Norman Geras responds to my last post to the effect that I haven’t responded to several of his points. Here they are (as he now summarises them) with my responses:
(a) A central point, indeed the main burden, of my post was that there are symbols, discourses and, above all, practices of prejudicial discrimination, and though these are often accompanied by prejudicial attitudes and motives they are not identical with, or reducible to, them. This is a well-known theme in the sociology of racial, ethnic and gender prejudice, a fact to which I also alluded. Martin says nothing in reply.
Of course there are such symbols, discourses and practices. But neither Norman nor David Hirsh has provided evidence of any that actually play a significant part in the Western opposition to Israel. Indeed Norman appeared in his previous post to endorse my statement: ‘I do not think that on any serious assessment, anti-Semitism can be regarded as … a major theme among Western critics of Israel.’ Absent evidence, what are we arguing about?
(b) I drew attention to the consideration that reasons which might (though they also might not) look credible as reasons for general campaigning over Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians look distinctly dubious as reasons, specifically, for singling out for disadvantageous treatment Israeli academics – Israeli academics alone – among the academics of this wide and heavily-populated world. Martin passes this argument by without comment.
Put another way, this seems to be a question about why other current solidarity campaigns (e.g. over Tibet, Burma or Zimbabwe) do not target academics as a way of getting at oppressive regimes, whereas the anti-Israel boycott, like the anti-apartheid boycott before it, has done so. I don’t really know the answer to this – although perhaps because Israeli academics are (unlike academics from many other oppressive states) significant players in global English-speaking academia, they seem plausible targets to some anti-Israeli campaigners, where academics from China, Burma or Zimbabwe aren’t? But I can’t exactly see how anti-Semitism explains the discrepancy – unless, absent evidence, anti-Semitism explains all discrepancies?
(c) I asked how a ‘sociology of activism’ could justify an academic trade union – not merely, be it noted, this or that individual or a voluntary assemblage of like-minded activists – treating the academics of a single country differently from the academics of every other country (despite, I will add here, records of oppression and mass murder elsewhere than in Israel sufficient to keep the human rights NGOs very busy indeed). Martin doesn’t trouble himself about this one either.
Clearly the sociology of activism does not justify this – but it might explain it, as I suggested in my response to David Hirsh.
(d) I gave reasons for thinking that, even if attitudinal anti-Semitism isn’t of preponderant weight in motivating the boycotters, it plays some role among them. And I said that, given that it does, we should call it by its proper name and oppose it. This Martin also doesn’t answer – except by dodging it. What he does is to transmute the strains of attitudinal anti-Semitism that I suggested there are into a mere possibility, a ‘hypothetical’ anti-Semitism. Where, before, I said that Martin makes light of such anti-Semitism as he allowed there was ‘among Israel’s critics’ and more widely than that, now he makes even lighter of it. It’s a possibility and no more than that.
I am more than happy to recognise and condemn attitudinal anti-Semitism wherever it plays a role – but unless I missed something, while Norman suggests reasons why there could be anti-Semitism, neither Norman nor David has presented any evidence that it actually plays a serious role in current Western opposition (as distinct from some Arab opposition) to Israel. Indeed the absence of such evidence seemed to be the reason for David’s original argument that the boycott campaign represents ‘institutional’ anti-Semitism.
(e) … I joined a debate about whether or not the academic boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic, and the arguments I made are pertinent to that question. Had the debate been about Israel and Palestine in general my arguments would have been differently shaped and focused. …
Norman still misses the fact that for me the debate was always broader than the academic boycott of Israel, as I made clear in my original arguments with David.
(f) For the second time, Martin has invoked the academic boycott of South Africa as if it might provide a good analogy. But it doesn’t and, by its very nature, it couldn’t. … First of all, South African universities were not staffed only by Afrikaners, but by English-speaking South Africans as well – I don’t know exactly in what proportions but both groups had a substantial presence there. Consequently, the prejudicial discrimination involved in that boycott was against South Africans and not against Afrikaners. It is, in any case, not credible to suggest that that boycott could have been racist or have contained a racist component. Martin might choose to discount the fact that there is no history to speak of in the West of anti-white racism that could have been at work in the boycott of South African universities, whereas there is a very long history of anti-Semitism. But others of us are less inclined to feel complacent about the latter. It is one of the many unhappy consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict that there is today a sector of left and liberal opinion become both blasé and cynical about that history, and which is ready to treat others who are less lightminded about it as if we looked upon the long persecution of the Jewish people and its most calamitous outcome as a mere convenience of political argument.
I’m sorry, Norman, but this will not do. I am not at all light-minded about the history of the persecution of the Jews, let alone the Holocaust (I’ve long recommended your own book concerning the latter to students), but I don’t think you’ve presented a good reason for dismissing the analogy with South Africa. First, there are good reasons for comparing the Israeli and South African situations in general. Israel is and South Africa was a settler state in which the pre-existing populations were dispossessed and then confined. True there are important differences – Zionists were not motivated by doctrinal racism towards Arabs, but nevertheless perpetrated, in 1948, a more radical destruction of Arab society than anything the South African Nationalist regime achieved against the blacks. Second, this is the major past example we have of an academic boycott. That boycott was indeed of South African academics as a whole, but few of them were from the oppressed black majority (just as few Israeli academics today are from the large Palestinian minority); and most came from the white population that benefitted from apartheid (just as most Israeli academics come from the Jewish population that benefit from the Israeli state). And contra Norman, ‘reverse’ black racism against whites was not unknown in the period of the anti-South African boycott, not least in the USA, but would anyone have thought of assuming that even blacks who supported that boycott must be motivated by such racism? I agree that anti-Semitism has a longer pedigree and may be more deeply ingrained, although pretty certainly it is declining in importance compared to other prejudices such as anti-black racism and Islamophobia in the populations of Western societies. But does is there any good evidence for supposing that in Western academia or the Western left today, the milieux that generated the boycott, anti-Semitism is a significant current, strong enough to have a major influence on the boycott or any other anti-Israeli campaign?
Norman, like me you’ve lived in these milieux for four decades or more – admittedly I’ve experienced them as a non-Jew, while you’ve lived in them as a Jew – but do you have any real evidence? I for one am not prepared to spend any more time debating suppositions, conjectures and hypotheses.