Archive for the ‘anti-racism’ Category
A few weeks ago Martin Bright ran a Jewish Chronicle piece on Green Party England and Wales leadership candidate Pippa Bartolotti, somebody who makes the obvious and boorish kind of antisemitic statements which can’t be ignored.
Adam Ramsay’s response at Bright Green Scotland reminded me that most people who say they find antisemitism unbelievable are reacting to other people who don’t toe their line on hating Israel. He’s an exception and it’s important to recognise that.
You can read PB’s defence in the comments under Adam’s post. She refers to her Jewish grandfather as if not being antisemitic were in the genes. If Jews were as harshly oppressed by Palestinians, she says she’d be working as hard for their human rights – I imagine her invoking the “university of life” lie about Arabs being treacherous by nature. That would be the equivalent to what she has said about Israel’s Jewish ambassador. I wonder how her conversation with the Foreign Office unfolded – has Rowan Laxton been reinstated? They’d have so much to talk about.
On Holocaust memorial day Peter Cranie reflects on the need to be vigilant about contemporary antisemitism, particularly as it relates to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
On BBC3 tonight Monday 14th November 9-10pm and available for 7 days is Mixed Up in the Middle East in which Reya al-Salahi travels to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Her mother is Jewish, her father is Muslim, and the longer she spends in the region the more complicated the inequality, fear, humiliation, violence and retaliation she observes become. She returns to Oxford with a sense of injustice and a new humility about finding a solution to the conflict.
Much less complicated, in Israel the cabinet continues to turn its back on human rights. We have a National Unity Party (nationalist) MK proposing a bill to force sports team members representing Israel to sing a national anthem containing Jewish-specific lyrics, on pain of expulsion (if that one passed, which is unlikely, the correct response would be for all team members to refuse to sing). Likud (right wing) and Yisrael Beteinu (nationalist) MKs have proposed bills to limit and tax donations to NGOs which seek to influence Israeli policy*. Supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other senior ministers, these proposals were approved by Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation. If they wanted to minimise “outside interference” in “internal affairs” (the occupation, of course, is not an internal affair) from “foreign” donors (think EU and US) they have sorely misjudged the situation and various world leaders are now making Netanyahu sweat.
There is a fight against the bills from within Likud, 5 ministers leading an appeal. The New Israel Fund, which is organising a letter-writing campaign to Netanyahu, writes in an email that Knesset Speaker Reuvin Rivlin (Likud) said “The new Likud is not committed to the ethics of liberty, to the values of Jabotinsky and of Begin.” Minister Benny Begin (Likud) said “Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Uzbekistan – these are countries that have similar laws to this one … What kind of society are we living in?” British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould has raised objections to the effect that the UK funds many NGOs in many countries without being against their governments.
Rachel Liel, Chief Exec of the New Israel Fund, writes:
“Defending the principles of democracy – equality for all citizens before the law, the rule of law over the will of the majority – this is not easy anywhere. Because of history, geography, demography and “the situation,” it may be harder in Israel than in any other democratic country. And this is precisely why these ill winds blowing through the halls of power pose such a threat, and why this society must be mobilized to resist them – because this country is unusually vulnerable to their force.”
In other news, a secular yeshiva (educational institution focusing on Jewish religious texts) has opened in Jerusalem. Its founders “want to offer courses that study Judaism within a pluralistic environment” and perceive “a strong connection between developing a pluralistic Jewish identity and the ongoing struggle to end the Orthodox rabbinical monopoly on Jewish lifecycle events”.
*These are proposals that anybody who has ever been troubled by the idea of an “Israel lobby” can wholeheartedly endorse – no?
Flotillistas sometimes remind me of the Victorian gentry who condescended to visit the hovels of poor to gratify their self-regard and fulfil their obligations to the status quo. Sometimes they remind me of those sections of the international left intelligentsia at the time of the Spanish Civil War who toured round southern Europe socialising and seducing each other while somehow avoiding actually participating in the fight for democracy.
A few days after undertaking to mind her party’s language about Jews, Caroline Lucas was praising a party boat whose effort for Gaza was limited to sailing up and down the Thames. She said:
“It is hard not to be aware of Palestine when it’s the root of so many injustices in the Middle East today.”
Surely Caroline Lucas must have meant “perceived injustices“, referring to the way that governments of the Middle East use Palestinians to divert attention from their own failures and abuses? Because those who are at this moment fighting their governments for their rights in the Middle East could easily disillusion her that Palestine is the root of their injustices. The problems of the Middle East are of course many and diverse, including democratic accountability and governance, corruption, ethnic and religious oppression, water, the position of women in society – the list goes on.
Meanwhile Gisha, the Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement which has not let up its criticism of the Israeli government since Gaza was contained, is frustrated with flotillas:
As the flotilla approaches, Gisha warns that the focus on humanitarian aid by both flotilla organizers and the Israeli government is infuriating and misleading.
“The problem in Gaza is not a shortage of food but rather a violation of the right to productive, dignified work. There is just one solution that will respect the rights of Gaza residents to freedom of movement and livelihood while protecting Israel’s legitimate security interests: Israel must lift the ban on construction materials, exit of goods and travel between Gaza and the West Bank”.
According to Mohammed Tilbani, owner of a sweets factory in Gaza: “The market for my goods in the West Bank is blocked, because of the restrictions on export, and local consumption is limited, because of the high unemployment. A factory that cannot sell its goods outside of Gaza is a factory that cannot prosper”
HT Just Journalism.
Here’s a 2004 New Internationalist piece by Asma Agbarieh, a political organiser based in Jaffa. She writes against antisemitism and against antisemitism as moral justification for acts of oppression by the Israeli government. The piece is full of historically-grounded insight and never blames the victims, Palestinian or Israeli:
“Because Israel purports to represent Jews in general, the hatred it arouses is readily extended to Jews in general. Yet not so long ago, we should remember, the attitude on the Palestinian street was different. Through the period of the first Intifada, most Palestinians were careful to distinguish between Zionists and Jews, because they related to the conflict as a political one as opposed to a religious or racist one.”
Following up on Asma Agbarieh (now Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka) brought me to Challenge magazine, a 17 year-old Tel Aviv-based periodical of socialist perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where I found this from the Israeli workers’ party, Da’am – The 1967 lines or apartheid – yes to the democratic Arab revolution! alongside Asma’s own class analysis:
“We believe that apart from the fence that separates Jews and Arabs, there is a very different kind of fence. This new fence positions on one side all workers of the world, the victims of neoliberal economics: Arabs, Jews, Americans, Greeks, Spaniards, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians, Chinese and more. On the other side stand the wealthy of all nations, backed by their governments, who exploit, oppress, and make profits. Here is a large space for action, because the forces that unify are stronger than those that divide.
The task is not easy. The hatred is abysmal, and each side clings to its narrative. Such division is influenced by the atmosphere of religious and nationalist extremism in both camps. But the common denominator is bigger. The Jewish worker is beginning to grasp the fact that he or she is being transformed into an “Arab”—that is, one who has no privileges in the Jewish State, which itself has become a State for the Rich. This new reality confronts Jewish workers with a major challenge: Will they go on risking their lives in Israel’s wars—for the sake of sixteen families?
But there is also a challenge for Arab workers. Will they realize at last that the national-religious agenda leads to ruin, and that the only way out is to find their class partners on the other side?”
And this from Michal Schwartz on racism against Israel’s African asylum seekers, again with analysis relevant to any wealthy country which seizes upon cheap labour (though the final sentence about legitimacy is a shame).
There is plenty of analysis on why Oslo failed.
Based on the pieces I have read, Challenge doesn’t essentialise, demonise, or single out. Its arguments penetrate and are based in principles which extend. Jews, Israelis, Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs and others reading Challenge may respond strongly, but that response will be on political grounds rather than because their identity has been attacked. For this reason Challenge’s trenchant criticisms stand out from the dross about Israel and Palestine we wade through on a daily basis, and deserve to be widely read by those interested in a better Middle East.
Gilbert at Bright Green Scotland doesn’t support Israel but empathises, “I don’t think that the glib response of ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just anti-Israeli policies’ is necessarily enough.”
A thoughtful post on anti-Israelism and antisemitism.
The Green Party briefly accepted the EUMC’s Working Definition of Antisemitism before succumbing to a politically-motivated campaign to remove it. The University and College Union, which has received Green Party support for its anti-Israel activity, now faces a similar effort to banish the definition from any future consideration of antisemitism.
In response to Congress Motion 7, Ben Gidley, an academic who studies racism, has a piece in the Dissent blog Arguing the World, titled ‘The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union‘, which we have permission to reproduce in full.
I cannot recommend enough reading this piece. We can only regret that it didn’t exist at the time of the discussions in the Green Party which, almost unopposed, resolved to exclude it, and all it represents, from consideration.
My trade union, the University and College Union (UCU, representing professionals in further and higher education in the United Kingdom), has its annual congress this weekend, and, under the title “Campaigning for equality,” will be debating a number of motions on racism and discrimination, including one on how anti-Semitism should be defined.
Unions need policies on such things, because union case work, on relations between employees and management and among colleagues, often involves discrimination and harassment that may be racist. At times like now, when there are huge cuts in higher education and academics are being placed under ever more performance pressure by management, harassment and workplace tensions can increase, and these issues become even more important.
But there are many difficulties in addressing racism.
Racism is mercurial. It mutates over time. Pseudoscientific racial theories are now spouted only by marginal cranks. Notions that different races are different species have come and gone; eugenics has come and gone; words like “Aryan” and “Semitic” are starting to sound quaint. The period since the 1980s has seen the rise of cultural racism, or racism that focuses on cultural differences rather than biological ones.
Racism is promiscuous. It will use whatever materials it has at hand. In the age when the Church dominated European ways of thinking, racism used a Biblical language; Jews were attacked as Christ-killers, black people were condemned as under the curse of Ham. With the modern rise of scientific disciplines, racism had access to a whole new language. When that language was discredited by the Nazi genocide, new forms of expression were found—those others don’t share our way of life, they cook food that smells, they control the media, or they have a culture of criminality.
Racism proceeds through euphemism and code. At various points, “aliens,” “cosmopolitan,” “Zionist,” and “finance capital” have served as euphemisms for Jews; while the Nazis spoke about sub-humans, today’s anti-Semites mutter about Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs. Sometimes it is impossible to distinguish the code from what’s behind it—are Muslims hated by racists in Western Europe because of their perceived color and culture, or are North Africans and South Asians hated because they are Muslim?
Some racists wear Ku Klux Klan uniforms, or shave their heads and perform Nazi salutes. But others wear suits and ties and talk about “free speech” or the “rights of the indigenous people.” We’re not against black people, says the British National Party, we’re just for white people. We’re not fascists, says the rebranded National Front in France, we even have a black candidate.
Libraries full of books and journals full of articles are devoted to debating, dissecting, and defining racism in general, and tracking its specific mutations. For every definition or classification proposed, there are qualifications, exceptions, counterexamples, refutations. No one-page definition would be universally accepted by scholars.
But in the streets, in the workplace, and in the courts of law, you need something more straightforward. When a grassroots civil society organization monitors racist incidents, when a union is asked to represent a colleague that has been the victim of racist bullying, when a lawyer prosecutes a racially aggravated crime, when an editorial assistant has to moderate an op-ed comment thread where temperatures have been raised—you might need some kind of working definition to rule the incident in or out. If all racists looked like booted boneheads or evil Nazis, these people would have an easy job.
A few principles have emerged from the anti-racist movement to help decide a case. Three are particularly relevant. First, the victims of racism should have at least some say in defining racism. This principle is reflected, for example, in British law. Following the racist murder and failure to prosecute the killers of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, in London, there was a thorough review of the case that profoundly changed how the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom addresses these issues, presided over by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny.
The ensuing Macpherson Report in 1999 recommended that a racist incident be defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person,” and reported, recorded, and investigated as such. Of course, the offense taken by someone who sees him or herself as a victim can never be a sufficient criterion for ruling and convicting someone of a racially motivated or aggravated crime, but the victim’s voice should be heard and constitutes at least prima facie grounds for taking the allegation seriously. And this principle also means, for instance, that black people should have a role in defining anti-black racism, that Jews should have a role in defining anti-Semitism, and so on.
Second, racist intent is not necessary for a statement or action to be racist. Acting in good faith, believing oneself not to be racist, and being ignorant of what constitutes racism do not exempt us. In fact, anti-racists have long argued that racism is so pervasive that we are all often unconsciously racist. We are not aware of the implications of our words and actions, of the connotations they have, of the harm they might cause. The issue that matters, in other words, is racist deeds and words, not racist people. Combating racism does not require an inquisition into our souls; it requires attention to the impact of our actions. This principle is taken further in the concept of “institutional racism,” defined initially by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, whose words were drawn on in the Macpherson report, which defined it as the
collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
The key word here is “unwitting”: it is not racist intent that matters, but the harm done. Saying “some of my best friends are black” doesn’t let you off the hook.
Third, context matters. A word might be racist in one context but not another. This principle is well established in British case law around racially aggravated crimes. For instance, in the case Director of Public Prosecutions v M 2004, the Divisional Court held that the phrase “‘bloody foreigners’ could, depending on the context, demonstrate hostility to a racial group.” This was cited in Rogers v Regina 2007, when one of the judges, Baroness Hale, said, “The context will illuminate what the conduct shows.” For example, the word “Zionist” means something very different in the name of the Zionist Federation than it would if a BNP member were to walk into a synagogue and shout, “Kill the Zionists.”
DEFINING ANTI-SEMITISM has become one of the most difficult instances of defining racism. This is partly because of the particularly strange mutation of anti-Semitism in recent years, including the emergence of what has contentiously been called “the new anti-Semitism.”
Far-right anti-Semitic movements increasingly borrow the language of anti-Zionism as a cover for their racism, and far-right anti-Semitic ideas have in turn increasingly gained traction among anti-Zionists. For example, anti-Zionists have taken up the old Christian anti-Semitic “blood libel” myth, while neo-Nazis have taken up ideas from the anti-Zionist movement, such as the idea of an all-powerful “Israel lobby.” So, while the British Chief Rabbi’s claim that we are experiencing a “tsunami of anti-Semitism” is almost certainly exaggerated, it is certainly the case that there has been a surge in the last decade.
This surge has mainly been seen in different sorts of places than where anti-Semitism has traditionally been encountered. In fact, it is often expressed by the intelligent, thoughtful, anti-racist academics who make up UCU’s rank and file.
In 2008, for example, a union activist circulated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory taken from the website of the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke to hundreds of union members on its activist list. When this was mentioned on a blog, rather than apologizing, she took the advice of a senior union member and threatened legal action, getting the blog closed down. To my knowledge, this activist was never censured within the union. (In contrast, leading campaigners against an academic boycott of Israel were excluded from the same email list for minor infringements of etiquette.) Several Jewish academics resigned in what they saw as the rise of a culture of institutional anti-Semitism.
The following year, a senior union member posted an article to a website circulating another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, complaining that Jews are overrepresented in Parliament and that Tony Blair’s New Labour project is in thrall to Zionist money distributed by suspicious “shape-shifting” financiers. A couple of months later, a UCU branch secretary, speaking at a UCU congress fringe meeting, promoted yet another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: lawyers ruling on union boycott policy have “bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can’t be tracked down.” Again, no censure from the union. The same year, UCU hosted South African trade unionist Bongani Masuku, allowing him to address UCU members on boycotting Israel, despite the fact that the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) had found Masuku guilty of hate speech against Jews.
These incidents might suggest that there is a need for action and robust guidance on anti-Semitism within the union. Instead, the leadership has insisted on seeing all these instances as nothing other than legitimate criticisms of Israel. In 2006, the union executive published a formal statement denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming 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.” This was formalized as union policy at its 2007 congress, which resolved that “criticism of Israel cannot [emphasis added] be construed as anti-semitic”—a motion that seems to me to deny the obvious reality that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The following year, another policy passed, clarifying it: “Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are [sic] not, as such, anti-semitic.” Again, the resolution did not acknowledge that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
By 2009, there had been so many resignations from the union because of this sort of thing that a motion was put to the congress noting the resignations and mandating that the national executive investigate the causes. This was rejected by a large majority.
When it was pointed out to UCU that its guest Bongani Masuku had been criticized by the HRC, rather than taking this institution and its findings seriously, the UCU dismissed this as “stuff doing the rounds on the internet”—shocking ignorance of post-apartheid South Africa for a union whose leaders regularly use the apartheid analogy to describe Israel, but also an a priori refusal to take racism against Jews as seriously as other racisms. A motion to UCU congress noting the HRC’s findings and disassociating congress from Masuku’s anti-Semitic views was formally rejected by an overwhelming show of hands. This near-unanimity in rejecting criticism of anti-Semitism led to a number of resignations from the union, from Jewish colleagues who took it as a sign that anti-Semitism was thoroughly institutionalized in it.
The culture in the UCU has been to dismiss in advance any criticism of racism against Jews, seeing it as merely a tactic to smother debate and criticism. While a handful of anti-Zionist Jews have applauded this, many academics from the Jewish community have felt increasingly isolated, their own understanding of racism not taken seriously, violating the principle that the victims of racism should have some voice in its definition. The a priori dismissal of allegations of anti-Semitism follows what David Hirsh has called “the Livingstone formulation”—the claim that allegations of anti-Semitism are made in bad faith to stifle debate. By alleging that Jews are merely crying anti-Semitism to stop people talking about Israel, the UCU leadership cries Israel to stop people talking about anti-Semitism.
WHICH BRINGS us up to the present, and the latest motion on anti-Semitism. This motion notes “with concern [that] the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism,’ while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status,” is being used by student unions in relation to campus activities. It states a belief that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Then it resolves that the union do three things: not make use of the definition (“e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints”), disassociate itself from the definition in anypublic discussion on the matter in which the UCU is involved, and “campaign for an open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.”
Every clause of the motion is deeply problematic. What is this “so-called” EUMC working definition? The EUMC was the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an agency of the European Union. It was itself preceded by the Commission on Racism and Xenophobia (CRX), established in 1994, known as the Kahn Commission. The CRX became the EUMC in 1998 with an official mandate from the European Commission. Among other things, the EUMC published one of the most important studies of Islamophobia in Europe, in 2002, summarizing several separate reports on specific aspects of Islamophobia from the member states of the EU. In 2007 the EUMC became the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The FRA has continued the important work of the EUMC in documenting anti-Roma racism and homophobia across Europe.
It reports annually on discrimination and fundamental rights in the EU, and therefore reports on anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents. It is only natural that it should seek a standard, usable, operational definition of anti-Semitism, just as its massive Islamophobia report set out a working definition of that form of racism. To this end, it published a one-page working definition in 2005. This has been adopted by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism in 2006, by several branches of the National Union of Students (NUS), and more recently by the NUS itself.
The text defined anti-Semitism thus: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” In the fifth line, it continued: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” Note, not “do” but “could,” and not Israel as such but Israel “conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” It proceeds to give examples of what anti-Semitic incidents might look like. These include stereotyping Jews, including the myth of a “world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media,” as well as holding all Jews responsible for the actions of some Jews.
Then, it gives examples of how anti-Semitism might manifest itself with regard to Israel, which David Hirsh summarizes concisely:
It may, in some contexts, be anti-Semitic to accuse Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their union; to say Israel is a racist endeavour; to apply double standards; to boycott Israelis but not others for the same violations; to say that Israeli policy is like Nazi policy; to hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel.
And here too there is a caveat in the working definition: these might be anti-Semitic, “taking into account the overall context.” In other words, talking about hidden Lehman Brothers bank accounts might be completely legitimate in the context of analyzing the subprime collapse, but not when talking about the politics of people who just happen to be Jews and have no connection to the bank, at a time when conspiracy theories about it are circulating on the Internet.
After the list of examples, the report insists, “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled at any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This sentence is important, and its existence refutes the second clause of the UCU motion, that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Not only does the motion name no instances when this has happened (because it is highly unlikely any such instances have ever occurred), but the working definition itself explicitly avoids the claim that criticism of Israel “in itself” is to be regarded as anti-Semitic.
FOR ALL the reasons I’ve made clear in this article, any definition of any racism is bound to be imperfect, and the EUMC working definition is no exception. I would not want it to be included without amendment in employment law, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for it to be adopted by the UK government—and, indeed, I’ve not heard of any of the working definition’s advocates arguing it should be. (In fact, it would be bizarre if the British state did adopt it formally, as the government has affirmedthat it includes anti-Semitism among the racisms covered by the Macpherson definition of a racist incident discussed above—an incident “perceived to be racist by the victim.” That definition is significantly broader than the EUMC’s.)
But the EUMC definition is a guide, a working definition, and this makes it useful in deciding when, for example, to take seriously and investigate an internal complaint. The working definition could never be used to definitively rule an incident in or out. Its uses of “could” and “context” make this clear. The specific context of an internal complaint would always have to be the determining factor. To resolve to make no use of the document in such circumstances is therefore ridiculous. Similarly, it might be useful in an education setting as a heuristic device for examining different manifestations of racism—also perversely ruled out by the motion.
For the union to disassociate itself from the working definition in any public discussion of anti-Semitism is beyond ridiculous. It means insisting that all of the organizations that do take the working definition seriously—the Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom; the NUS; the Union of Jewish Students; the Fundamental Rights Agency; the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—are dismissed in advance. It undermines their work on anti-Semitism, and it undermines their vital work on anti-Roma racism, Islamophobia, and other racisms.
In the workplace, as the CST’s director writes, this “will serve to (even) further alienate Jews from the union; and it will make it (even) harder for anti-Semitism to be raised there as a matter of concern….[I]t carries the implication that people who complain about anti-Semitism in any Israel-related context are likely to be a bunch of liars, dancing to a pre-ordained tune.”
As an academic who studies racism, I find it bizarre that my union cannot accept that there is even the faintest possibility that institutional racism might exist in our own ranks, even after a series of clearly documented incidents and a shocking number of resignations by Jewish members who perceive it as such. This motion, if passed, will in fact legitimate racism in the union and stop any allegation of anti-Semitism—in debates or in the workplace—from being taken seriously. That the motion will be tabled in a session entitled “Campaigning for equality” is ironic, but the irony tastes bitter indeed.
My trade union, UCU, is tackling the EUMC’s working definition of antisemitism – taken up for a brief time within the Green Party before a successful campaign to overturn it – and replace it with nothing – was launched by people whose ideas about Israel are so awry that they refuse to defend Jews against antisemitism.
On the Community Security Trust blog, Mark Gardner gives background to the EUMC working definition of antisemitism. He begins:
“People who carp and quibble over definitions of racism often have ulterior motives; and even more so, when they seek to outlaw the mere suggestion of a certain definition of racism.”
And proceeds to explain the background to the working definition, why it is necessary, and, towards the end:
“In Britain, the Lawrence Inquiry (by Sir William MacPherson into the Metropolitan Police’s flawed handling of the murder of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence), thrust the notion of “institutional racism” into our definitions and understanding of this complex mix; acknowledging that the culture of organisations could be racist. Again, this could be deliberate or inadvertent on the part of the perpetrators, but such an organisational culture could be significantly mitigated against by decently engaging with those perceiving themselves to be on the wrong side of the racist stick.
The ideological warriors behind this … resolution, however, have no need for such touchy-feely time wasting and universalist anti-racism. They know where they stand on this issue, and if it helps root Zionists out of their midst, why the hell should they worry?”
Modernity picks out some more from that post.
Anti-racist antisemitism. A most pernicious variety. Still, as Eric Hoffer said, every movement needs an enemy – keeps people on the same hymn sheet, &tc.
Eve Garrard warns of complicity by remaining in a discriminatory movement, and writes that it is time to go. On UCU’s bid to change the definition and so make a fiction of antisemitism by fiat, she writes:
“Those of us who took part in some of the debates about Israel on the Union activists’ list will recall with misery the readiness of people on that list to compare Israel to the Nazis, to claim that Gaza was equivalent to the Warsaw ghetto, to denounce Israel as an apartheid state, and to praise boycotters’ sterling courage in bravely ignoring the worries of Jewish UCU members who felt that we were seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism under the thin disguise of an anti-Zionist figleaf. Such worries were standardly discredited by claiming that they were merely dishonest attempts to distract attention from Israel’s crimes. This discrediting manoeuvre doesn’t seem to have been entirely successful, since the UCU now feels the need to rebut charges of anti-Semitism by definitional fiat: if a definition of racism shows up our practices as racist, then… change the definition! Words mean whatever we want them to mean, whatever we say they mean. You might think that academics would be able to find a better political role model than Humpty-Dumpty, but they’re under a hard drive here: if the UCU were to accept that singling out the world’s only Jewish state for uniquely hostile treatment, or spreading innuendos about the sinister global power of its supporters, or telling lies about it being a practitioner of apartheid, or making a disgusting equivalence between Zionists and Nazis – if the Union were to accept that all or even any of these activities might be anti-Semitic practices, then some influential members of the UCU might show up as endorsing anti-Semitism. But that would be intolerable – better to announce that the word ‘anti-Semitism’ needs to be given a different definition.
This Orwellian resolution of political disputes by way of linguistic fiat is particularly contemptible in an academics’ union, since academics are supposed to have some knowledge of how argument works, and how intellectually empty it is to support an argument by distorting the meanings of the terms you use. (It’s not of course politically empty, and the UCU’s vicious example has certainly strengthened some of those who want to see the Jewish state destroyed.) The UCU doesn’t offer any alternative account of anti-Semitism for us to use, and this is not accidental: central to definitions of any kind of racism are core concerns about unequal treatment which disadvantages members of the disfavoured race, and the deployment of hostile stereotypes about them. Since this is exactly what the UCU does to Israel and its supporters, and indeed longs to do more of, it will be hard put to find a way of defining anti-Semitism which will let it off the racist hook. Perhaps this is why it has prudently kept quiet on the matter of an alternative definition. We are just supposed to take on trust the claim that a Union which wants to boycott the only Jewish state in the world, and doesn’t want to boycott anywhere else, isn’t and can’t be anti-Semitic.
This form of anti-Semitism would, like all other forms of that oldest of prejudices, be funny if it weren’t frightening, if it weren’t another little nail in the coffin of Jewish feelings of security and equality. What is to be done?”
“It’s no longer plausible to suppose that the Union will feel the need to change its discriminatory propensities, however strong the arguments against it are. It isn’t only the spectacle of the boycott obsessives in the Union leadership which forms a basis for that pessimistic conclusion. It’s also the sight of the majority of union members, who I am quite sure have no interest in boycotting Israel and who would vote against doing so by a huge majority if they were ever given the chance, being nonetheless content to remain silent as their leaders dance the Union down the well-paved path to institutionalized anti-Semitism.”
“UCU will now oppose all bigotry except for one particular category: racism which can be said to resemble criticism of Israel. UCU will oppose racist and religious antisemitism, but political antisemitism will be protected under the new policy.”
Update: in the comments below Sarah AB asks
“Has anyone ever said what kind of activity or discussion the working definition has closed down?”
Richard Kuper wrote one of the more considered responses.
There are more like this. So, we learn that you don’t have to explain. You simply call the EUMC WD flawed, confidently assert that it suppresses criticism of Israel, provide some selective quotes from it which omit its highly qualified language e.g. “taking into account the overall context”, then complaint that it’s too qualified, spend plenty of time picking apart its provenance and generally mischaracterising it as something with designs to be more than a practical guide (this is what Mark Gardner is responding to above with his discussion about its origins). You never say what it would prevent you from saying. You don’t need to, because people who are worried about anti-Israel antisemitism are already at such a deficit of influence. But all the while you insist that they are propagandist forces for suppression – you just have to keep reinforcing that it is they who are suppressing free expression (even as you work as hard as you can to proscribe even the most tentative definition of antisemitism).
The EUMC opened up the debate about antisemitism by proposing possibilities while insisting ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled at any other country cannot be considered antisemitic’. The Green Party and UCU, on the other hand, narrow it.
The opponents of the WD here really need to explain what the WD prevents them from saying, and they should propose a way of responding to the kind of antisemitism which looks like criticism of Israel.
Update – we have just been notified that the copy of the statement we have is subject to some minor corrections and other amendments.
We have been asked to take it down pending these, and a consensus has emerged that we should do that. We will post the guidelines once they are completed.
The guidelines reproduced the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC)’s WORKING DEFINITION OF ANTISEMITISM, which you can read yourselves meanwhile.
This post summarises two sociological articles which analyse the debate about Zionism and Israel. Although only one of them briefly discusses a Green Party member, they shed light on conversational moves and arguments present in Green Party campaigning, and the way the Green Party treats members who raise the issue of antisemitism. They also come from a perspective of seeking a better debate.
Hirsh, D (2010). Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism. Transversal, 1/2010.
The paper is about a common manoeuvre in debates about Israel:
“When somebody is accused of setting up an antisemitic exclusion or of making use of antisemitic discursive forms, it is often the case that they do not respond by examining the justification for the claim. Instead, they often launch an ad hominem counter-attack which accuses the accuser of acting in bad faith but which leaves the substance of the accusation un-examined.”
For reasons set out in the paper, David Hirsh refers to this as the ‘Livingstone Formulation’. He argues that the Livingstone Formulation harms debate about Israel and Palestine by placing it outside the realm of rational conversation.
“This paper is not concerned directly with those who are accused of employing antisemitic discourse and who respond in a measured and rational way to such accusations in a good faith effort to relate to the concern, and to refute it. Rather it is concerned with modes of refusal to engage with the issue of antisemitism. Those who argue that certain kinds of arguments, tropes, analogies and ideas are antisemitic are trying to have them recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate antiracist discourse. The Livingstone Formulation as a response tries to have the raising itself of the issue of antisemitism recognized as being outside of the boundaries of legitimate discourse.”
Caroline Lucas furnishes an example:
“The Livingstone Formulation variant used by the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, a member of the European Parliament, also posits a strong and clear claim about intent: ‘…Israel has been able to act with relative immunity, hiding behind its incendiary claim that all who criticise its policies are anti Semitic.’ Here the dishonest claim behind which Israel hides is intentionally made by the state, for the purpose of enabling it to act with immunity. It covers all who criticise the policies of Israel. The implication is that everyone who raises the issue of antisemitism in relation to discourse which takes the form of criticism of the policies of Israel is doing so out of malicious intent and as an agent of the state (Lucas 2008). Note also the term ‘incendiary’ which implies that the act of making the claim that something is antisemitic is hugely damaging to the whole terrain.”
David Hirsh implicates highly intentionalist understandings of antisemitism (i.e. privileging our speculation about motives for a given act over that act’s effects) in the problem. He describes how some anti-racists are so confident of the righteousness of their motives that they refuse to engage with arguments about the effects of their actions:
“Antiracists who are accused of antisemitism in connection with their statements about Israel find themselves in an unusual position. While often it is difficult to look into the heart of a person in order to discover whether they are a racist or not, it feels very easy when the person in question is yourself and when you are a sophisticated antiracist scholar or activist. Often antiracists who are accused of antisemitism seem to forget the importance of understanding racism or antisemitism objectively as being something which exists outside of the individual racist. They find it easier to look within themselves. When they do so, they find that they are not intentionally antisemitic but on the contrary, they are opponents of antisemitism. When they look at their own ‘essence’ they have no doubt, and I do not doubt it either, that they are not motivated by a hatred of Jews. Unusually intimate access to the object of inquiry yields an apparently clear result and it seems to make it unnecessary for the antiracist in question to look objectively at how contemporary antisemitism functions independently of the will of the particular social agent.
When accused of antisemitism you can look within yourself or you can look outside of yourself. Users of the Livingstone Formulation look within themselves, find themselves not guilty, and then find it unnecessary to look at the actions, speech, ideas, institutions or practices themselves.”
The second paper is: Fine, R (2009). Fighting with phantoms: a contribution to the debate on antisemitism in Europe. Patterns of Prejudice;43(5).
Robert Fine’s paper is about how Europeans think about the antisemitism that once played such a murderous role in Europe’s past. He identifies an unnatural polarisation into ‘alarmists’ and ‘deniers’ – respectively, those who worry about a new antisemitism and perceive a structural similarity between hatred of Zionism and the old antisemitic tropes, and their critics.
“Alarm and denial become symbols of divergent discourses each made up of multiple elements, each drawn from plural sources, each containing a variety of political accents, societal diagnoses, theoretical presuppositions and normative conclusions, each, in short, less unitary than it appears. Each develops a sense of its own unity by constructing the other as its adversary. Each views the other through a network of negative typifications and caricatures. Each fires polemics at more or less phantasmagorical representations of the other. Each makes the other into its Other.”
Robert Fine explains the temptation in either camp to extrapolate an entire world view from one position or demand, for example to treat support for Jewish nationalism as if it were fascism, or to treat Muslim identity as if it were Jew-hatred. With examples, he illustrates how critical theorists and campaigners such as the Matti Bunzel and the EUMC have constructed imaginary coherent adversaries where in fact there is great diversity and little coherence, and he examines how they respond to their critics.
In a discussion of the critical scholarship of the ‘denier’ camp, he takes a fresh look at the polarisation as an opposition between universalism and particularism:
“The normative premise of critical theory … is resolutely universalistic. Memory of the Holocaust ought not to be used to privilege the suffering of Jews at the expense of other sufferings. The cry of ‘never again’ ought not to be converted into an injunction that this crime should never again be done to Jews. The memory of the Holocaust ought not to protect Israel from criticism. The incidence of antisemitism in Europe ought not to be exaggerated. Concern over antisemitism ought not to blind us to other racisms. Critical theory defends the claim to universality against what is perceived as the particularism inherent in new antisemitism theory and in the practices of combatting antisemitism in Europe. This claim to universalism is indispensable as a regulative idea but, if there is one thing to learn from postmodern and postcolonial critiques, it is the difficulty of realizing the claim in practice.
Should we, for example, buy into the notion that collective memory of the Holocaust now consumes our capacity for compassion and makes us blind to the suffering of others? Compassion is not a fixed quantity of capital, and memory of the Holocaust can equally serve as a ‘fire alarm’ alerting us to the destructive capacities of the human species wherever they come to the surface. Reference to the particularity of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, no more or less than reference to the particularity of the suffering of others, does not subvert the universal; it substantiates it. As Hannah Arendt observed, there is no contradiction in principle between treating the Holocaust as a Jewish question and as a question of universal significance: ‘the physical extermination of the Jewish people was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people, and … only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and antisemitism’.”
Robert Fine argues that the adversaries tend to imagine each other as representative figures of particularism, but that if concerns about antisemitism are dismissed, then antisemitism will become excluded from the list of racisms which the European post-national project must tackle, and this would itself constitute a form of particularism. With reference to the transnational racial project of the Nazis, he cautions against exclusively associating antisemitism with nationalism and consequently neglecting antisemitism in the post-national European project. He is concerned about the conceptual dichotomy between nationalism and post-nationalism because the tendency to view post-nationalism as the key political struggle of our age makes it easy to stigmatise nationalism as a pathological evil. Through some post-nationalist eyes ‘Israel’ and ‘Zionism’ become burdened with evil:
“… not so much as names for a particular society and political ideology, changing and developing historically as a result of both endogenous factors and exogenous relations with others, but as vessels into which Europe can project all that is violent in its own past and present, and preserve the good for itself. In the undercurrents of European thought there has long existed an essentially nihilistic conviction that, if we can only rid ourselves of some alien element on to which we project the ills of society – be it the bourgeoisie, parasites, terrorists or Jews – then all will be well with the world. The representation of Israel as a pariah state or pariah people can perform a similar mythic function for a European consciousness anxious to divest itself of the legacy of its own past. This is not to say that Europeans should not have a role in criticizing manifestations of nationalism and racism in Israeli state and society, in criticizing Israeli military actions, in calling for an end to the occupation and support for an independent Palestinian state, or in advocating the renewal of cosmopolitan values in both Israel and a future Palestine. But this is a long way from a demonizing logic through which antisemitism can wheedle its way back into the new Europe.”
Thank goodness for sociologists. In keeping with the public funding the universities which employ these authors receive, and their own mission statements about public good, I’m hoping these papers will soon be available on Goldsmiths’ and Warwick’s eprint (i.e. open access) repositories, at which time I’ll update this page with links.