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When the New is Not So New: The Radical Right in Europe Today

27/04/2011 Leave a comment

Political observers and analysts always seem to be on the lookout for the ‘new'; that new political movement – on the right, or left, or even in the middle – marking a significant break with the past and telling us much about how politics will be in the future. Nowhere is this more common than in discussions about radical right movements and ideologies.  In the United Kingdom, the growing political presence of the British National Party has been largely attributed to the way it has developed a ‘new’ approach and therefore sanitised itself. And some are arguing that if there is a majority ‘yes’ vote’ in the 5 May referendum on the alternative vote proposal, this will be of great benefit to the BNP. What has happened in the UK is seen as part of a wider development of a ‘new’ radical right politics across much of Europe, of which the party of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Party of Freedom (PVV), is regarded as its most important example.

But a persuasive and sober assessment of what’s new in the ‘new’ radical right in Europe today, written for openDemoracy by Professor Cas Mudde, a veteran and highly perceptive expert on far right politics in Europe, casts serious doubt on whether the ‘new’ label is appropriate.

This new movement, some have argued, is ‘able to overcome its external and internal isolation by downplaying classic ethnic nationalism and focusing primarily on Islamophobia’, writes Professor Mudde. ‘The phenomenon is said to encompass two types of organisation: old radical-right parties that have transformed themselves, and entirely new formations.’ Professor Mudde adds: ‘The new radical right has, it is said, de-emphasised ethnic nationalism and embraced the United States and (particularly) Israel, reflecting the importance of its acquired view that there is a “clash of civilisations” between the west and global Islam.’

The genuinely new organizations and parties that have emerged have ‘even reach[ed] out to domestic ethnic minorities in their Islamophobic struggle’ and also to international collaborators. The PVV and English Defence League (EDL) have found collaborators in the US among neo-conservative and islamophobic activists and the EDL has found some sympathy among some small extreme right Jewish groups.

The propensity for pockets of Jewish opinion to be seduced by the sanitised radical right expressing regret for the Holocaust, admiration for Israel and struggling against Islam is a worrying phenomenon to which I and others have drawn attention in recent years. However, it is mostly the heirs of pre-war fascist parties and groups, such as the Alliance National in Italy and the Danish People’s Party (DFP), which have adopted these new positions.

But Mudde argues that this does not mean that ‘a new unholy alliance is emerging on the radical right’. First, despite the change of rhetoric – ‘Muslim’ exchanged for ‘Turk’ – the core business of these parties remains ethnic nationalism. Second, the new forces don’t see eye-to-eye and some of the individual parties, such as the PVV and the DFP, try to plough their own furrow, seeking allies outside of the some of the traditional radical right forces. Third, even Geert Wilders now appears not so new. He has ‘exchanged his more elitist conservatism for an outright populist welfare-chauvinism’ and now antagonistically targets East European, as well as Muslim, immigrants. ‘In short,’ Mudde writes, ‘Wilders has changed into a populist radical-right politician, combining nativism, authoritarianism and populism – just like the old radical right.’

There is no collaborative ‘new radical right’ overtaking Europe. ‘Ethnic nationalism is still the core ideological feature of all major radical-right players, and ideology and personality still prevent close inter-party cooperation.’ Professor Mudde concludes: ‘The new radical right that emerged in the 1980s might feel old by now. But it is still largely the same as it ever was, and it is here to stay for some time yet.’ And certainly the near implosion of the BNP in recent months, revealing how skin-deep its ‘new’, sanitised image always was, supports Mudde’s thesis.

The message here is not, and it not meant to be, in any sense comforting. The Islamophobic agenda remains very pervasive. It’s just that anti-Muslim racism has not replaced more traditional forms of ethnic prejudice. Islamophobia may have pushed them to one side to some degree, but they remain at the heart of radical right ideology and show signs of returning to a more central ideological position.

One country where the ideas 0f more traditional far-right groups and parties have swung into the mainstream is Hungary, as Professor István Deak dsturbingly explained in a recent article in the New York Review of Books. Not only did Jobbik, a far-right, racist and xenophobic party, get almost as many votes as the Socialists in the last general election, with nearly one million votes out of a total of 6.3 million, the authoritarian, exclusivist nationalism of the ruling Fidesz party, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is being defended against attack by a newspaper close to the government ‘using the time-honored Hungarian rightist argument that only Jews and their hirelings could be evil enough to criticize Hungary.’

Orbán’s brand of anti-democratic, populist conservatism, that is suspicious of foreign influences and ‘left-liberal intellectuals’, is genuinely worrying. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Hungarian politics has lurched from right to left and back again, and racist and antisemitic groups have at times appeared to be gaining influence. But matters never seemed to go beyond the point of no return and the Hungarian political system managed to contain bouts of more extreme and exclusivist political fervour. But as Professor Deák says, ‘For all practical purposes, Hungary has become a one-party state.’ And that party’s philosophy emphasizes ‘family, faith and order’, the ‘role of Christianity and of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen in preserving the nation’ and ‘the unity of national culture’.

The European Union has already exerted its influence in getting the government to moderate an anti-freedom of expression Hungarian media law, so a slide towards the grave weakening of Hungary’s democratic institutions, which Professor Deák quite rightly says would be ‘a tragedy’, is not certain. And the EU should be able to play a significant role in drawing attention to strengthening radical right political groups across Europe as a whole. Both the Commission and the European Parliament are in a position to do this. However, the EU has been greatly weakened in recent years as a result of the continent-wide backlash against further integration, the growing gulf between Sarkozy’s France and Merkel’s Germany and the twin challenges of dealing with financial and economic crises and the upheavals in the Arab world – and not dealing with them very well at all. This means that there is fertile ground in which the radical right can grow and governments and European institutions are distracted by other problems and priorities such that they are not fully able or wiling to tackle the threat.

Categories: British politics, Europe

Wisdom From a 20-Something Elite Marathoner for a 65-Year Old 4-Hour+ Plodder

25/04/2011 Leave a comment

Shod in my new Asics Nimbus, I’m suddenly running on air again. 30 to 35 miles a week. Satisfying long runs on Sunday mornings. Uncomplicated – light-hearted even? – medium-distanced midday runs during the week. And what a difference a touch of Mediterranean weather makes. When you can literally just pull on shorts, top and trainers and fly out of the door without worrying about numb fingers. Yesterday, out before 6 am, I had most of the roads, Parliament Hill and Regents Park to myself for the best part of 2 hours, completing half-marathon distance in 1:56, with plenty of fuel left in the tank, feeling all the better for not eating anything at all before setting out.

I confess to have been boosted by some external stimulus in the form of an inspiring chat with the Sweatshop shop assistant who sold me my Asics. Garrett Smith turned out to be an elite marathoner, recently turning in a time if 2:30. An American in his early 20s, Garrett had a refreshingly practical attitude to marathon running. We discussed nutrition and he confirmed my feeling that fuelling up obsessively with carbs before and during very long runs was unnecessary if you can happily run 15 miles without any extra water or sugar snacks and only a muffin with cheese and honey (no, not mixed) to start you off (2 hours before setting out), which is what I seem to be able to manage.

I realise that from 15 miles to 26.2 is still a bloody long way, but during the 6 marathons I’ve run to date, since my first (London) in 2001, I’ve often felt that forcing chewy bars down my throat just as it gets harder and harder to digest the things absorbed more energy than it added to my tiring body. So if and when I next gird up my loins for another assault at the distance, I’m going to take a much more relaxed attitude to what I stuff into me before and during the race.

Garrett said he doesn’t like running feeling full of food and that you’re better off listening to what your body tells you it needs rather than working according to a manual. It all made good sense to me, adjusting somewhat for the fact that, for a marathon, I’m out on my feet for 4 hours plus. He’s aiming to get down to 2:20 in a few years and I believe he will.

Categories: Running

The Aftermath of Goldstone’s ‘Reconsideration': Debunking Two Myths and Assessing the Damage

21/04/2011 Leave a comment

Unless and until Justice Richard Goldstone writes a full-exposure memoir, we will probably never fully understand what made him write the 1 April Washington Post op-ed in which he reconsidered the conclusions of his eponymous report for the UN Human Rights Council. But this has stopped neither speculation about his motives nor the demand for action on his supposed ‘retraction’ – in other words, formally withdraw the report. Only yesterday, the New York Review of Books blog carried a piece by David Shulman plumbing the implications of Goldstone’s words and a few days ago the US Senate agreed unanimously to a resolution calling on the United Nations to rescind the Goldstone report.

All this is grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists who must be gorging themselves on the numerous possibilities as to who put pressure on Goldstone so as to provoke his change of heart, who was meant to benefit from it, what signal he was sending to his fellow Jews, whether he had consulted the other three members of the fact finding mission etc.  Or whether he just checked into a hospital and ordered himself a lobotomy.

While this sort of speculation will probably rumble on, two myths can now be categorically debunked.

There are absolutely no grounds for demanding the withdrawal or rescinding of the report or for insisting that Goldstone himself now repudiate the entire enterprise.

This should have been clear even when the Goldstone op-ed was published, but it was certainly spelt out categorically in the definitive statement made by Hina Jilana, Christine Chinkin and Desmond Travers, the other three members of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, issued on 14 April. In it they aimed to ‘dispel any impression that subsequent developments have rendered any part of the mission’s report unsubstantiated, erroneous or inaccurate’. They say: ‘there is no justification for any demand or expectation for reconsideration of the report as nothing of substance has appeared that would in any way change the context, findings or conclusions of that report with respect to any of the parties to the Gaza conflict. Indeed, there is no UN procedure or precedent to that effect.’ Continuing to highlight the responsibilities of both the Israeli authorities and the Hamas government they state: ‘we believe that both parties held responsible in this respect, have yet to establish a convincing basis for any claims that contradict the findings of the mission’s report’. And in the final paragraphs of their unequivocal statement they emphasise once again the integrity of the report: ‘We consider that calls to reconsider or even retract the report, as well as attempts at misrepresenting its nature and purpose, disregard the right of victims, Palestinian and Israeli, to truth and justice.’

The core evidence that Goldstone says persuaded him to reconsider and withdraw the charge that civilians were intentionally targeted as a matter of policy provides no grounds whatsoever for reaching such a conclusion.

It was the final report by the UN committee of independent experts appointed to follow-up on the recommendations of the Goldstone Report, chaired by Judge Mary McGowan Davis (the other member was Judge Lennart Aspergren), which was presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2011, that Justice Goldstone says made him reconsider his original conclusion that civilians were intentionally targeted by Israel. But even the most cursory reading of the text of McGowan Davis’s report shows that no such reconsideration is justified. The judge states that ‘The Committee reiterates the conclusion of its previous report that there is no indication that Israel has opened investigations into the actions of those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw Operation Cast Lead.’ How then is it possible to conclude that there was no policy intentionally to target civilians?

It’s true that even many severe critics of Israel have thought this unlikely. Referring to Goldstone’s statement in his op-ed that ‘civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy’, David Shulman says: ‘I am sure that this last statement is correct; anyone who knows the Israeli army knows that, for all its faults and failings, it does not have a policy of deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Suggestions to the contrary are simply wrong.’ But this is an article of faith, not clear proof. All that the Goldstone report called for was that there be high-level, independent investigations conducted by the Israeli authorities (and similar investigations by Hamas) and yet to this day nothing of the kind has been done.

One of the world’s leading authorities on human rights and international law, Sir Geoffrey Bindman, makes a good case for not being as sanguine about Israeli policy as David Shulman. He put it this way in an email I received from him:

Intentional targeting of civilians can only be established by inference in the absence of clear documentary evidence. That inference is almost irresistible when there is overwhelming evidence of reckless disregard for the risk to civilians coupled with the actual killing by Israeli soldiers of hundreds of them in Gaza. Goldstone himself points out that the Israelis declined to co-operate and thus failed to provide evidence to rebut the inference. If there were indeed a prosecution for war crimes they would have an opportunity to do that. The report did not and could not claim to establish guilt, merely to establish the factual basis for a prosecution so far as it could do so.

Although it seems that one of the significant successes of the Goldstone report was indeed to persuade the Israelis that they had to conduct some, albeit not entirely independent, investigations, and it may be that the Israeli military will always now have in mind the Goldstone report when it conducts any future offensives against the Palestinians, the result of Goldstone’s op-ed has been to bring to an end any chance of a serious, high-level rethink about what was done in Israel’s name in Gaza and what it might be possible to do in future. With those such as J Street welcoming  Goldstone’s retraction, Carlo Strenger arguing that the UN should now officially scrap the report and Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, whether intentionally or not, diluting the force of the Goldstone report by wondering why there are no Goldstone reports on Sri Lanka, Darfur, the Congo or the Ivory Coast, the Netanyahu government must have revelled in its sense of self-justification and strengthened its view that it never has any case to answer in the court of international opinion or law.

There is no question that the Goldstone op-ed emboldened the Israeli Zionist right-wing, provided the settlement movement with even more justification for holding on to and grabbing more land in the West Bank, gave a boost to Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) efforts internationally and was seen as a vindication by those who accused Goldstone of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ and of perpetrating a blood libel against the Jewish people. And the other side of this coin is the way Goldstone has made it even more difficult for Israeli human rights organizations to operate freely, the very groups that provided Goldstone with essential information for his report given that the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the fact-finding mission and supply it with information that Goldstone requested. Miri Weingarten, the Director of JNews and a human rights activist, predicted this shortly after the op-ed appeared. As she wrote in a piece for openDemocracy crossposted on the JNews website on 6 April: ‘Goldstone’s “reconsideration” may drive another nail in the coffin of Israeli accountability, and at the same time exacerbate the growing attacks on Israeli human rights defenders.’

That Justice Goldstone appears to have further damaged Israel’s civil society, already under severe attack from the repressive legislation being introduced by members of the government coalition, is nothing short of tragic. As a passionate proponent of universal human rights, Goldstone must know just how important civil society groups are in holding governments and official organizations to account when there are concerns about the erosion of those rights. It’s inconceivable that he deliberately wanted to make life more difficult for B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Breaking the Silence and many other such groups. And yet this is the consequence of his act of contrition.

I can only conclude that Goldstone did not understand the wider consequences that would result from his Washington Post op-ed. The very fact that by writing the piece he excessively personalised the report, which, while obviously carrying his name, is written in the name of all four members of the mission, does suggest that he had deeply personal reasons for doing so. And for someone who sees himself as a proud Jew and a Zionist, and who we know was deeply hurt by the accusations of ‘blood libel’ and ‘self-hating Jew’, among other appalling charges, made against him, that’s understandable. Nevertheless, one can only hope that he is sufficiently self-aware to be spending no small amount of time regretting the part he has now played in further delaying the attainment of justice and peace in Israel-Palestine.

Categories: Middle East

Is an Israeli Think Tank Behind the New SOAS Israel Studies Posts? Ben White vs. the Reut Institute

19/04/2011 Leave a comment

When I wrote about the establishment of two new academic posts in Israel studies at SOAS, funded by the Pears Foundation, I was unaware that Ben White had already posted a piece on Mondoweiss giving his take on the announcement. Two days later, on 15 April, Eran Shayson of the Israeli Reut Institute, which describes itself as ‘an innovative policy group designed to provide real-time, long-term strategic decision-support to Israeli leaders and decision-makers’, responded to White’s piece.

In my post I argued that it was very difficult for the sponsors of the posts and for the professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, Colin Shindler, to separate the Pears Foundation’s engagement in supporting advocacy for Israel from its ‘academic’ objectives for these two new positions.  White goes further and links the new posts directly to the report produced by the Reut Institute and originally published in 2009 that concluded that London was the international hub for organizations bent on delegitimizing Israel and recommended combating the delegitimization by rebranding Israel through, among other means, the establishment of Israel studies departments and posts at universities.

Wright is right to draw attention to the work and influence of the Reut think tank, which interviewed dozens of people in London, including myself, before producing its report and recommendations. Israel’s current hasbara (propaganda) policy is clearly using some of Reut’s ideas. However, what’s interesting about Reut in relation to the SOAS posts is that the Pears Foundation were into rebranding through a more ‘objective’ portrayal of Israel well before Reut produced its report. I know this from personal encounters I had with the chairman of the Pears Foundation, Trevor Pears, and the foundation’s director, Charles Keidan, back in 2007 and 2008. In meetings with them, Trevor Pears openly laid out his bifurcated strategy for expressing the foundation’s relationship with Israel. On the one hand, he was drawing attention to civil and human rights problems in Israel, through support for such organizations as the New Israel Fund and individual initiatives designed to raise Jewish awareness of the plight of Israel’s Arab/Palestinian citizens. On the other hand he was putting funds into activities aimed at publicising Israel’s academic and scientific endeavours and achievements. He would have no truck with the idea that these two approaches might cancel each other out rather than reinforce each other.

I’m convinced that Trevor Pears had followed the twists and turns of Jewish pro-Israel groups in the early 2000s as they struggled to move towards an approach to hasbara based on the notion that branding or rebranding was key. And this was largely, though not exclusively, focused on discussions about how BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, into which hundreds of thousands of pounds were being poured, should operate. These discussions took place against a background of deep dissatisfaction with the results of this investment. Israel’s image in the UK and internationally seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, with neither Israel’s diplomats nor a well-funded body like BICOM able to do anything about it. I sat in on some of these discussions where it was unanimously assumed that the only problem was finding the right way to present Israel’s ‘true’ image. Not an inch of space was given to the idea that perhaps Israel’s policies might be wrong and that without a change of political direction by the Israeli government, no amount of rebranding would be of  any value.

In his reply, Reut’s Eran Shayson wrote: ‘The description of Reut as a powerful puppeteer is indeed flattering, but the reality is very different from the conspiracy theory that White seeks to promote.’ Although this rather overstates what White was claiming, as I have tried to show above, in the case of Pears and SOAS, the impetus for the expansion of Israel studies predates the work of Reut, so it’s not accurate to suggest that Pears is carrying out an agenda it picked up from Reut. Nevertheless, White’s quotes from Reut’s reports and blogposts accurately reflect Reut’s rebranding approach. And while Shayson seems to set out from a reasonable starting point by writing: ‘ We at Reut argue that it is critically important to make a clear distinction between the assault on Israel’s right to exist and criticism of Israeli policy, harsh as it may be’, he goes on to fatally undermine this position by showing that making this ‘clear distinction’ is precisely what Reut is unable to do.

Shayson talks about the teaching of Israel studies as ‘conveying nuance and complexity’ but shows no willingness to see any nuance or complexity in the actions and arguments of supporters of BDS or others who severely criticise Israel. In the end, it all seems to come down to the argument that such campaigns see everything they are fighting as ‘an Israeli-Jewish conspiracy’. In other words, it’s ‘antisemitism stupid’. So who is delegitimizing whom here? On the one hand he seems to believe that Israel studies show Israel as an imperfect country, warts and all, but on the other hand he states: ‘But I am sure it will show that Israel is first and foremost a normal country, a democracy that is struggling for its survival in an impossible reality’ – a conviction that prejudges the results of objective academic study and contains three fundamentally contested notions about Israel and the context in which it exists: ‘normal’, ‘democracy’ and ‘impossible reality’.

Shayson further undermines his argument by demonstrating that his own grip on reality is not so secure and by indulging in some demonizing of his own. He seems to think that Gaddafi’s Libya is an ‘Islamic totalitarian regime’. Gaddafi’s regime is certainly vile, but calling it ‘Islamic totalitarian’ is hardly accurate. When Shayson wants to criticise White he seems to think it’s enough to quote the dubious attacks of the odious smear site Cif Watch or claim that White believes that antisemitism is justified.

The problem facing Reut, BICOM and the entire pro-Israel lobby and hasbara outfits is that they are constantly facing the problem of explaining away the unjustifiable. Their fightback against international condemnation and criticism of Israel does not lack the investment of brain power, concentrated effort and funds and it could be argued that they have had some marginal success, but it’s rather like the sand wall children build to stop the waves encroaching on their sand castles at the seaside: it works, briefly, but in the end collapses under the weight of the watery reality.

This seems to lead pro-Israel groups into ever more bizarre ways of stating their case for Israel, some of which seem to conflict with the fundamentals of Judaism, of which the state of Israel is supposed to be an expression. So we learn that the Jewish Community Centre for London (JCC) is publicising an event called ‘We Believe in Israel’, the national Israel Engagement Conference convened by BICOM.

The aim is to bring a thousand people together from across the community to show their support and learn more about Israel. We are delighted that Makom, the leading Israel education and engagement initiative, will be an integral part of the programme exploring the vibrant complexity of Israel, alongside a variety of information-sharing sessions led by leading experts.

What other country needs to ground support for itself in a quasi-religious formulation? If it all comes down to ‘believing’ in Israel as one ‘believes’ in Judaism, something has gone terribly wrong. It only confirms the fact that the confused, misplaced but widespread equation of Israel with Judaism – as if the former is by definition synonymous or interchangeable with the latter – has taken deep and dangerous hold on the psyche of those who make it their business to come to Israel’s defence no matter what it does.  It seems to me that these people do not have have Israel’s true interests at heart. Indeed, they exemplify how they themselves and the Israeli government are responsible for the delegitmization of Israel.

Categories: British Jews, Middle East

Making a Meal Out of Migrants: Cameron’s 14 April Speech on Immigration

18/04/2011 1 comment

Most of Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on immigration delivered in Hampshire on 14 April was a detailed exposition of how the coalition was succeeding in coming to grips with the ‘problem’ of ‘too high a level of immigration’ into the UK. But the speech will almost certainly only be remembered for this passage (and other hints, innuendoes and asides like it):

when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

Yes, he did speak about the positive benefits of immigration, but, as so many politicians do, proceeded to dilute and supersede that message with various familiar arguments designed to play on people’s fears that there is an alien presence in our midst. And by making the focus of of his speech the measures the government is taking to control immigration, immigrants and their children are framed as a ‘problem’ to be dealt with. (His speech in Munich back in February, when he attacked multiculturalism, had the same flavour. See my post on the speech.)

Why he chooses to do this is depressingly obvious. Restive backwoodsmen on the right of his party are increasingly angry about what the Tories are sacrificing by being in coalition with the Lib-Dems and ready to explode if the ‘nos’ lose the AV referendum. Cameron fears losing votes to UKIP in the forthcoming local elections and is also worried that if the Tories don’t show that they are out in front keeping foreigners out, the British National Party will benefit. Throwing the immigration bone to the snarling Tory right is a classic tactical manoeuvre.

Wouldn’t it be a pleasant surprise to hear someone who claims to be a modernising Tory leader make an unashamedly positive speech about immigration? Pigs will fly. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for David Cameron to take flight or see the light. All we needed to do was to read Mehdi Hasan, Senior Editor at the New Statesman, writing in the Guardian on 16 April, powerfully setting out argument after argument, fact after fact, as to why immigration has been, and continues to be, good for the country. Immigration boosts the economy and wages and has transformed the high street by reinvigorating the country’s entrepreneurial culture. Two of our political parties are headed by sons of immigrants – Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – and Cameron’s great-great-grandfather, a German-Jewish financier, came to this country as a migrant in the 1850s. Even the royal family has German origins. ‘Without foreign workers, the NHS would grind to a halt’, Hasan writes, and ‘without foreign-born students our universities would go bust’.

Cameron was also deeply disingenuous. He insists that immigrants must learn English – who doesn’t think that this is very important? – and yet the government has cut funds it provided for English teaching. He blames immigration and ethnicity for the lack of social cohesion, but recent research has shown that the main cause is the level of economic deprivation. He makes out that immigration is the big question that no one will talk about and everyone worries about. Yet the latest Ipsos MORI issues index, a poll which has been asked in the same form for more than three decades, shows that concern about ‘race relations/immigration’ has dropped to a 9-year low. It’s now in 6th place when people are asked what to them is the most important issue facing Britain today.

It’s very widely accepted that there have to be restrictions on immigration, but there is no reason why they cannot be devised and explained within an unashamedly welcoming context. The situation we are now in, where there seems to be some consensus around the notion that ‘good immigration’ is people who come to here with skills the country needs and ‘bad immigration’ is large numbers of economic migrants seeking to better themselves who don’t have these ‘skills’, shows just how far the centre of gravity of the debate has shifted to an utterly unrealistic conception of what migration is all about. A huge proportion of immigrants and their descendants who have achieved social, educational and financial success came virtually penniless and without any immediately marketable skills. The idea that we cannot make space for such people today is a sad reflection on the society we seem to have become – or at least the society that our political leaders claim that we have become.

When my paternal Ukrainian-Jewish grandfather came to England with his wife in 1901 in his very early 20s, he was very poor and his self-designation as ‘cabinet-maker’ merely disguised the fact that he had no training in any trade. At the time of his death in 1944, he hardly spoke any English. For many years my father was bilingual and after the Second World War he learnt to be a tailor and cutter. Like my two brothers, I was brought up monolingual. I’ve had a successful career in the third sector, my older brother is a professor of maths education and my younger brother is an accountant. The instinct to better yourself, provide your children with the opportunities to succeed in life and become part of the society in which you have chosen to live remains very strong, no matter where you come from. What we need is an immigration policy based around the understanding that the vast majority of people who want to come to live in the UK share such aspirations.

SOAS’s New Israel Studies Posts: Promoting Academic Excellence or Israel Advocacy?

12/04/2011 Leave a comment

Two new academic posts in Israel studies are to be created at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, funded with a grant of £485,000 over 4 years from the Pears Foundation, which describes itself as a ‘British family foundation rooted in Jewish values’. At the same time, a European Association of Israel Studies is being set up, also supported by Pears, with the Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, Colin Shindler, as its chair. The Guardian report gives Shindler’s rationale for the expansion of the subject area at SOAS:

Shindler . . . says the decision to expand Israel studies is a response to growing demand from students to know more about the political, cultural, social and economic background to events in the Middle East and is an attempt to offer an academic alternative to what he terms ‘the megaphone war’.

‘The Middle East conflict is always a hot subject that people want to understand because it’s so convoluted,’ he says. ‘People want rational responses. They are fed-up with slogans and one-sided approaches.’

The same emphasis on this development as being purely motivated by a desire to provide information, knowledge and understanding was evident from remarks made by the Director of the Pears Foundation, Charles Keidan:

[He] stresses that the aim is to meet demand for better scholarship in the area rather than to promote a cause.

‘We have been very conscious not to be involved in this as any form of Israel advocacy,’ he says. ‘This is advocacy for Israel studies, not for Israel.’

Expanding the objective academic study of Israel’s history, politics, foreign policy, society and culture at such an important institution can only be a good thing. As Keidan acknowledges, however, there is sensitivity surrounding gifts to universities in the area of Middle East studies, heightened recently following the opprobrium the London School of Economics brought upon itself for accepting a controversial £1.5 million donation from Saif Gaddafi. But Pears is already involved in funding what could have been a controversial academic initiative at London University – the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck – and have shown that they can keep their political inclinations to themselves by appointing Professor David Feldman whose approach to the subject is fiercely independent and goes against the grain of some very prominent figures in the field, with whom Pears may well be in sympathy.

Nevertheless, despite the gloss put on this development by Shindler and Keidan, all is not what it seems. While interest in the subject among students has no doubt increased and Shindler will strongly, and with some justification, claim that he teaches and researches the subject from as academically objective a position as possible, it’s quite obvious that this move is meant to counter, at least partly, the proliferation of Middle East studies funded by Arab sources at various universities up and down the country. The notion that work done at these institutions is politically biased against Israel is common in some Jewish circles in which I am sure that members of the Pears family mix.

Keidan may well be entirely sincere in saying that the foundation is not involved in this initiative ‘as any form of Israel advocacy’, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Pears itself funds Israel advocacy both directly and indirectly. It’s true that Pears’s involvement in advocacy is rather more enlightened than the path followed by those who more or less base what they do on the belief that Israel can do no wrong. The foundation supports the New Israel Fund, for example, which provides grants to Israeli and Israeli-Arab human rights organizations. And it also began a major initiative to raise awareness in the UK Jewish community of the severely disadvantaged position of Israel’s Arab – or Palestinian, as most now call themselves–citizens. However, a book it produced celebrating Israel’s scientific achievements – Israel in the World - was a classic hasbara (propaganda) exercise, based on the view that the problem facing Israel is simply that the country’s good news stories are not being disseminated sufficiently widely and intensively and that negative developments are exaggerated out of all proportion. (A devastating critique of this approach by the Israeli Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy was published on 10 April.) Just how much money it devotes to Israel advocacy is impossible to know because, contrary to many other grant making foundations that are registered charities, Pears does not itemise all its individual grants in its annual accounts.

This raises the question of whether Pears can draw a clear line between its different forms of engagement with Israel. Where does advocacy stop and completely disinterested academic sponsorship begin? I have no doubt that SOAS will not allow anything other than the highest standards of independence and objectivity to guide the procedures they will follow to appoint the two new academics. However, more subtle, self-imposed constraints on the decisions that SOAS as an institution will have to make in relation to Israel studies may well come into play. And with Pears following what one might call a soft advocacy philosophy, one that incorporates a degree of critical scrutiny of Israel’s past and present, the foundation may judge that what transpires in the Israel studies field at SOAS suits their pro-Israel agenda.

And for all Professor Shindler’s wish to get away from the ‘megaphone war’, the fact is that he, like so many other academics in this field, engages in public debate and controversy on the politics of the conflict – he from from a pro-Israel angle. This is inevitable. Academics must be free agents in terms of expressing their political views and if they do so it’s very likely that it will be in relation to the academic subject matter with which they are dealing.

I’m sure that these additional academic posts will expand the choices open to students at SOAS who are interested in exploring Israel studies and it is to be hoped that some first rate, critical research work will ultimately be one of the products of this expansion. But it’s rather silly to pretend that there is some kind of Chinese wall between the Pears Foundation’s Israel advocacy ambitions and its motives for funding these appointments at SOAS. Pears and SOAS, like so many other bodies funding Middle East studies and the universities gratefully taking their funds, are treading a very thin, fragile and dangerous line.

Categories: British Jews, Middle East

Celebrating the Jewish Renaissance in Poland: A European Story

08/04/2011 Leave a comment

It seems rare these days that good news stories about Jewish life in Europe make it into the mainstream media. And if such news comes out of Poland it’s as likely as not to be diluted by the usual stress on the depth and ubiquity of Polish antisemitism. So Jeevan Vasagar and Julian Borger’s 7 April article in the Guardian on ‘A Jewish renaissance in Poland’, which also provides evidence of the decline of antisemitism in the country, is doubly welcome.

Focused principally on Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter in Krakow, the home of a remarkable annual festival of Jewish culture that was first staged in 1988, before the collapse of communism, the article describes how what was primarily an interest among non-Jewish Poles in Jewish culture now has the added dimension of an awakening of Jewish identity among young Jewish Poles whose parents hid their Jewishness during the communist years. This is a process which Poland’s enlightened and far-sighted New York-born chief rabbi Michael Schudrich has done so much to encourage. But it has also come about because a handful of Polish Jewish leaders who were active in the Solidarity movement dedicated themselves to work for the revival of Jewish life in Poland and for Jewish-Polish and Jewish-Catholic reconciliation.

The article brushes nothing under the carpet. It acknowledges that difficulties remain in confronting some of the very troubling examples of Polish antisemitism during and after the war. But it rightly praises the late Pope John Paul II who, Schudrich says, ‘did more to fight antisemitism than anyone else in the last 2,000 years’. He made indifference to antisemitism ‘less acceptable in the Catholic mainstream’.

The authors also refer to the ersatz nature of some aspects of the Jewish cultural revival: Jewish-themed restaurants, kitschy figurines of black-hatted, long-bearded orthodox Jews that border on ‘racist caricature’ and the throwing together of the Krakow Jewish cultural highlights and the nearby Auschwitz concentration and extermination camps into the one tourist pot. And yet, as even local Jews acknowledge, some dodgy stuff at the edges is a small price to pay for the positive affirmation of the Polish-Jewish past and the possibility of a Polish-Jewish future.

What the article doesn’t perhaps sufficiently convey is the fact that the process of renewal and rediscovery of the Jewish past has been going on for more than two decades and actually predates the collapse of communism. It too often seems to be the case that articles of this kind, which are rare, purport to be discovering the Polish-Jewish renaissance for the first time; as if it’s a new phenomenon that the intrepid journalists have now brought to public attention. The Borger-Vasagar article doesn’t do this, but given the relentless stress on antisemitism in Europe and anti-Israel sentiment that is branded antisemitic, it’s not surprising that a narrative based on a sense of the continuity of the Jewish revival has not taken hold.

One key development the authors omit is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews now being built on the site of the Warsaw ghetto. The history of this multi-million dollar project, which was first proposed in the early 1990s, reflects the path that the Polish Jewish renaissance has taken: firmly upwards, but with hiccups along the way. A very substantial part of the costs of building the museum are being covered by the Polish government and the site was donated free by the Warsaw municipality. There have been many nay-sayers among Polish politicians and other sectors of Polish society, but a remarkable consensus at the highest political levels has been crucial in finally helping to bring the hugely ambitious project to fruition. Both the former Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, and the serving president who died in the 2010 Smolensk-North airport plane crash, Lech Kaczynski, who hailed from very different ends of the political spectrum, backed the museum. And the large sums raised by groups of Jewish supporters mostly in America and mostly of Polish-Jewish origin, which involved them becoming more closely engaged with contemporary Polish society, has contributed further to the general Polish-Jewish rapprochement.

The Jewish renaissance is a European story, not just a Polish one. It’s probably too much to hope that the full significance of this for Jewish life in Europe might now be given more consistent attention than is afforded to threats to Jews. There are threats, but the true danger they represent is often grossly exaggerated. What is happening in Poland does not cancel out antisemitism, but it shows that the Jewish reality today is complex, dynamic, diverse and inspiring and is more than likely to remain so.

Categories: Europe, Religion

Pessimism Has its Place, But it Doesn’t Define the Jewish Condition

01/04/2011 Leave a comment

This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret where it was published on 31 March 2011.

The great Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem (1859-1916) said: ‘April Fool is a joke—repeated 365 times a year.’ Does this encapsulate the uniqueness of Jewish pessimism? History has been so awful, so often, it’s like a cruel joke being continually visited upon us. It makes you realise why Shalom Aleichem also reportedly said: ‘God, I know we are your chosen people, but couldn’t you choose somebody else for a change?’

Perhaps I wasn’t brought up right. As a child and then a teenager, I very rarely associated being Jewish with pessimism. The closest I came to it was despairing that Sunday morning’s cheder Torah translation session or musaf (the additional service) on Shabbat would never end. Most of the time I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been born Jewish, to live in the Golders Green area of London, the best city in the world, in England, the best country in the world. Most of what was on offer to me as a Jew was enticing. Yes, there were restrictions, but they seemed a small price to pay for the pleasures and advantages of being a Jew.

Today, weighed down by the warnings of impending disaster and apocalypse about to befall the Jewish people, by a mood of deep pessimism about the future, I wonder whether, as a panglossian youth, I simply ignored the long and intense history of persecution I was also being taught. Or did our teachers and parents simply keep this from us in the post-war world to protect us from the traumatised state world Jewry found itself in after the Holocaust?

I was recently in debate with a prominent right-wing Jewish columnist who specialises in delivering icily coherent apocalyptic rants about Jews in Europe being overrun by fanatical, antisemitic Muslim hordes and Jews in Israel, ill-served by pusillanimous, appeasing leaders, on the verge of extinction by perfidious Arabs. But what bothered me more than her naked prejudice and unmediated pessimism was that most of the Jewish audience lapped it up, seemingly delighted by the idea that they were soon to be consumed by some imminent conflagration. It was as if they were finally having everything they had been taught about the ‘lachrymose’ nature of Jewish history validated by this latter-day prophet. Reflecting on this afterwards, as I tried to work out what I should have said in response, I soon concluded that her entire outlook was fundamentally un-Jewish, that apocalypse was alien to Jewish thought, that the Jewish masses—well, at least the majority of the 200 in the hall—were being led astray by a false messiah.

But it seems that there is ample evidence of pessimism being a beloved Jewish tradition. Morning prayers begin by praising God ‘who has not made me a gentile . . . a slave . . . a woman’. That is: things could have been worse. And they might very well be. ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow’, the Talmud says, ‘who knows what will befall you today?’ As Barbara Gitenstein writes in Apocalyptic Messianism and Contemporary Jewish-American Poetry: ‘the apocalyptic, associated from its inception with times of spiritual crisis of the Jewish people, has appeared most significantly at the periods of catastrophe for the Jewish people.’ Even in America, in an increasingly secular age, where the Jewish community was essentially protected from the Holocaust, ‘the contemporary literature of Jewish-Americans returns to apocalyptic patterns, theories, and devices.’

Here, though, we might take comfort from the fact that pessimism and notions of the apocalyptic are either necessary correctives to an overly-permissive, laissez-faire attitude to morality or a literary device employed largely by poets. In Jewish teaching, if Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks in his book Future Tense is to be believed, Judaism is all about having a sense of hope and purpose about the future. Yes, there is good reason to be pessimistic. Jews lost many battles. But they have never accepted defeat: ‘our story, our heritage, our task, [is] to be a source of hope against a world of despair.’

I may be miles apart from Lord Sacks on some issues, but this is a Judaism I recognize. And I suppose it makes perfect sense since in Judaism the future belongs to God and God will ultimately achieve his purposes. But whether you believe in God or not, maintaining Jewish identity by stressing everything terrible that Jews have experienced over the centuries and will experience in the years to come may appeal to a few, but most Jews will be put off—and rightly so.

When gloom is justified there’s no point in pretending that everything is hunky-dory. But even with all that plagues us today, there is still much to fortify the spirit. To be realistic about danger is not to abandon any vision of the future. On the contrary, our vision of what can be is surely made more realisable when a sober appreciation of risk is taken into account. A bit of pessimism will always have its place, as long as it’s tinged with irony. Einstein set a good example in this respect. ‘If my theory of relativity is proven successful’, he said, ‘Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.’

Categories: Religion

Moussa Koussa May Be a Criminal But He Knows Where the Bodies Are Buried. Will He Ever Be Prosecuted?

01/04/2011 Leave a comment

The defection of the Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa adds some spice and immediacy to current arguments over universal jurisdiction. There’s probably good prima facie evidence that he was involved in criminal acts in Libya, Britain and other countries contrary to international law, so securing a warrant for his arrest would, in theory, seem like a natural step to take. At the moment, of course, it would be entirely unnatural given that his arrival in this country was clearly facilitated by the British authorities in whose hands he securely remains. Certainly, while he is presumably being interviewed, debriefed or interrogated – take your pick on the basis of your understanding of the status of his relationship with the British – no private individual or group will get anywhere near him. For now, at least, politics, national interest and the interests of the international, UN-mandated coalition enforcing Security Council Resolution 1973, trump the immediate application of the principles of international humanitarian law. Nevertheless, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has stated that Moussa Koussa has not been granted immunity, therefore leaving open the possibility that, in the fullness of time, he could be prosecuted. But if the remarkably well-informed comments from senior politicians like Jack Straw and the former MI6 man interviewed by Eddie Mair on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme today (31 March), which paint a picture of what was probably a long and fruitful relationship with the British security service, are anything to go by, I for one would definitely not be putting any money on Koussa ever coming before a court.

Taking politics out of the process of apprehending people suspected of having committed war crimes, however, is what a clause (152) in the police reform and social responsibility bill now going through parliament is meant to achieve. The British government is proposing to introduce a change in the law on arrest warrants requested by private individuals in international cases to prevent what they claim to be bogus and politically motivated applications. The issue arose because a magistrate agreed in December 2009 to the issuing of an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni, who was Israel’s Foreign Minister at the time of Cast Lead, the 2008-9 military attack on Gaza in which up to 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis lost their lives. The warrant was withdrawn when it was pointed out that Livni had not actually come to the UK. Nevertheless, some politicians and pro-Israel activists were outraged that a democratically elected politician of another country could be treated in this way and that it would make it impossible for Britain to play any role as an honest broker in securing peace in the Middle East because senior Israeli figures would avoid entering the country.

The new law would mean that judges could only issue arrest warrants requested by private individuals after the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, had examined the application and agreed that it could go forward. The supporters of Clause 152 claim that it is intended to ensure that only those cases where there is a realistic chance of securing conviction would be prosecuted. The DPP is best placed to make this judgement, the argument goes, and he would do it entirely independently: ‘At the end of the day, the decision is mine, it is independent and it is reviewable’, Starmer told the Committee examining the Bill on 20 January.

No one doubts the independence and absolute integrity of the current DPP, so on the face of it, it might look as if his decision to allow the application for an arrest warrant to proceed would be based entirely on his assessment of the evidence. But behind the DPP stands the Attorney General, a political appointee, with whom the DPP would be obliged to consult since one of the grounds on which he would need to assess whether the case should go forward is whether it is in the public interest. And we can see quite clearly from the Moussa Koussa situation that the government’s interpretation of what is in the public interest would be the determining factor. It has been broadly accepted, without any proper discussion, that it’s in the public interest to refrain from prosecuting him, at least for now.

Political factors undoubtedly come into play, even if the DPP is not the one to be considering them. It would surely be very difficult for him to ignore the advice of the Attorney General on the public interest test. If he did so it might look as if he was indeed making a political judgement.

What strengthens worries on this point is the very manner in which the new clause came into being. It arose directly out of the Livni case and the very vocal objections by the Israeli government and its supporters. Therefore it hardly bodes well for the operation of Clause 152, which is supposed to keep politics out of the frame, if direct public political pressure from a foreign government appears to have been the main reason for the introduction of the clause.

This could lead to further fears that, when William Hague says (as he did in parliament on 24 March) ‘It makes this country rather ridiculous if people can get an arrest warrant for people from other countries where there is no realistic chance of prosecution …’, he is making political judgements about countries with which the government, for one reason or another, feels it needs to tread carefully. For in the case of Livni, the fact that the Goldstone Report concluded that there was strong evidence to suggest that war crimes were committed by both sides in the 2008-9 attack by Israel on Gaza is surely sufficient grounds for investigating whether the foreign minister of one of the parties held some responsibility for what was done. What does it say for the robustness and quality of our justice system if it’s feared that judges can’t decide whether the threshold of evidence has been met? In fact there have been only 10 applications for arrest warrants in 10 years and only 2 have been successful, so judges don’t seem to be exactly running riot. Indeed, it has been pointed out by a number of people that the issue of the arrest warrant for a war crime is decided only by specialist legally qualified magistrates.

In practice, if Clause 152 is passed, given that so few arrest warrants have actually been issued, little may change. But it would seriously tilt the justice system towards giving greater consideration to foreign policy priorities, which can be rather fickle, and away from the fundamental principles of justice.

What ultimately happens to Moussa Koussa may well throw light on whether universal jurisdiction for particularly heinous crimes means very much in the UK. Although David Cameron has now said that the police should be free to follow through with any enquiries they wish and that no deal has been done with the now former Foreign Minister, who is to say that the Libyan won’t be able to secure immunity if he is able to convince the British authorities that the quality of the intelligence he knows is so good, but that he will only release it to them in exchange for a deal that in effect protects him from prosecution. Or am I being too cynical?

Categories: Middle East
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