Thoughts on the forthcoming Southampton Conference

Thoughts on the forthcoming Southampton conference, firstly by Ben Gidley and then by John Strawson

Ben Gidley:

In the last decade or more, working in British universities, I have witnessed the growth of a zeitgeist in which antisemitism is not taken seriously by people who, in every other way, would be regarded as exemplary anti-racists. It has become common currency among many anti-racist academics to claim that allegations of antisemitism are made in bad faith, that such allegations are a way of closing down criticism of Israel – a manoeuvre my former colleague David Hirsh has aptly named “the Livingstone formulation”.

Those of us who take antisemitism seriously – and who want the broader anti-racist movement as well as the wider academic community to take antisemitism seriously – need to make sure that we are robust but also measured in calling out antisemitism.

In an example of an accusation of antisemitism that is far from measured, Douglas Murray – in an op ed in the Express – has accused Southampton University’s forthcoming conference, International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, of “vile and routine Jew baiting.” This kind of reckless accusation (he calls the conference “a rally of hate”) devalues the concept of antisemitism and undermines the difficult struggle to get it to be taken seriously.

Most criticisms of the conference, however, have not accused it of antisemitism directly. Rather, the accusation has been that it “is likely to result in an increase in antisemitism and tension on campus” (Vivian Wineman) or may “give credence to anti-Semitic views” (Mark Lewis). It is possible that these latter allegations may be well-founded, but if they are, I do not think that this is sufficient grounds to stifle academic debate.

The space of the university should be one in which a range of views are expressed, in which academics and students are free to criticise and indeed question the legitimacy of any or all states. The spirit of free inquiry and free debate is essential to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge. As Geoffrey Alderman has said, “The core purpose of a university is to pursue the truth and the core methods by which truth is pursued are dialogue and disputation. These methodologies presuppose the free exchange of ideas and the freedom to promote these ideas – no matter how controversial or unpopular they may be – without fear or favour.” This is why I think that Southampton University is right not to cancel this conference organised by its Law Department, and wrong for communal institutions or donors to pressure the university to cancel it.

Those calling for the cancellation of the conference appear to fundamentally misunderstand the role of a university and the principle of academic freedom. “Given the taxpayer-funded university has a legal duty to uphold freedom of speech,” Eric Pickles wrote, “I would hope that they are taking steps to give a platform to all sides.” ““This is a one-sided conference, not a debate,” said Mark Lewis, continuing: “If Southampton allows teaching which does not present both sides of a case it would raise doubts in my mind about the suitability of a candidate from its School of Law.”

Such criticisms seem to confuse what goes on in the classroom – where multiple perspectives on issues should be presented – with what goes on in a conference, where scholars should be free to take a position. It is wrong to expect universities to ensure that conferences “give a platform to all sides”. For example, a conference on climate change should not be required to give a platform to climate skeptics, and a philosophy conference should not be expected to give a platform to every school of philosophy.  In fact, universities are legally obliged by the Education Act of 1986 to protect their members’ freedom of speech within the law.

To curtail the right of scholars to criticise Israel – even to deny its right to exist – without giving a platform to opposing views opens up a dangerous precedent too. The same arguments could be extended, for example, to conferences which take a critical stance towards other states and governments, including states and governments which persecute Jews or other minorities.

I would not argue that all academic speech should be defended. I am suspicious of the pious fetishisation of academic freedom or freedom of speech as an absolute right (as in the statement by the MP for Fareham, Mark Hoban, that “academic freedom is sacrosanct”, prefacing his call for that freedom to be curtailed). Thus, for example, I think racism (including antisemitism) and fascism have no place in a university; I support universities or student unions which deny a platform to fascist speakers (such as Marine Le Pen, recently hosted by students at the university where I work, I am ashamed to say.) But these cases are the exceptions and not the rule.

I am sure that I would strongly disagree with the views expressed by many of the speakers at the conference. It may be that some speakers may contribute to a climate in which antisemitism is not taken seriously. These positions, however, should be challenged through argument, and not by banning an event.

I do, though, have sympathy with Jewish scholars and students at Southampton who feel that this conference may contribute to a climate that will be uncomfortable for them – as expressed in the statement by Joachim Schlör, Director of Southampton’s Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, that the conference “could potentially damage the spirit of dialogue and cooperation that James Parkes brought to Southampton”.

Calls for this conference to be cancelled pose a threat to academic freedom. But this threat is matched by the threat to academic freedom posed by some campus anti-Israel activists. Last year, a talk at the same university’s Optoelectronics Research Centre on the apparently un-contentious topic of optical sensors was cancelled after protests by anti-Israel activists against the Israeli scientist due to give the talk. When protests can effectively make a university a hostile environment for Israelis, even when they are there to talk about something as harmless as optoelectronics, this makes Jewish students feel vulnerable.

Intimidation, boycotts and threats to withdraw funding are all very unhealthy practices in a university. They stifle debate and prevent the production of academic knowledge, and damage community relations on campus. If we take antisemitism seriously we should criticise forms of academic speech that can encourage these practices. But we also need to think very carefully before promoting these practices ourselves in our attempt to combat antisemitism.

John Strawson:  

The Southampton Conference – A Normal Affair

I was very pleased to be asked to participate in the conference organized by the Law School of the University of Southampton, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” It brings together academics and activists from Israel and Palestine as well as Europe and North America. The program contains scholars from a variety of disciplines and with radically different approaches to Palestine and Israel. That is exactly what universities should be doing in creating agendas for discussing complex and controversial issues. I was surprised to find that the conference was controversial. All the participants have specialist knowledge and experience of the issues, which they are talking about.  I am sure it will contribute to our understanding of the role of international law in the conflict: an issue of the upmost importance in the light of the diplomatic and legal initiatives of the PLO. The conference forms part of the everyday business of universities.

John Strawson

Co-director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict, University of East London

March 21 2015

Alan Johnson on his recent debate with Norman Finkelstein

Professor Alan Johnson, senior research fellow for Bicom and editor of Fathom journal, writes in the JC about his recent debate with Professor Norman Finkelstein at Kings College.

He did not mention the antisemitic murders in Toulouse, Paris, Brussels or Copenhagen. Instead, he told the audience that the opinion polls that have been reporting a rise in antisemitism were stupid. How so? Well, he said, agreement with statements about Jews do not indicate antisemitism if those statements are… true.

You see, he informed the students, Jews do think they are better than anyone else and Jews do bang on about the Holocaust too much to gain sympathy (“doesn’t every sane person think that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust?” he asked, mockingly, to laughter). And so on.

The taboos fell like nine pins. “Jews are tapped into the networks of power and privilege,” he said. “You marry a Jew, it opens doors,” because Jews are “the richest ethnic group in the United States”. Maybe there was some little stigma, sometimes, directed at some Jews, but so what? It’s not nice, but it is “socially inconsequential”. In fact – he actually said this, I have the tape – it is more socially consequential to be short, fat, bald or ugly than to be Jewish. “Look,” he said, “most people carry on in life, bearing these stigmas. It’s called life. Get used to it.”

How bad was it? So bad that, during the discussion period, the press officer from the Stop the War group stood up and objected: “Hold on, we do need to take antisemitism

Read the whole article here.

Book Review | Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance – David Hirsh

This review, by David Hirsh, is published in the fathom1832718529

Social theorists sometimes enjoy treating the ‘now’ as the key turning point of history; they like it because it puts their own intellectual work of understanding centre stage. With this often comes nostalgia for a past which exists partly in their own imagination, extrapolated from a few fixed points of fact and anecdote. And it looks to a future, either rosy or apocalyptic, depending on the extent to which the theorist’s understanding is taken on board.

We tend already to have pictures in our heads of the relationship between Jews and the Left which fit comfortably with our own worldviews. Jewish conservatives tend to see the Left as a constant threat which is always tempted to position the Jews as being central to what is bad in the world; they see the Left as being ever hopeful that Jewishness itself will wither away alongside the other vestiges of oppressive society. The Jewish left, on the other hand, is nostalgic for authentic ‘Jewish values’ which, naturally, mirror its own; it pictures the Jews as being forged as a radical people by oppression and exclusion, and it emphasises a coincidence of interest between the Jews and all of the diverse oppressed in the world.

Philip Mendes’s book informs and challenges our happy processes of narrative construction with scholarly research and it offers a more detailed study of how things have actually been in particular times and places. It gives us more fixed points which discipline and shape the stories we tell ourselves; it offers us a more complex and human picture than some of us would like to assimilate into our schemas of history.

An interesting imbalance which Mendes describes is that while a significant minority of Jews were influential within the radical left, a substantial majority of Jews remained outside of it. Most Jews did not commit themselves to changing the world such that antisemitism, as well as other forms of injustice were eradicated; more of them embraced one variant or another of Jewish nationalism, or they emigrated to more hospitable places such as the USA, Canada or Britain, or they remained inward looking, focusing on their own religious communities. The Jews who either eschewed or performed their Jewish identities in relation to their membership of the radical left were not typical. A contemporary imbalance follows: while a large and influential proportion of left anti-Zionists are Jewish, only a very small percentage of Jews are anti-Zionists.

On the other hand, argues Mendes, the Left, broadly conceived, did have a number of contact points with the wider Jewish communities. The Left’s universalist tradition of equality coincided with the interest in emancipation of the Jews; many Jews in Europe and Russia were poor and the Left championed the poor; there was a Jewish tradition of literacy and intellectualism which fed easily into the Left and that attracted some Jews; Jews moved toward the towns and cities early and the Left was a significantly urban movement; Jews often had an ambiguous place in relation to the identities of the emerging nationalisms amongst which they lived, as did the Left, so notions of cosmopolitanism had the potential to become a shared value, as well as a source of particular hostility from the outside.

Many who have witnessed, or even experienced in themselves, the angrily disproportionate and highly emotional hostility which some instantiations of radical Jewish identity can engender towards the mainstream of the Jewish community, have wondered if there might be some psychological explanation for the phenomenon; Jews who loathe Israel, Jews who cannot smell antisemitism, Jews who long for assimilation, Jews who themselves seem to repeat or endorse antisemitic stereotypes, Jews who find justifications for the antisemitism of others; Jews whose special loathing is reserved for other Jews. Is there something about their own Jewish heritage, something within themselves, part of their own identities, which they hate? Mendes says no. He argues that these are political questions and not psychological ones and that the phenomenon of Jewish anti-Zionism requires political, not psychological analysis.

But Mendes outlines some significant and, for many Jews, deal-breaking chapters in the relationship between the Jews and the Left. There were always streams of anarchism, socialism and anti-capitalism which thought of hostility to ‘Jewish capitalism’ and ‘Jewish banking’ as being educative for the would-be socialist masses on their journey towards hostility to capitalism and banking in general. When movements came to power in Russia and Eastern Europe which described themselves as socialist, they were also pioneers of state-imposed antisemitism; the experience of Nazism did little to inoculate Communist states against antisemitism, it only drove them to articulate it in slightly different formulations. Slansky, the (himself viciously anti-democratic) President of ‘socialist’ Czechoslovakia was driven out of power by an antisemitic witch-hunt and he was found guilty of ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’. Stalin, towards the end of his life, was more and more committed to an outright war of annihilation against Soviet Jews, the start of which was discernible in the ‘Doctors’ plot’ trial.

In times when how we feel about the relationship between Jews and the Left is allowed more significance than it really deserves, Mendes’s book is a scholarly seam of research and measured analysis. In particular, we live in a time when young antiracists and scholars are socialised to feel that Israel, and the Jews who are held to support it, are at the very centre of all that is bad in the world. We should use this book to teach them something about the actual histories of Jews in the world and about the harm which can flow from a worldview which appropriates the image of the Jew as a universal symbol. This book substitutes fact for feeling and analysis for symbolism.

This review, by David Hirsh, is published in the fathom

Jews are allowed to talk about the Holocaust without being accused of acting in bad faith – Alan Johnson

This piece, by Alan Johnson, is published on theJC.com

‘The Livingstone Formulation’ is a term coined by the academic David Hirsh to refer to the practice of responding to claims of antisemitism by alleging that those making the claim are only doing so to prevent Israel from being criticised. In other words, the Jews are accused of “playing the antisemitism card”.

On Tuesday, with the Israeli Prime Minister still on his feet addressing a joint session of Congress, the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, lip curled, tweeted “#NetanyahuSpeech He acknowledges Elie Wiesel in audience. Once again Netanyahu plays the Holocaust card. Don’t repeat mistakes of the past”.

Mr Bowen’s idea is that when an Israeli leader mentions the Holocaust he is being tricksy, manipulative, acting in bad faith, “playing a card” to get narrow advantage in contemporary politics, not really expressing a genuine thought about the Holocaust itself or a genuine fear about a second, nuclear, Holocaust.

And that idea, of the Bad Faith Jew, is unmistakably dripping in the assumptions and myths of classic antisemitism.

Mr Bowen did what only the antisemitic extremists used to do, reduce the invocation of the Holocaust to a common sense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and something to disdain.

Well, the Holocaust happened. It happened to the Jews. And now the Jews are threatened again by a genocidal regime. These are facts.

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth”.

On 23 July 2014, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenai wrote: “This barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of #Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.”

Benjamin Netanyahu had every right — nay, a duty — as Israel’s Prime Minister, to remind the world what happens when we appease murderous tyrannies that promise genocide against the Jews.

To sneer and attack him for doing so, to dismiss his words as “playing the Holocaust card”; well, it was a bloody disgrace.

Shame on you, Jeremy Bowen.

Prof Alan Johnson is a Senior Research Fellow at Bicom

This piece, by Alan Johnson, is published on theJC.com

SOAS is not boycotting Israel – Colin Shindler

This piece, written by Colin Shindler, is published on theJC.com

The Qatari-owned website Al Araby proudly proclaimed that “SOAS becomes the first UK university to boycott Israel”.

This was patently untrue. It was not “SOAS” the institution that voted – not the governing body, not the administration, not even formally the lecturers’ union, but an invented “SOAS community”. Anyone could vote who wanted to – including the SOAS cleaners and security guards.

The results of the student-led BDS referendum by this “SOAS community” demonstrated that 74 per cent of students did not vote for the motion- and this stretches to 86 per cent if the distance-learning students are included.

SOAS is unusual in London colleges in that its first-class programmes rightly attract many students from the Arab and Islamic worlds – and they would understandably vote for BDS.

It is patently untrue that the school has backed a boycott

On the other hand, the administration itself is neither pro-nor anti-Israel, but strongly defends freedom of expression and the right to a different narrative. When there were calls to ban a series of lectures by Tel Aviv University academics, which coincided with Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the SOAS administration steadfastedly refused to capitulate.

While Israel is certainly not the flavour of the month at SOAS, the institution is also one of the leaders in Israel studies in this country and is the headquarters of the European Association of Israel Studies.

Attending SOAS forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers. Many SOAS students leave to work for Jewish and Israeli organisations, including the Zionist Federation and the Israel Embassy.

Even so, selective outrage about the Israeli presence on the West Bank has instigated saturation coverage by the SOAS unions for many years. The local lecturers’ union was formerly a stronghold of the far left Socialist Workers Party. The SWP founder, Yigael Gluckstein, opposed conscription into the British Army to fight Nazism in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s. His approach followed the Trotskyist line that World War II was a conflict between two rival imperialisms – one as bad as the other.

Such convoluted thinking has characterised other campaigns. It is therefore not surprising that there has been union silence at SOAS on the Charlie Hebdo killings as well as the Syrian tragedy.

The referendum organisers’ congratulatory self-deception at the results masks the inability of the BDS movement to make a breakthrough in changing the political reality in Israel.

Successive right-wing governments are elected. Periodic conflicts with the Islamists continue. The settlement drive moves forward. And BDS advocates preach the same mantra.

BDS has been very successful in attracting celebrities to its standard who bemoan the Palestinian plight. But public relations is not public reality. It entrenches positions and reinforces the politics of stagnation that is debilitating for Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS. His book The Rise of the Israeli Right will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year

This piece, written by Colin Shindler, is published on theJC.com

The Palestine/Israel question and racialised discourses on Jews – Robert Fine

Robert Fine’s talk at ‘Anti-Jewish and Anti-Muslim Racism and the Question of Palestine/Israel’.

Robert Fine

Robert Fine

The aim of this panel is to discuss ‘the role of the Palestine/Israel question in racialised discourses on Jews’.   The starting point of my contribution to this discussion is to say simply that antisemitism is not caused by the behavior of Jews any more than Islamophobia is caused by the behavior of Muslims or anti-Black racism is caused by the behavior of Black people.  This may seem obvious but I feel it is worth restating because the temptation to lay the blame for racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia on the victims often sneaks in through a back door.

In terms of the Palestine / Israel question, this means we should no more attribute antisemitism to the Israeli occupation of Palestine than we would attribute the cause of Islamophobia to the fact that Hamas has an antisemitic constitution or the fact that some politically fundamentalist Muslims murdered journalists, Jews and police people in Paris.

Hannah Arendt put the matter in a typically robust way when she wrote that to treat the behaviour of Jews as the source of antisemitism is ‘the malicious and stupid insight of antisemites, who think that this vile tenet can account for hecatombs of human sacrifice’. Arendt added that ‘the foundations of antisemitism are found in developments that have very little to do with Jews’. This does not mean that some people do not use the actual behaviour of some Jews as material for their antisemitic phantasies, just as other people use the actual behaviour of some Muslims as material for their Islamophobic phantasies. Racism is a versatile beast that grabs hold of what it can. The history of every category of people contains misdeeds that can serve as fuel for the racist imagination, although the racist imagination is not limited to such real or imagined misdeeds.

Arendt acknowledged that in the late nineteenth century the pioneers of antisemitism picked up on the actual history of European Jews, especially rich European Jews, to feed their antisemitic imagination. However, she maintained that the antisemitic movements, which emerged in the wake of the First World War and paved the way for the Holocaust, became increasingly remote from any social reality. Eventually, in Arendt’s words, antisemitism ‘emancipated itself from all specific Jewish deeds and misdeeds’; it became ‘severed from all actual experience concerning the Jewish people’.

Similarly, we can acknowledge that today antisemitism sometimes draws its material from the actual behaviour of Israel and its supporters, even if it grossly distorts these experiences, and at other times it emancipates itself from all specific ‘Zionist’ deeds and misdeeds and becomes pure phantasy. For the sake of time, I ask you to fill in examples of each, but I hope we can agree that, whatever we think of Zionism or the actions of Zionists, it is no more responsible for antisemitism in the 21st century than rich Jews were responsible for antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

This may be more important to say than we realise, since the history of socialism offers significant examples of Marxists and other radicals ascribing hatred of Jews to the actual harmfulness of ‘the Jews’ themselves. This is why some Marxists were as critical of philosemitism as they were of antisemitism.

Jews do not have to behave like saints to be free from responsibility for antisemitism. Again we can take a leaf out of Arendt’s book. Arendt was critical of the political behaviour of ‘Court Jews’ for financing European monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries and then of Jewish banking houses in financing reactionary states after the French revolution. This did not, however, diminish her repudiation of antisemitic stereotypes that exploited these practices to portray Jews as ‘a secret world power which makes and unmakes governments’, as ‘the secret force behind the throne’, or as possessors of a wealth that held Europe ‘in its thrall’. These stereotypes converted a particular moment of Jewish history, one that was normatively ambivalent, into the fictitious form of a noxious Jewish essence.

Arendt was also critical of a coterie of middle class Jews in the modern period who, she felt, valued assimilation so highly that they were ready to assimilate even to the antisemitism of the society around them. She wrote with some scorn of the indifference to antisemitism or even the complicity with antisemitism that was to be found among some highly educated Jews. She wrote of a tendency within the Jewish intelligentsia that was prone on the one hand to ‘slavish’ expressions of exaggerated patriotism and gratitude to ‘whatever government happened to be in power’, and on the other hand to dismiss concerns expressed by Jews about antisemitism on the grounds that antisemitism was an outmoded prejudice inexorably coming to an end in the present. She was dismayed by the eagerness of a certain wing of assimilated Jewry to close their eyes to the new forms of antisemitism arising around them. Arendt commented repeatedly on the political failure of such ‘assimilationist’ currents to acknowledge, understand or confront the rise of a new antisemitism, and on the advantage this gave to antisemites.

Following Arendt, we do not have to paint Israel in pastel colours, as it were, to relieve it of responsibility for racialised representations of Israel. We ought to criticise the occupation of another people’s land, the abuses committed against Palestinians who live on that land, the human rights abuses that flow from the occupation, the discrimination aimed at the Palestinian minority inside Israel, the recently enhanced rendition of Zionism as an ethnic form of nationalism, the new constitutional emphasis on the Jewish rather than ‘Jewish democratic’ character of the state, the disregard for civilian life that was shown by certain elements of the Israel army, the growth of anti-Arab racism inside Israeli society, and persecutory practices like destroying the houses of families of Arabs (but not Jews) suspected of terrorism.

In resisting antisemitic representations of these oppressive actions, we should try to understand the conflictual social relations in which they are inserted rather than present them as ‘results’ of the original sin of Zionism. Israel is by no means the only or the worst perpetrator of these abuses and Zionism is by no means the only or worst nationalism. It is true that criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic but what passes as ‘criticism’ of Israel certainly can be antisemitic.

Criticism of any ‘country’ can be racist in one way or another. In my own old research there was much to criticise about the Mugabe regime in postcolonial Zimbabwe, but the notion that ‘Africans cannot rule themselves’ certainly put criticism on an unacceptable raciological terrain. It seems to me that collective stereotypes about ‘the Muslims’, ‘the Arabs’, ‘the Jews’, ‘the Germans’ are all at risk of expressing racially charged forms of ‘criticism’. When I hear collective stereotypes about ‘the Israelis’ or ‘the Zionists’, I appreciate everything depends on the context in which these expressions are used, but the risk of racialisation seems to me the same.

In the 1960s and 1970s a refrain we heard within the left was that whereas all other capitalist societies could, as it were, be ‘saved’ by socialist revolution, the innermost nature of Israeli society was so wrong, so ill founded, that it was beyond rescue. This is why some of our fellow leftists declared that Israel had to cease to exist and demanded the destruction of the Israeli state. We should not lose sight of our abnormal and dangerous this demand is. Even if we put on the Marxist glasses of those times and look at Israel as a colonial state, colonial states were to be won for socialism through the path of revolution. Their existence as states was not questioned. They were not condemned to be annihilated.

It only makes sense to demand the destruction of the Jewish state if one treats its deficiencies as innate and eternal. This is why the idea of a two-state solution, that is, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was treated as anathema by the antizionist left, since it implied that Israel as a Zionist state would still prevail.

Today we often hear expressions of support for civic rather than ethnic nationalism, for postnationalism rather than nationalism, for anti-colonialism rather than occupation in leftist discussions of Israel. I agree with these demands, but I cannot agree that a failure to meet these demands means that Israel is not allowed to exist. Nowhere else except in relation to Israel would this conclusion be drawn. It does not involve much imagination to think about the advantages antisemitic movements would be keen to take from singling out the state of Israel for delegitimation.
I am pessimistic about the way antisemitic conclusions are being drawn from the Israel-Palestine conflict. I take some heart from the show of popular outrage expressed in France in part against the murder of four Jewish shoppers simply because they were Jews. The current election in Israel also offers some opportunity for more liberal forces that exist in Israeli society to gain political representation, but there is plenty of reason to think that this opportunity will once again be wasted – in part because of the weakness of international solidarity in Europe and America.

My sense is that the struggle for democracy and social justice in Israel and in Palestine is getting tougher, not easier. Tendencies toward military authoritarianism, inter-communal forms of violence, the disintegration of nation states and to the triumph of superstition over reason and law raise really difficult questions for democracy in the Middle East generally. It seems to me that these tendencies cannot easily be contained and that their echoes can be heard both in Israel and in Europe. I feel that a radical rethink is needed in how we understand the role of the Israel-Palestine conflict in encouraging racialised conceptions of Jews. Rightly or wrongly I would still look to a two-state solution, and also a more nuanced and troubled relation between victim and victimizer than we are currently exposed to. Our solidarity with those who reject both racism and antisemitism is more urgent than ever and I want to end by commending Nira and the other organisers for taking this initiative.

Robert Fine

Warwick University

 

The UCU continues to equivocate over antisemitism

The University and College Union (UCU) voted to reject and indeed denounce the EUMC working definition of antisemitism back in 2011. Then in 2012 they produced a leaflet which seemed designed to fill the gap left by the spurned working definition. I described its many inadequacies here.

One of the major problems with this leaflet was its failure to engage with the way in which criticism of Israel or Zionism can be a vector for antisemitism. The new leaflet does make some acknowledgement of this phenomenon. For example it includes in its list of ‘discriminatory language or behaviour':

Targeting Jews or Jewish organisations for anti-Israel protests. For example, a ‘Free Palestine’ slogan is legitimate political debate. Daubed on the wall of a synagogue, it is an antisemitic act.

This is a start. The UCU’s guidance would at least help people to identify a proposed ‘Gaza protest’ outside a synagogue in Cambridge as antisemitic.

But, as Ronnie Fraser points out here, this clause is unsatisfactory:

holding Jews collectively to blame, eg for the actions of the Israeli Government. Many Jews do not support the actions of the Government of Israel.

There was simply no need for that second sentence. Is it legitimate to hold some (non-Israeli ) Jews to blame for the actions of the Government of Israel? Just how critical does one have to be to pass this particular purity test?

Like its earlier incarnation this leaflet wastes a lot of space on generic gumf and bland platitudes. This is a pity, as two clauses in particular seem to need some further unpacking. The first is this:

Deliberate distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation of religious concepts and teaching.

What exactly is being referred to here? Possibly the blood libel – if so, that could usefully have been spelled out. Or perhaps the authors had debates about shechita slaughter or circumcision in mind. It would have been helpful to say a bit more about these issues, and the very different motives which may drive critics of these practices.

This clause is also unhelpfully compressed:

Denial or trivialisation of the Holocaust; use of Holocaust imagery in describing Jews; accusing Jews of exaggerating the Holocaust.

The first and third elements are clear enough, but what is meant exactly by ‘use of Holocaust imagery in describing Jews’.? Does it only target taunts themed around the suffering of victims or does it also identify parallels between Jews/Israel and Nazis, correctly, as antisemitic?

According to Ronnie Fraser, a draft of this new leaflet included a fifth clause:

Judging Jews according to a different standard often manifests as explicit comparisons between what is perceived to be the collective action of Jews (usually the Israeli Government) and the action of Nazis.

I very much agree with him that this should have been left in. For, as it stands, this leaflet seems to avoid confronting key antizionist manifestations of antisemitism. Taunts about ‘Zionazis’ and elisions between Nazis and Israelis do indeed hold Jews to a different standard, and are often targeted (not that they are excusable in any context) even against people who are quite critical of Israel’s policies but who make a stand against disproportionate and distorted attacks on Israel.

Given that those responsible for drawing up the leaflet solicited views of UCU members and others, and seemed to spend several months mulling over responses, the ‘improvements’ which have been made are decidedly underwhelming.

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