Antisemitism and the Boycott: An Exchange between Martin Shaw and David Hirsh, 2008

First published in Democratiya, 2008: go to

Democratiya Editor’s Note: Democratiya opposes the academic boycott of Israel and all forms
of antisemitism. The relation between that boycott and antisemitism is debated
here by two advisory editors of Democratiya, Martin Shaw and David Hirsh. It was
initiated by Shaw, who sent us a short letter of objection to aspects of Hirsh’s article
in Democratiya 13, ‘Unjust, unhelpful: arguments against the academic boycott of
Israel.’ Two further rounds followed.

Letter 1
The Mote is in Hirsh’s Eye: Martin Shaw responds to David Hirsh
Editors: I have never supported the proposal for an academic boycott of Israel
and so I agree with some of the reasons that David Hirsh advances against it in
Democratiya 13. However when it comes to the alleged ‘anti-semitism’ of the
boycott, the mote is in Hirsh’s own eye. He writes that, ‘Any impact assessment
of a boycott of Israel would find that in a whole number of distinct ways, it would
disadvantage Jews much more than others. In this sense then, already we can see
that an academic boycott of Israel would be institutionally anti-Semitic.’ By this
topsy-turvy reasoning, the boycott of apartheid South Africa must have manifested
anti-white or anti-Afrikaner racism, since it harmed whites and Afrikaners more
than others. It simply will not do to say that action against a racially based state like
Israel is itself racist because it must by definition harm the interests of the groups
that benefit from that state.
Hirsh also repeats the suggestion that anti-semitism must lurk behind the choice
to campaign against Israel rather than against other oppressive states. This too is
a phoney argument as there are plenty of other reasons for selecting to campaign
against Israel. Unlike Burma or China (and actually plenty of opponents of Israel’s
policies also oppose these regimes), Israel claims to be a democracy and receives
enormous support from Western governments.
It is Hirsh’s resort to the insinuation of anti-semitism that is the ‘lazy’ argument,
effectively granting immunity to Israel against any serious opposition. His use of it
suggests that he simply hasn’t come to terms with the gravity of the affront which
Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians presents to the progressive left and indeed to
most sectors of democratic opinion worldwide. After 60 years of expulsion and 40
years of occupation, it is hard to ‘exaggerate’ the Israeli problem.

Antisemitism and the Boycott: A response to Martin Shaw by David Hirsh
Editors: Martin Shaw argues that although a boycott of Israeli academics would be
wrong, it would not be anti-Semitic. [1] Israel is a ‘racially-based state,’ he says, and
hence any action against it would necessarily harm the ‘racial’ group upon which it
is based. He argues that singling out Israel for unique punishment need not be anti-
Semitic because there are reasons, other than hostility to Jews, for this singling out.
He offers four such reasons: first that ‘Israel claims to be a democracy’; second that
‘it receives enormous support from Western governments’; third that Israel offers
a grave affront to ‘the progressive left’ and more generally to democratic opinion;
fourth, that its crimes of occupation and of expulsion are so huge that they are
hard to exaggerate. His position is that the unwarranted ‘singling out’ is actually
done by those who offer Israel a special immunity from criticism by inappropriately
alleging anti-Semitism. In his view, those who see a campaign to exclude Israelis
from our campuses as anti-Semitic have failed to grasp the gravity of the above
reasons, especially the third and fourth ones. In making these claims he does not
draw any distinction between a possible anti-Semitic intent and a possible anti-
Semitic outcome; nor does he distinguish between singling out Israel for particular
criticism and singling it out for unique punishment – in fact he subsumes both
‘criticism’ and ‘boycott’ into the category of ‘serious opposition.’
In 1975 The UN General Assembly determined ‘that Zionism [was] a form of
racism and racial discrimination,’ a determination which was not reversed until
1991. [2] The charge that Zionism is a form of apartheid [3] or is worse than
apartheid [4] peppers the pro-boycott case; it is even considered unremarkable in
the boycott campaign to compare Zionism to Nazism. [5] The claim that Israeli
or Jewish nationalism is unique or unusual in its relationship to ‘race’ – a claim
which Martin Shaw appears to endorse – is one which calls for some theoretical
unpacking as well as comparative research.
There are distinct, contested and complex relationships between the state,
nationalism, ethnicity and histories of internal and external conflict in most
countries. Syria, for example, is constitutionally defined as an Arab state; Iran as
an Islamic state; Croatia, carved out only a decade and a half ago by campaigns
of ethnic cleansing which drew on the Ustasha tradition, is a Catholic state; the
Baltic states, containing large Russian populations which were originally brought
in by the Stalinists as colonial-settlers, are finding ways to formulate more or less
enlightened Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian nationalisms. But out of all these
diverse nationalisms, there is a campaign to exclude the academics only of Israel
from British universities. Many may criticise these others but what Martin Shaw
calls the ‘progressive left’ only finds its collective blood boiling when it considers
Israel’s crimes.
Israel is not, however, adequately characterised by the phrase ‘racially based state.’ It
is in fact an ethnically diverse society. Approximately 20 percent of its population
is Arab and the Jewish population itself is by no means easy to characterise in terms
of ‘race.’ Approximately half of the Jewish population is descended from people
who were ethnically cleansed by Arab nationalist movements across the Middle
East from the 1940s to the 1960s. There is a significant problem of racism against
Arabs and against Muslims in Israel and certainly this problem is institutionalised
in the state and in civil society in a large number of ways; but to characterise Israel
as uniquely and necessarily racist is to allow a definitional essentialism to take the
place of sociological and political analysis.
One curiosity of the view that Israel is a ‘racially based state’ is its a-historicism. It
fails to acknowledge that Israel, when it was founded, was what Trotsky’s biographer
Isaac Deutscher called a ‘life-raft state.’ [6] Jewish national self-determination and
Israeli self-defence make sense to a lot of Jews, many of whose families were pushed
out from Europe, from the Middle East and from Russia by state supported anti-
Semitic movements. What Martin Shaw calls ‘the progressive left’ failed, in the end,
successfully to defend Jews against these exclusions. It is because Jews have been
persecuted as Jews that so many people feel the necessity for a state where Jews
cannot be dominated by others, where they can practice self-determination as Jews,
and where they can defend themselves against anti-Semitism if need be.
We should be careful not to legitimise a formulation (such as ‘racially based state’)
which encourages people to identify the overwhelming majority of living Jews (i.e.
those who identify in one way or another with Israel) as racists. Because such a
characterisation would be both inaccurate – at the very least simplistic and onesided
– and would also breed hostility to those Jews designated as supporters of
the ‘racially based state,’ it would be anti-Semitic. There is a strong Jewish collective
memory of boycotts and exclusions, not least from universities. Indeed, part of the
reason that Israel exists as a Jewish state is traceable back to a history of anti-Jewish
boycotts and exclusions.
Of course we might well dissent from Jewish nationalist traditions and politics – I
myself am not a Jewish nationalist. But in order to critique Jewish nationalisms
effectively we need to understand their raison d’être, the richness of their histories
and the power of their narratives.
Why then does there seem to be an enthusiasm present amongst a significant
number of UK intellectuals to punish Israelis for human rights abuses while there
is, at best, only a reluctant acceptance of the need to speak out against, for example
Zanu PF or the Janjaweed, both of whom are responsible for crimes hugely greater
in scale and in cruelty than Israel? Criticism of such genocidal organisations is
generally accompanied by all the relevant contextualisations. It is pointed out that
Zanu PF and the Janjaweed are products of long and complex colonial histories,
are sustained by an imperialist system and are encouraged by the international arms
industry. However, analogous contextualisation of Israeli human rights abuses
seems to be prohibited by the (covert and unsupported) rule that one is not allowed
to contextualise Israel in the history of anti-Semitism.
This kind of ‘enthusiasm imbalance’ was evident at UCU Congress in June where
there was an observable excitement displayed by many delegates when they voted to
flirt with breaking the taboo against excluding Jews from campuses and when they
congratulated themselves on their courage as they refused ‘to be intimidated’ by
those who said the boycott was anti-Semitic. As Moishe Postone has pointed out,
anti-Semitism often appears to be anti-hegemonic. [7] In my Democratiya piece,
I suggested an explanation for the ‘enthusiasm imbalance’ which does not rely on
the circularity of analysing anti-Semitism by reference to previous anti-Semitism;
I suggested an explanation in terms of the 20th century history of anti-hegemonic
thought, particularly as it grappled to make sense of nationalism, totalitarianism
and imperialism.
Martin Shaw offers the fact that ‘Israel claims to be a democracy’ as a reason to
think that an exclusion of Israeli academics from the global academic community
would not be anti-Semitic. According to this logic China should be held to a higher
standard still than Israel because it claims to be socialist and not only democratic;
North Korea, which is constitutionally defined as a socialist paradise on earth, must
be held to the highest standard of all.
The question of Israeli democracy is another which deserves analysis and research.
Struggles and debates over Israeli democracy are commonplace in Israel, amongst
Jews as well as Arabs and other minorities. How can the ideas of a Jewish homeland
and of a democratic and inclusive Israel be worked together in practice and in
theory? How can we, outside Israel, make sense of, and constructively intervene
into, these controversies about democracy? How does Israel compare to other states
in terms of its democratic practice, freedom of speech, academic freedom, rights
for minorities and rule of law? To what extent does the enduring occupation, and
the quotidian humiliation and violence which sustains it, weaken and undermine
Israeli democracy? How does the increasing threat to Israel from the Hamas and
Hezbollah militias, armed, encouraged and financed by the anti-Semitic regime in
Iran, impact on the Israeli polity? The question of Israeli democracy is a big question
and requires more consideration than a simplistic and ambiguous ‘claims to be.’ But
in any case, it is not clear why claiming to be a democracy, with whatever degree of
accuracy, should justify unique singling-out for hostility and punishment.
Martin Shaw does not distinguish between criticism and punishment when he
writes: ‘plenty of opponents of Israel’s policies also oppose these regimes.’ Of course
it is true that plenty of us who oppose Israel’s policies are also opponents of the
regimes in Burma and China. But there is no campaign in the UCU or anywhere
else to exclude Burmese or Chinese academics from UK campuses. All we are left
with is the evidence-free suggestion that people who think a boycott of Israeli
academics would be anti-Semitic are also people who don’t ‘oppose Israel’s policies.’
The implication is that when such people say they oppose Israeli human rights
abuses, they should not be believed. It is difficult to have a debate on the basis of
such ad hominem charges. It will be claimed in response that those who raise the
issue of anti-Semitism are the ones who are guilty of the ad hominem attacks. But
my argument is not that anti-Semites are engaged in a conscious plan to encode
their anti-Semitism. It is rather, that decent antiracists are, without knowing it,
falling into anti-Semitic ways of thinking via an over-enthusiastic anger with Israel.
It is part of my project to try to explain where this anti-Israel enthusiasm comes
from without assuming that it originates in an underlying anti-Semitism. There is
no novelty in the idea of a structural, institutional or unconscious racism. It is time
that people who think of themselves as sophisticated antiracists stopped reacting
to discussion of unconscious anti-Semitism as though they were Police Federation
reps from the early 1980s facing the challenge of institutional racism.
Today, people who say anti-Semitic things and who support anti-Semitic boycotts
are likely to have stumbled into anti-Semitic ways of thinking. They are unlikely to
be wicked people. Our intention should not be to reverse the logic of demonisation
in order to demonise the demonisers. It should be, rather, to work within the kind
of cosmopolitan framework that Robert Fine has outlined [8] which tries hard to
avoid replicating that which it critiques.
There is little value in alleging the bad faith of one’s opponents in a debate, and
people on all sides should stop doing it unless they have evidence. In my case it is a
false claim that I offer ‘special immunity’ to Israel to carry out human rights abuses.
I have been involved for my entire adult life in speaking for peace between Israel
and Palestine and in opposing the occupation and in opposing the routine violence
and humiliation which comes with it. But in any case people, specifically Jews,
should not be asked to establish their credentials in this way as a pre-condition for
being allowed to discuss or to oppose anti-Semitism.
Martin Shaw offers the fact that Israel ‘receives enormous support from Western
governments’ as another reason to think that a boycott of Israeli academics would
not be anti-Semitic. The relationships between Israel and other states around the
world are interesting and complex. The national interest calculation of classical
international relations theory is just one factor influencing Israel’s international
relationships; others might be historical narratives, political campaigning, cultural
and ethnic relationships. Israel is by no means unique in receiving aid from the
US and Europe; Egypt, for example, also receives extensive funding, but its human
rights abuses fail to attract the punitive attention of the UCU. Israel’s human rights
abuses are no more serious or widespread than those committed by Britain and the
US in territories which they currently occupy. Israel, for example, has never carried
out the kind of total assault in Gaza or the West Bank which the allies carried out
against Fallujah in 2004, and neither has it carried out anything like as fierce an
assault as the Russians did against Grozny in the 1990s. If the charge against Israel
is that it is financed by the US or the UK, then any academics who are going to be
punished, surely, should be British and American ones.
Martin Shaw is keen to defend the legitimacy of what he calls ‘serious opposition’ to
Israel. His concern is that the charge that a boycott would be anti-Semitic has the
effect of undermining ‘serious opposition.’ My position is the opposite. Avoiding
anti-Semitism is a necessary part of formulating serious opposition, not something
which undermines it. Serious opposition takes careful precautions against anti-
Semitism and makes its case in such a way as to offer no comfort to anti-Semites.
[9] Such precautions are necessary because one would expect, given the historical
embeddedness of anti-Semitism even on the left, that some opposition to Israel
would be anti-Semitic. Sometimes, however, opponents of Israel act as though they
believe that an explicitly antiracist opposition would be less effective against Israeli
human rights abuses than an opposition which was relaxed about anti-Semitic
rhetoric, images, tropes or exclusions.
Martin Shaw alleges that my raising of the problem of anti-Semitism in relation to
the boycott campaign demonstrates that I have not come to terms with the
…gravity of the affront which Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians presents
to the progressive left and indeed to most sectors of democratic opinion
But that is precisely what I am trying to ‘come to terms with’ in my work. [10] The
questions that confront me are why Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is so often
mystified in the language and tropes of anti-Semitism, [11] even, or particularly,
by people on the antiracist left; why Israel has come to function as an essentialist
and unique metaphor for all that is evil on the planet; why Israel’s oppression of
the Palestinians has such a disproportionate gravitational pull on ‘most sectors of
democratic opinion worldwide’; how we got to a situation where the word ‘anti-
Semitism’ itself has become a signifier on the ‘progressive left’ for dishonest Zionist
Martin Shaw goes on to say:
After 60 years of expulsion and 40 years of occupation, it is hard to ‘exaggerate’
the Israeli problem.
This is a surprising claim, coming from a leading academic expert in war and
genocide. In fact it is disturbingly easy to exaggerate the ‘Israeli problem’: we see it
done all the time. It can be exaggerated by claiming, as Ilan Pappe does, that Israel
is committing genocide in Gaza; [12] as Ronnie Kasrils does, that Israel is worse
than an apartheid state; [13] as Mearsheimer and Walt do, that Israel is responsible
for sending America to war in Iraq. [14] Hamas claims that Israel was responsible
for the French Revolution. [15] Hassan Nasrallah claims that Jews are ‘…cowardly,
despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion….’ [16] Clare
Short believes that ‘US backing for Israeli policies … is the major cause of bitter
division and violence in the world.’ [17] Jenny Tonge says that ‘…the pro-Israeli
Lobby has got its [financial] grips on the Western World….’ [18] Richard Falk,
the UN investigator into Israeli conduct in the occupied territories, feels himself
‘…compelled to portray the … abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a
reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as “holocaust.”’ [19] It is not hard to
exaggerate the ‘Israeli problem.’
A further problem with Martin Shaw’s view is that his third and fourth points
suffer from a damaging circularity. He legitimises the singling out of Israel for
boycott by saying that it is gravely offensive to the progressive left, and that it is
hard to exaggerate its crimes. But given that its crimes are frequently exaggerated
by, among others, the ‘progressive left,’ and given also that Israel is far from being
the most serious human rights abuser in the world, we have to ask why it is found to
be so uniquely offensive, and why its crimes are so readily exaggerated. Martin Shaw
offers these two points as an explanation for the singling out of Israel, but far from
performing the required intellectual task, they in fact replicate the explanandum.
This is because they are themselves examples of singling out Israel for especially
hostile attention and hence they are as much in need of explanation as the boycott
proposal which they seek to legitimise. The need then, for an explanation, and
preferably one which does not rely on an ahistorical theory of underlying anti-
Semitism, is clearer than ever.
Further to that point, why would we characterise the problem of Palestinian
unfreedom as specifically ‘the Israeli problem?’ How is it not also a Palestinian
problem, a Lebanese problem, an Egyptian problem, a Syrian problem, an Iranian
problem, a British imperial problem, an American problem, an Islamist problem –
one could go on. Israel is not solely responsible for the plight of the Palestinians. We
need to break out of a world of received wisdoms and one-sided clichés regarding
the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is a world where the commonsense of ‘democratic
opinion’ is assumed, in a much too unproblematised and unevidenced way, to
be straightforwardly true. Politically we need a programme for peace rather than
a schema for blame, punishment and total victory of one nation over the other.
Sociologically we need to begin with a rigorous and cosmopolitan understanding
of the world as it exists rather than trying to begin from where the world once was,
in a mythical past. A warm collective imaginary of essentialised victims rising up
against essentialised villains doesn’t help anybody, not least the actually existing
Martin Shaw writes:
…when it comes to the alleged ‘anti-semitism’ of the boycott, the mote is in
Hirsh’s own eye.
This is an allusion to the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt
thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye…
If I understand him rightly, Shaw’s claim is that raising anti-Semitism as an issue
is a much greater wrong than excluding Israelis from universities. It is not far from
Tariq Ali’s particularly noxious but clear variant of the Livingstone Formulation
The campaign against the supposed new ‘anti-Semitism’ in Europe today is
basically a cynical ploy on the part of the Israeli Government to seal off the
Zionist state from any criticism of its regular and consistent brutality against
the Palestinians. [21]
If we allow the normalisation of a presumption of bad faith when Jews and
antiracists speak out against anti-Semitism then we run the risk of compounding
the alleged problem. We should be careful not to do that.
[1] I would like warmly to thank Alexandra Simonon, Eve Garrard, Robert Fine, Jane Ashworth,
Richard Gold and David Seymour and Kirsten Campbell for their help with this response.
[2] UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, Elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, 10
November 1975.
NR000092.pdf?OpenElement, downloaded 10 July 2008.
[3] EG David Hirsh (2006) ‘The argument for the boycott – Pacbi’,
9 September, 2006, London.,
downloaded 14 February, 2007.
For Rebuttals of the apartheid analogy see Rhoda Kadalie & Julia Bertelsmann (2008)
‘Franchising “apartheid”: why South Africans push the analogy,’ http://www.z|
D%253A-why-south-africans-push-the-analogy.html, downloaded 10 July, 2008. See also
John Strawson (2006), ‘Zionism and Apartheid: The Analogy in the Politics of International
Law,’ Engage Journal, Issue 2.
id=10&article_id=34, downloaded 25 July, 2007.
[4] Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain, ‘Israel should face sanctions,’ Comment Is Free, 19 May 26, downloaded 10 July 2008.
[5] EG Haim Bresheeth (2003) ‘Zionism, anti-Zionism and the state of Israel,’, http://, downloaded 10 July 2008: ‘I’m saying this
in order to explain why it’s so easy for me to understand the Palestinians in Gaza and in the rest
of Palestine. It is very easy for me to understand them because they live in a combination of a
concentration camp and Warsaw ghetto for so many years that we have stopped counting…’
EG ‘Israel’s Nazi style assault and humiliation of Mohammed Omer,’ Anti-Zionists against
Antisemitism, 30 June 2008.
html, downloaded 11 July 2008.
[6] Isaac Deutscher (1968) The Non-Jewish Jew and other essays, London: Oxford University
Press, pp. 111-13, extract at:,
downloaded 10 July 2008.
[7] Postone, Moishe, (2006) ‘History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary
Forms of Anticapitalism,’ in Public Culture, 18:1.
[8] Robert Fine (2007) Cosmopolitanism, Oxford: Routledge.
[9] David Hirsh (2007) Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections, The Yale
Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Working Paper Series #1,
New Haven CT (see particularly the critique of Tony Judt).
[10] David Hirsh (2007) Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections, The Yale
Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Working Paper Series #1,
New Haven CT.
[11] Seymour, David, (2007) Law, Antisemitism and the Holocaust, London: Routledge-Cavendish.
[12] Pappe, Ilan, (2006), ‘Genocide in Gaza.’, 2 September 2006, http://, downloaded 16 February 2007.
[13] Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain, ‘Israel should face sanctions,’ Comment Is Free, 19 May 26., downloaded 10 July 2008.
[14] John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, (2006) ‘The Israel Lobby,’ London Review of books, vol.28
no. 6, 23 March 2006, London., downloaded
February 26, 2007.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2006) ‘The Israel lobby and US foreign policy,’ Faculty
research working paper series, Harvard University and John F Kennedy School of Government,
Working Paper. Number: RWP06-011, 13/03/2006.
wpaper.nsf/rwp/RWP06-011, downloaded 26 February 2007.
[15] The Hamas Covenant 1988.,
downloaded 10 July 2008.
[16] Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal, (2002) Hizbollah: Politics and Religion, London: Pluto.
[17] The Skies Are Weeping, website for the London premiere of the Cantata for Rachel Corrie,
November 2005., downloaded 10 July 2008.
[18] Hirsh, David, (2006a) ‘Jenny Tonge: “The pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the western
world.”’, 20 September 2006.
blog/article.php?id=660, downloaded 15 February 2007.
[19] David Hirsh (2008) ‘Richard Falk and the Zionism-Nazism analogy,’ Engage, 8 April 2008., downloaded 11 July 2008. Tim
Franks (2008) ‘UN expert stands by Nazi comments,’ 8 April 2008.
hi/world/middle_east/7335875.stm, downloaded 11 July 2008.
[20] David Hirsh (2008) ‘The Livingstone Formulation,’, February 2008. http://
253A-decoding-the-relationship.html?page=2, downloaded 10 July 2008.
[21] Tariq Ali (2004) ‘To be intimidated is to be an accomplice: notes on anti-semitism, Zionism
and Palestine’ Counterpunch, March 4 2004.
html, downloaded 10 July 2008.

Letter 3
Falsely criticising Israel’s opponents of anti-Semitism is no answer to the boycott
campaign: Martin Shaw responds to David Hirsh

Editors: Clearly I should have known better than to write a short comment on
an issue like Israel-Palestine, or in reply to a prolific writer like David Hirsh. Since
Hirsh has widened the argument considerably, let me respond in some detail.

‘Punishment,’ the boycott and racism
First, I note that from the beginning of his response Hirsh attributes to me an
argument that I did not make. Apparently I argue ‘that singling out Israel for
unique punishment need not be anti-Semitic because there are reasons, other than
hostility to Jews, for this singling out.’ However I never used the word ‘punish’ or
‘punishment,’ still less the word ‘unique.’ This is a telling distortion, based on the
assumption that ‘serious opposition’ to Israel, which I endorsed, must necessarily
constitute ‘punishment,’ and that the ‘punishment’ of Israelis or Jews must be
‘unique.’ This says more about the political victim-complex behind Hirsh’s critique
than it does about my argument.
As it happens, the main reasons why I oppose the academic boycott of Israel are
indeed that it can be perceived as collective punishment of Israelis for the crimes of
their state, and that it disadvantages Israelis who make criticise their government’s
policies as well as those who support them. Sanctions and boycotts are often blunt
instruments and they are as likely to push the groups that are affected by them
into stronger support of their state rather than into opposition. (I support dialogue
and political negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, and I fear that the
boycott will not help this.) However that does not mean that such instruments
are necessarily racist. No one suggested that the academic boycott of South Africa
necessarily represented anti-white or anti-Afrikaner racism; likewise this proposed
boycott does not necessarily represent anti-Israeli, let alone anti-Jewish, racism (or

Israel is not unique
The problem, far from being unique to the Israeli case, is a common one in the
politics of solidarity with oppressed peoples. Not only can broad-based economic
sanctions often harm the oppressed, but the oppressors often mobilise particular
ethnic or national groups who therefore feel themselves threatened, as groups, even
by targeted (‘smart’) sanctions or boycotts. Thus the UN’s sanctions against Iraq
not only (notoriously) contributed to harming the Iraqi population as a whole, but
international opposition to the Saddam regime was also felt as a particular threat by
the Sunni Muslim minority, sections of whom constituted the regime’s social base
and benefited from the regime. But does that oblige us to draw the conclusion that
international action, including the overthrow of Saddam, was institutionally racist
against Sunnis? Of course not. Likewise, international action over Kosovo was
particularly felt as a threat by the small Serb minority, many of whom supported
and benefited from the Serbian regime. But international action was hardly based
on, or involved, anti-Serb racism, intentional or institutional. Of course, in all
cases like these, opponents of the regime must take account of the danger that,
in attacking or overthrowing oppression, they open the door to reverse injustice
against the group identified with the oppressor, as has indeed happened to some
extent in both Iraq and Kosovo. But awareness of this responsibility is hardly a
reason not to take effective action against the oppressor regime.
It should be clear by now that when Hirsh refers to ‘The claim that Israeli or Jewish
nationalism is unique or unusual in its relationship to “race” – a claim which Martin
Shaw appears to endorse,’ he is simply mistaken. I see Israel as simply yet another
oppressor state, and yet another state established on racial foundations, which needs
to be criticised, opposed, and transformed, in the way that all such states must be.
It is Hirsh, with his argument that anti-Israeli politics must necessarily be anti-
Semitic, who has the idea that there is something unique about the Israeli case.

The sociology of activism
It should be clear too, therefore, that I am not arguing for ‘singling out Israel’ in
the sense that Israel warrants opposition above all other oppressive states. Not at
all – there are far too many states as bad as or worse than Israel. But as a sociologist
as well as an activist I understand that there are many reasons, good as well as bad,
why particular causes attract support in particular periods. Few of us campaign
against the atrocious regime in Uzbekistan because we know little about it, it
rarely gets the Western media attention it deserves, and we (wrongly) feel little
connection to or responsibility for it. We do campaign about Zimbabwe, as we
did in the past about apartheid South Africa, and our media give them enormous
attention, partly because of the deep historic connections between Britain and
southern Africa, and the sense of responsibility that is involved. Something similar
applies to Israel, which is hardly surprising given the ideological as well as financial
investments that the USA and other Western states have made (of a different kind
from the investments in Egypt to which Hirsh refers). If Israel’s supporters want
its defence to be the first priority of Western policy in the Middle East, they can
hardly complain if opposition to Israel is the first Middle Eastern priority of many
anti-Western activists.
Understood in this way, opposition to Israel is more likely to be a reflex of left-wing
opposition to US or British ‘imperialism’ than of anti-Semitism. I agree with Hirsh
that ‘serious opposition takes careful precautions against anti-Semitism and makes
its case in such a way as to offer no comfort to anti-Semites.’ I accept that there are
anti-Semites among Israel’s critics and that as with all long-standing and widely
diffused racial prejudices, low-level anti-Semitism may be widespread – probably
even among Israel’s supporters in the US and British political classes. However I do
not think that on any serious assessment, anti-Semitism can 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. The charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ is
however laid as a matter of routine by Israel’s supporters against almost every type
of criticism of Israel (I myself found this out recently when I was libelled in this way
in Australian Jewish News: they were forced to print an apology.) Whether this is a
matter of Israeli policy, as Tariq Ali not so unreasonably suggested, I do not know:
but it certainly seems to be part of Jewish-nationalist culture.
That Hirsh recognises the relative weakness of overt anti-Semitism in Western
societies is probably the reason for his emphasis on the ‘institutional’ character of
contemporary anti-Semitism. True, ‘There is no novelty in the idea of a structural,
institutional or unconscious racism.’ Yet there needs to be caution in making this
argument. If the British police were ‘institutionally racist’ this was not only because
more blacks than whites fell foul of the law – that might also have reflected greater
criminality among blacks – but fundamentally because racist attitudes were deeprooted
in the police and clearly seemed to drive some of the patterns of policing. I
don’t think the same can be said about the role of anti-Semitism in the opposition
to Israel. Yes, many Jewish Israelis would obviously be the prime losers from policies
that would weaken Israel’s hold on Palestinian territories; but no, these policies
are not primarily driven by anti-Semitism, intentional or institutional, but by the
demand for justice for Palestinians. The equation does not work.

The racial basis of the Israeli state
Certainly the racial basis of Israeli nationalism and the Israeli state ‘calls for some
theoretical unpacking as well as comparative research.’ The definition of any state
on a racial, ethnic or religious basis implicitly discriminates against non-members
of the dominant group. Thus I might feel myself, as an atheist, discriminated against
by the Anglican definition of the British state. But I am realistic enough to see that
this hardly leads to any grave infringements of my civil rights. A French Muslim
might have greater cause for complaint, since the secular state’s headscarf ban in
schools seems to many a significant infringement of personal freedom. But again,
one would be hard pushed to make a claim of deep oppression on this basis. The
cases Hirsh mentions – Syria, Croatia, the Baltics – all involve more serious issues
(I have myself commented on the genocidal impacts of Croatian nationalism in the
1990s). How then does Israel fare in theoretical and comparative perspective?
Hirsh says that Israel ‘is not … adequately characterised by the phrase “racially
based state.”’ It is indeed, as he says, an ethnically diverse society. Yet to say a state is
‘racially based’ is not to refer to the ethnic composition of its population but to the
principles on which the state is founded and how, in practice, they affect different
groups under its jurisdiction. Israel was indeed a ‘life-raft state’ for many Jews, but
for many Palestinian Arabs it was from the outset a state from which they were
expelled without a life-raft. Israel has a ‘law of return’ that allows all Jews, whether
or not they, their parents or grandparents ever lived in its territory, to settle; yet
it refuses to allow the genuine return of Arabs who themselves or whose parents
or grandparents lived in its territory until 1948. The Israeli constitution privileges
the ‘Jewish nation’ and renders the Arab minority second-class citizens, who suffer
fundamental economic and social as well as political inequality. And this is without
considering the occupation, which is now fundamental to the project of continuing
expansion by grinding down and squeezing out Palestinian society from many
areas of the West Bank (the state can hardly be considered apart from this). So
‘racism against Arabs and against Muslims in Israel’ and its institutionalisation
are not secondary features, but follow from how Israel was established, how it is
constituted, and how it is currently developing.
Thus Israel is not ‘uniquely’ but it is ‘necessarily’ racist. This is not ‘definitional
essentialism’ but the conclusion of any serious sociological and political analysis.
This is not a question of ‘legitimising a formulation (such as “racially based state”)
which encourages people to identify the overwhelming majority of living Jews (i.e.
those who identify in one way or another with Israel) as racists.’ Serious analysis will
also recognise that many Jews, even if or to whatever extent they may support Israel,
may not be consciously racist towards Palestinians, and may accept official Israeli
and Zionist rationalisations for the oppression of Palestinians without perceiving
the latter’s structural and historical bases. It is not only possible but necessary
to recognise the racial character of the state, at the same time as refusing the
stigmatisation of most Israelis or Jews as automatically ‘racist.’ However it should
be said that Hirsh’s attempt to cast the shadow of anti-Semitism so broadly over
anti-Israeli opinion is the mirror image of such an attempt to castigate pro-Israelis
as racist.

Genocide and its contextualisation
Hirsh calls for the ‘relevant contextualisations’ to be taken into account in relation
to the Israeli state as they would be in assessing Zanu PF’s or the Janjaweed’s
crimes. Yet the point of this comparison is that, whatever the relevance of British
colonial oppression to understanding the development of Zanu PF, we are still
justified in calling the latter, as Hirsh does, a ‘genocidal organisation,’ because of
its history of massacre in Matabeleland in the 1980s and because of its murderous
policy towards whole communities of its political opponents today. Likewise with
Darfur. The context neither excuses genocidal action nor should it lead us to deny
the ‘genocidal’ label. Israel’s foundation in 1948, as Israeli historians like Benny
Morris and Ilan Pappé have shown, was based on the deliberate, brutal destruction
of the larger part of Arab society in Palestine. This destruction clearly fits the
definition of genocide enshrined in the Genocide Convention of the same year,
even if the UN itself had ironically prepared the ground for this destruction with
its partition scheme. Neither the long history of European anti-Semitism nor the
exceptional murderousness of the Holocaust, while relevant context for explaining
and understanding Israeli actions, can excuse the often murderous expulsion of the
Palestinians or deny the relevance of the ‘genocide’ paradigm to this case. So Israel
is – not uniquely, because many societies, settler and other, have genocidal histories
– based on genocide, and much of its history to the present day represents the slowmotion
extension and consolidation of that violent beginning. In this context,
while some of the comments Hirsh cites may indeed be exaggerations, they are not
all so far from the point as he believes.
To argue this is not to call for Israel’s destruction, any more than to acknowledge
Australia’s genocidal roots is to call for the dismantling of the Australian
Commonwealth, or to recognise those of the USA is to argue for a reversal of the
European settlement of North America. Yet the relatively recent occurrence of the
destruction of Arab society in most of Palestine, the ongoing dispossession of the
Palestinians and the facts of Palestinian resistance, non-violent as well as violent,
all make the consequential issues particularly acute. Of course, as Hirsh says, Israel
is not uniquely responsible for the situation: Britain, the USA, the UN and others
were all fundamentally implicated in 1948 and remain so today, and Palestinian
(and other Arab) leaders have not always helped their people’s cause. But the
characters of the Jewish nationalist project, the Israeli state and the occupation
remain the fundamental causes of the problem.
Looked at in this light, Hirsh would do better to stop worrying about ‘overenthusiastic
anger with Israel’ and look to what might be done now to halt Israeli
colonisation and free Palestinian society. My claim is not, as Hirsh wrongly alleges,
‘that raising anti-Semitism as an issue is a much greater wrong than excluding
Israelis from universities.’ Rather it is that falsely criticising Israel’s opponents as anti-
Semitic, especially using the argument of ‘institutional racism’ – which in this case
is spurious – is no answer to the boycott campaign, let alone to the many deeprooted
objections to Israeli policies. Neither I nor most of Israel’s critics are ‘falling
into antisemitic ways of thinking’ – so Hirsh should not fall into the trap of seeing
anti-Semitism as central to the debate about Israel and Palestine.

Letter 4
The Boycott is a symptom, and it’s time to sound the alarm: David Hirsh replies
to Martin Shaw

Editors: The stakes are high. If the proposal to exclude Israelis – and only Israelis
– from British universities is anti-Semitic in effect, if it risks normalising anti-
Semitic ways of thinking and if it is a symptom, an indication and an escalation of
a wider problem, then we should sound the alarm. If we judge that Jews are crying
anti-Semitism as part of a communalist conspiracy or that they are misjudging the
situation for some other reason, then we should reassure the British intelligentsia
that anti-Semitism is not something about which it currently needs to worry. But
we’d better get it right. Judging by their record, European intellectuals should be
reluctant to gamble the future of Jews on their own ability to recognise and to
oppose anti-Semitism.
The narrative which underpins the singling out of Israel and only Israel for
an academic boycott is false in a number of key claims: for example, that Israel
is a necessarily racist state; that it was founded upon the deliberate and brutal
destruction of the larger part of Arab society in Palestine; and that this constituted
genocide. The Jews in Palestine in 1948 were the remnants of genocide. The UN
offered them half a little statelet but it did not offer to defend it nor did it oppose
the British and American arms embargo which sought to deprive it of the means of
self-defence. Nevertheless the Jews accepted the UN compromise. It was, in 1948,
the Arab nationalist regimes which launched the second genocidal offensive of the
decade against the Jews. As it turned out, it was the Palestinians and not the Jews
who were the chief victims of this pan-Arabist aggression. The Palestinians suffered
terribly as a result of the subordination of their own national interest to the ideology
of Arab nationalism. Many Arab states, to this day, refuse to allow Palestinians to
live as equal citizens. Lebanon, Jordan and the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’ keep the
descendants of the Palestinian refugees corralled, with the collusion of the UN,
into ‘refugee camps’ so that their symbolic value as victims of Israeli oppression may
continue to be exploited. Imagine if Britain or the United States still kept Jewish
refugees from anti-Semitism locked up in ‘refugee camps.’
The war of 1948 was horrible. There were some massacres of Jews by Arabs and
there were some massacres of Arabs by Jews. There was terror and forced population
movements on both sides. The Jews, against all expectations, won the war against
the invading Arab states, and 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out as a
result. What would have been the result if Israel had lost in 1948? I am not denying
that this was a nakba for those Palestinians, nor am I denying that Israel should
recognise its own considerable share of responsibility for ongoing Palestinian
dispossession. But I am absolutely contesting the now standard British narrative
of Israel’s birth as an aggressive, imperialist and pre-planned campaign of ethnic
cleansing, theft and genocide.
Left antizionist discourse owes much to its anti-Semitic Soviet heritage. The
current boycott campaign relies on rhetoric similar to that which was used in the
state purges of Jews from Polish and East German universities in 1968. Today’s
boycott campaign needs to make an emotional case as well as an intellectual one for
boycotting a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish academics. Not surprisingly
therefore, it throws up many examples and echoes of the themes and images of
global Jewish conspiracy and of the unalloyed nature of Jewish evil – an evil which
was originally thought to be manifested in the murder of God and its periodic reenactment
on the bodies of innocent children. Left and antiracist antizionism exists
alongside, and inter-twined with, other antizionist movements but it generally fails
to notice this fact and the threat which comes with it. Sometimes it fails to resist the
temptation of making political alliances with anti-Semitic antizionist movements.
Few on the British left seem bothered about anti-Semitism in predominately Arab
or Muslim communities. The anti-Semitism of Hamas and Hezbollah, when not
simply denied, is often judged in Britain to be politically unimportant; or it is just
blamed on the Jews. The Holocaust-denying Iranian regime, which finances and
arms the anti-Semitic and genocidal Hamas and Hezbollah movements, which
promises to wipe Israel off the map and which is currently building nuclear weapons,
is not generally regarded in Britain as a racist threat to Jews. The current research
linking the rise of genocidal, anti-imperialist, anti-American anti-Semitism in the
Middle East to Nazi war-time propaganda is not even read by British intellectuals;
Ilan Pappé, by contrast, is treated as a serious historian. The high budget series,
produced by Hezbollah TV (Al Manar) entitled ‘Diaspora’ and the one produced
in Egypt called ‘Knight without a Horse,’ both of which dramatised and popularised
the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to huge and mainstream audiences across the
Middle East, are not considered by most British cultural studies scholars to be of
any significance.
The campaign to exclude Israelis from UK universities impacted immediately within
the University and College Union itself against Jewish members. People who raise
the issue of anti-Semitism are disdainfully ignored by union activists and officials.
The arguments they raise are routinely de-legitimised by means of accusations
of bad faith; disgraceful insinuations and assumptions directly underpinned by
official union policy and underwritten by union staff. Formal complaints about
institutional anti-Semitism in the union have either gone uninvestigated or have
been whitewashed by the General Secretary. The union has done nothing to stop
a steady stream of opponents of anti-Semitism from resigning. It responded in a
trivial way to the concerns of the Parliamentary Enquiry into Antisemitism. It is
clear that our union has a problem of institutional anti-Semitism, and that this is a
predictable result of the campaign to exclude Israelis – and only Israelis – from our
campuses. Eminent anti-discrimination lawyers, who have described precisely and
technically how the boycott campaign violates both Race Relations law and the
union’s own commitment to equality, have been ignored.
Yet there are British intellectuals who, when confronted by the evidence of
the contemporary threat of anti-Semitism, show themselves quite incapable
of recognising it as such. They respond by means of angry disavowal, denial,
minimisation, ad hominem counter-accusation, and above all by changing the

Letter 5
It’s Hirsh, not the western Left that is eliding anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism:
Martin Shaw responds to David Hirsh

Editors: It is difficult to continue this debate as David Hirsh has not done me the
courtesy of responding directly to my arguments. A good deal of his ‘reply’ is taken
up with complaints about the British Universities and Colleges Union, whose
proposed boycott I made it clear I did not support. He introduces a new complaint,
that ‘few on the British left seem bothered about anti-Semitism in predominately
Arab or Muslim communities.’ Let me make it clear that I am well aware of this
and agree that it is a disturbing aspect of the polarisation over Israel and Palestine.
But our disagreement was about the debate in Western societies, especially Britain,
and here his new argument – ‘Left antizionist discourse owes much to its anti-
Semitic Soviet heritage. The current boycott campaign relies on rhetoric similar
to that which was used in the state purges of Jews from Polish and East German
universities in 1968’ – strikes me as disingenuous. Although some anti-Zionists
here, including Jews, are from Communist backgrounds, there is little to suggest
that their ideas, let alone those of other contemporary Western anti-Zionists, owe
anything to Stalinist rhetoric in Eastern Europe nearly half a century ago.
The serious issues, and indirect reply, in Hirsh’s latest contribution, concern the
foundation of Israel. Although many newly arrived Jews in Palestine in 1948 were
indeed ‘the remnants of genocide,’ the Jewish nationalist movement pre-existed
their arrival and was led by earlier-settled Zionists. The UN did not offer the
Zionists ‘half a little statelet,’ but the larger part of a territory in which Jews made up
barely one-third of the population: even assuming that partition could have been
just, this was an over- rather than under-generous ‘offer.’ If, then, Zionist leaders
‘accepted the UN compromise,’ this was because it gave them a basis to create a
state, and enabled them to extend it further at the expense of Palestinian Arabs.
Hirsh’s account of the subsequent war – ‘the Arab nationalist regimes … launched
the second genocidal offensive of the decade against the Jews. As it turned out,
it was the Palestinians and not the Jews who were the chief victims of this pan-
Arabist aggression’ – is now discredited by historical research including by Israeli
historians. Hirsh complains that ‘Ilan Pappé … is treated as a serious historian,’ but
in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Pappé has indeed written a seriously researched
historical account, well received by other scholars (see Mark Levene’s review in the
Journal of Genocide Research). He shows from Israeli sources that the ‘massacres
of Jews by Arabs’ were not accidental, but part of a carefully planned dispossession
of a large part of the Arab population of Palestine. He also shows that when the
Zionists won the war against the invading Arab states, this was not ‘against all
expectations.’ On the contrary Zionist leaders had a realistic assessment that Arab
resistance would crumble in the face of their better organised forces, and they
planned their campaign to destroy Arab society in this expectation.
Hirsh complains about ‘ad hominem accusations’ but his dismissal of Pappé suggests
that in the current debate it is he who resorts to this kind of argument. Hirsh should
actually read Pappé, and recognise that he builds on the work of other scholars like
Benny Morris (who unlike Pappé broadly supports Israeli policy in 1948). If he
wishes to contest a ‘narrative of Israel’s birth as an aggressive, imperialist and preplanned
campaign of ethnic cleansing, theft and genocide,’ then he might at least
refer to some of the arguments and evidence that have been adduced to support
propositions similar to these.

I am glad that Hirsh is ‘not denying that this was a nakba for those Palestinians.’
But when he acknowledges ‘that Israel should recognise its own considerable share
of responsibility for ongoing Palestinian dispossession,’ I think it would have been
more accurate to have replaced ‘considerable’ with ‘prime.’ True, others like the USA
aid and abet Israel, and the divided and often misconceived nature of Palestinian
and Arab opposition may offer it unintended reinforcement. But only the Israeli
state and Zionist movements have pursued, continuously for more than 60 years,
policies for dispossessing Arab Palestinians. Perhaps Hirsh needs to recognise that
the deep, often intended harm to millions of Palestinians enormously outweighs
the misconceived and unsuccessful attempt to deny Israeli academics a platform in
British universities.
One final point. I, like most Western opponents of the Israeli state, have been very
careful to distinguish between Israel and Israelis, and between Israelis and Jews. Yet
I have been implicitly accused (elsewhere) of actual anti-Semitism, and by David
Hirsh (if I read him right) of being ‘incapable of recognising’ anti-Semitism. Yet
Hirsh, in his remarks about 1948, only refers to ‘the Jews in Palestine,’ never once
to the Zionist movement, leaders, armed forces or proto-state. It is clear that the
identification of Israel with ‘Jews’ in general lies in the minds of Hirsh and other
Israeli advocates rather than those of their critics. Not surprisingly then, opposition
to Israel must be anti-Semitic, and if not consciously, then ‘institutionally.’ But this
‘anti-Semitism’ is largely the product of this mental elision on his (and their) part,
not of the ideas of Israel’s left-wing opponents.

Martin Shaw is an Advisory Editor of Democratiya and Professor of International
Relations and Politics at the University of Sussex. His website is http://www.martinshaw.
David Hirsh is an Advisory Editor of Democratiya, Editor of Engage and Lecturer
in Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London.

1 thought on “Antisemitism and the Boycott: An Exchange between Martin Shaw and David Hirsh, 2008”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s