and punish them for, the actions of their government via a type of reasoning (guilt by association) that is never applied to the academics of any other country’.  Surely this is right. We can all accept that the Israeli government is guilty of human-rights violations and that the union is entitled to criticise it, but as the author of this letter goes on to write, it is instructive to compare motions supporting boycott of Israel with motions about China, a country which has also occupied the territories of a different national group for many years and encourages its own nationals to establish settlement in the occupied territory. The motion on China reaffirms that UCU “will continue to condemn abuses of human rights of trade unionists and others” but at the same time recognises “the need to encourage collegial dialogue” with Chinese institutions.  We must ask ourselves why these double standards exist, why Israel is singled-out in this kind of way.

Finally in your letter you write understandably that ‘regardless of the subjective consciousness of settlers, they [Israelis] are perceived in this light [as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating indigenous populations and territories to settler rule] in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, look no further’. You may well be right that many people in the non-Western world see the situation in Israel/Palestine through this anti-colonial lens. However, our task, as I see it, is not to confirm that this simulacrum of anti-colonialism is the real thing but to reach out beyond these categories to some foundation of human experience.

Best wishes, Robert Fine

Antisemitism and the boycott: David Hirsh responds to Ran Greenstein

This relates to an ongoing debate about the campaign to boycott Israel. All the links are here.

Ran Greenstein has made a number of arguments for a boycott of Israel and he has tried to deal with a few responses.  I, however, commented that I found it astonishing that he had not even attempted to say anything about the issue of antisemitism.  I went on:

I ask Ran Greenstein about the antisemitism which always accompanies a campaign to exclude Israelis but nobody else from the global academic, cultural, sporting and economic community.

I say that the standard mode of antisemitic bullying is to accuse Jews of inventing antisemitism in bad faith in a dishonest attempt to shield Israel from critiicsm.

Ran Greenstein’s response is

1. there isn’t any antsiemitism

2. the many hundreds of thousands of words of evidence on Engage is “rather flimsy”

3. If there is antisemitism, then Engage is mobilising it as “an excuse to do nothing”.

The chief spokesperson in the trade union movement for “BDS” in South Africa, Bongani Masuku, has been found guilty of antisemitic hate speech by the South African human Rights commission, a body set up by the South African state to fight racism.


In UCU, there is not a single Jew left at Congress who is willing or able to oppose the boycott. This is why:


Michael Cushman, the leader of the acaemic boycott campaign, pushes antisemitic conspiracy theory and rejoices at the exclusion of “the Zionists” from the union:


A ucu official claimed that money stolen from Lehman Brothers was paying for anti-boycott lawyers in the UK:


Conspiracy theory from David Duke’s website has been circulated around the union lists by pro boycott activists:


There is a detailed five year long catalogue on Engage of the antisemitism which accmpanies the boycott movement.  It is not accidental.  The boycott is in itself antisemtic – it launches a global campaign of exclusion against Jews who committ human rights abuses while not doing the same against non-Jews who committ incomparably more serious human rights abuses.

With this campaign comes conspiracy theory.


With this campaign comes bloodl libel.


With this campaign comes rhetoric which accuses Jews of being nazis.



With this campaign comes rhetoric which accuses Jews of being neurotic.


We have shown you precisely how the campaign to boycott israeli academics works in practice:

Howard Jacboson makes the argument:


I have shown you how it has become standard practice to respond to a charge of antisemitism:


Ran, you don’t want to read the evidence. I suspect that you don’t think a bit of antisemitism in the Palestine Solidarity movement is very important. If that is what you think, you should say so. I think you would be quite wrong.

Ran Greenstein replies as follows:

David, I have claim no expertise on (or interest in) internal British academic politics and am happy to leave you guys to sort it out.

As for South Africa, there was ONE Cosatu official, who made offensive comments in ONE speech a couple of years ago, and was censured for it. Make of it what you will. There were TWO incidents of excluding Israeli academics in the UK as individuals and they took place in 2002-03. You have been making a fuss over that ever since.

I would not have bothered to intervene in this debate at all, if it continued to be confined to your dispute with the UCU. It is when you attack activists with impeccable progressive and anti-racist credentials like Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon, precisely at a time when the Israeli state is coordinating a global campaign against them (and others like them), that I was moved to respond.

If you are for criticism of Israeli human rights abuses, then go ahead and criticise. The academic boycott campaign is merely one aspect – and a marginal one at that – of the global solidarity campaign with those fighting against the occupation and Israeli exclusionary practices. No one will stand in your way in fighting these in any way you see fit. Keep in mind at all times, though, that the goal here is to bring oppression to an end – the Israeli state and its agencies are culprits, not allies in this struggle.

Definitively, Ran Greenstein’s answer is

1  I don’t know what happens in the British Labour movement and I don’t know what happens in British Universities.  I do not intend to find out.

2  There is no significant antisemitism in the South African Palestine Solidarity Movement.

3  You (Engage?  David Hirsh?) makes a fuss about what there is – either because you are useful idiots who think they are protesting against antisemitism but are in fact objectively bolstering the occupation, or because you are dishonest supporters of the occupation.

Greenstein is an Israel-firster.  He has already told us proudly that he thinks what he thinks and he acts how he acts at least in part because he is Jewish and because he is Israeli.  He employs the “asa Jew” rhetoric and the “not in my name” rhetoric.  And now he tells us that he is only concerned with the campaign against Israel and he is uninterested, not “bothered” about what happens around the world in the Labour movement and in the universities.

I and Robert Fine challenged what Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon had to say and we raised the issue of antismitism, making arguments and offering evidence.

Ran Greenstein responds not to what we say but in terms of who we are.

He denounces myself and Robert as idiots or apologists for Zionism.

He defends Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon by saying that they both have ” impeccable progressive and anti-racist credentials”.

But these ad hominem attacks and defences leave the issue at hand entirely un-dealt with.  He fails to relate to what is being said.  He says he can’t be bothered.

Greenstein talks the language of universalist cosmopolitanism but actually he is only concerned that his own state, Israel, gets a kicking.

He accuses us of parochialism because we are concerned by the poison of antisemitism being introduced by his rhetoric into the global labour movement when really, don’t we know, the only important issue is punishing Israel.

He is like ‘socialists’ in times gone by who thought that people who made propaganda against Jewish capital and Jewish banks were half way there, and all that was required was for the masses to move one step beyond hating the Jews to hating all the capitalists.

In Ran Greenstein’s world, a campaign against only Jewish human rights abuses, special punishment for only Jewish human rights abuses, are justified.

Serious people on the left have always taken antisemitism in our movement seriously.  They have understood that antisemitism within our movement is an indicator for something profoundly wrong.   Not Ran though, who says he isn’t bothered by what happens in Britain in the wake of his boycott movement, so long as he can recruit the British to his own campaign against Israel.

Ran Greenstein has given up on his academic colleagues in Israel, on the Israeli working class and on the Israeli peace movement.  He has given up on his colleagues in Israel but he thinks my colleagues in Britain are capable of achieving what Israelis cannot achieve.   He thinks we can deliver the telling blow against “Zionism”.  And he isn’t interested in thinking through or finding out the relationship between his yearned-for blow to the Israeli state and antisemitism.

David Hirsh

Goldsmiths, University of London

This relates to an ongoing debate about the campaign to boycott Israel. All the links are here.

Boycott Israel? Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack

On September 29 the University of Johannesburg’s ruling body met to discuss a proposal from the boycott campaign that it should sever its research links with Ben Gurion University.  It set an ultimatum for BGU and it postponed the decision for six months.  To read Desmond Tutu’s support for this move, click here.

Click here for the response of David Newman, who is Dean of Social Science at BGU. This proposal in South Africa sparked renewed debate on the Engage website.

Neve Gordon, a supporter of the boycott campaign, wrote an article about academic freedom in Israel here.

David Hirsh wrote a critique of a piece by Neve Gordon on academic freedom in Israel.  Read it here. David Hirsh wrote a second piece tracing Neve Gordon’s journey from sharp critic of the boycott campaign to important supporter.  Read it here.

Robert Fine, meanwhile had an engagement with Desmond Tutu published in the South African Mail & Guardian, here.

Last year Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli campaigner for Palestinian rights, published a critique of the Israel-apartheid analogy and a critique of the boycott campaign, which related explicitly to the positions of Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon.  Read it here.

Ran Greenstein, a supporter of the boycott campaign in South Africa responded to Engage here, in a trenchant critique of the Fine and Hirsh articles.

Robert Fine responded to Greenstein’s response.

Farid Essack also responded to Robert Fine in the South African press.

Ran Greenstein came back to Robert Fine here.

David Hirsh challenges Ran Greenstein’s “as a Jew” and “not in my name” stance here.

Robert Fine responds to Ran Greenstein’s argument about “Jewish and Democratic” here.

More from Ran Greenstein and David Hirsh on antisemitism here.

Robert Fine responds again here.

More from Ran Greenstein and Robert Fine

Jewish and Democratic? Civic or ethnic? Robert Fine

Robert Fine responds to Ran Greenstein:

Dear Ran

Thank you for your considered response to my letter. I want to address one particular and important argument you raise. You pick out this passage from my letter:

‘I hold that a Jewish-democratic state has a right to exist and defend itself, even as it has the responsibility to treat Palestinians in Israel as equal citizens and to allow Palestinians in occupied territories to form their own Palestinian state. It is quite normal for people in modern states to find ways of living with the contradiction between democracy and national identity’

You reply:

‘What is unique in Israel is that national identity is defined solely in ethnic-religious terms and civic nationalism which encompasses all citizens equally does not exist… It is the declared policy of the current Israeli government and its predecessors, backed by courts, to ensure that such national identification never emerges… a Jewish democratic state is a contradiction in terms.’

We agree there is a contradiction. I say the contradiction between democracy and Jewish national identity is ‘normal’. You say it is ‘unique’ because national identity in Israel is framed in ethnic rather than civic terms and because the exclusion of Palestinians has been the foundation of the Jewish state since its inception. We also agree that the distinction between ethnic and civic national identity is an important one. It marks the difference between an idea of a nation based on allegedly common origin, blood, religion, history, culture, etc. and an idea of a nation of equal citizens regardless of origin, ‘blood’, ‘race’, religion or ‘culture’.

And now for our disagreements. I cannot see what by this criterion is unique about Israel. There are plenty of states whose national identity has an ethnic dimension. It seems to me that most states emerging from colonial domination or imperial rule have based themselves on the right of their particular nation to self-determination. In all such cases there are urgent questions concerning the treatment of people inside the territories of these newly emerging states, who are not deemed to belong to the ruling nation in question.  In the Middle East, as I understand it, many states that emerged out of the Ottoman Empire and then European colonial rule have characteristically described themselves as ‘Arab’ or ‘Arab-Muslim’ and have faced the problem of how to treat non-Arab minorities in their territories, such as Jews. The Jewish state in this sense is no exception – it is the rule.

Second, it seems to me important not to overstate the distinction between civic and ethnic national identity. In practice, ‘civic’ nations (including my own) may have their own ‘established’ religions, their own more or less official ways of discriminating against ‘alien’ people, their own differential allocation of rights according to some system of civic stratification (e.g. legitimate and bogus asylum seekers), their own controls over the boundaries, physical and symbolic, between nationals and foreigners, and so forth. We may not like it, but Germanness, Britishness, Frenchness and I imagine South Africanness have not been extinguished by the magic potion of civic national identity.

Equally, those nations labeled ‘ethnic’ may indeed at one extreme exclude, expel or murder those deemed not to belong to the ruling nation, but they may also establish civic guarantees to minorities or grant equal civic, political and social rights for all and not just for their own. Just as the civic nation is not necessarily as civic as it appears, so too the ethnic nation is not necessarily as ethnic as it appears. We are in the terrain of social being as well as ideology.

Third, it seems to me important not to slip from a valid and useful distinction between ethnic and civic national identity into the recreation of a moral division of the world between us and them: ‘we’ who are civic and civilised; ‘they’ who believe in the purity of the nation and act with corresponding barbarity. This is an old opposition but Israel seems now to play a peculiar role in this reconstructed binary. My belief is that the distinction between civic and ethnic forms of national identity is being employed to represent ‘Israel’ as the Other of civilized society, that is, as the incarnation of all the negative properties that civic nations now claim to have overcome. ‘Israel’ serves here not as a real country embroiled in real conflicts, but as a vessel into which civic nations can project all that is bad in their own past and present and thus preserve the good for themselves. In this scenario ‘Israel’ performs a symbolic function as the ethnic-religious state par excellence – one that denies civic, political, social and human rights to those who do not belong (the Palestinians) and has an inbuilt inclination toward exclusion, expulsion or genocide. Not only does this image of ‘Israel’ bear little relation to the real thing, it also justifies any kind of violence by the image-makers. Even the most valid of distinctions can be put to invalid use.

Today it seems to me that your position paradoxically dulls the nerve of outrage. In Israel it declares that Lieberman and Yishai merely say openly what has been practiced since 1948. So according to your account nothing has changed. It’s the same old story.  There can be no drift toward ethnic-religious fundamentalism in Israel because Israel is by definition an ethnic-religious state. There can be no worsening of the treatment of Arab Israelis since they have always been second-class citizens. There can be no danger to the integrity of Israel since it always has been and always will be ethnic-religious. And what is more, it is unique.  Would it be an unfair extrapolation to say that for you Palestine is equally timeless: a just cause whose essentially civic aims are not in the least tarnished by the Hamas Charter or the Hezbollah Manifesto?

You acknowledge I am ‘critical of some Israeli policies and practices’ but you say my criticisms are not enough.  What would be enough for you, it seems, is the dissolution of Israel into a greater Palestinian entity (including all Jews and Palestinians with a right of return for all Palestinian refugees). To my mind, your approach contains the potential violence of imposing an ‘ought’ onto reality.  We have to start from where we are – not from some ideal of where we ought to be.

In the Middle East the ‘Jewish’ state exists. It exists for historical reasons. So too do various ‘Arab’ states. In no case has there been an unblemished history of dealing with people deemed not to belong to the defining nation. In every case there have been political arguments within states between those inclined to ethnic exclusivism and those inclined to civic inclusion. This is a political battle within states, not a distinction between bad nations and good. It is a battle that has often been lost.

It is clear to me that Palestinians have been to varying degrees more or less excluded from the possession of civil, political and social rights by many states in the Middle East. Their political leaders claim the right to ‘their own’ state and Israel by virtue of the occupation finds itself in a position to grant this right.  It has not done so for a variety of reasons, including or especially fear. This failure has become a terrible weight on Israel’s back and my belief is that the liberation of the Palestinian people will prove to be of great advantage to Israel. The obstacles to this desirable outcome come from many parts. To have any hope of achieving this outcome, our political need is not to heap on “Israel” absolute culpability, as the boycott call tends to do, but to support those in Israel, Palestine and surrounding Arab nations who share this hope and oppose a politics of despair.

If this is not enough for you, then what exactly is enough? In my opinion, it is no answer to the ethnic-religious claim that Jews have a God-given, absolute and exclusive right to their own nation in Israel to say that Jews have no right at all to their own nation or that the Jewish state is uniquely illegitimate. The one is the negation of the other and like all negations can merely end up destructive.

You make a number of other points I should like to return to – especially on the apartheid analogy and on the universality of human rights – but perhaps we can pursue these on another occasion.

Best wishes,

Robert Fine

“As a Jew” logic is not appropriate in public debate – David Hirsh responds to Ran Greenstein

I want to make one point in response to Ran Greenstein’s argument for boycotting Israeli academia.

Robert Fine challenged him: “Why single Israel out? You say that Western governments do not single Israel out, at least not negatively, and that Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights have gone unpunished. You are on the whole right, though in the European Union there are signs of an increasingly ‘tough’ official attitude toward Israel. As I see it, the first question is whether Israel is a major human rights abuser in relation to the inhabitants either of its own territory or of surrounding territories. The comparisons you raise are indeed pertinent:  Iran, Iraq (under Saddam), Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.”

Ran Greenstein answered the point: “I agree that if we wished to construct a universal scale of human rights violations, that would indeed be the case. That may be a worthwhile project, but not one I have any interest in. As an Israeli citizen my concern with what ‘my’ government is doing. As a Jew, my concern is with what the state that claims to represent me is doing in my name.”

If this is one of the reasons that Ran thinks it is right to single out Israel for exclusion from the global academic, artistic, sporting, economic community, or for particularly harsh criticism (apartheid, nazism, fascism) then it is not a good reason.

He himself is free to consider Israel, and its crimes, to be particularly important to his own worldview “as a Jew”.  If this discussion is about him, and what is done in Ran’s name, then he is free to single out Israel.

But there is a dangerous slippage when Jewish antizionists, for whom Israel is centrally important in the world, take that attitude out into non-Jewish civil society.

The University of Johannesburg is not a Jewish organisation and so ought to relate to human rights abuses round the world consistently. The fact that Ran Greenstein thinks “as a Jew” is neither here nor there.

The University and College Union in the UK is not a Jewish organisation and so ought to do solidarity around the world in a consistant way. The fact that some leading activists who want to put Israel at the very forefront of its worldview do so “as a Jew” should not alter the policy of the union.

What is required for our institutions is precisely what Ran says he has no interest in: the construction of  “a universal scale of human rights violations”.  The values of solidarity, human rights and the university require a universal and consistent approach.

Antisemitism has always constructed Jews as being central to all that is bad in the world.

Some people, “as a Jew” and “not in my name” put the human rights abuses of Israel at the very forefront of their own political consciousness. I can understand this, even if it does not reflect my own way of thinking.  It seems to me to skew one’s own thinking towards the parochial rather than the cosmopolitan.  I want to be concerned with what is important in the world, not to centre my worldview around myself.

But when institutions like unions and universities allow the Jewish antizionsit focus on Israeli human rights abuses to become their own focus too, then this poses a clear danger.  The danger is that unions and universities begin to teach their young people that Israel, and the Jews who live there, are a central evil on the planet.  It is easy to see how this kind of Jewish exceptionalism mirrors older antisemitic forms and how this kind of Jewish exceptionalism is likely to foster antisemitic ways of thinking.

We have seen how the boycott debate brings with it antisemitism into the South African Trade Union movement and also into the University and College Union in the UK.  The situation in UCU is now so serious that there are no Jews left at its biggest decision making body who are willing or able to argue against the boycott because they have been pushed out, bullied or banned.  In South Africa, Cosatu, the trade union federation which has such a proud history and which was an inspiration to us all at one time, is now led in its international solidarity work by Bongani Masuku, a man who has been found guilty of employing antisemitic hate speech on Ran Greenstein’s campus.

“Not in my name” thinking has a tendency to make ourselves the centre of the world and to focus our political consciousness inwards rather than outwards.  The danger is that it is a politics of despair.  This kind of thinking has a tendency to encourage us to give up trying to change the world out there which exists, and to fall back on the rather easier project of declaring that we ourselves are not responsible for the evil that is done out there in the world.

Ran, your own “asa Jew” and “not in my name” consciousness is important to you – fine.  But you should not allow that kind of thinking to define the way big and important civil society organisations think. Because it is dangerous.  This reason for singling out Israel – because you yourself are Jewish – is certainly not tenable.

David Hirsh

Goldsmiths, University of London