Jewish issues again at UCU Congress 2017

Motions about Jewish issues are standard at UCU Congress. This year saw another attempt to undermine protection for Jews from the kind of antisemitism which disguises itself as anti-Zionism. The motion – 57 of the Business of the Equality Committee – was about free speech and the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. It began “Congress notes UCU’s exemplary anti-racist work”, which was strange in the light of what followed.

Before I report how the motion went down in Congress I’ll indulge in a bit of free speech myself.

The first thing to say is that there was no motion that UCU adopt the working definition, and yet UCU was pre-emptively trying to ban it. I was aware of this motion because our branch officers tried to push it through in early March. Amazingly they found it appropriate to bump it from the middle to the end of the meeting [see update below]. I believe the presence of three of us in particular, sitting at the front (and refusing to be in the officers’ Stand Up to Racism photo) caused this awkwardness, since the chair observed in a non-welcoming way that the antisemitism motion was the only reason we had decided to attend. In my case that is absolutely correct – and here is why he is responsible.

Jewish-related motions are instigated by officers controlling some branches. The pretext of this one is free speech, but the same campaigners have been undermining free speech for years in the form of the boycott campaign against Israeli (and only Israeli) academia. Of course I find fault with that on grounds of relevance and sinister priorities, but there’s more to it. Their hostile interest in Jewish issues is so bizarre (compare it with all the motions warmly supporting other equalities groups) that any trust I may have once had in them on the bigger issues and motions is a distant memory. They didn’t even circulate the IHRA definition of antisemitism they expected us to condemn in 90 seconds.

Higher education workers who don’t feel involved in this matter or who don’t care about the labour movement just laugh at this weakness of UCU’s. I find it appalling though, because it means that in a rushed meeting cluttered with another Jewish-related motion, the text received a day in advance signalling that the role of members is not to think very hard, our union is actually giving us extra work to do. Because when you can’t trust your leaders fact-checking and scrutiny is what you have to do. And if there’s no time to do that extra work, then voting becomes problematic – so why bother attending when it’s so clear that the officers view members as fodder. Considering the attendance was short of quorate at that meeting, I doubt I’m the only person to feel this way.

In case I’m misunderstood, I’m coming at this as a non-nationalist and volunteer UCU department rep. I’m in favour of a working definition of antisemitism and I have little patience with objections to this IHRA one since it’s full of ‘may’ and ‘might’ and ‘taking into account the overall context’. In other words, it provides some valuable pointers to the forms contemporary antisemitism can take, and leaves the rest up for consideration and debate. So if it has been wielded by Jewish-interest groups (badly scared by the malignancy of the loudest Palestine solidarity campaigning in this country) to try to shut down events where Israel is criticised, then that is regrettable and to be opposed in its own right. But I can’t see that it is the fault of this highly qualified definition. It’s the venue authorities who are responsible for distinguishing between free speech and racism. And Palestine solidarity campaigners need to be better.

At Congress Sarah Annes Brown, professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin (who I think holds a less favourable view of the working definition than mine) spoke against the motion. Her statement:

“I acknowledge that there is some evidence of the IHRA definition being invoked in the context of preventing some university based events going ahead. In the interests of free speech it would be reasonable to conduct research about this.

However I would like Congress to consider whether it is necessary or desirable to disassociate itself from the definition completely in order to do this, to make it anathema in the way the QUB amendment suggests.

This whole issue has been a very polarising debate for years. I’d like to urge more nuance and a focus on what is really important here – protecting free speech. I quite understand why people have misgivings about the definition and some of the ways it seems to have been used. But it concerns me when people accuse those who think differently of acting in bad faith, as seems to be the case in a letter in the Guardian signed by many academics.

‘It is with disbelief that we witness explicit political interference in university affairs in the interests of Israel under the thin disguise of concern about antisemitism.’

The definition has been backed by Jeremy Corbyn and has been adopted by the NUS and the Union of Jewish Students. The government’s adoption has been welcomed by mainstream Jewish groups such as the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies. That’s not a reason for embracing it or ignoring any possible bad impacts, but it might perhaps give pause before an absolute repudiation.”

Update: A spiteful amendment (57A2) to the motion referred to Ronnie Fraser’s earlier legal case against UCU as “spurious accusations of antisemitism”. This prompted another delegate to speak up in objection to that, since she found it a disingenuous and offensive representation of the case and recognised the likelihood that UCU would treat any concerns about antisemitism as spurious. Her intervention changed a number of minds.

Unnaturally but predictably, the motion and the amendment were overwhelmingly carried by UCU delegates.  The other anti-racist, solidarity and inclusion motions, of which there were several, were carried or in a few cases, remitted. Isn’t it great that UCU is only soft on antisemitism.

~~~

Update 

From one of the members opposing the motion in my branch:

“My only quibble is that the attempt to ram the motion through the branch meeting is even worse than you have indicated.

The chair didn’t just want to push it through in 90 seconds while there were three of us opposing it. After you had both left because you had 2pm meetings, with the meeting already overrunning (it was gone 2pm) and people waiting outside for their lecture (a huge breach of both institution and branch protocol) he still wanted to push it through, and only my vociferous objection prevented it from happening.

He then tried the tactic of ‘you’d better vote for this because otherwise there will be something worse at conference’.

Most encouragingly, the feeling of the meeting seemed to be supportive of my argument that a hugely controversial and divisive motion like this needed the time to be debated properly.”

Gisha on Gaza

For more on Engage concerning Gisha, click here.

Gisha is the Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement.

Engage has been following much of Gisha’s work concerning the freedom of movement of Palestinian students and academics.

China unboycotted

A couple of times, usually just before it’s just about to end, BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, has had a piece about a controversial performance. There was one on the discovery that Beyonce, Nellie Furtado, Usher and Mariah Carey all sang for the Ghaddaffis in recent years.

The latest was about Bob Dylan’s coming Chinese show. Like everybody else who tours there, he submitted to state censorship to play in China and is obliged to keep to a “strictly agreed playlist”. Bjork was nodded through the censors but went on to dedicate her song “Declare Independence” to Tibet on the day – so perhaps Bob Dylan will use the stage to draw attention to the imprisonment of Ai WeiWei and other Chinese dissenters after all.

Listen to the BBC piece for the coming week (scroll to 08:49).

HT: Matt.

Alan Dershowitz on Free Speech

Dershowitz on Free Speech Here

How to put people off talking to you

On Andrew Collins’ blog, a story of internet commenters and their obsessions.

New Israel Fund: boycott is “inflammatory and counterproductive”

By Kubbeh

The New Israel Fund is a Jewish Israeli not-for-profit-organisation that, in its own words, is “committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis”. In the past year, NIF has found itself in an unusual position – under attack from all sides: from both right wing activists in Israel, as well as international left and  anti-Zionist activists calling for the boycott of Israeli civil society.

In a recent article in Zeek magazine (Don’t Divest; Invest), NIF’s Naomi Pass slammed boycott, sanctions and divestment as a “blunt force” that “penalizes the innocent” and contributes to the rightwards shift among moderate Israelis:

“We see global BDS as a tactic that embodies the message that Israel cannot and will not change itself, and for that reason, we think it is inflammatory and counter-productive. We see proposals that would ban Israeli academics, no matter what their personal and political views may be, from participation in the free exchange of ideas in international conferences. We see artists and musicians, who often come bearing badly-needed messages of peace and tolerance, being urged to take Israel off their tour itineraries…

“And we disagree. The way to change Israel is not to divest, but to invest in Israelis and Palestinians who are struggling every day to change the status quo.”

Read the full article, Don’t Divest; Invest.


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

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