Opposing BDS with TUFI

Last weekend Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI) and We Believe in Israel organised a very productive seminar for activists concerned about the impact of BDS and the singling out of Israel within the trade union movement.

Those attending held a wide range of views on Israel’s current policies and government, but were in broad agreement over the way Israel is targeted for disproportionate scrutiny, a scrutiny which, as we heard from grassroots activists, may manifest itself as open antisemitism.

There was a good discussion of the (contested) boundary between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. A poster with the slogan ‘End the siege in Gaza’, it was suggested, is a legitimate intervention even if you don’t agree with all its implied premises. However ‘Well done Israel, Hitler would be proud’, accompanied by a swastika, clearly crosses the line.

Whereas many unions are happy to affiliate with groups such as PSC or Stop the War, TUFI has been proscribed in various ways by unions such as GMB, Unite and Unison. Rather than trying to encourage supportive links between Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists, in a spirit of both solidarity and conflict resolution, hard left activists try to sow division between them. With this aim in mind, some pro-Palestinian activists in the West have accused Palestinian workers of selling out, even (ironically) of undoing their (i.e. the Western activists’) work.

Avital Shapira of Histadrut joined the seminar by Skype. She described both the general successes of Israeli trade unions (negotiating an increase in the minimum wage, improving the rights of contract workers, unionising workers in less traditional sectors such as high tech industries) and achievements specifically relating to Palestinian workers. Many Palestinian (as opposed to Arab Israeli) workers are employed in construction, and Histadrut, as well as working on their behalf, remits half their dues to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in a very concrete gesture of solidarity.

One theme which emerged in discussion was the importance of continuing to speak out even when the cards seem stacked against you. Being able to identify sympathetic reps, or people willing to offer an alternative perspective on these issues, is heartening for those who don’t find their own views reflected in their union’s policies, or the voices of their most vocal activists.



ISGAP-OxfOrd Summer Institute for Curriculum Development In Critical Antisemitism Studies

ISGAP-OxfOrd Summer Institute for Curriculum Development In Critical Antisemitism Studies to be held at St Antony’s College, Oxford starting July 31, 2016

The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), a New York-based interdisciplinary research center, is seeking scholars-in-residence for an intensive two-week workshop-based curriculum development program aimed at establishing critical antisemitism studies as a recognized academic discipline. The program is intended primarily for professors with full-time college or university positions, though exceptional doctoral and post-doctoral students may also be considered. The workshops will take place at St Antony’s College, Oxford, beginning July 31. Under the guidance of leading international academics, scholars-in-residence will be asked to develop new syllabi and curricula for critical interdisciplinary antisemitism courses that the scholars-in-residence will teach in their home institutions after completing the program. Full and partial scholarships are available

Application deadline March 1, 2016

To obtain more information or to apply, please visit http://isgap.org/summer-institute or e-mail info@isgap.org

Scott Nelson & a weirdly related miscellany

Assuming his appeal is unsuccessful, prominent activist Scott Nelson aka @TheMockneyRebel has been expelled from the Labour Party after making a number of statements implicating Jews, “Jewish blood”, &c in various things he doesn’t like and scoffing when antisemitism was mentioned. Mathilda Murday and Soupy have collected some offending tweets. If you are inclined to comment about this below, keep in mind they’ve been threatened with litigation so mind your Ps & Qs. Nelson is penitent and as of about an hour ago, defiant at the same time (retweeting supporters who say antisemitism is nonexistent and a right wing smear). I am guessing the appeal will be considered by Labour’s National Executive Committee; if so it can be thought of as a benchmark. At the moment Corbyn-aligned Momentum people do not control the official organs of the Labour Party, but they have said that they intend to. In response, new alignments such as Open Labour are currently forming to bolster Labour democracy against populism and mitigate Corbyn’s anticipated failure to engage the wider electorate. My feeling is that if the outreaching parts of Labour make their presence felt, it will continue to put out people like Scott Nelson. If not then I have doubts that Momentum has the will, although Corbyn supporters exist who do recognise a problem and will do what they can, so hopefully I’m wrong about that. Worrying about antisemitism is one of those things where you win if you’re wrong.

I should also say I don’t think Labour have explicitly implicated antisemitism in the expulsion, and it is only one of several issues people have raised concerning Scott Nelson. One major divide in different parts of the left is the issue of whether to treat bigotry similarly if expressed by somebody privileged or somebody marginalised. This tension between relativist and universalist views is concentrated in situations like this one in which a disabled UKIP member objects to disablism on the part of Nelson (who is also disabled). Being universalist, Engage resists bigotry regardless of the objectionable politics of those who may be subjected to it (I find UKIP deeply threatening and politically moribund), or the extent to which we may identify with the perpetrator (without hesitation I’d hold my nose and take Corbynite Labour over the Conservatives in a two horse race).

Now to the weirdly related miscellany.

Campaigners against antisemitism often endure a range of unpleasant emotions which come with pursuing the issue both through big organisations and with individuals. They include a sense of futility against the machine, the chipping away of our self-esteem in the face of prejudice, and, if we’re unlucky, a sense of hatred we have no way of confirming because the hater is clever, directed against us personally because we are identified as Jewish.  It all plays with your head. I think you will be struck by the overlap with the experiences of Adam Pearson in the excellent BBC3 documentary The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime. His starting point is an estimated 63,000 hate crimes against disabled people in England and Wales in one recent year, and the failure to prosecute these effectively. He speaks with disabled people, YouTube, legal professionals, and the police, and participates in a social psychology experiment. The action he embarks on is a promising direction, too. I very much recommend watching it.

The second miscellany is a recent LSE European Institute podcast, French sociologist Michel Wieviorka‘s talk ‘Europe’s Perfect Storm: racism, anti-Semitism, terrorism and resurgent nationalism‘. In it he weaves together several currents of European thinking in the past 30 years. He treats racism, antisemitism, terrorism and nationalism as expressions of evil which he observes to have revived in new, changed forms in in the 1980s, in what had been until then humanist Europe. Listen to this for an examination of how plural xenophobia has become, and how it is related to a decrease in trust of establishment authorities.

The final miscellany (HT @patlockley) is a piece in Dissent by Susie Linfield on left-wing Zionism.

“In its early decades Israel combined socialist, or social-democratic, politics with democratic freedoms. It was a poor and deeply egalitarian country; it was the praxis of left-wing Zionism. As Fred Halliday wrote, until 1967 “Israel enjoyed enormous authority, not so much as a close ally of the west, which at that time it was not . . . but as the site of an experiment in socialist economics and living.” But Israel has changed.”

“The task for American leftists is to support democratic, anti-occupation, two-state groups in any ways we can, including publications, conferences, visits, and, where appropriate, donations (even if we can’t match Sheldon Adelson). There are numerous such organizations, from the well-established New Israel Fund to smaller ones like Ta’ayush (in Arabic, “Living Together”) and Women Wage Peace, all of whose members include Arabs and Jews.

Boycotts of Israel in US Academe: David Hirsh and Claire Potter

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a “boycott of Israeli academic institutions”.

Last year, while a similar debate raged within the American Studies Association, there was this exchange between David Hirsh and Claire Potter:

from David Hirsh:  “I am a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.  I read that you were an opponent of the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions and I read that you decided, nevertheless, to support the BDS motion in the recent ASA debate.  I would like to respond…”

from Claire Potter:  “Thank you for your civil and knowledgeable open letter of December 17, and the links you have shared. I hope you like the stamp I chose for my response: Harvey is one of my heroes, both for his belief that democracy can come to all of us and for his belief in moral persuasion.   You are right: I am new to the global debates over the BDS boycott, having been engaged in reading and conversation for only a year. And yet people have to make decisions at political moments, and for a variety of reasons I was faced with one this fall when I chose to come out against the ASA boycott resolution and then came to believe I needed to re-think and change my position….”

from David Hirsh:   Thank you for your reply to my email.  In this short correspondence we have already touched upon a number of key issues.  We have discussed the centrality of academic freedom, and how that is sometimes underwritten, but sometimes also threatened by academic institutions; we have touched on the need for a civility in our discussions which enables us to focus on what is said and done rather than on who is recognised as being positioned in the camp of the ‘horrible people’ or the good, radical people…


for more from Engage about the boycott movement and antisemitism:

The Myth of Institutional Boycotts – David Hirsh

Opposing the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global academic community – David Hirsh

Alan Johnson: The case against Boycott of Israel.  VIDEO. (2014)

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.  (2007)

Stephen HawkingDavid Hirsh on the antisemitism which comes with the boycott campaign. Experiences from UCU  (2013)

Cure worse than the disease: academic boycott of Israel in the light of the academic boycott of South Africa – Mira Vogel (2007)

Mira Vogel on PACBI (2008)

Engage response to BRICUP [PDF] (2007)

Ben Gidley on the antisemitism which comes in the wake of the boycott campaign:  The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union (2011)

Robert Fine responds to Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of Israel in the South African Mail & Guardian  (2010)

Robert Fine in debate about boycotting Israel, “the apartheid state”. (2008)

Antisemitism, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech – Robert Fine (2007)

Hirsh, David. 2012. Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community. Engage, [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2011. No such thing as victimless boycott. Mail and Guardian, South Africa, p. 14. [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2007. Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections. Working Paper. Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Occasional Papers, New Haven, CT

Resignations from UCU over the issue of the academic boycott of Israel.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor (2013)

Norman Finkelstein’s Attack on the BDS Movement

Boycott Israel? Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack.  here.  (Oct 2010)

The University of Johannesburg Boycott, here.  (May 2011)

Eric Lee argues a boycott is no way to help the Palestinians here. (June 07)

Israeli Universities, Israel-Palestinian Peace and Real Solidarity – Paul Frosh, Hebrew University, Jerusalem Added by David Hirsh – 3 November 2006 (Nov 06)

A detailed critique of PACBI‘s (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) call for “BDS” – “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”. Here. (Sep 06, David Hirsh)

Hirsh’s speech and reports from his debate with Ilan Pappe, pro-boycott professor at Haifa University, on the issue of the boycott. At Birmingham AUT. Here.  (Nov 05)

Why I am against the boycott, by John Strawson – 18 May 2005

Another version of who we are. 


Discussions about BDS and how to oppose it – David Hirsh

This is copied from discussions on facebook:

DH:  Is the US Anthropological Association aware that the Bataclan and the Eagles of Death Metal had both been targeted by the BDS movement? The US Anthropological Association currently constitutes the most influential part of the BDS movement.

XX:  The arguments you’ve been making for the last day or two make complete sense to me. What’s unfortunate is that the floodgates will eventually open if Israel continues to follow a policy of “manage the occupation”. First in academia, and perhaps next in arts and entertainment.

A two-pronged approach is needed. Fighting BDS is only one part. There also needs to be an alternative to BDS for supporters of the Jewish democracy and opponents of what’s happening over the green line. Luckily the European Commission has given us some idea about what this would look like…

DH:  1. I’m worried about the argument that if only the Jews in the Middle East behaved better, then antisemitism would subside. Antisemitism is a huge and malign mystification of the actual conflict in the Middle East, not a straightforward response to it.

DH:  2. I’m worried about the notion that it is in Israel’s power to end the occupation whenever it chooses. There has to be a political solution to the conflict and there is no reason to believe that the Palestinians are sufficiently committed or politically organised to hold up their end of a peace agreement. What happens if months after a peace agreement a Palestinian state fails – in the way that the Iraqi state failed – and then Israel ha ISIS ten miles from Tel Aviv? The idea that Israel is so powerful that it is only embroiled in the occupation because that is what it chooses – is wrong.

DH: 3. I’m worried about the argument that the good anthropologists only need to be offered a move coherent and less antisemitic way to be anti-Israel and then that would undercut the BDS movement. This relentless focus on Israel is ever more eccentric; the Middle east is falling apart, hundreds of thousands of people are being murdered. US anthropologists need to lift their eyes from the evil Zionists.

DH:  4. The conflict is not about the occupation. There is a huge Sunni/Shia war brewing up. There is a war between democratic forces and totalitarian forces in the Middle East. All minorities are in danger of eradication – the Jews have a particular duty to stand up for the minorities of the Middle East because they are the only ones with state power. Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, B’hai… other minorities which people haven’t even heard of are in serious danger.

DH:  I agree Israel should do better. I think Israel should do more to position itself as the the pro-peace party, the pro-democracy, pro-human rights party. I agree. But for most Israelis, doing a dance to please US anthropologists is not their top priority.

XX:  1) Anti-Semitism plays a role in BDS, but it’s not enough to explain the spread of the phenomenon. Surely the supermajority of members of the AAA are not anti-Semites. Denouncing supporters of BDS as anti-Semites has gotten us nowhere. It’s continuing to spread.

2) No, but it is in Israel’s power to begin relinquishing control over the lives of Palestinians. While Israel doesn’t actively choose to continue the occupation every day out of choice, it has unfortunately made a number of choices over a few decades that certainly makes the occupation look more like a preference than a need. The settlements being the most obvious example.

3) It’s not a “less anti-Semitic way to be anti-Israel.” It’s neither anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Didn’t you say that you declined to visit the Ariel University?

4) Again, a good argument, but where has it gotten us so far? It only has a chance at working if liberal and progressive supporters of Israel are also fighting for a liberal and progressive Israel. Supporting the rights of settlements to mislead European consumers on the origin of their products is supporting the illiberal and undemocratic extension of Israel, not the democratic Jewish state.

DH:  1. Antisemitism is the only way to understand the way BDS has taken over the AAA. There is no politically or morally relevant reason to single out Israel for punishment while embracing the academic institutions and the scholars of every other state as our colleagues. True, denouncing supporters of BDS as antisemites has gotten us nowhere. That is the twist isn’t it? You can’t understand the phenomenon without understanding it as antisemitism, yet you’re not allowed to call it antisemitism because of the Livingstone Formulation. Contemporary antisemitism has within it a mechanism to push those who criticize it outside of the community of the oppressed.

DH:  2. Yes, Israel should offer a state to the Palestinians every morning at a press conference. Yes, Israel should withdraw the settlers. But antisemitism is not a function of the bad behaviour of Jews.

DH:   3. the psychological driver behind the boycott of Israel is to punish the Jews. Offering people difficult, complex and time-consuming ways to actually help, would not answer that psychological drive. The boycott is a way of screaming at the Jews without having to do anything else, without having to sacrifice anything without having to understand anything. It is a “not in my name” politics. It is identity politics.

DH:  4. I, like many many Israelis support a liberal and progressive Israel. It doesn’t make any difference to the supporters of BDS because the indicator for being in the community of the good, rather than outside it, is antisemitism. Anybody who is concerned about antisemitism is bundled out of the room.

XX: 1) There is an explanation, no one likes to hear it, but here it is: Academia is particularly supportive of anti-colonial movements and sentiments, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Israel is, as far as I know, the last country supporting a massive colonial project (the settlements) in the face of strong opposition from native inhabitants.

2) I certainly never suggested it was. But I don’t think Israel is helping itself at all.

3) I disagree. I think most of the soft support for BDS, which is the only kind of support we have any hope of pealing off, is being psychologically driven by the desire to be part of a contemporary anti-colonial struggle.

4) No one can convince the hardcore of BDS. But to stop its spread supporters of Israel can’t defend or water down everything Israel does. The response to the labeling proposal has been disheartening. A missed opportunity to support a clear distinction between democratic Israel and a deeply undemocratic aspect of its occupation of the West Bank.

DH:  Academia is not supportive of anti-colonial movements. It doesn’t support the Ukrainian fight against Russian colonialism; it doesn’t support the Tibetan fight against Chinese colonialism; it doesn’t support the Kurdish fight against Turkish colonialism; it doesn’t support the Moroccan fight against Spanish colonialism… etc etc etc etc. Academia supports anti-colonial movements when the “colonists” are Jews who are descended from the remnants of the undead of the Holocaust.

DH:  You say that being open about the antisemitic aspect of BDS is not effective. But our experience is that offering ways of doing genuine solidarity with Palestinians experiencing occupation isn’t effective either. That too, is written off as Zionist propaganda.

DH:  The boycott campaign does not make a distinction between the settlements and Israel, between Tel Aviv University and Ariel College. I wish it did. If it did, it would be a profoundly different movement from the one it is. When the BDS movement targets the West Bank, it is a dishonest tactical move. It believes Haifa and Jerusalem to be occupied territory too.

XX:  Indeed. I should have said Western colonialism, to which there is a record of academic opposition, and Israel is considered part of the West politically.

But that’s where you’re making a mistake! The boycott movement didn’t initiate the labeling proposal. Nor the cultural boycott of Ariel (which was started by leftist Israelis). There’s no “smart BDS” operating tactically alongside BDS. European leaders are Israel’s friends and allies. So are progressive Jews overseas and in Israel who try their best to isolate the settlements. It’s long past time a group dedicated to that cause was formed.

DH:  oh now you’re being silly XX. the European decision was a result of smart BDS lobbying. You know how politics works.

XX:  It’s a policy that was many years in the making, and BDS has only begun (unfortunately) to build respectability.

If you’re right, then there is no hope. I’d rather not believe this. The conclusion I’ve come to is that we have to convince centrist andliberal Israelis that the status quo is incompatible with Israel being a part of the liberal world. I’m not an alarmist who says Israel is on the verge of disappearing, but it is slipping into the revisionist bloc of states and away from the liberal one (*supproters* of Israel now say things like, “Why don’t you treat Russia and China the same way?”)

Perhaps then Bibi will finally lose.

DH:  It is true that I’m immensely angry about this AAA decisoin and yes, it is also true that I am arguably burnt out as an effective anti-BDS activist. We have been making all the smart arguments you advocate for ten years. And people should continue to make all the arguments: norms of academic freedom; solidarity not boycott; antisemitism; effectiveness. But I’m sick of it. People who make these smart arguments are responded to in straightforwardly antisemitic ways. They are accused of being agents of a foreign power, racists, imperialists, etc etc.

DH: It is also true that the only way to understand the power and the dynamics of the BDS movement is to understand its similarities to other antisemitic movements. If you refuse to understand this, you’ll lose your way.

DH:  But yes, make all the arguments. You’ll still lose. I suspect.

DH:  Bataclan. Eagles of Death Metal. targets of BDS.

DH:  I profoundly disagree with the strategy of trying ” to convince centrist and liberal Israelis that the status quo is incompatible with Israel being a part of the liberal world.” This is to support the boycott movement. It is to try to harness it as a force for peace. It is entirely the wrong strategy.  You cannot harness an antisemitic movement for progressive purposes.

XX:  I think we disagree about what the boycott movement is. I don’t think the European Commission is part of the boycott movement. Phillip Hammond, Laurent Fabius and John Kerry are not part of the boycott movement.

XX:  I have to get to bed as it’s almost morning here, but I’ll add one thing (and I hate to exploit my relative youth to make a point): It’s not just academics that are turning away from the possibility of a democratic Israel. Progressive secular Jews in my age group (18-24) are increasingly giving up on Israel. I feel like a right-winger these days when making arguments that would land me in Meretz in Israel. Without an active element in the equation, without a way for people who might be sympathetic to Israel to also actively oppose Israel in some areas, Israel will soon become a cause exclusive to the Right.

My suggestion is that liberal intellectuals, academics, businesspeople and celebrities who support Israel, but oppose the settlements, should sign an open letter supporting a boycott of the settlements and the recent labeling proposal. Send it to The Guardian or the New York or London Review of Books, or wherever else might be appropriate. But leaving no activist alternative to BDS is a huge mistake.

DH:  Goodnight XX. You need to start taking antisemitism seriously. Stop thinking like a person in a little bubble, an American liberal academic bubble or an Israeli North Tel Aviv bubble. Raise your eyes. Understand why US anthropologists can’t resist kicking the Jews. Think about the Jews as a minority in the Middle East. We have seen in the last 3 years precisely what kind of danger minorities in the Middle East face.

DH:  And it is hard. It is hard to understand that our friends and colleagues are influenced by antisemitic discourse. If we recognise this then we are faced squarely with our own scary and isolated position. How much nicer it would be if we could deal with antisemitism by being better people. Then it wouldn’t be so scary. If only there was a rational core to it that we could address rationally.

DH: And Bataclan. And Eagles of Death Metal.

XX:   That BDS is in large or in some part motivated by anti-Semitism is not in question. What my concern is whether its rise, particularly in academia, is a result of anti-Semitism or a result of BDS’s success at portraying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between Western colonialists and indigenous peoples. I think it is the latter, and by not acknowledging off the bat and in our own words that the settlements are indeed such a colonial project, we may ourselves be strengthening BDS. Tel Aviv University is already being treated the way Ariel College should be treated.

I strongly believe if there was an alternative—and I would not support this alternative simply to be part of an alternative to BDS, but because it’s right—BDS would soon be seen as unhelpful and extreme by liberal and moderate academics. You certainly won’t see such a lopsided vote if there were three options: no boycott, boycott Israel, or boycott the settlements.

See also:  

The Myth of Institutional Boycotts – David Hirsh

Opposing the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global academic community – David Hirsh

Alan Johnson: The case against Boycott of Israel.  VIDEO. (2014)

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.  (2007)

Stephen HawkingDavid Hirsh on the antisemitism which comes with the boycott campaign. Experiences from UCU  (2013)

Cure worse than the disease: academic boycott of Israel in the light of the academic boycott of South Africa – Mira Vogel (2007)

Mira Vogel on PACBI (2008)

Engage response to BRICUP [PDF] (2007)

Ben Gidley on the antisemitism which comes in the wake of the boycott campaign:  The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union (2011)

Robert Fine responds to Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of Israel in the South African Mail & Guardian  (2010)

Robert Fine in debate about boycotting Israel, “the apartheid state”. (2008)

Antisemitism, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech – Robert Fine (2007)

Hirsh, David. 2012. Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community. Engage, [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2011. No such thing as victimless boycott. Mail and Guardian, South Africa, p. 14. [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2007. Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections. Working Paper. Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Occasional Papers, New Haven, CT

Resignations from UCU over the issue of the academic boycott of Israel.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor (2013)

Norman Finkelstein’s Attack on the BDS Movement

Boycott Israel? Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack.  here.  (Oct 2010)

The University of Johannesburg Boycott, here.  (May 2011)

Eric Lee argues a boycott is no way to help the Palestinians here. (June 07)

Israeli Universities, Israel-Palestinian Peace and Real Solidarity – Paul Frosh, Hebrew University, Jerusalem Added by David Hirsh – 3 November 2006 (Nov 06)

A detailed critique of PACBI‘s (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) call for “BDS” – “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”. Here. (Sep 06, David Hirsh)

Hirsh’s speech and reports from his debate with Ilan Pappe, pro-boycott professor at Haifa University, on the issue of the boycott. At Birmingham AUT. Here.  (Nov 05)

Why I am against the boycott, by John Strawson – 18 May 2005

Another version of who we are. 


Freedom of speech, Charlie Hebdo and the academic boycott of Israel – Robert Fine

Written version of a talk given at colloquium on freedom of speech by Robert Fine, University of Warwick 17

Robert Fine

Robert Fine

November 2015

Under the register of Je suis Charlie, a demonstration of an estimated million and a half people was held in Paris and another million and a half people took to the streets elsewhere in France. They were among the largest public demonstrations in French history, held in protest against the murder of ten editors and cartoonists of a left wing magazine for having published cartoons representing the prophet Mohammed, one security officer and one (Muslim) police officer for having been in the way, and four shoppers in a Kosher supermarket for being Jewish.

The murders had an explicit antisemitic dimension: the four Jews killed in the kosher supermarket were killed because they were Jews; the one woman in the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo who was murdered seems to have been murdered because she was Jewish. This was Elsa Cayat, a Jewish atheist psychoanalyst famous for beginning her therapy sessions with words ‘so, now, tell me’ and for her advice to her sister ‘you ought to read a book a day’. At her funeral the rabbi told a lovely story about rabbis telling God to mind his own business in their debates and God chuckling: ‘My children have beaten me’.

The murder of these Jews in Paris followed the murders of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels and before that of a teacher and three students in a Jewish school in Toulouse.[1] It was followed by the murder of a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue in Copenhagen. The murderers themselves were supporters of a jihadi Islamist movement, Al Qaeda in Yemen, which wore its antisemitism openly on its sleeve. The mass demonstrations against the killings expressed popular support for freedom of expression, religious tolerance and opposition to religious fundamentalism. As one commentator put it, they represented resistance to ‘the assassin’s veto on critical discourse’.

At the same time a sceptical discourse arose among many left and liberal intellectuals. In the Left-liberal press there was no shortage of derogatory comments about the public display of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, Jews and security people.[2] To take one example, Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman wrote that Je suis Charlie was the symbol of the prejudices of the ‘enlightened liberal West against backward barbaric Muslims’. He maintained that the demo was premised on an illusion, that of untrammelled freedom

"They have weapons.  Fuck them, we have champagne"

“They have weapons. Fuck them, we have champagne”

of speech, that it was based on double standards since it refused cartoons mocking the Holocaust and sacked one cartoonist (Maurice Sinet) in 2008 for allegedly making antisemitic cartoons, that it defended a right to offend Muslims that had no corresponding notion of responsibility, and assumed Muslims should have thicker skins, that it supported a magazine that used ‘brazenly racist imagery’ and attacked member of a powerless minority religion, that it vilified Islam across the European continent. For good measure he was also critical of hypocrisy of Western leaders like Obama and Merkel supporting freedom of speech when, he claimed, Obama was demanding Yemen jail an anti-drone journalist and when Merkel supported laws against Holocaust denial. Hasan wrote that it ‘sickened’ him to see Netanyahu at the demonstration.

One thing that strikes me about this discourse, which was strong on the left and had lots of resonance in liberal circles, is how little of value is left for freedom of expression and indeed how little concern it shows about manifest instances of antisemitism.

There was to be sure a problem of double standards among some of the elite of national leaders who attended the demonstration but this is all the more reason to defend this freedom consistently and protest wherever we find it violated. If one opposes, for example, bans on the headscarf and burqa in public institutions, as I think I do, then one should also defend Charlie Hebdo and one should object to the 14 out of 20 countries in the Middle east which criminalise ‘blasphemy’ and the 12 out of 20 which criminalise ‘apostasy’. It is not clear to me why paying some lip service to freedom of expression by the elite is worse than their paying no lip service at all. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop commented on their new-found friends with rather typical Charlie Hebdo vigour: ‘we vomit on all these people’. The hypocrisy of elites does not make the principle of freedom of speech any less valuable. [3]

There was to be sure a danger of Islamophobic appropriation of the protest by the French Front National and movements opposed to the ‘Islamicisation of Europe’. However, the assembly of the people who gathered together in Place de la République almost to a person expressed democratic rather than Islamophobic sentiments, there were many Muslim people who attended, and the organisers of the demonstration explicitly excluded the Front national.

There are examples of Islamophobic violence and stupidity. A right of centre French Mayor of Villiers Sur Marne banned a film called Timbuktu (by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako) on the grounds that it was ‘an apology for terror’. The film actually showed that the first victims of Jihadism are Muslims and how Jihadi forces spread terror in delightful Mali villages through Sharia Law. The villages in question, by the way, were retaken by Mali troops with French support. The President of  Mali, Ibrahim Keita, walked at the head of the unity march arm in arm with Netanyahu. And you might recall that French citizenship was granted to a 24 year old Malian shop worker, Lassana Bathily, who hid and saved Jewish shoppers in the kosher supermarket.

The representation of Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic, homophobic, xenophobic – but not Judaeophobic – is mobilized as grounds for withdrawing solidarity from the victims of the violence. First, there is the obvious difference between defending someone’s right to say something, including something highly controversial and shocking, and endorsing the content of what it said. Second, there is a real problem about the reading of the cartoons. Luiz’s wonderful cartoon of Muhammad shedding a tear under the words ‘Tout est pardonné’ and carrying a placard saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ has a brilliantly ambiguous meaning but surely contains the sense of pardoning the innocent Muhammad for being invoked by nihilistic madmen. It is like another earlier cartoon of Muhammad in tears saying ‘c’est dur d’etre aimé par des cons’, or like one on Muhammad beheaded by a black masked fanatic under the words ‘If Muhammad returned’, or one on one of the cartoonists in a gay embrace with a bearded Mulla under the words ‘Love is stronger than hatred’ (which actually became a slogan on the demonstrations after the killings). This particular cartoon was published shortly after the Charlie Hebdo offices were fire-bombed.

This is not to say that everything Charlie Hebdo did was right and good, but it has attacked many religious targets of different denominations in a Rabelaisian anti-clerical tradition that goes back to the French Revolution and it has attacked Israeli policies toward Palestine. There was one cartoon of priests (I think) declaring ‘every sperm is sacred’ and another of an Israeli settler killing a Palestinian farmer and saying ‘Take that, Goliath’.

Charlie Hebdo was originally a creature of the post-68 New Left, and remained firmly on the left in recent times. It was strongly supported by SOS Racisme and they worked together to campaign against anti-immigrant policies. The editor Charb was in the Front de Gauche, campaigned against neo-liberal changes to the European constitution, and illustrated Marx: A User’s Guide. Bernard Maris, one of the co-editors, was a member of an anti-globalisation movement called Attack and a critic of austerity, corporate corruption, tax havens, the arms industry and Sarkozy.  Now being on the left does not mean that one is not racist but its attacks on ‘blasphemy’ are an act of non-racial solidarity with secularists in countries that criminalise blasphemy. Among other things, Charlie Hebdo does not let its readers forget that the first victims of Jihadism are always Muslims. It expresses its solidarity, for example, with bloggers and cartoonists assassinated by religious fundamentalist forces (like the Syrian Raed Fares by ISIS) or brutally punished (like the blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia).

The attack on Charlie Hebdo within left and liberal circles reminds me of the response of people like John Berger to the 1989 Fatwa against Salman Rushdie. How quickly it was said then that Rushdie provoked the reaction by his blasphemy and that his writings weren’t any good anyway!

The antisemitic dimensions of the violence have normally been either neglected by people critical of the freedom of speech demos or somehow understood as a reaction to the killing of Palestinians by the Israelis. Even if the grocery shoppers were innocent, still we hear it is a reminder that Jews 1000 miles away are guilty of terrible crimes against Islam – or some such racist nonsense. Rather than see Islamophobia and antisemitism as connected forms of racism, there is a tendency to set up a zero-sum competition of victimhood in which concern for one supplants concern for the other. It is what Kenan Malik calls an ‘auction of victimhood’ where in the name of offended groups a struggle goes on within elites to get taboo images banned from the press.

We find a homogenised picture being drawn of Arab-Muslim powerlessness, persecution and poverty. This image touches on the experience of discrimination felt by doubtless many Muslims in France, especially in the banlieues, but pays little heed to the dynamics of society – that is, that Arabs and Muslims in France are socially differentiated and politically diverse. The depiction of Muslims as uniformly and unreflectively ‘offended’ by cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, often drawn by secular Muslim intellectuals, colludes uncomfortably with an Islamophobia that declares that blind rage is in the culture if not the genes of Muslims. It is not true anyway that all pious Muslims are opposed to the representation of the Prophet and there are plenty of secular Muslims that are not pious anyway. While few proponents of this sceptical discourse defend the attacks, the role they are tempted to assume is to translate them into a political language they can defend.

In this Alice in Wonderland world everything is upside down. What is Right is treated as Left (Jihadism with its dream of a Caliphate, its conspiracy thinking about Jews undermining Islam, its attacks on anyone who disagrees) and what is Left is treated as Right (Charlie Hebdo with its antiracist, anti-homophobic and anti-establishment views). Important distinctions are not made – between speech designed to incite violence and hatred which is not protected in law) and speech that is anti-religious and may appear blasphemous from the point of view of the pious (like Malcolm Muggeridge and Life of Brian) which is protected. Hate speech has led to prosecutions of the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for saying in public ‘Je suis Charlie Coulibaly) for inciting hatred of Jews but also against Brigitte Bardot and the journalist Eric Zemmour for inciting anti-Muslim hatred. These are important distinctions. Laws against hate speech protect people from violence. Laws against blasphemy protect the state and state religions from the people.

The tendency to devalue freedom of expression also seems to me transparent in the current campaign in our academic union UCU to impose an academic boycott on Israeli academic and cultural institutions. No right to freedom of expression for Israeli academics. It has never been clear why Israeli academics and academic institutions are singled out when a host of other countries have equally or more repressive regimes and usually far more restrictive academic institutions. Nor is it clear why Israeli academic institutions and their members are being blamed for the alleged crimes committed by the state, when the whole point of freedom of expression is to support civil society against states seen rightly or wrongly as repressive. It seems to me like blatant discrimination on grounds of nationality or worse ethnicity (if Palestinian Israelis are excluded from the boycott), blatant collective punishment of civil society actors (many of whom are on the left) for what their state is alleged to have done, and blatant disregard for the important of listening to points of view with which one disagrees or thinks one will disagree. It’s like the blasphemy argument all over again.

The failure to answer these questions leads to ever-wilder claims about the nature of Israel to justify a selective boycott: that it is like or worse than apartheid, that it always has genocidal intent vis-à-vis Palestinians, that it is akin to Nazism, that it turns Jews from victims to victimisers, etc. The practices of the boycott campaign certainly have their own ideational dynamic.

Normal procedures of solidarity with fellow trade unionists and fellow academics in this case alone are not followed. Key principles to which universities are committed – academic freedom, freedom of speech, exchange of ideas, rational argumentation – are in this case suspended. It is considered perfectly ok for the union to restrict access to the voices of Israeli or Jewish Israeli academics. It is not even considered important to take steps to ensure that the campaign does not attract antisemites or generate antisemitic consequences. The union does not follow its own ‘MacPherson’ principle, namely that if some members feel rightly or wrongly a whiff of they antisemitism; this is sufficient ground not for exploring whether or not it is true. [4]

The union shows no sign of responsibility to explain why its policy of excluding Israeli and only academic institutions from the world academic community should not be considered discriminatory on the basis of nationality (Israeli) or religion (Jewish), and no sign of responsibility to prevent slippage from political criticism of Israeli state policy to the vilification of a whole people.

The early history of the campaign to boycott Israeli academe within the main academic unions in the UK goes back to the 1980s when some Left groupings which labelled Israel ‘the illegitimate State’, called for the ‘no-platforming’ of Zionist organisations on university campuses. These included Jewish Societies with which the Left groupings had previously cooperated in the Anti-Nazi League.

Instead we find a almost obsessive insistence that what it is doing is not antisemitic. In the early 2000s the Association of University Teachers (AUT) passed a motion deploring the ‘witch-hunting’ of colleagues participating in the academic boycott of Israel, demanding recognition that ‘anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism’, and resolving to give support to members ‘unjustly accused of anti-Semitism because of their political opposition to Israeli government policy’.

The AUT successor union, UCU, passed successive resolutions calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions all of which were prefaced by statements to the effect that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. In 2006 it was resolved that ‘criticism of the Israeli government is not in itself anti-Semitic’ and claimed that ‘defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate and in the context of Higher Education to restrict academic freedom’. At the 2007 congress, it resolved that ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic’ and at the 2008 congress it resolved that ‘criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-Semitic’. In 2011 the union resolved to dissociate itself from the ‘working definition of antisemitism’ of the then European Union Monitoring Commission (EUMC), since it attempted inter alia to draw a line between legitimate political criticism and antisemitic stigmatisation of Israel.

The lady does protest too much, methinks, as Hamlet’s mum put it.  Once we embrace censorship there is always the question of who will be next. How can we stand up to the Prevent agenda if we stop people speaking on the basis of nationality, religion or ethnicity?  Freedom of speech is not a liberal bauble but a freedom on which all other freedoms depend. It is the freedom crucial to civil rights, gay liberation and women’s movements. This is not to say that I agree with American Supreme Court judgments on the First Amendment, which offer far too narrow definitions in my view of what constitutes incitement to hatred and violence. I don’t like its reliance on counter-speech of the victims – it needs to protect victims. I don’t like its limitation of incitement to violence and hate only that kind of speech that is targeted at specific individuals rather than whole groups. A vigorous defence of freedom of expression and a vigorous support for restrictions on expressions of incitement to hatred and violence are not incompatible.

Written version of a talk given at colloquium on freedom of speech by Robert Fine, University of Warwick 17 November 2015

[1] On the escalation of antisemitic violence in France in recent years, see the five part series in Tablet  by Marc Weitzmann (http://www.tabletmag.com/tag/frances-toxic-hate) and Marie Brenner, “Frabce’s Scarlet Letter” http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2003/06/france-muslim-jewish-population

[2] Richard Seymour in the Jacobin described the demo as ‘platitudinous, mawkish and narcissistic’ – a ‘blackmail that forces us into solidarity with a racist institution’. It became something of a vogue to say ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’. Jon Wilson in Labour List referred to what he called the ‘obvious racism’ of Charlie Hebdo. Jacob Garfield in the Hooded Utilitarian described Charlie Hebdo as ‘xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Islamic’ and claimed it editorial board was all-white as if this were itself a damning argument (it was actually untrue – he seemed to forget about the murdered Algerian ? Moustapha Ourrad).

[3] Perhaps Charlie Hebdo is like Aristophanes. It is said that when the demagogue Cleon criticized Aristophanes for lampooning the city’s magistrates before foreigners, never daunted, Aristophanes’ two plays, The Acharnians and Knights, satirized the situation with Cleon. They resulted in prizes for the poet. Let’s hope for the same for Charlie Hebdo. Comedy can say and do what cannot otherwise be said or done with impunity in public life, and the behaviour of its audience is part of that special contract. The audience of Aristophanes could laugh without danger, even when the victims of comic abuse were in reality powerful and influential. I guess we can no longer laugh without danger.


[4] The argument drawn from the precedent of boycott in the struggle against apartheid, that it represented a non-violent and democratic ethos, is one-sided: it underplays the role of direct links and solidarity with fellow academics and unions; it erases from memory the considerable problems caused by the discriminatory enforcement of the boycott; it glosses over political differences between opponents of apartheid that underlay boycott debates. One argument put forward in favour of the boycott of Israeli academe is that it was called for by ‘Palestinian civil society’, but in theory it is in the nature of civil society not to speak with one voice and in practice the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank does not support the call.

Livingstone – not the first time he has used the mental illness slur

Yesterday Ken Livingstone, responded to political criticism of his appropriateness to co-chair Labour’s policy making body on defence.  In a previous debate about mental illness,  Kevan Jones had spoken emotionally about his own experience of depression.  Yesterday, in response to Jones’ criticism of his politics on defence, Livingstone said:

“I think [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”

Back in 2006, when Livingstone was Mayor of London, he responded similarly to a journalist who asked him for a quote outside a party for a Labour minister:

Oliver Finegold: “Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did it …”

Ken Livingstone: “Oh, how awful for you.”

Finegold: “How did tonight go?”

Livingstone: “Have you thought of having treatment?”

This exchange preceded the one in which Livingstone famously accused the Jewish journalist of being ‘just like a concentration camp guard’ because he was ‘only doing his job’.

Later last night on Channel Four News, there was an exchange between the Livingstone and Jones:

Livingstone: [asked if he was forced to apologize]  “Jeremy … reminded me that Jeremy’s strategy is that we don’t do all the offensive back-stabbing and rows that we’ve had in the past, so I just got on board with that.”

The reality is, … you provoked this row by questioning my ability to do this job …

Jones: “So that excuses your grossly offensive language?”

Livingstone: “And I thought your attack on me was grossly offensive.”

Livingstone understands that it is the practice of the new Corbyn politics to construct any political criticism as “grossly offensive”.

The standard response is then to act like a victim of powerful dark forces and complain about being “smeared” by the Tories/Zionists/Blairites/Tabloids.

But Livingstone took it one step further, giving everybody something concrete with which to “smear” him.  Then his hurt at being “smeared” could be all the louder, and his public escape from opprobrium all the more brilliant.

‘Jeremy doesn’t do personal’ does not mean that the Corbynistas refrain from insulting others; it means that they refrain from responding to that which they are able to construct as insulting.

Livingstone pioneered the ad hominem response to political criticism with the Livingstone Formulation – in which anybody who raises the issue of antisemitism is accused of doing so in bad faith in order to silence criticism of Israel.

Now the Corbyn faction is generalising the Livingstone Formulation into a political strategy.  Any political criticism which is hard to deal with can be characterized as a “smear” and can be slapped down with the counter-allegation that the critic is acting dishonestly and out of malevolent motivation.

This way of doing politics is more than just a rhetorical tactic however.  It is deeply rooted in the Corbyn faction’s Stalinist and ‘campist’ political tradition.  This faction defines people as being part of the “community of the good” or part of the “community of the bad” and it assigns people or groups or even whole nations to one or the other.  The Corbynistas do not relate to those who are bundled outside of the community of the good or the community of the oppressed by reason or by argument: instead they feel licensed to treat them as political enemies and to isolate and silence them.

For more on this, read: The Corbyn left: the politics of position and the politics of reason.






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