Yet more on Israel and anti-Semitism

As our debate about ‘anti-Semitism’ in the opposition to Israel winds down, Norman Geras thinks he has found another weakness in my argument, in my agreement with ‘the sociological truth that racism is not only a matter of overt expressions of hostility, but can also inhere in symbols, discourses and practices of discrimination. Still, in the same paragraph Martin insists on being presented with evidence of attitudinal anti-Semitism among the boycotters. He thereby undoes his apparent acceptance of the point.’ No – because we still need evidence and analysis of the ‘symbols, discourses and practices of discrimination’, just as we do of attitudinal racism – and Norman’s argument relies hugely on assumption and assertion and hardly at all on evidence or analysis.

This is clear when Norman returns to another of his arguments that I hadn’t addressed: ‘I gave [he says] the hypothetical example of a university that closed certain positions to women, and argued that this would constitute sexist discrimination whatever the attitudes of those supporting it. Martin offered no answer to that. Yet he remains confident that a boycott policy targeted solely on academics of the Jewish state, and who are therefore mostly Jews, has nothing of anti-Semitism about it.’ My answer is this: while any campaign against the racially exclusive character of the Israeli state will necessarily be experienced as hostile by many Jews who support this state, it need not target Jews as a whole, even within Israel, and indeed many Jews are among those who support such campaigns. This is clearly different from a blanket ban on women.

Norman makes much of my confession to not knowing precisely why the boycotters should pick out Israeli academics for unfavourable treatment. A correspondent has drawn my attention to Stan Cohen’s chapter, ‘The Virtual Reality of Israeli Universities’, in the collection A Time to Speak Out, just published by Verso. Stan makes the point that Israeli universities ‘have been intimately connected with the project of nation-building’, and are effectively nationalist institutions – and that the idea of a ‘nationalist university’ is an oxymoron. He analyses the ‘culture of denial’ in Israeli universities concerning the crimes of the Occupation. His account suggests that there are good reasons for criticising most Israeli universities and academics. While these are not reasons to boycott all Israeli academics (a policy that Stan, like me, does not defend) they do help me point, again, to the glaring logical flaw in Norm’s own position. Just because there are no good reasons for such an all-embracing boycott does not mean that the not-so-good reasons have to do with anti-semitism. They are more obviously to do with the policies of the Israeli state – and the complicity of too many Israeli universities and academics in these policies.

A couple of final responses. First, I am concerned, and somewhat surprised (since I don’t have similar reports from other Jewish friends), to hear that Norm has personally experienced several instances of anti-Semitism in recent years, but I still doubt that the academic and left milieux in which we have both worked for four decades are saturated with anti-Semitism to the extent that this significantly explains the boycott campaign, let alone the wider concern about Israel and the Occupation.

Secondly, to end on what may be a controversial note. What do I make, Norm asks, ‘of the fact that on the UCU activists’ list Israeli actions in Gaza are compared to those of the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto?’ I do indeed indeed find this an extreme comparison, and it is not one I would have made, since Jews in the ghetto were subjected to a confinement far more complete, brutal and life-threatening than that of Palestinians in Gaza, and of course it turned out to be a precursor to mass murder, which the Palestinians are not facing. However the use of an exaggerated comparison, a common ploy in political campaigning, is not necessarily anti-semitic. Nor do I find the comparison objectionable in principle. Gazan Palestinians in 2008, like Polish Jews in 1939-40, are confined in a small territory and subjected to systematic depradations of their conditions of life. The difference is one of degree, certainly a large one, and probable final outcome, rather than of kind. I find it shocking that 70 years after the confinement of Polish Jews in the ghettos, a self-proclaimed Jewish state should be content to confine another people in the manner that the Gazans are confined, and that some Jewish socialists should use indiscriminate accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ to discredit the outcry against this and other policies of the Israeli state.

This correspondence is now closed.

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