Bernard Harrison on the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism

At the Autumn Green Conference more than a few members loudly complained that the EUMC definition of antisemitism was stifling their natural, healthy expression about Israel.

The working definition is short, cautious and available in html and pdf formats.

For these members, the problematic parts of the definition are those which are sometimes invoked in response when they express their singular opinions about Israel.

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Bernard Harrison comments on Engage, further to a motion to be tabled at Leeds University Student Union to adopt the definition. I think the parts of Harrison’s piece which are of most relevance to British Greens are this:

“The definition says that one form of anti-Semitism consists in “applying double standards by requiring of it behaviour nor expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The EJJC retort is that “This is a formulation that allows any criticism of Israel to be dismissed on the grounds that it is not applied to every other defaulting nation at the same time.” This seems simply to misunderstand the force of the EUMC’s point. That point is not that it is prejudicial to criticize a nation for a criminal act unless one simultaneously mentions every other nation whose record is so stained. It is, rather, that it is prejudicial to criticize a nation for acts which in the case of any other nation would not be considered criminal. Clearly this formulation places no restraint whatsoever on any deserved and non-prejudicial criticism of Israel.”

As well as this:

“The EUMC definition says that it is anti-Semitic to hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. The EJJP replies that “This is the flipside of a position frequently expressed by Prime Minister Sharon and many Zionists, that refuses to make any distinction between the interests of Israel and those of Jews worldwide.“ This reply is vitiated by the difficulty of attaching a clear meaning to the phrase “is the flipside of”. If it means that Sharon and some unnamed collection of Zionists are guilty of the conduct identified as anti-Semitic by the EUMC in this clause, then plainly it is false. Saying that the existence of Israel serves the interests of Jews worldwide is clearly not the same thing as saying that Jews worldwide share responsibility for the actions of the state of Israel. The first claim is very possibly true; the second is not so much false as conceptually incoherent: one might as well argue that because I am British I share responsibility for Gordon Brown’s recent nationalization of two British banks, and am therefore liable to be sued by the shareholders. One cannot conduct any intelligible politics on the basis of this kind of inane drivel.”

And in conclusion, this:

“Given the feebleness of the arguments brought against it by people very anxious to discredit it, in short, the only conclusion to be drawn is that the EUMC definition deserves to be adopted by the Leeds student union, not least in view of the level of anti-semitic incidents and intimidation of Jewish students on campus recorded by its supporters. Let us hope that the vote goes in favour of Motion 4.” 

It’s very easy to avoid charges of antisemitism when criticising Israel. Read Bernard Harrison’s piece to avoid pitfalls in future, and for pity’s sake let’s hear some better opinions and better criticism with respect to Israel from British Greens who want to make a priority of it.

But, deprived of the opportunity to single Israel out, I doubt that Green human rights, civil rights, and anti-war activists would find it such a good priority. I think those who persisted in pushing Israel to the top of the agenda would be reduced to a hardcore of dedicated anti-Zionists and implacable antisemites.

All the EUMC implies, and all Greens Engage insist on, is that Israel is treated according to the same standards accorded to the world’s other states. This is no more than responsible foreign policy.

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