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.