Archive for the ‘anti-semitism and racism’ Category

I have coauthored the following article:

Goldberg, Amos; Kehoe, Thomas J.; Moses, A. Dirk; Segal, Raz; Shaw, Martin; and Wolf, Gerhard (2016) “Israel Charny’s Attack on the Journal of Genocide Research and its Authors: A Response,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal: Vol. 10: Iss. 2: 3-22. DOI: Available at: View article here

Abstract: Israel Charny has published an article, “Holocaust Minimization, Anti-Israel Themes, and Antisemitism: Bias at the Journal of Genocide Research” (JGR) in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism. His specific allegations are bundled together in a single sentence: “minimization of the Holocaust, delegitimization of the State of Israel, and repeat[ing] common themes of contemporary antisemitism”. We write as the authors of articles and contributors to the JGR attacked by Charny. His allegations are false and we reject them. This article shows how they are based on distortions, misquotations, and falsifications of our work.


New on openDemocracy

The International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS) is holding a conference in Jerusalem this weekend. The initiative has attracted an attack by Israel Charny in the Jerusalem Post under the lurid heading, ‘Genocide scholars who minimize the Holocaust – and some who are coming to town’. This summarised his article published in the pseudo-academic Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, reporting a flawed survey of his friends and acquaintances interested in genocide about their attitudes to the Journal of Genocide Research (JGR), the premier journal in the field which is sponsored by INOGS.

Charny charges JGR and the authors of seven articles (including this writer) with ‘minimization of the Holocaust, delegitimization of the State of Israel, and repeat[ing] common themes of contemporary antisemitism’, and then reports how many of his respondents agreed with each of these charges in relation to each of the papers and the journal as a whole. The exercise is a travesty of social research because Charny personally selected the participants, prejudiced the survey by feeding them his own views and distorted summaries of the papers (rather than the papers themselves or their abstracts), and by using loaded terms like ‘Holocaust minimisation’ and above all ‘antisemitism’.

The ‘boycott’ petition against the conference

At the same time, however, for simply holding the conference in Jerusalem INOGS has come under fire from 270 academics and others who have signed a petition calling on it to respect the academic boycott of Israel, called by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The petition points to the ‘hypocrisy’ of having the conference in Israel at a time when Israel’s actions are ‘increasingly being viewed through lenses of ethnic cleansing and genocide linked to settler colonialism’, as well as calling the location ‘Jerusalem, Israel’, when the city’s eastern part has been illegally annexed.

The irony of the petition’s first charge is that this is also the core reason why Charny objects to JGR. Seeing Zionism romantically as a ‘heroic nationalism’ rooted solely in Jewish victimisation, he is incensed by the mere suggestion that Israel’s founding through the removal of most of Palestine’s Arab population could be analysed through a ‘genocide’ lens. I proposed this idea in a 2010 debate in JGR following a fuller article in the Journal of Holy Land Studies (the paper was earlier presented at an INOGS conference). It was not an original insight: JGR’s most heavily downloaded paper is one by Patrick Wolfe which, inter alialinked the Israeli case to the wider problem of genocide in settler colonialism.

It typifies Charny’s intellectual sloppiness that he doesn’t seem to have read my original article before condemning me, but it also reflects poorly on the petition organisers that they don’t seem to have been aware of INOGS and JGR’s pioneering roles in promoting discussion of colonial genocide and broaching the subject (very sensitive because of the twin centrality of the Holocaust to genocide studies and to much Jewish identity) of the genocidal dimenstions of the Nakba. Nor do they seem to have picked up on the fact that INOGS was founded partly because of dissatisfaction with the way in which the existing, US-based International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) had been politicised by pro-Israeli scholars, most notoriously in a 2006 resolution echoing Israeli propaganda charges that then-President Ahmadinejad of Iran was threatening a new genocide against Jews.

INOGS’ opposition to politicising genocide studies

I left IAGS after that (although I should mention that in recent years a new, younger leadership has avoided further provocations of this kind). I supported, and still support, INOGS’s opposing stance that it is not helpful for the disciiplinary organisations of academics in a sensitive field like genocide to take political positions on what counts as genocide or a threat of genocide. All scholars in the genocide field have moral commitments, of course, and we should expect individuals to take political positions. But if we are to have professional communities which promote academic rigour and serious scholarly debate on the cases of genocide, then these cases cannot be foreclosed by majority votes on a website.

It is in this spirit, I assume, that my friend Juergen Zimmerer, the INOGS President, and other colleagues on its board have approached the Jerusalem conference. Israel is, naturally, one of the major countries in which the Holocaust is studied and there are key intellectual debates, including the relationship of Holocaust to wider study of genocide (the latter category is subversive in Israel since Holocaust-centrism is hegemonic) and indeed about how the Holocaust itself should be studied, broached in JGR, which it is especially appropriate to take forward in an Israeli setting. There are, after all, many serious genocide scholars in Israel, such as the veteran historian Yehuda Bauer who defended the conference in the Jerusalem Post, as well as ideologues like Charny.

The academic boycott of Israel

Thus far, I am sympathetic to the ambitions for this conference. Its programme is impressive. My absence, however, is not accidental. It is one thing to avoid political commitments, as INOGS has managed to do up to now. It is another, when holding an event in a site of conflict, to accept the position advocated by one side and to reject the position adopted by the other. Whether INOGS likes it or not, the academic boycott of Israel is part of this conflict. The boycott is not directed at individual scholars: many academics who support the boycott regularly have contact with Israeli scholars. It is directed at universities as Israeli institutions, which like many others are to a greater or lesser extent complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, as my late colleague Stan Cohen argued in a memorable paper (Hebrew here).

I don’t criticise the specific Israeli institutions which have sponsored the conference, which may well be acting laudibly within the oppressive Israeli climate of which Charny’s attacks are a symptom. It is significant that a West Bank-based institution is also among the sponsors, and Al Quds University was apparently approached to co-host but declined. There is a plenary roundtable, What Does It Mean to Study the Holocaust and Genocide in Israel/Palestine, A Site of Conflict?, in which one of the speakers is Palestinian, as well as other occasions to reflect on Israel-Palestine issues. This will probably a stimulating gathering, and at one level I am sorry to be missing it.

However I don’t see these as good enough reasons to avoid the boycott question. The boycott as a whole (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions, BDS, to give it its proper name) is emerging to the centre of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It offers Palestinians the means of applying peaceful international pressure to Israel to reach an equitable settlement, as an alternative to the violence of Hamas and others. It has been the focus of a huge official and unofficial Israeli counteroffensive, including bans on BDS campaigns in the USA, which has smeared boycotters as antisemitic.

It was unnecessary for INOGS to endorse the boycott; it could clearly have simply avoided the whole issue, in line with its previous position, by holding its conference somewhere else. But by holding a conference in Jerusalem, INOGS has taken a position against the boycott, and it is not one I can support.

I would have respected INOGS’ board more if it had responded publicly to the criticisms of the boycotters, and indeed I made several attempts to encourage it to articulate its position, so that this debate, instead of being brought together in this piece, would have taken place between INOGS and those academics who thought it should not go to Jerusalem.

There is a further irony in that INOGS and JGR have been smeared as ‘delegitimising the State of Israel’, and even antisemitic, despite this decision. No doubt the Charnys of this world will be quick to heap further ignominy on me for the views I am expressing, and will throw in INOGS for good measure.

‘Delegitimising’ Israel

I explained my decision to support the boycott at the time of Israel’s last large-scale massacres in Gaza in 2014, and there is no need to repeat all the arguments here. I will make clear, however, in the light of recent controversies in the UK, that my position on Israel-Palestine has not fundamentally changed since I was commissioned to write on it in 2009 (after the first Gaza massacres) by the editor of Democratiya, Alan Johnson. (Charny should note that Johnson now works for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM, and was never one to publish an antisemitic post.)

Any reader of these articles will see that I do not oppose the existence of the State of Israel. That is also true of my academic writing referred to above. Charny is unable to engage with the Palestinian genocide proposition (or even Ilan Pappe’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ perspective) in conceptual or historical terms, but only through the starkly political lens of the ‘delegitimisation’ of the state. Yet as Jonathan Freedland has argued, ‘As for the notion that Israel’s right to exist is voided by the fact that it was born in what Palestinians mourn as the Naqba [sic] – their dispossession in 1948 – one does not have to be in denial of that fact to point out that the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and countless others were hardly born through acts of immaculate conception. Those nations were forged in great bloodshed.’

However the corollary of recognising that there is no necessary connection between the crimes of Israel’s foundation and its right to exist today is that the Nakba deserves the same academic attention as the other cases that Freedland mentions, which are increasingly discussed in the colonial genocide literature that JGR has done so much to develop. If research on Israel-Palestine is to advance, it will have to overcome the idea that deep historical criticism of Israel necessarily implies the dismantling of its state and society.

The reason why we have not got to this ‘normal’ stage is Israel’s continuous expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which even more than its failure to address historic Palestinian grievances means that Israel itself has not achieved a stable state. The world has recognised Israel within its 1948 borders, but Israel itself is unsatisfied with these borders. Its internationally illegitimate expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, endorsed in some degree by all mainstream parties in the Knesset, makes it impossible to unequivocally endorse the state.

Conceptual and normative aspects of forced removal

At the heart of my conceptual position is the proposition that the forced removal of populations is one of the key means through which genocide, the destruction of population groups and societies, is carried out. Corresponding to this, I take a normative position: whole groups and societies should not be forcibly uprooted.

I apply this principle retrospectively to the forced removal of the majority of Palestinians from Israeli territory in 1948, a removal which was partially deliberate at the time and wholly deliberate in the Israeli refusal to allow Palestinians to return after the war.

I apply this prospectively to any proposal for the forced removal of the Jewish population of Israel, and I recognise that the Jewish population needs a state in which it has confidence to protect it. A stable state structure in Israel-Palestine, whether one state or two, needs Jewish as well as Palestinian consent.

However I also apply this principle now to the ongoing forced removal of the Palestinian population from their homes in many parts of the Occupied Territories, and their replacement by Jewish settlers.

Jerusalem: where ‘genocide’ questions are still live

Jerusalem is not just a site of ‘conflict’, in the euphemistic terminology of the INOGS conference programme. It is a site of what many, almost as euphemistically, call ‘ethnic cleansing’, as Palestinians are forced out of their longstanding homes in the occupied east of the city. It is a site in which questions of ‘genocide’, the deliberate destruction of communities, are all too live.

‘Genocide’, wrote Raphael Lemkin, ‘has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor’s own nationals.’

It is true that current dispossession is piecemeal, often legal in the Israeli understanding (although Israel’s domestic law does not genuinely apply when the occupation is illegal under international law), and mostly accompanied by only localised coercion or violence. In these senses it is different from the wholesale removal of a large population, without a shred of legality and with extensive violence, which occurred in 1948.

However it seems to me unarguable that the present dispossession is an extension of the historic destruction of Palestinian society. In the midst of this crisis, genocide scholars cannot ignore the call for boycotting Israel which comes, not from those ‘singling out’ or ‘demonising’ Israel (as BDS’s critics claim), let alone from antisemites, but from those Palestinian organisations which see it as a more potent weapon for justice than rockets, bombs or knives which harm innocent civilians.

This is why I am not in Jerusalem.

I published this letter in the Guardian on 27 January 2015 (scroll down for my letter):

‘The proposals of a European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation report for a Europe-wide ban on genocide denial, as part of a swathe of new legal measures (Jewish groups want EU ban on intolerance, 26 January), are highly problematic. First, it is proposed to ban denial of the Holocaust, but not of other historic cases such as the Armenian genocide or the Palestinian Nakba – although Nakba denial (legally enforced in Israel) is as likely to contribute to antisemitism (a major concern of the report) as is Holocaust denial.

Second, it is proposed to outlaw denial only of any “other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal”. This sounds reasonable, but international courts try individuals, only adjudicating history incidentally; most recent genocide, like historic genocide, has not been tried internationally; and these courts’ operations are highly politically constrained.

The proposed bans will only lead to arbitrary and contested prosecutions which increase polarisation, not reconciliation. It is better to combat genocide denial through argument and evidence.
Martin Shaw
Author, What is Genocide?

To expand, there are at least five separate issues here:

1. Banning ideas, however reactionary, as such – rather than when they threaten violence or discrimination – breaches freedom of speech.

2. The report doesn’t say what is to be banned – ‘literal’ denial (of the facts) or ‘interpretative’ denial (whether the events constitute a genocide). My reference to the Nakba illustrates the contentiousness of the latter issue, and the line where legitimate debate and denial gets blurred. I do not think it is possible to legally define this line: it is a matter for historians.

3. Naming the Holocaust as a genocide that can’t be denied, while requiring all other genocides to pass a legal test before their denial counts for the purposes of banning, is inconsistent and protects the memory of the Holocaust while not protecting that of many other historic and contemporary episodes.

3 In any case, there is no international legal framework for recognising genocides and the corpus of international legal decisions is decidedly not robust enough to provide an impartial framework. Many cases cannot be brought before international courts for political reasons, and courts are subject to political pressures in operations, leading them to inconsistent decisions which even involve genocide denial as in the case of the International Court of Justice decision on Bosnia.

4 In the contemporary European context, to legally ban Holocaust denial while not protecting the memory of other genocides such as the Nakba, which matter particularly to Muslim and Arab minorities, can easily be construed as a partisan intervention, and enforcement could easily contribute to polarisation. The incarceration of Holocaust-denying ‘historian’ David Irving in Austria did little good, and the indictment of Muslim Holocaust-deniers in France, say, could actively cause harm.

5 The report is considerably motivated by the desire to stem (indeed ban) anti-semitism. However we know that contemporary European anti-semitism, while rooted in jihadist ideology as well as historic legacies, is hugely stimulated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as the big spike following last summer’s Israeli atrocities in Gaza showed. Israel has instrumentalised the Holocaust while simultaneously banning commemoration of the Nakba. Netanyahu is now shamelessly instrumentalising the recent genocidal mini-massacre of Jews in Paris. I argue that to weaken anti-semitism, rather than reinforcing these Israeli narratives by banning Holocaust denial, it is necessary to seek a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and to challenge Israeli ideology. Recognition of the Nakba could be a powerful step in that direction. The European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation would have done better to focus on.this alternative agenda.

The genocide psychologist, Israel Charny, having read my exchange with Omer Bartov in the Journal of Genocide Research, first posted an abusive, defamatory rant against me (on the International Association of Genocide listserve), including accusing me of ‘anti-Semitism’. The President of the IAGS, Professor William Schabas, quickly apologized for the inadvertent publication of this abuse. Yet far from apologizing himself for his disgraceful departure from the standards of scholarly debate, Charny then repeated the libel (in the US Jewish newspaper Forward), by implication accusing me as well as the whole of the International Network of Genocide Scholars of ‘anti-Jewish sentiment’. (The Forward has now published letters by Juergen Zimmerer, of INOGS, and myself, in reply.)

Charny has now, finally, calmed down enough to post a semi-reasoned response about Palestine in 1948 on the IAGS listserve (although a colleague of his, Elihu Richter, has posted another aggressive libel) and on H-genocide. It might well be argued that one does not reply to abuse and libel with reasoned argument, but with lawyers’ letters. But since some IAGS and H-Genocide members may have missed the original defamatory rant, and therefore believe that Charny is simply debating, I intend to answer his points.

First it is important to note that Charny relies for his comments on my views entirely on the JGR debate, and has not bothered to go back to the original article in Holy Land Studies, in which I set out my arguments in full. In this respect he could be accused of violating ‘the elementary requirements of assembly of established information’ (to remind Charny of one of his own accusations). But it also means that he has missed quite a lot of my argument. Let us take his points in turn.

  • First and foremost, there is nothing to quote of Shaw about the War of Independence in 1948 being a direct result of Arab refusal to accept the UN  partition plan which the Jews did, and Arab attacks on Israel from a whole  constellation of Arab countries coming to invade the new State of Israel together with Arabs living in then Palestine.

I already addressed this point (made originally by Omer Bartov) in the JGR debate which Charny is supposed to have read. I said that ‘to say that the Yishuv compromised, the Arabs not, needs to be contextualized by the fact that the UN plan grossly favoured the Jewish state, in relation to the sizes of the respective populations – as well as, indeed, in relation to the Arab opposition to partition as such.’ Typically, Charny just repeats Bartov’s point, and doesn’t deal with my reply.

  • Shaw’s conception of the war is as if the Jews are an invading colonial force doing genocide like had just taken place (guess against whom) in Europe as a result of “European nationalisms” (I hardly recognize Hitler and Nazism in such phrasing).

This wild, sarcastic comment is why I said that Charny’s response was ‘semi-reasoned’. But I did say in HLS: ‘The Nakba was not the Final Solution, and a simple comparison of the two is utterly inappropriate’. I also said ‘Palestine in 1948 was … much more like Bosnia, where a minority of the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population was murdered as part of a violent and coercive campaign to terrorise the majority of the population into leaving the territory controlled by Republika Srpska’.  I added, ‘However one should not push any analogy too far. Genocide studies is bedeviled by excessive case-to-case comparison at the expense of the clear application of concepts.’

  • Little did I know until Shaw that were I some generations back a chalutz [pioneer] coming to drain the swamps in Northern Palestine to create a kibbutz or in later years a passenger on Exodus leaving Holocaust Europe, I was busy dreaming, planning and scheming to kill Arabs, and now that my capable national psychoanalyst Shaw has set me straight, I will have to get to more work on my lousy killing mind than I had realized I had to do.

Nowhere did I suggest that any section of the Zionist movement was ‘planning or scheming to kill Arabs’. What I did say is that the logic of ‘transfer’ (removal of a large part of the Arab population of Palestine) was built into Zionism and that in the war of 1948, either ‘opportunistically’ or as a result of pre-planning, one of the Zionist movement’s aims, in which it was largely successful, was to remove a large part of the Arab population from the future Israeli state. Obviously none of this means that either individual Zionist ‘pioners’ or Holocaust survivors had migrated to Palestine with this goal in mind.

I have argued explicitly against any kind of ‘national psychology’, let alone psychoanalysis, as it seems to me a racist argument. But it is worth noting that Charny himself is not averse to this kind of argument – look at his sneers about ‘English manners’ in his comments to the Forward, sneers which if made about Jews would undoubtedly be regarded as antisemitic.

  • In my judgment the complete failure of Martin Shaw to refer to the origin of the war, and the insistence on a preconceived genocidal intention at the core of Zionism violate every sense of historical factuality and academic integrity. That is the essence of my protest.

If Charny had bothered to read my HLS article he would have seen several references to the origins of the war, and to the fact that it was started by the Arab side. If he had even read the debate carefully it would be seen that I do NOT ‘insist on a preconceived genocidal intention at the core of Zionism’. Instead I stress that while the logic of removing part of the Arab population was inherent in the project of a Jewish-majority state (since Jews were a small minority of the Palestine population until the Second World War), Zionist thinking also included more enlightened strands. I quoted with approval Mark Levene’s comment that

  • drawing a straight line from Herzl through David Ben-Gurion, to Ariel Sharon and beyond, accusing them of aiming to get rid of the Palestinians, elides all manner of Zionist thinking and practice which has been more circumspect, cautious, and often energized by the potential for a Zionist – Arab relationship in which the two peoples might live together’ (Levene 2007: 676-77). Moreover, he points out, Zionist thought did not develop in a vacuum. Zionist rejection of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was conditioned by Arab attacks on Jewish communities, especially during their 1929 uprising. (HLS article)

Yet ‘the logic of a transfer solution to the “Arab problem” remained ineluctable; without some sort of massive displacement of Arabs from the area of the Jewish state-to-be, there could be no viable Jewish state’.  This quote is from none other than the Israeli historian, Benny Morris (2004: 43), of whom Charny writes:

  • Morris has been criticized by some for remaining a Zionist … in the face of the findings that show the Israelis also committed genocidal massacres; and for elements of callousness in his justification of the Israeli actions in a broad historical context; but to the best of my knowledge rarely for the integrity of his historical research and reporting.

On this, at last, Charny and I can find something to agree. If he had read my HLS article, he would have seen that Morris was one of my main sources. But I can only conclude that Charny has read Benny Morris very selectively. Let me point out to him some more of the things that I quoted from Morris in my article, and the conclusions I drew:

  • ‘Transfer’ thinking was persistent in Zionism: ‘by the early 1930s a full-throated near-consensus in support of the idea began to emerge among the movement’s leaders‘ (Morris 2004: 44); yet the pre-war Zionist consensus for transfer ‘was not tantamount to pre-planning and did not issue in the production of a policy or master-plan for expulsion …‘ (Morris 2004: 60).
  • This is why I concluded ‘that pre-war Zionism included the development of an incipiently genocidal mentality towards Arab society, rather in a manner that many European nationalist fantasies of the time tended to regard “other” populations in territories that they regarded as properly part of  “their” own nation-state.’
  • ‘A complete transfer of the bulk of the Arab population could only be carried out by force, by “ruthless compulsion”, in Ben-Gurion’s phrase. However recent European history, Ben-Gurion pointed out, had demonstrated that a massive, compulsory transfer of populations was possible – and the ongoing world war had made the idea of transfer even more popular as the surest and most practical way to solve the difficult and dangerous problem of national minorities. The post-war settlement in Europe, he envisioned, would include massive transformation transfers.’ (Morris 2001: 45).
  • In conversation with Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador in London, Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organisation, canvassed Maisky on the prospects of moving the Palestinian Arabs ‘into Iraq or Transjordan’. ‘Dr. Weizmann said that if half a million Arabs could be transferred, two million Jews could be put in their place.’ However he did explain ‘that they were unable to deal with [the Arabs] as, for instance, the Russian authorities would deal with a backward element in their population in the USSR. Nor would they desire to do so’ (Morris 2001: 46.)
  • ‘the Yishuv [the Jewish community] and its military forces did not enter the 1948 war, which was initiated by the Arab side, with a policy or plan for expulsion’ (Morris 2004: 60). Rather, he suggested in his first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1947 (1986), the circumstances of the war brought about the flight of much of the Arab population, although Israeli forces did coerce and deliberately expel some Palestinians.

I pointed out, however, that other historians have gone further, including Ilan Pappe who has produced much evidence for a more pre-planned, coordinated campaign by the central Zionist leadership, from which Levene concludes: ‘Pappe unequivocally demonstrates that the drive towards the removal of the Palestinians came from the top.

I argue, however, that this disagreement is about the degree of central and pre-planning. There is a consensus, which includes Morris, that to some degree, the destruction of Arab society in Palestine was the result of deliberate Israeli policies. Therefore it was not just a question of ’crimes committed by the Israelis in several specific locations’, as Charny argues. The strategy of Israel in the war included as one of its aims the removal of a large part of the Arab population, and the removal of that population was in significant part the result of this aim, on the part of the Israeli leadership, as well as of local actions by Israeli commanders, officials, etc., and not simply the result of the dislocations of the war (let alone the policies of the Arab leadership).

I have little confidence that Israel Charny is capable of addressing this case in a balanced way. But I am confident that members of IAGS and H-Genocide will recognize that there is a serious argument here, and I hope you will be inspired to read the original texts.

References in the HLS article.

ADDENDUM (7 July 2011) David Moshman, who blogs for Huffington Post, writes: ‘I write a blog on intellectual freedom in education for the Huffington Post, which with one exception has published all of my posts.  The exception was [a] piece in which, following the recent controversy over Tony Kushner’s honorary degree at CUNY, I summarized your JGR debate about 1948.  The Huffington Post informed me that they would “pass” on this one, thus proving my point about the stringent limits on what can be discussed about Israel in the American mainstream.’

Web checklist – this is the latest instalment in a controversy which has taken place across a number of sites:


  1. Martin Shaw, ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’, Holy Land Studies, 9, 1, 2010, 1-24.
  2. The question of genocide in Palestine, 1948: a debate between Martin Shaw and Omer Bartov, Journal of Genocide Research, 12, 3 & 4, 2010, 243-259.

THE CONTROVERSY, January-February 2011

  1. Israel Charny’s abusive and defamatory attack on the IAGS listserve: first post on International Association of Genocide Studies listserve, together apology by William Schabas, President of the IAGS, for publication of Charny’s abuse.
  2. Martin Shaw, comment on Bartov and Charny.
  3. Report on the controversy in the US Jewish newspaper, Forward, in which Charny extends his ‘anti-Semitic’ libel to the International Network of Genocide Scholars.
  4. Charny, second post on IAGS listserve and H-Genocide.
  5. (this post) Martin Shaw, reply to Charny.
  6. Juergen Zimmerer and Martin Shaw, letters to Forward

Readers of this blog may be aware that in a recent article I discussed the 1948 removal of the Arab population of Palestine within a genocide perspective, and subsequently debated this with the US-based Israeli historian, Omer Bartov. The fall-out from these contributions has continued, and it is time to update and draw some conclusions, which have exposed the contradictions in contemporary pro-Israeli attitudes and their impact on genocide scholarship in general.

Omer Bartov: from reason to extreme rhetoric

Readers of the Bartov debate will have noted that while for the most part – as one would expect – his argument was carefully reasoned, at two particular points it moved rather sharply in directions that were not related to the argument which he was criticizing. In his first response to my article, Bartov suddenly moved from the discussion on the definition of genocide and its relation to ‘ethnic cleansing’ to a statement about the Palestinian claim of a right to return by those forced out in 1948 and their descendents:

This has a bearing on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Since there is no debate about returning Germans to Eastern Europe, Poles to Ukraine, Ukrainians to Poland, Jews to Lithuania, etc., despite their having been, by your definition, victims (though often also perpetrators) of genocide, why can Palestinians claim a right of return? What makes their Naqba “better” from all others? If Germans from the Volga and the Sudetenland settled down in Freiburg, why could Palestinians not settle down in Damascus? Mind you, this is not what I am advocating but merely the logic of your own argument.

I replied expressing surprise at this line of argument, because nothing I had written

implied that “the Palestinians’ Naqba” was “better” than any other case of expulsion, dispossession, or social destruction or that they have any more rights than anyone else. On the contrary, I indicated quite clearly that the Palestinian experience was less widely murderous than many other cases and I certainly don’t think that they have any different rights from any other people. In principle, however, every dispossessed people must have the right of return, as has been acknowledged recently in the case of Bosnia. However in practice the right of return is always made extraordinarily difficult (in this the Israelis are no different from other dispossessors).

Looking back at the debate, however, what is even more striking is that while my article did not draw political conclusions – I had never even mentioned the question of Palestinian return – Bartov had immediately interpreted it in political terms. The second point of sudden escalation in Bartov’s argument confirms this tendency in his response, in even more striking ways. For in the concluding paragraph of his final comment, he alleged that ‘the argument of Israeli genocide of the Palestinians is clearly meant to delegitimize the state and to say that it was born in the blood of innocents and should therefore also go down in blood.’ He added, ‘You do not make peace with people by telling them that they have no right to exist because they were born in sin.’

These allegations were completely shocking to me. At the time of the debate, since it had been agreed that Bartov’s contribution would conclude the exchanges, I insisted on a short rider stating: ‘Martin Shaw wishes to make it clear that the remarks in Bartov’s final paragraph … do not in any way represent his position.’ Looking back, however, what I see is that even this respected Israeli historian – who was prepared to agree that ‘ethnic cleansing’ had taken place in 1948 – could only see its interpretation within the genocide frame as a denial of Israel’s right to exist and, even worse, an incitement to drown the state in blood – although nothing I had said remotely pointed in these directions, either in the article, the debate or elsewhere. In the end, Bartov was unable to maintain a reasoned stance in relation to this issue, or even to express his political fears without gross misrepresentation of his opponent.

This is ironical, because Bartov himself, in his original attack on scholars like Donald Bloxham and Dirk Moses for allegedly mixing colonial genocide scholarship and Israeli politics (‘Genocide and the Holocaust: What are We Arguing About?’, paper given at the Wiener Library, London, 11 July 2010), had argued that ‘statements by historians of genocide about Zionist ideology and Israeli policies are mostly rhetorical expressions of opinion, not scholarly analyses of the politics and practices of nation-building and ethnic displacement.’ However Bartov’s response to a reasoned historical argument (if by a sociologist interpreting the debates of historians) was to pour out some of the most extreme rhetoric yet seen in any genocide scholars’ debate.

Of course, setting aside Bartov’s rhetoric, we can still ask whether my argument could in any way be seen as necessarily entailing political conclusions of the kind he implied. Genocide is an international crime: the Convention in which it was criminalised was adopted just months after the events of 1948, although the United Nations ignored some Arab appeals to consider Palestine in its light. While I departed from the UN definition, I nevertheless suggested that that its definition might also apply to the Palestinian events (although not in criminal terms, of course, as the Convention does not apply retrospectively). Clearly my argument necessarily led to a critical attitude to the foundation of modern Israel, but not at all necessarily to a destructive attitude towards its continuing existence today.

Indeed Bartov acknowledged ‘that some countries such as Australia or the United States have begun to look back at genocidal aspects of their past’, and ‘their various “sorries” have never in any way been seen as delegitimizing their existence and sovereignty, even in the case of Germany and many other European states that were involved in the Holocaust.’ So why should my argument automatically ‘delegitimize’ Israel’s ‘existence and sovereignty’?

Moreover, in my one brief nod towards a political conclusion, I suggested only that Israel would not achieve security without addressing its historical wrongs, something with which Bartov seemed to agree. But this is a very different proposal: far from being threatening, it actually implied a way to improve Israel’s legitimacy.

The second question that Bartov’s extreme rhetoric prompts is, how should it make us evaluate his more reasonable theoretical arguments? It is difficult not to see his fear of the ‘threat’ to Israel posed by the genocide-framing of 1948 as conditioning his other positions. For example, why does he give such an ambiguous reply to the arguments for restoring the broader conception of the means of genocide originally laid out by Lemkin (retained to some extent in the Genocide Convention and many later definitions), and hold fast to Norman Naimark’s nebulous differentiation of ‘ethnic cleansing’ from genocide? Why does he defend so strongly the link between the Holocaust and the very concept of genocide?

It is almost as though, at least in the context of Israel-Palestine, the very idea of genocide is ‘owned’ by the Jewish victims of Nazism, and can never be utilised in analysis which points in a different direction. Jews are victims of genocide, others only of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Bartov argued passionately at the Wiener Library for writing history from the point of view of the victims, and criticised ‘writing about many genocides’, saying ‘I am sure that it precludes empathy.’ He exemplifies this in his very interesting book Erased, about the destruction of Jewish culture in Galicia, in what is now Ukraine. He is too honest not to recognise that Polish life was also eliminated from this region by Nazism and Ukrainian nationalism, but he is too focused on the Jewish tragedy to properly address the fate of Galician Poles. This leads to repeated references to ‘Jews (and Poles)’, making the latter a constant afterthought.

Israel Charny’s defamatory outburst

If Bartov’s extreme rhetoric was embedded within reasoned argument, another well-known genocide scholar has responded with a much less controlled outburst. Israel Charny, an Israeli psychologist of American origin, who was one of the founders of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), published an outrageous ad hominem attack on me on the IAGS discussion list (17 January 2011). After reading my exchange with Bartov (it is not clear that he read my original article), he accused me, directly or indirectly, of ‘insincerity’, ‘a delusional projection of an angry soul’, being ‘a prejudiced genocide scholar’, violating ‘the elementary requirements of assembly of established information’, utilizing ‘a device that we have documented in past research as a familiar one of deniers of Holocaust and genocide’, ‘bitter condemnation of a given ethnic identity’, and following (whether I am ‘anti-Semitic or not’) the ‘primary form/outlet’ of ‘contemporary anti-Semitism’. In sum, Charny accused me, a fellow genocide-scholar, of prejudiced scholarship; he tarred me with both anti-Semitism and Holocaust/ genocide denial; and he even had the gall to psycho-pathologize me.

These were extremely defamatory accusations, amounting to wholesale character assassination. They had also been sent for publication to the Journal of Genocide Research, as a response to my debate with Bartov; they were summarily rejected by the editors. However they made it onto the IAGS discussion list because of a lapse in the monitoring of contributions. IAGS officials apologized for this and published an apology on their list, together with a response from me. Charny, on the other hand, has not had the decency to apologize, even though his attack was completely out of accord with the values he expressed on the same list only last year, when he said that ‘cordial and cooperative relationships between fellow genocide scholars of course should be pursued’, and expressed ‘hopes that we foster a field of genocide studies that is marked by just that extra bit of integrity and courtesy and cooperativeness that would seem to go along philosophically with a desire for a safer world for all.’ (13 September 2010) Yet those lofty aims were expressed in the course of another intemperate attack, that time on the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS). Charny has form in this respect.

Moreover Charny implicates his scholarship in his libellous accusations. He claims that my ‘use of language utilizes a device that we have documented in past research as a familiar one of deniers of Holocaust and genocide: he formulates major attacking blows and follows them with disclaimers and ostensible measures of reduction of the destructiveness.’ The irony, of which Charny seems wholly unaware, is that in this case he himself appears to be in the camp of denial.

Although he claims to ‘have personally researched, lectured, and published about criminal genocidal massacres committed by my Israeli people over the years’, Palestine appears in the Encyclopaedia of Genocide, which he edited, only in the context of Jewish immigration and flight from Nazi persecution, and not at all in terms of the fate of the Arab population in 1948. However Charny rushed to contribute (together with Steven L. Jacobs) a chapter in the Encyclopaedia, which was published in 1999, on ‘Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide in Kosovo’ the same year. In Kosovo, over 1 million Albanians were uprooted from their homes and about 10,000 killed, whereas fifty-one years earlier in Palestine, some 750,000 Arabs were uprooted and around 5,000 killed. On the surface, these are comparable events: the most obvious difference is that Nato forced the return of the Albanians, whereas Israel has successfully blocked the return of Palestinian Arabs, while facilitating the ‘return’ of Jews who had never lived there before. If one of these episodes could be looked at in the frame of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide, there is prima facie good reason to look at the other as well. Yet one of them was covered in the Encyclopaedia and the other, although by then thoroughly studied by historians, was not.

Now my own attempts to look at 1948 in this light are described by Charny as ‘blind and rampaging’ attacks on Israel and Zionism. No doubt a Serbian nationalist would see Charny as a ‘blind and rampaging’ anti-Serb because of his Kosovo article. But it is not the sort of language one expects to see of one genocide scholar by another. I challenge any reader of my pieces to show that I am ‘making major attacking blows’ or perpetrating ‘destructiveness’ against anyone, let alone using ‘denialist’ methods. I engage in a historical-sociological argument about the place of the partial destruction of Palestinian Arab society in 1948 in the history of genocide. In the course of discussing generalizations about this question, I enter appropriate qualifications and references to varying arguments made by scholars in the field. Far from representing denialist tactics, or ‘violating the elementary requirements of scholarship’, my methods follow normal scholarly argument.

As to the content, I was not, as he alleges, ‘formulating the core intent of Israeli fighting in the War of Independence as genocidal’. I referred to the emerging historical consensus that attributes the destruction of Arab society in much of Palestine at least in part to deliberate policies of the Zionist leadership designed to remove the majority of the Arab population from the territory of Israel, as well as the actions of local commanders, officials, etc. I argue that this was one of Israel’s aims in 1948 (another, obviously, was to defeat the Arab armies), and that it was largely successful in this aim. In this discussion I rely heavily on the historical work of Benny Morris, whom no one could accuse of being anti-Israeli. I refer more than once to his view that Israel took advantage of the war, ‘which was initiated by the Arab side’, to remove the Arab population, so that its expulsions were ‘opportunist’. However I complement this with the argument, developed with considerable evidence by Ilan Pappé and largely endorsed by genocide historian Mark Levene, that the elements of planning were much stronger than Morris suggests.

Not content with his own ‘blind and rampaging’ charges against my scholarship, Charny predictably locates these within the frame of anti-Semitism. He implies that I am guilty of ‘bitter condemnation of a given ethnic identity’ (presumably, Jewish), but not one word in any of my writing gives any warrant for this. You might as well accuse me of being an anti-German racist, or indeed a (self-hating?) anti-British racist, because I have written about genocide committed or condoned by Germans and Britons. Indeed Charny obviously recognizes that I am not consciously anti-Semitic (hence that ‘anti-Semitic or not’). Yet he links my work to the claim ‘that contemporary anti-Semitism has most definitely taken as a primary form/outlet for its virulence a kind of blind rampaging attack on the legitimacy of the State of Israel’. Hence, he implies, my work is objectively anti-Semitic. If there is one ‘linguistic device’ which deserves critical scrutiny, it is surely this shameless but sadly routine attempt of Israeli defenders to tar any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Within genocide studies, at least, we can surely outlaw this tired but deeply insulting device, which robs the idea of ‘anti-Semitism’ of any real meaning?

Charny’s mention of ‘denial’ in his attack is particularly significant because he has made academic denial a subject of his research, claiming elsewhere to have made ‘a major extension of our understanding of denials also to include what I termed “innocent deniers,” i.e., those who may not really be aware of the genocide they are helping to deny, and are not necessarily in touch with why it is important to them – what benefit accrues to them – by standing with the negationists, skeptics and deniers of the genocide.’ In general, it seems to me that we must be wary of accusing other genocide scholars in this way: there must be room for legitimate disagreement about which historical processes constitute episodes of genocide, without invoking ‘denial’. I certainly respect those like Bartov who carefully disagree with my argument that there was a genocidal element to 1948. However it is difficult to see the purpose of Charny’s hysterical attack on me unless he wishes to block all discussion of Israel’s foundation in a genocide frame. In this case, it is not clear that Charny is ‘innocent’: his reference to ‘my Israeli people’ shows a very conscious identity which is surely the basis of his inability to engage in reasoned argument about the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs.

Israel and the International Association of Genocide Scholars

Israel Charny signed his post, with typical modesty, as ‘co-founder and a past president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars’. Fortunately Charny is far from representing the style of argument within IAGS as a whole, which contains many good scholars. Yet there is much to suggest that his political blindspots are widely shared. For example, Jack Nusan Porter, writing on the IAGS list in response to my rebuttal of Charny, says ‘it will be difficult for Israel to admit that it committed “genocidal acts” in 1948. A statement like that would undermine the entire raison d’etre of a Jewish state. As a Left Zionist myself, I believe in a Jewish state along side a Palestinian state; some, like Prof.  Shaw, support one single state.’ This is a curious assertion, involving yet another unthinking assumption, because I am on record only in support of a two-state solution. However Porter goes on to ask me, ‘do you expect Israelis, and their Jewish and non-Jewish supporters  to quietly walk away from your questions. No, they will respond. Yes, in a menshlich manner of course, but they will respond.’ He adds, ‘I hope you will reconsider your position about quitting the IAGS; that’s why we have an IAGS – to debate sensitive issues like the Israeli-Jewish-Palestinian-Arab quandary. Please join the debate and respond to us.’

Porter’s friendly response is welcome relief after Charny; but it equally epitomizes the problems we face in the genocide field. Porter approaches the Palestinian question entirely in terms of his Jewish/left Zionist/pro-Israeli identity; there is not even the lip-service to the idea that, in an organization of scholars, we should first of all approach this in terms of scholarly analysis, creating distance between our identities and politics on the one hand and our scholarly work on the other, or recognising the distinct roles the two play.  But this seems, after Bartov and Charny, to be a particular problem for many pro-Israeli scholars. While Australian scholars (like Moses, whom Bartov attacked) have taken the lead in identifying the genocidal structure of Australian colonialism, few Israeli scholars follow the same path. The work of those who do, like Ilan Pappe, is marginalized. So long as this tendency persists, it will be difficult for genocide scholarship to develop within a professional organization heavily influenced by pro-Israelis.

Moreover Porter’s idea is that the IAGS should be a forum to debate contemporary Israeli-Palestinian and similar political issues. This idea seems to be shared even by many IAGS members who don’t agree with his particular positions, as reflected by loose attacks on Israel on the IAGS discussion list during the Gaza War. They simply haven’t understood how problematic this is. It is one thing for individual scholars to combine activism with scholarship – although they should recognize that these are distinct activities, as I have tried to do in my own work. It is quite another for a scholarly organization to become a forum for political debate. In the end, IAGS would be just as unsuitable as a scholarly organization if it became dominated by pro-Palestinian activists as it has been by pro-Israelis, or if it were polarized between them. The debate on my Palestine article has shown that even a serious scholar like Bartov, who is committed to historical analysis, can find it difficult to maintain scholarly debate. The idea that scholarly organizations should positively promote a political focus is completely wrong. No wonder that INOGS has recently pulled back from discussions about a merger with IAGS.

Update 18 February 2011: an NY-based Jewish newspaper, Forward, has published an article about this controversy. Since this includes allowing Charny to repeat his ‘anti-Semitism’ libel, I have demanded a retraction and apology.

A report and commentary on debates at two conferences this summer, involving Omer Bartov, Dirk Moses and others, for openDemocracy.

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.