Two important reads on how we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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.

Insisting on a highly intentionalist understanding of antisemitism,

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