The new anti-anti-semitism

Posted: September 21, 2008 in anti-semitism and racism, Israel / Palestine

In recent months I have become publicly engaged for the first time with the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine – although obviously I have long held private views about this conflict. On the first page of my book What is Genocide? (Polity 2007) I wrote, among several examples of how past genocides figure in current politics, that ‘The spectre of the archetypal genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, stalks twenty-first-century relations between Israelis and Palestinians.’ By this I meant no more than that the Holocaust influences thinking about the conflict on both sides, so that, for example, some Israelis see the Holocaust in every attack on Jews in Israel, and some Palestinians go so far in their opposition to Israel as to deny the Holocaust. Later in the book, however, I used the Zionist drive to expel Arabs from Mandate Palestine, in the run-up to 1948, as one example of how forced migration involves genocidal thinking.
In the light of this later analysis, my opening statement was picked up by an Australian academic, Mark Baker, writing in Australian Jewish News, as an indication that I believed that Israel might be planning to do to the Palestinians something like what the Nazis did to the Jews – although my words bear no such interpretation. This in turn led Baker to imply, through a thoroughly distasteful anecdote about a scientist in the Nazi era, that I am not only incorrigibly anti-Israeli but also anti-semitic. I requested and eventually received an apology which was published in Australian Jewish News‘ print edition (although it is not to be found on their website, from which the offending article has also been removed).
Following this I read an article by David Hirsh in Democratiya, an online centre-left journal on whose advisory board I serve, implying that the academic boycott of Israel, proposed at one point by the British Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), was not only wrong but inherently, ‘institutionally’, anti-semitic. I fired off a short letter challenging this idea, which provoked a long reply from Hirsh, who it turns out runs an organisation called Engage devoted to this issue. I responded also at length; he replied again; and I was given the last word – so a brief comment turned into an extended debate.
Now Norman Geras, another supporter of Engage, has joined the fray. His is also a lengthy piece, but unlike Hirsh, Norman (whom I know a little from our days in different fragments of the far left many years ago) does refer carefully to my argument. He also makes some reasonable points – yes, I agree that the boycott (which I never supported) discriminates against Israeli academics, but this is hardly the clincher that he seems to think it is, since no, that still does not mean the boycott campaign is anti-semitic.
Norman’s version of the latter argument is that ‘The academic boycott … targets Jews, though not all Jews, and for no good reason that anyone … has yet come up with. That seems to me to provide prima facie grounds for describing it as anti-Semitic.’ This is truly bizarre, since the boycott targeted Israeli Jews, on the manifest grounds of their being Israeli rather than their being Jewish, and while it is not justified to discriminate against all Israelis, or all Israeli academics, simply because they are Israeli, it was quite clear in this case that it was because of their Israeli citizenship and presumed linkage to the policies of the Israeli state, and not because of their Jewishness, that these academics were targeted. It is exactly the same principle, misguided though it is, that guided the boycott of academics from apartheid South Africa in the previous generation, and in neither case has the campaign been inspired by racism. While it is not justified to discriminate against academics because of the policies of the Israeli state, there is simply no good reason to doubt that the stated rationale of the boycott, opposition to these policies, rather than hostility to Jews as such, is in fact the reason for this campaign. Why not answer it on these terms rather than resorting to the argument of implicit, ‘institutional’, anti-semitism?
Nevertheless Norman cannot let go of the idea that there is an inherent link between anti-Israelism and anti-semitism, and therefore he asks ‘how does Martin exclude the possibility that … there might be at least threads of anti-Semitism staining the boycott campaign?’ And he wonders ‘how Martin can be so sure that no attitudinal anti-Semitism, that is, no anti-Semitism on his own very restricted definition of it, is at work in the academic boycott campaign’. So I am being called to account for not being more concerned about the possibility of anti-semitism, that is to say, a hypothetical danger. While I accept that one should be concerned about this possibility, it does not seem to me to weigh very heavily against all the actual, clearly existing dangers to Palestinians from Israel’s repressive policies, or indeed to Israelis from the attacks of Palestinian armed groups. As Norman goes on to write, ‘If I want I can spend all my free time campaigning against Israeli policies I regard as mistaken and unjust, like the occupation of the West Bank and (once) Gaza, or the Jewish settlements on that occupied territory.’ These policies include, one might add, the confinement of Palestinian academics which is far more harmful than anything that has been done to any Israeli academic. So that would seem very much more appropriate than spending one’s time worrying about the hypothetical anti-semitism of what is now, in any case, a failed boycott campaign, which has hardly harmed a single Israeli scholar.
The other big problem with Norman’s discussion is that he refuses to accept my broadening the argument from the boycott to opposition to Israel in general. This was for the good reason that the ‘anti-semitism’ charge is not merely an argument of those who oppose the UCU boycott. It is widely made or insinuated by supporters of Israel against its critics in all sorts of specific arguments, as I experienced myself with Australian Jewish News, and as John Meiersheimer and Stephen Walt have extensively documented in The Israel Lobby. Since Norman has ‘no quarrel’ with my ‘overall judgement’ that ‘on any serious assessment, antisemitism [cannot] be regarded as politically potent in Western societies today – by historical standards it is definitely weak – or a major theme among Western critics of Israel’, it seems to me that he really ought to question why he gives his support to David Hirsh’s dogged campaign to tar the boycott movement with anti-semitism. This charge, in this and many other cases, is little more than an underhand way of attempting to discredit opposition to Israel. In the end it raises more questions about the commitments of the anti-anti-semites than it does of the anti-Israelis.

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Comments
  1. Jerry Haber says:

    This is quite interesting, Prof. Shaw. I have taken a stab at the question of singling out Israel for moral criticism on my own blog, here:

    http://themagneszionist.blogspot.com/2007/09/singling-out-israel-for-moral.html

    I would add to your last response to David Shaw that one does not need to accept Pappe’s claim that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was an essential pillar of Zionist policy, or that it was deliberately undertaken as part of a master-strategy, to view the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as central to the development of political Zionism in the 1940’s and 1950’s. (Let us not forget that there were a few cultural Zionists, like Magnes and Buber, who opposed it)

    Even Benny Morris’s weaker claims are sufficient to demonstrate that such ethnic cleansing was approved by many main Zionist players before, and by all others after, the fact.

    Indeed, the decision of the Zionist leadership and the State to bar Palestinians from returning to their homes, on the basis of their ethnicity, a ban that included Palestinians who took no part in the hostilities, should be viewed as the primary act of ethnic cleansing — even if, contrary to facts, all the Palestinians left during the hostilities because they were exhorted to do so.

    Indeed, even if one accepts the rightwing Zionist narrative of 1948 put forth by scholars such as Yoav Gelber and Efraim Karsh, Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing in its refusal to let Palestinians return.

    And a small point: as you point out, the foundational document of the State of Israel, as interpreted by subsequent legislation, speaks of a state of the Jews, which is defined as a religio-ethnic category. The non-Jewish citizens of the state are excluded from the nation-state, whereas a pork-eating Russian atheist whose paternal grandfather was Jewish yet whose father was a Russian Orthodox priest, is privileged to “return” to his homeland.

  2. N. Friedman says:

    Mr. Shaw,

    When some of us speak of things such as the boycott being antisemitic, some of us see the matter the way one would see the Dreyfus Affair or most of the other historical events which, on the surface, seemed not to involve Antisemitism but which, when later examined, were deeply Antisemitic.

    For example, in your country, those who opposed granting refuge to Jews from Nazi Germany also said they were not engaged in anything Antisemitic – except that the diaries and private letters of such people reveal otherwise.

    In the Dreyfus Affair, those who charged that Antisemitism was involved were pooh-poohed, just like you pooh-pooh the notion with respect to the boycott and Antisemitism. Not everyone involved in the Dreyfus Affair hated Jews. But, it was the way that Antisemites could express themselves in a seemingly respectable manner.

    You may not like being lumped in with Antisemites but, frankly, you have adopted the political language by which those who do express their hatred of Jews express themselves. That is why the boycott and other anti-Zionist activity is such an obsession for some. But, as the Durban conference shows, the saying “one bullet, one Jew” and “death to Jews” was not about Israelis, it was hatred of Jews.

    My history of the Arab Israeli dispute includes the effort by Arabs to cleanse the region – and not just historic Palestine – of Jews. My history includes the relationship between the leaders of the Palestine Arabs and the Nazis – no small matter if we are speaking of moral responsibility for what occurred and all the more pressing because that leader was rather popular and is, to this day, still celebrated by Palestine Arabs.

    My history includes the findings of Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers in their book Halbmond und Hakenkreuz. Das “Dritte Reich”, die Araber und Palästina [translated “Crescent Moon and Swastika: The Third Reich, the Arabs, and Palestine”] that the Arabs were deeply involved in a planned genocide and that had the British not stopped Hitler’s army in the region, there would have been a real one in historic Palestine, one led by Arabs – willing conspirators.

    My history includes some acknowledgment that Jews were fighting a war in which their survival was reasonably believed by them to be at stake. My history acknowledges that the displacement of Palestine Arabs was no worse than the displacement of Sudeten Germans except, of course, that Palestine Arabs were, at the time of their displacement (and still) at war with the Jewish population, a war which, by any reasonable historical account, was started by the Arab side which refused the dictates of International law, lest they have to share rule of the land with Jews.

  3. Joshua says:

    N. Friedman’s history is rather selective, one-sided and deeply flawed. It must be tough to take into account a Palestinian narrative especially since it runs counter to everything you have read or know about.

    “The Arabs started the war.”

    Zionism was what Palestinian Arabs found most threatening; Palestine was inhabited with Jews already and while it was not bliss, it was certainly not the enmity we feel today between the two sides. It resembled more the status of Iranian Jews in Iran.

    Secondly, this “war” was more or less played out by the Palestinian’s brethren, it’s cousins from surrounding regions. Most of the intellectuals left the region amidst horrendous acts by Zionist militia groups, an account you conveniently left out. Jordan, Egypt and Syria all wanted Palestine to themselves disregarding the actual population living there. This was evinced when Egpyt and Jordan (the latter colluding with Israel to keep portions of the West Bank) retained control of Gaza and the West Bank and kept its population under military status.

    Does “your history” include Zionist collaboration with the Nazis, the British, the Italians, and the Russians, and possibly anyone who could help them create a Jewish state? Is that offensive to you to invoke Zionist sympathies with anti-Semites such as Lord Balfour and other notables in the British regime (as well as the Nazi regime)? Where is your nuance here? Is it even more offensive that not only many European figureheads aimed to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine (for many complex reasons) that many Zionist leaders in Palestine were irate at the “type” of Jew who were being allowed to come to Palestine, ie sick, elderly, not fit to “build a nation”?

    This can go two ways here. Unfortunately you decided a less than enlightened one.

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