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.

Jews for justice for Palestinians: how they remember Holocaust Memorial Day.

The official Jews For Justice For Palestinians’ facebook page is Here.  On Holocaust Memorial Day this week they remembered the day by posting with the hashtag HolocaustMemorialDay this image taken from the war last year in Gaza.

[Images removed after threat of legal action from JfJfP’s social media strategist Aaron Dover, who didn’t want them posted here (did JfJfP have permission to use them? Who knows). The first was a picture of razed Gazan buildings and the caption NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE, with the JfJfP logo and the #HolocaustMemorialDay hashtag. The second was a Gazan child crying over the corpse of another Gazan child, same caption, same hashtag.]

 Their current header is another popular photo from last year’s war in Gaza which also has the #HolocaustMemorialDay.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, why don’t they remember the Holocaust?

The Israel/Palestine conflict is not like the Holocaust.

During the Holocaust six million Jews from across Europe were selected, isolated, and murdered on an industrial scale. Others were selected and murdered too, like lesbians and gay men, Roma people and the disabled.

The Israel Palestine conflict is a small local conflict in the Middle East between two nations who are unable to find a peace between them, with rights and wrongs on both sides. It isn’t like the Holocaust.

The politics of mobilizing Holocaust Memorial Day against “Zionism” is a disgraceful one.  It tries to paint Jewish survivors as being equivalent to the Nazis who tried to kill them; it hints that Jews who remember the Holocaust are actually doing so for disgraceful reasons; it denies the hugeness of the Nazi plot to kill the Jews by making it seem like an ordinary conflict over ordinary things.

Sure, let’s talk about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

But not on Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, let’s remember what happened in the heart of Europe to the European Jews.

How not to criticise the CAA’s surveys on antisemitism.

There has been much press coverage recently of 2 surveys on antisemitism by the grass roots organisation set up last year, The  Campaign Against Antisemitsm. Various aspects of the methodology of the surveys and the interpretation of the data have been sensibly criticised, such as here and here. The media hype has been addressed here. This was important and needed to be done. However an article on Jews For Justice For Palestinians provided an example of how not to do so. It’s an horrific article written by Aaron Dover who runs their social media strategy. It now seems to have been taken down but you can read a cached version of it here. Here’s a taster from several different parts of the aticle:

Antisemitism is a danger not to the purported victims of said antisemitism, but to the actual victims; those accused of it. Everyone lives the antisemitism minefield. It is not neccesary for me to spell out the consequences for anyone who falls foul of the various bodies of antisemite-hunters that span the globe. Socially, professionally, step on an antsemitism mine, and you’re toast.

The world is tired of the Jewish victimhood song, and tired of this victimhood being used as a weapon, as a means to bully people into observing Zionist taboos.

Because otherwise, you know at this rate, we European Jews will all going to the gas soon. Yawn.


Two responses to murdered French Jews: Tim Willcox and David Ward

The BBC’s Tim Willcox has caused widespread dismay following his interview with a woman at yesterday’s rally in Paris.  When she fearfully invoked memories of the 1930s and said people must recognize that Jews are the target for violent hate, he gratuitously introduced the Israel/Palestine issue.

‘Many critics though of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffered hugely at Jewish hands as well’.

She rightly points out that this is an ‘amalgame’ – conflation – but, unbelievably, Wilcox still presses the point.

“But you understand; everything is seen from different perspectives.”

As BBC Watch points out, the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism includes the following:

 “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

Willcox has form on this issue.  Back in November, when he was hosting a BBC News Channel review of the papers, a guest made a reference to the ‘Jewish lobby’ being opposed to Labour’s support for recognition of a Palestinian state. Rather than picking her up on this, he chipped in with:

“Yeah and a lot of these prominent Jewish…ah….ah….faces will be very much against the mansion tax presumably as well.”

Readers are unlikely to need reminding of David Ward’s track record. Yesterday, after expressing his disgust at the presence of Netanyahu in Paris, he tweeted:

Je suis #Palestinian

This appears to have been his only response to the murders of four French Jews. Considering the amount of criticism he has received for a whole string of offensive remarks, he must know full well the impact and significance of this malicious intervention (which, needless, to say, does the Palestinian cause absolutely no good at all.)

UCU continues its campaign to punish Ronnie Fraser for challenging its antisemitism – David Hirsh

UPDATE – DECISON – see below

UCU is in court again today looking to make Ronnie Fraser pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for daring to challenge its antisemitism.

The original tribunal, led by Judge Snelson, found that claims of institutional antisemitism in the UCU were all baseless and that Fraser was raising the issue of antisemitism in bad faith in order to get an underhand advantage in the Israel/Palestine debate.

The Snelson tribunal later recused itself from hearing UCU’s action against Fraser for costs on the basis that its own judgment had already over-reached itself because it made claims which were arguably prejudicial to the costs hearing.

UCU insisted that a new tribunal should be convened to hear its action for costs.  Fraser and his lawyers argued that a costs hearing could only be fair if it went over the issues of the case again and in detail to show that Fraser’s claim was not only lost – but to show to a quite different standard that it was also vexatious or entirely inappropriate – that Fraser should have known that he would lose.

Fraser’s lawyers argued that the law was clear – that a costs hearing could only be held if it could be a summary hearing and if the issues were straightforward.  In this case, a long hearing would be necessary to go over much of the evidence again (for the new tribunal), to look at the relationships between Fraser and his lawyers and to look at whether each issue raised was so inappropriate as to be a waste of the court’s time.

The new tribunal ruled that this could be done in a day with one day’s reading preparation.

Today Fraser’s lawyers are appealing this ruling.  They are arguing that a fair hearing for costs would need to go over all the counts and issues of the original case again because they would be being heard by a new tribunal and against new criteria.  Witnesses would have to be re-heard and new witnesses called.  If there cannot be a summary hearing then the law says, they argue, that there cannot be a costs hearing at all.


NB this was a hearing to gain leave to appeal this previous decision to allow a summary hearing of costs, it was not the appeal itself.

The Appeal Judge did not give leave to appeal.   He refused to overrule the lower Judge’s determination that a fair hearing for costs can be carried out in two days.

In a verbal judgment, he seemed explicitly to close ranks with the lower Employment Tribunal Judges.  He gratuitously praiseed the Snelson Judgment, saying that it was “very well written”.  He quoted, apparently approvingly, the most trenchant and absurd paragraphs of the Snelson judgment, the ones which led to the recusal.  He praised the chair of the new tribunal Judge Wade’s decision that a fair hearing for costs can be carried out in one day of reading and one day of argument, with no new evidence, no witnesses, relying mainly on the Snelson judgment which itself went far beyond its remit in the determination of facts and offered opinion about the bad faith, underhand intentions and wastefulness of the whole action.

The hearing for costs will take place next Wednesday, the first day of Channukah.  Nobody is expecting a miracle.

David Hirsh  

The Half Decents: Rock and roll across the political divide for Syria relief – David Toube

Half-Decents-300x154Some causes transcend political barriers. The plight of those trapped between the murderers of the Islamic State and the slaughter at the hands of Assad’s forces is one of those issues

About six months ago, a group of bloggers and political commentators decided to put on a charity gig to raise money for  Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) and their vital work in the region.

On Saturday, 6 December, the gig will take place at Theatre Delicatessen on the Farringdon Road.

Dubbed ‘The Half Decents’, our ad-hoc band will perform a familiar blend of rock classics and blues standards, with a sprinkling of indie pop.

The Facebook Event page is here.

We’re asking anybody who wants to attend to donate at least £10 to Medecins Sans Frontiers, via this special JustGiving Fundraising Page.

The Half Decents is made up of Davis Lewin (Henry Jackson Society), Paul Evans (Slugger O’Toole), David Osler (ex Tribune), David Toube (Harry’s Place), Brett Lock (ex OutRage!) and Adam Barnett (East London Advertiser).

Veteran semi-reformed Trot David Osler would love to see you there to witness his striking Johnny Cash impersonation. He points out:

“The Half Decents are probably the only band in the world to feature Marxist/neocon twin lead guitars. The gig should be unmissable for that alone.”

Davis Lewin, from the Henry Jackson Society, notes:

“Never before has so much political and musical disagreement come together so harmoniously and with such fun in a tight(ening) package of era-busting rock, blues, country and pop songs.  Music is a wonderful antidote and restorer of sanity in the face of such a gravely imperfect world.  To combine it with our shared political commitment to the cause of MSF’s work to alleviate Syria’s suffering may only be a miniscule contribution in a sea of horror.  But it affords a tangible opportunity to make a small contribution by harnessing the joy of a good groove.  I wouldn’t miss it for the world and nor should you!”

Starry eyed political idealist and democracy nerd, Paul Evans would also love to see you there:

“Not only are we aiming to raise a hefty figure to help the good people of Syria through an experience that few of us could even imagine, we will also be exposing the good people of Farringdon to another, different kind of hell a baptism in the holy waters of Rock’n’Roll.”

Brett Lock, formerly of OutRage! observes:

“I’ve always believed that most committed writers and campaigners do so from a position of genuine concern for the world and in good faith, whatever their political or ideological differences. Meeting every Sunday to rehearse with this group of people has been a huge pleasure. We united around getting a Chuck Berry song right. We then united to include both a Smiths and a Guns & Roses song. But most importantly we united to make our small but practical gesture to assist MSF deliver some humanitarian aid where it is desperately needed.”​

We’d love to see as many readers and fellow bloggers there as possible. Please cross post this post, and please come along to see us.

The event is hosted by 89Up, the campaigns and public affairs agency.


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