A final (?) reply to Norman Geras

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.

2 thoughts on “A final (?) reply to Norman Geras”

  1. Mr. Shaw,

    In response to your point (a), you must be kidding.

    What about the assertions by Israel’s critics that Jews – sometimes termed Zionists but often not – have control of the government? That sounds like a practice or a form of symbolism to me.

    What about all the exaggerations and endless misstatements – many of which, by this point, could only be described as intentional, since they appear again and again even after black and white errors are pointed out – in the press with regard to Israel’s behavior? Why does that occur so frequently with regard to Israel?

    Why is satisfying Arabs at the expense of the Israelis seen as a potentially step toward solving problems with the Arab regions when, by any rational examination, the inability to resolve the dispute is a symptom, not a cause of that region’s problems?

    Recall the events at Jenin, which were reported – and reported obsessively, to say the least – in the British press most typically as a massacre while, in the Arab press, such event was seen as a battle – an honorable battle, if we go by the Arab characterization. And note: in the US press, the event was reported as an allegation of a massacre. Moreover, the battle is now used at the West Point military college as an exemplary example of an urban battle that minimized civilian casualties.

    Which is to say, what passes for thinking about the Arab Israeli dispute is so distorted in your country that the mere mention of a massacre – even if it was, as it turns out to have been, a rumor that came from a single person who, as it turns out, was not a reliable source but a source of planted propaganda – is enough to dominate your country’s press? Hatred of Jews that lies beneath the surface explains the matter best.

    On your point (b), to what end solidarity with Palestinian Arabs? How does that do anything to help Palestinian Arabs other than to delude them into thinking that Europeans – not just academics but ordinary people – will, in the end, not only accept the maximalist position of Hamas but force Israel to accept it as well.

    Perhaps, were Europeans to back off in supporting Palestinian Arabs without regard to their behavior, such people might eventually determine that it is better to resolve the dispute in a compromise rather than continue to hold out for more than the Israelis might ever offer.

    Other than hatred of Jews, why not call the Palestinian Arabs on their tactics – tactics which violate both the spirit and the letter of just war theory -, which have been primarily to use the massacre as the central means to their ends?

    I note that such means are at complete odds with the view that Palestinian Arabs only want justice or equality or anything of the sort. Consider these words of Sari Nuseibeh:

    “We’re telling the Israelis that we’re going to kick you out: it’s not that we want liberation, freedom, and independence in the West Bank and Gaza, we want to kick you out of your home. And in order to make sure that the Israelis get the message, people go into a disco or restaurant and blow themselves up.” [Dissent Magazine, Letter to the editor in the Fall 2002 edition].

    If you do not understand that point, you are blind. What we have is eliminationist is nature, not a freedom fight. And, regarding the violent barbarism by Palestinian Arabs – and, in this case, I mean violence designed to kill as many civilians as possible – I remind you of the words of Bernard-Henri Lévy regarding the now failure of those who claim the banner of freedom (i.e. those on the Left of the political spectrum) to be revolted by barbarism:

    We were pro-Palestinian, to be sure.

    We were in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

    But there was a part of the Palestinian cause that most of us found unacceptable: its anti-Semitism.

    I don’t remember precisely what we knew about the intellectual biography of he leading lights of the cause. And I couldn’t swear that back then I was fully aware of the texts in which Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Yasser Arafat’s uncle and the spiritual father of the majority of the leaders of the Fatah, tells, without embarrassment, about his arrival in Berlin at the end of the thirties; about his friendship with Himmler; about the conversation in which he announces to Ribbentrop that “the Arab” are “ready to cooperate with Germany with all their hearts”; and his “historic” meeting with Hitler; about the deal in which, in exchange for the Nazis’ support in eradicating the nascent Jewish State, he promised to take the initiative in forming a vast “Fascist-type Arab state”; or about his visit to Auschwitz, after which he wrote: “I’ll go peacefully to my grave knowing that five million Jews have been exterminated.” But what I do know is that, perhaps because the events were then still closer, perhaps because founding fathers were still there, perhaps … perhaps… what I do know for sure is that we still had some reflexes, and when that hatred became visible to the naked eye in the organizations that embraced al-Husseini, when his legacy was embraced by people for whom he remained, until his death and beyond, the true master thinking, when, in other words, commands from Fatah killed eleven Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics, a shiver of horror went through everyone who had anything to do with the Left. For Benny Lévy, leader of the Proletarian Left, that was the trigger for the dissolution of his organization, with the consent of his comrades. What leader of the radical Left would do the same today? Where is the Besancenot or the ATTAC ideologue, where is the spokesman for the reigning followers of Bourdieu, Dieudonné, Chomsky, etc., who has–I won’t even say protested–simply reacted to the anti-Semitic declarations of Hamas and Hezbollah? ….

    Lastly, obsession with a topic regarding Jews is a normal sign that Antisemitism is involved. The obsession of people in your country with criticizing the Israelis, while Palestinian Arabs are ruled by a clique which, in its very founding covenant, accepts the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as Gospel, speaks for itself. It is disgusting. And, to support a boycott against Israelis, when their opponents’s charter, as quoted below, advocates eliminationist Antisemitism, can only be labeled Antisemitic. To quote the Hamas covenant:

    Moreover, if the links have been distant from each other and if obstacles, placed by those who are the lackeys of Zionism in the way of the fighters obstructed the continuation of the struggle, the Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said:

    “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.” (related by al-Bukhari and Moslem).


    There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.

    Do you not understand what these words are about? Are you blind?

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