How did we get into this situation? Last week we were faced with a choice. Theresa May promised a headlong attempt to alienate Britain from its friends, its markets and its talent, and to break up the democratic institutions which Europe built when it emerged from totalitarianism; and the other option was voting Labour, knowing that it might put Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has been heavily involved in antisemitic politics for decades, into no. 10. Next month, or perhaps in six months, we’ll be faced with a similar choice again.
The Tories gave us this disastrous referendum, whose poison in the body politic will not be spent for a generation. Theresa May jumped to the simple conclusion that Brexit meant Brexit. She was wrong. She thought that the country had decided to leave the European Union and she offered to execute that decision in rational way.
What she didn’t understand was that Brexit didn’t mean Brexit; it was a cypher, a codeword; and it meant different things to different people. Some voted Brexit because they thought the EU was socialist and it prevented Britain from following a free market agenda; others voted Brexit because they thought the EU was capitalist and it stopped Britain from following a socialist agenda. Some voted Brexit because they felt out of control and they imagined it would help; others because they didn’t like foreigners living in Britain; some felt a special resentment towards the foreigners who were working hard, educating their children and making a life for themselves in difficult circumstances. Some voted Brexit because they believed the EU takes all our money; they didn’t know that the burgeoning Brexit bureaucracy, the new ministries, experts, lawyers and negotiators would be much more expensive, and for no benefit.
May offered a strong and stable Brexit and the electorate just laughed at her. Those who wanted ‘strong and stable’ didn’t want Brexit and those who wanted Brexit were excited about radical and reckless transformation. They didn’t want it implemented, that was last year’s politics of resentment. This year’s is Jeremy Corbyn.
And why is he the only alternative? If you don’t know by now that Jeremy Corbyn embraces certain kinds of antismeitic and totalitarian politics, then you don’t want to know.
I thought that just Corbyn’s work for the Iranian propaganda TV station disqualified him from leadership; or just the fact that he had once said that Hamas and Hezbollah were dedicated to peace and justice; or that he supported a boycott of Israel but nowhere else on the planet. Any one of a hundred things he’s done makes him unsuitable to lead the Labour Party, let alone to be Prime Minister.
But we need to stop being surprised. I was shocked when my academic colleagues voted to boycott Israel; and again when they failed to understand why that was so wrong; and again when we were pushed out of the discussion in the University and College Union; and when the Employment Tribunal listened to our evidence about antisemitism for three weeks and then told us it all amounted to a dirty trick to silence criticism of Israel; and again when Corbyn was elected leader; and then a second time; and when when Shami Chakrabarti whitewashed the Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism; and when the Labour Party refused to expel Ken Livingstone; and then when Corbyn came within a sniff of no. 10. We need to stop being surprised. Respected film makers like Ken Loach and loved children’s writers like Michael Rosen will continue to goad us for even raising the issue of antisemitism.
I sat at home all day last Thursday brooding. By 8pm my step-daughter took me by the arm and insisted I exercise my democratic right. I stood outside the polling station. She pushed me in. I stood looking at the names on the ballot. My Tory neighbour three doors down Mike Freer? I like him. We chat in the street; he is a good man, a liberal, a democrat, a fighter against antisemitism and homophobia. But he’s on Team May and Team Brexit. The Lib Dem Jonathan Davies? Sure, he seems nice; but we are in a two-party system.
Jeremy Newmark, my old comrade from the trenches against antisemitism? We have fought Corbyn’s politics together for 25 years. I wanted him in the Parliament, inside the Labour Party, fighting antisemitism. And when I thought he might have won his seat, I was happy; I couldn’t help May or Corbyn, but Newmark could be in Parliament.
It turned out that there were only four constituencies where Labour was punished for its leader’s antisemitism and one of them was Newmark’s; all four are home to significant Jewish populations. Four Labour gains from the Tories might have made a difference. And they were close. Antisemitism did not seem to be an issue anywhere else. I was transfixed by the election night coverage for nine hours; anitsemitism was not mentioned once.
We don’t know if people just don’t care about antisemitism; or if they don’t know; or they don’t want to know; or they don’t understand; or they think it’s all a Zionist and Tory smear; or if they think Corbyn just wants to help Palestinians. Or if they judge Jeremy Corbyn to be an antisemite but they vote for him anyway, because there are other issues in the mix too.
But of course Corbyn is also a cypher, a blank populist canvass onto which everybody paints their own fantasy.
Lots of UKIP supporters in the old Labour heartlands voted for him. London Remainers also voted for him. People who have experienced the humiliation and fear of Tory ‘Work Capability Assessments’ voted for Corbyn. People who hate the cash squeeze on the NHS voted for Corbyn. People who can’t, or don’t want to help pay for their kids to go to university voted for Corbyn. People who work hard but can’t afford somewhere to live voted for him. People who blame British foreign policy for terrorism and people who imagine that if we were nicer, the terrorists would leave us alone. People who admire Hamas, the IRA, Hezbollah, Chavez, Castro and Putin voted for Corbyn. People who blame bankers, the Rothchilds and the ‘Davosocracy’ voted for Corbyn. People who like Corbyn’s refusal to step into line voted for him. People who hate Corbyn but like Labour voted for him. People who hate Labour but like Corbyn voted for him.
We’re going to be in an impossible position in the coming election. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it but I know how we got into it. We were unable to stop antisemitic politics being normalized on the left and we were unable to stop it from moving into the mainstream. And liberal Tories were unable to stop the politics of resentment and xenophobia from mainstreaming too.
Yet Rabbi Joel Levy at Kol Nefesh Shul told me on Shabbat morning that I must bless what has already happened, or at least accommodate myself to it; accept it. But that I should scream at the future; and pray for help in shaping it.
Tories need to understand that denouncing Labour voters as Nazis is not a strategy; they have to understand how their own populism endangers British democracy. As Michael Hestletine said, if they press ahead with Brexit now, they will give us Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. They need to offer an alternative to Corbyn, not a mirror image. Promising to tear down European co-operation and institutions and to license the rise of xenophobic nationalism across our continent will not pull middle England away from the small marginal swing to Labour that would give us a Corbyn government.
And we on the left have to start winning our basic arguments. We have to force Corbyn to account for his past if he is to carry on into future; we have to keep our courage and not go silent; we must not be seduced into acquiescence by a sniff of power. We will not stop educating people to recognise and oppose antisemitism; we will not stop calling it out when we see it; we will not stop treating antisemitism as something important.
Antisemitism is not one little eccentricity; it is an indicator of a profound political malaise. It cannot be ignored, or put in the balance against other priorities.
But don’t forget, Corbyn did not win. David Seymour, a scholar of antisemitism, wrote that the current atmosphere reminds him of a small town whose non-league team just held Manchester United to a draw; now it is rashly looking forward to the replay at Old Trafford.
On the other hand, maybe Corbyn is on the rise and is ready to sweep to power. I am no longer in the prediction game.
All I can say is that we need to keep screaming about the future; we need to keep focused on democracy and reason and the fundamental equality of human beings; and we need to keep opposing the politics of symbolic rage.
We have not forgotten that another critique of democracy bathed our people in blood even during this election campaign. This is not the time for empty cyphers or adolescent rage; it is a time for democratic clarity and unity: in Britain, in Europe, in America, and across the world.
Call for Papers – Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The Case of the Academic Boycott of Israel
I don’t suppose it will come as any surprise to learn that the conference is not concerned with any possible threat to academic freedom of speech posed by such a boycott.
The Call for Papers (CFP) – one of the longest I’ve ever seen – begins:
Academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor[.]
This cuts both ways. The organisers of the conference would presumably be concerned about the cancellation of an event involving Ben White at UCLAN. But would they also be worried by:
These events all involved non-Israeli speakers/participants – and yet people still tried to silence them.
However even though the CFP continues:
The enjoyment of academic freedom carries with it obligations, such as the duty to respect the academic freedom of others, to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views, and to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The Right to Education (Art.13),” December 8, 1999)
there is no acknowledgement of any challenge to freedom of speech caused by anti-Israel activism.
The organisers then go on to describe the negative effects of cuts, managerialism and bureaucracy on universities (fair enough). Particular concern is expressed over a possible impact on
the expression of dissenting and controversial views.
It rather depends what is meant by ‘dissenting and controversial’. It could be argued that having right of centre views might be seen as ‘dissenting and controversial’ in a university context. ‘Dissenting’ voices on the left might include Germaine Greer on transgender issues or Maryam Namazie on Islam. By contrast, in many academic contexts support for the Palestinian cause would be seen as normative, rather than an issue which might ‘lead to self-censorship and curtailing expression.’
Certainly one of the conference organisers, Connor McCarthy, doesn’t seem to have experienced any chilling impact on his free speech in this regard. His research profile notes that he is ‘a founder-member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and of Academics for Palestine’. Ditto David Landy. The third organiser, Ronit Lentin, has similar research interests – and, interestingly, once distanced herself from a condemnation of Gilad Atzmon posted by Electronic Intifada.
The CFP then turns to the wider question of how, and how far, academia and political activism should combine. This concludes:
With growing global political polarisation, this question has returned to the spotlight with academics under fire for expressing political opinions in Turkey, the US and elsewhere.
This pairing – and here’s just one reminder of what academics are facing in Turkey – reminded me of Pope’s lines:
Not louder shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,
When husbands or when lapdogs breathe their last
Perhaps the CFP writers had US academic Steven Salaita in mind, as he is the first keynote speaker named. It is claimed that he ‘was denied a Professorship in University of Illinois due to his views on Israel/Palestine’. This is a rather bland summary of the objections to Salaita. These are just a couple of his controversial tweets:
You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing. (after the disappearance of the three murdered Israeli teens)
It might be possible to make a case against the unhiring of Salaita (he was made a job offer which was then withdrawn) in the context of US views on free speech or by analogy with other academics with very controversial views. But to claim that this happened because of ‘his views on Israel/Palestine’ isn’t really sufficient.
Finally, it’s good to note that:
Last week Trinity’s students union voted against a college-wide boycott of Israel by a “significant majority”.
Ken Livingstone has been suspended from Labour membership for two years, counted from last April, when he said on the radio that Hitler ‘was supporting Zionism – this was before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’.
But he is unrepentant. On the steps of his tribunal, he gave interviews saying that Hitler intervened on behalf of the Zionists against the Yiddish speaking rabbis in Germany and that the SS was giving training to Jews to help them in Palestine.
Why should the two years not begin when he went on Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning of this verdict, when he said that these allegations of antisemitism were invented by the Jewish Chronicle to silence criticism of Israel and to smear Jeremy Corbyn?
Why not start the suspension from 1982, when Livingstone, who was at the time the editor of a Workers Revolutionary Party front paper, published a cartoon of Menachem Begin giving a straight armed salute, wearing an SS uniform and standing on a pile of Palestinian skulls?
Why not start the suspension from 2004, when the Mayor of London hosted, at City Hall, Yusuf Qaradawi, a cleric who thinks that Hitler ‘put the Jews in their place’? Why not start the suspension from 2005, when Livingstone persistently accused a Jewish reporter of being ‘like a German war criminal’?
Why was Livingstone’s two year suspension not started when he presented programmes for the Iranian state propaganda channel Press TV? Or from when he said that Jews were rich and so were not likely to vote Labour anyway.
There is a debate to be had about how hostility to Israel, antizionism and boycotting Israel relate to antisemitism. Livingstone is part of this politics of Israel hatred; he is part of the milieu which sees Israel as a key and unique evil on the planet and as a keystone of global imperialism. But Livingstone is one of those figures who cannot resist taking it to another level. He is often tempted to focus his critique on Jews; he is especially attracted to accusing Jews of being like Nazis.
Livingstone has spent half a century trying to cultivate the view amongst the general public that Zionism and Nazism are somehow similar and that they were in cahoots against the ordinary innocent Jews. Of course this is not true. Hitler was clear in Mein Kampf in 1924 that the Jews did not want a state ‘so as to live in it’; they wanted one, said Hitler, to ‘establish a central organisation for their international swindling and cheating’.
Livingstone has become the mouthpiece for a new kind revisionist history. He wants to mix up Zionism with Nazism. Nazism, which rounded up, selected on racial grounds and murdered the Jews of Europe, is symbolic of all that is evil in the world. Livingstone wants people to think of Zionism as being linked, similar and in alliance with it.
This is not only nonsense, it is also antisemitic; to say that Zionists are like Nazis designates the national liberation movement of the Jewish people as pure evil; it demonizes Jews and it normalizes Hitler; it licenses and encourages people to relate to Zionists, that is the overwhelming majority of living Jews, as they would relate to Nazis.
Livingstone has even begun to resemble David Irving in the way he fixes on particular grains of half-truth about Hitler and weaves them into one big lie. But he does it with confidence and with charisma. He looks radical, and many people come away with the feeling that there must be something to it. And quite a few people are open to the notion that the Zionists are bad and the Zionists are liars and that clever and brave Ken can show us exactly how.
He keeps repeating the Livingstone formulation, for which he is famous. All of this storm about antisemitism, he says, is manufactured by Zionists and Blairites to silence criticism of Israel and to smear the left. They know there is nothing to it, but they do it in order to gain advantage. The allegation of antisemitism is, today, portrayed as the root of Zionist power. Secondary antisemitism asks: ‘When will the Germans forgive the Jews for the Holocaust?’ Livingstone won’t rest until people believe that the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis and until people believe that Zionists who remember the Holocaust are doing so out of some ulterior motive.
Livingstone keeps on repeating that his Jewish friends agree with him; and there is indeed a small but noisy coterie of Jews ready to bear witness against the Jewish community and to whitewash their hero.
Livingstone is not a jolly, harmless old bloke who is basically on the right side and who supports the Palestinians; he has spent much of his life crafting antisemitic discourse for mass public consumption.
There is a bigger problem of political antisemitism in the Labour Party than Livingstone; the leadership of the party itself is implicated in the kind of politics which cultivates it.
And now, Labour is not even able decisively to distance itself from Livingstone by expelling him. No doubt, Livingstone will still be invited to do media work and he will still be treated as a respectable and experienced political leader; because even now, that is how he is seen by many.
David Hirsh is a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, author of the forthcoming book ‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism’
Interview with Prof. Colin Shindler, Emeritus Professor at SOAS University of London, UK.
In November, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour opposition, said that this declaration was a mistake. How will he react this time?
It was in 2013 that he offered his opinion on the Balfour Declaration. It arises from his lack of understanding of both the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and of Jewish history itself. He reduces everything to a very simplistic approach. He sees everything in terms of British colonialism and western imperialism. However, the conflict is far more complex than that. I hope that he will have understood this complexity by November.
Let us go back to 1940. You found leaflets of Trotskyists which, at a time when Britain was fighting alone, demanded that young Jews in Palestine should not join the British Army.
This was mainly the work of Brit Spartakus in the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine. One of the leading lights in this campaign was Yigael Glückstein who came from the Zionist elite. He later became known in the UK as Tony Cliff who founded the Socialist Workers Party – perhaps the most influential Trotskyist group in the UK. As a youth in Palestine, he flirted with Stalinism, and was an avid follower of HaHugim HaMarksistim of Left Poale Zion.
At the beginning of World War II, he was arrested by the British. By October 1940, he was a leading light of Brit Spartakus, which attempted to persuade young Jews not to enlist in the British Army. Like both Stalin and Trotsky, Gluckstein understood the conflict between Nazi Germany and Britain as one of rival imperialisms. Therefore neither should be endorsed.
By 1948 after 8 years of committed political activity, the Trotskyists in Mandatory Palestine amounted to 30 members – 23 Jews and 7 Arabs. By that time, Gluckstein had left. In September 1946 as tens of thousands of Jews from the DP camps were trying to illegally enter Palestine, Gluckstein was going in the opposite direction to Britain.
This is interesting since many years later Trotskyists accused the Zionists for not having done enough to save Jews. The Zionists at the time had no power; they had no army, no navy. Nevertheless, the Zionists did save many Jews. While the Trotskyists themselves did not save Jews, they repeatedly accuse Rudolf Kasztner of collaboration and not saving Hungarian Jewry – as if he could have. Now in Britain Paul Bogdanor has written a book which accuses Kasztner once again as being virtually a traitor.
I read the book and reviewed it for the Jerusalem Post. While Bogdanor has written a remarkably comprehensive, convincing book, it is still unclear to me what the role of Kasztner was. He was undoubtedly in an incredibly difficult position. He saved some of his family and friends from Cluj, but others were not included. The question that everyone has to ask him- or herself is “what would I have done if I had been in Kasztner’s shoes?” While there is no doubt that he made mistakes and that he was a flawed character, I still feel that he should not have been castigated in that way. Kasztner was killed in 1957 by members of the far Right group, Malkhut Yisrael, when these former members of Lehi shot him. It was cowardly and unworthy.
The supreme court of Israel denounced the accusation of collaboration against Kasztner – of which he had been earlier accused in 1955. Malkiel Gruenwald who was his primary accuser during the trial possessed a long criminal career from Hungary and was seemingly a CID informer in Israel.
Kasztner was also attacked for political reasons rather than for ones of justice. Herut, Menachem Begin’s party, attacked him prior to the 1955 election in order to make political capital out of this case. An election poster read: ‘Kasztner votes for Mapai, you vote for Herut’. Therefore I do not go along with those who condemn him wholeheartedly. Although there are clearly many people who hold him responsible including those who survived the Shoah. At the end of the day, it is still difficult for anyone who has not carried out detailed research for himself to come to a concrete opinion about the Kasztner saga. But there are undoubtedly double standards on the part of the Trotskyists who continually mention the case. Clearly they are bereft of a moral compass.
Your lecture at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna was on the subject of the rise of the Right in Israel. Israel has a rightwing government and it looks as if there will be no possibility of a change of government or indeed a change in the situation. How do you see that?
I think you are right. When there is violence in the Middle East, people move cosmically to the Right and will vote for the Likud and other right wing parties in elections. There is no space in either Israel or in Palestine to explore other options. When there is violence, views which bring the two sides together are marginalised. Instead the Right promotes polarisation in Israeli society and propagates the politics of stagnation.
There have been no meaningful political initiatives by Benjamin Netanyahu for the last 20 years. Netanyahu does not wish to put forward a political initiative today because he knows that the far Right members of his cabinet, such as Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman, would undoubtedly oppose it. His main objective is to assure the survival of his government so this rules out any meaningful peace plan.
Yesterday the CST released their yearly report on antisemitic incidents in the UK. The results are worrying. 1,309 cases were recorded, the highest ever total, and a 36% increase from last year. The CST cites widely reported disputes over antisemitism in the Labour Party and the climate of increased racism and xenophobia following the EU referendum as possible factors in this sharp rise. 107 violent assaults were logged last year, and it is likely that underreporting masks the true total. Although these only account for a small proportion of total incidents, it’s concerning that campus related cases involving students and academics have doubled since last year.
The report is characteristically measured. There has been much discussion of antisemitism within the UK’s Muslim communities and the CST is very careful to caution against reading too much into the raw statistics about perpetrator identity (where available).
These figures partly reflect the fact that Britain’s Jewish communities tend to live in relatively diverse urban areas, and that street crime offenders (where the most common type of antisemitic incident takes place) make up a younger, and more diverse, demographic profile than the population as a whole (p. 24)
The CST is also extremely careful not to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, while acknowledging the obvious potential for intersection. Their rationale for including (or rejecting) anti-Israel discourse in their incident report is very clearly laid out on pp.27-8. This section demonstrates the nuanced and cautious approach adopted by the CST.
Similarly, anti-Israel material that is sent unsolicited to a synagogue at random may be recorded as an antisemitic incident (because the synagogue was targeted simply because it is Jewish and the offender has failed to distinguish between a place of worship and a political organisation), when the same material sent unsolicited to specifically pro-Israel organisations would not be. On the other hand, if a particular synagogue has been involved in public pro-Israel advocacy and subsequently is sent anti-Israel material, it may not be classified as antisemitic unless the content of the material dictates otherwise.
Below you can read Jenny Tonge’s nasty response to the CST’s report – indeed her proud promotion of her initial response.
Where to start? No concern is expressed over the rise in antisemitic violence. Instead she insists that Jews need to distance themselves from Netanyahu in order to avoid attacks. If she thinks the CST demonstrates a ‘perpetual victim mentality’ what kind of campaigning community group against antisemitism would she countenance? Although sometimes Israel is the apparent driver for antisemitism, the CST’s report also contains evidence of Holocaust denial and conspiracism. And it’s deeply unfair to imply that the CST is not concerned about ‘ALL racism’ – it has worked closely with Tell MAMA to support their project countering anti-Muslim bigotry.
In her recent response to a much criticised interview on J-TV Tonge opined
My own fault I guess for being decent and wanting to connect with Israel’s supporters.
This rings very hollow in the light of her failure to connect with the victims of hate crimes – something which should be easily possible whether or not one is a supporter of Israel.
The Academic Engagement Network (AEN) has published David Hirsh’s keynote presentation at its first national conference, as a pamphlet: The pamphlet is available as a pdf on the AEN website.
AEN has also published a podcast of a conversation between its Executive Director Ken Waltzer, and David Hirsh: To listen to the podcast, “Making Democracy Sexy: David Hirsh on Combating BDS and Antisemitism by Rediscovering Democracy”, follow this link.
The American Studies Association boycott resolution, academic freedom and the myth of the institutional boycott – David Hirsh : published in Inside Higher Ed is available here.
David Hirsh: Why BDS is antisemitic.
David Hirsh discussion with Claire Potter about support for the campaign to boycott Israel:
The Myth of the Institutional Boycott – Jon Pike: The claim that BDS is a boycott campaign which is not directed at Israeli individuals is doing the rounds again. The article is from February 2006 and questions this claim with regard to the academic boycott.
Is an academic boycott of Israel justified? – Michael Yudkin – Engage Journal Special Issue – April 2007 The principle of the Universality of Science and Learning – that academics do not discriminate against colleagues on the basis of factors that are irrelevant to their academic work (such as race, religion, nationality etc.) – is well established and almost universally respected. To boycott academics by reason of their country of residence breaches this principle and harms the interests of the academics concerned. Two kinds of argument speak in favour of maintaining the principle of the Universality of Science and Learning: 1) that undesirable consequences would flow from violating it, and 2) that to harm people who are innocent of wrongdoing is morally unacceptable. Those who wish to boycott Israeli academics attempt to defeat the second type of argument by claiming that these academics are complicit in discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel or the occupation of the West Bank, and/or that Israeli universities suppress dissenting voices. Analysis of these claims shows that they are without serious substance.