Archive

Archive for the ‘Antisemitism’ Category

Another faulty, pseudo-academic antisemitism initiative

29/11/2012 33 comments

It was inevitable. Another Gaza offensive by Israel begins, ostensibly to stop Hamas from firing rockets into southern Israel, and within a couple of days accusations of antisemitism were flying around.

Two particularly caught my attention. The first was the claim that Steve Bell, in his Guardian cartoon of 15 November, was ‘get[ting] away with using antisemitic imagery and tropes‘ because it showed Tony Blair and William Hague as puppets of Bibi Netanyahu.

The second was in a tweet about a letter to the Guardian from emeritus professor Leslie Baruch Brent who condemned the ‘disporportionate response of the Israeli government to the Hamas rocket attacks’ and concluded ‘Has the world learned nothing since Guernica?’ The text of the tweet read: ‘Hard to take @guardian opposition to #antisemitism seriously when they publish letter comparing #Israel to Nazis.’

I was especially interested in these accusations because the first was by Mark Gardner, the communications director of the Community Security Trust (CST), the private charity that acts as the defence organization of the UK Jewish community, and the second by Dave Rich, his deputy.

One of the things that is most worrying about what I believe were these false imputations of antisemitism (and I will explain my reasoning for this conclusion in my next blogpost) is that they come not simply from individuals expressing their own views, but from officials of a very influential, major registered charity, and in the case of the cartoon, writing in their capacity as officials of that organization. The view of the Community Security Trust is seen as, and is intended to be seen as, the view of the organized UK Jewish community. And yet that wider community has no means of calling the CST to account and therefore has to suffer the consequences of its officials’ doubtful and often damaging politically-motivated interventions in public debate.

The politicization of antisemitism research

The institutionalized politicization of antisemitism by bodies claiming to be non-political or academic is not new. And with regard to a charity like the CST, it is very troubling.

We saw this politicization in the now defunct Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), which was closed by the university authorities after it became clear that it was primarily an advocacy body and not a serious research institute. And it was also apparent in the now almost defunct European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (EISCA), established, it seems, with a mandate to grossly exaggerate the problem of antisemitism (the inaugural lecture given by the then Labour Europe minister Jim Murphy was entitled ‘Antisemitism: a hate that outlives all others’). There has been no activity on its website since June 2011, and that was an article by the now disgraced former Labour Party junior minister Denis MacShane, first published in the Jewish Chronicle and cross-posted on the EISCA blog.

While still thinking about the manipulation of antisemitism for political purposes, I received information about a symposium on antisemitism taking place on 2 December at the Wiener Library in London. Though clearly planned long before the latest Israeli offensive against Gaza, the holding of the symposium at this time is an extraordinary coincidence. And it was immediately obvious from the programme that it fell squarely into the category of an event dressed up in pseudo-academic clothes but which is, in reality, an exercise in political advocacy.

Although the symposium is taking place at the Wiener Library, a highly respected documentation, research and educational resource on the Holocaust and the Nazi era, it’s not mentioned anywhere on Wiener’s website. This is no doubt because the event itself is being organized exclusively under the auspices of the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism (JSA), with the library’s prestigious central London premises simply hired for the occasion. Wiener’s director, Ben Barkow, is not speaking at the symposium.

The Journal for the Study of Antisemitism: a home for the ‘new antisemitism’ notion

The JSA is a privately funded periodical founded four years ago. It has no institutional base and is privately published. It describes itself as ‘ the peer-reviewed work of a select group of independent scholars’. Even a cursory glance at the journal’s list of Board Members reveals a great preponderance of neoconservatives, Islamophobes, advocates of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, pedlars of the ‘self-hating Jew’ accusation against Jewish critics of Israeli policies and out-and-out political propagandists.

The individuals funding the event are Daniel Pipes, Mitch Knisbacher and Jeff and Evy Diamond. Pipes, the president of the right-wing Middle East Forum (MEF), is widely described as an ‘Islamophobe’. In 2009 his MEF established a legal defence fund for the far-right, populist, Islamophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Pipes reportedly claimed that President Obama is a former Muslim who ‘practised Islam’. Knisbach, who is the founder and owner of 800response (America’s leading provider of shared-use 800-number services), is active in the right-wing Israel lobby AIPAC and funds Tazpit News Agency, a service set up primarily to popularize a positive view of settlement activity in the West Bank. Jeff Diamond, who heads the Jeff Diamond Law Firm, which has six offices in New Mexico and Texas, was installed in January as chair of the New Mexico Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Board of Directors.

The journal’s editors — Neal E. Rosenberg, a criminal lawyer, and Stephen K. Baum, a clinical psychologist — and the journal itself were mired in controversy early in 2010 when they sacked Dr Clemens Heni, a Berlin-based academic, from the editorial board for criticizing the Berlin Technical University’s centre for research on antisemitism for what he regarded as its ‘neglect of Islamic anti-Semitism and Israel’s security’ — and this was in an article Heni wrote for the journal. Various members of the board resigned in protest. The editors say they were pressured by the Berlin centre, which, a Jerusalem Post article claims, threatened to engineer the resignation of seven German members of the Board and the withdrawal of cooperation with the journal by three German antisemitism research centres. The editors soon relented, reinstated Heni and asked some of the resigning Board members to return. Some did and some didn’t.

Heni vigorously attacked the decision to close YIISA. In the wake of its demise, and no doubt after his experience being sacked and then reinstated to the JSA editorial board, in 2011 he set up a new German antisemitism research body, the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (BICSA), the main focus of which is ‘anti-Semitism in the 21st century, particularly hatred of Israel.’

The symposium: a one-sided affair

The curious thing about this incident is that it’s quite clear that the journal’s posture is very close to the line Heni took in his attack on the Berlin centre. The programme and speakers at the forthcoming symposium demonstrate this. (A note of caution: the programme sent to me looks like the last word on who is attending and speaking, but may not be. It differs from the version of the programme on the JSA website.) Titled ‘Contemporary antisemitism in the UK’, the symposium kicks off with a panel on ‘Defining the new antisemitism’, chaired by Kenneth Marcus. The panellists are Bat Ye’or, Richard Landes and Winston Pickett.

Marcus heads the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which was founded in late 2011 and took over where YIISA left off when it was closed down. YIISA’s director, Charles Small is on the advisory board, the honorary chairman of which is Professor Irwin Cotler, former Canadian justice minister, who has probably done more than anyone else to promote the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’. Other like-minded board members, who were also YIISA supporters, include Professor Dina Porat, Professor Ruth Wisse and Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld.

The three panellists will find much to agree on. For decades Bat Ye’or has been banging the drum about the ‘Muslim hordes’ who were about to take over Europe. Rather generously referred to as a ‘self-taught Jewish intellectual’, she now believes that Europe is dead, and in its stead ‘Eurabia’ has risen. Richard Landes, director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, told the Herzliya IDC conference in 2007:

European democratic civilization can fall before the Islamic challenge. Do not say that this will never happen in Europe and that Islam will not be able to take control of Europe.

If Europe continues its current path, the fall will be sooner.

Winston Pickett was the director of the now non-functioning EISCA. He lavishes unreserved praise on Professor Robert Wistrich for his huge tome, Antisemitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad, a book that, as its title suggests, sets out to justify the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’.

Panel sessions 2 and 3 — ‘Mapping the rise of contemporary antisemitism’ and ‘Antisemitism on campus’ — present much the same picture. Both chairpersons, Manfred Gerstenfeld and Kenneth Lasson, see no real distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Gerstenfeld’s crude and wild assertions about antisemitism are legion. A recent online article about antisemitism in Norway is a good example of his continuing attempt to portray European countries as riddled with antisemitism, no matter what the data say. Lasson’s views are clearly laid out in an 80-page paper, ‘Antisemitism in the academic voice’, in which he writes that ‘Anti-Zionism . . . has evolved into antisemitism’ and reveals how ill-equipped he is to comment on this subject when he says: ‘The misnamed “occupation” allegedly began after Israel’s 1967 victory . . .’

In panel 2, Mark Gardner of the CST and Robert Wistrich, who heads the Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA), should feel comfortable with each other’s role in justifying and promoting the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, though it would be only fair to acknowledge that Wistrich’s influence in this regard far outstrips that of Gardner’s. Wistrich restated the classic definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ in a talk at the Hebrew University Jerusalem in June 2011 entitled ‘From blood libel to boycott: changing faces of British antisemitism’. A Cif Watch post summarised his remarks: ‘efforts to boycott and delegitimize Israel (the Jewish collective) as a form of exclusion from the community of nations [are] not dissimilar from historical efforts to exclude the individual Jew from the communities where they resided.’ Gardner’s use of the ‘new antisemitism’ argument is clearly apparent in his and Dave Rich’s analysis of Caryl Churchill’s short playlet Seven Jewish Children. (My refutation of their analysis is here.) It is also unlikely that  there will be much disagreement in panel 3 between Clemens Heni, Ronnie Fraser (fresh from the tribunal hearing his claim of ‘institutional antisemitism’ against the University and College Union), who runs the Academic Friends of Israel, and Dave Rich.

Some dissent at last?

Some serious diversity of views then appears possible when Lesley Klaff chairs a panel discussing ‘Addressing current approaches’. This would be unlikely, however, were Professor Klaff to proffer her own views. Linked to BICSA and the Brandeis Center, she has made her opinions on the connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism perfectly clear. As she writes in the journal of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs:

University codes of conduct and UK law recognize that an important university goal is the promotion of equality of opportunity for minority students and their protection from discrimination, including harassment. Given the growing consensus that anti-Zionism is in fact anti-Semitism in a new guise, this goal is flouted with respect to Jewish students every time that anti-Zionist expression takes place on a university campus.

So, no anti-Zionist views allowed on campus then. Period. While Günther Jikeli, co-founder of the International Institute for Education and Research on Anti-Semitism in London and Berlin, is under the false impression that the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU endorses its predecessor’s ‘Working Definition’ of antisemitism, he, the PhD student Hagai van der Horst from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University of London will hopefully be able to offer a stark contrast with what will have gone before. Feldman’s approach at the Pears Institute is a model of inclusiveness and variety; he creates a safe space for the expression of sharply different opinions.

Worrying about the left and boycott, and promoting the EUMC ‘Working Definition’

The speakers on the final panel, ‘Strategic interventions: what can be done?’, are not on record, as far as I could ascertain, as specifically subscribing to the JSA‘s line on the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. The barrister Julian Hunt is described in the programme as ‘having experience defending pro-Israel activists’, which, from his July 2012 post on the Commentator blog, seems to refer to Jewish students on campus. With a title like ‘Criminalising the boycott bullies’, it seems fair to assume that he has an uncompromising attitude to anti-Zionism. Philip Spencer, an expert on the Holocaust and genocide, is director of politics and international Relations at the Helen Bamber Centre for the Study of Rights, Kingston University, and has a special interest in what he sees as the left’s less than glorious history of standing up to antisemitism. Francisco Garrett, a lawyer from Portugal, appears to have no significant track record as an antisemitism expert.

But there is little ambiguity in the position of the chair of this panel, L. Ruth Klein. In her 2009 report on antisemitism in Canada presented to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA), the national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada refers to anti-Zionism as ‘that unholy hybrid of age-old and new-age bigotry’, calls for the criminalization of boycotts ‘against the Jewish state’ and for the adoption of the EUMC ‘Working Definition’ of antisemitism.

Giving the political game away

A spirit of free inquiry does not seems to govern these proceedings. And this view is strengthened further by the sessions of the symposium that are not panel discussions. The former chairman of EISCA, Denis MacShane MP, is given the platform to himself to speak on ‘The politics of fighting antisemitism’. I and others have drawn attention to his woeful lack of understanding of antisemitism, his propensity to exaggerate what it represents – ‘there is no greater intolerance today than neoantisemitism’ – and his readiness to vilify Muslims and pro-Palestinian activists. For a man fêted as such a friend of the Jews, his ignorance about Jews and Israel, as displayed in his book Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism, is deeply disturbing.

But having written a book with that title he will certainly be at home among the JSA‘s ‘select group of independent scholars’ at Sunday’s symposium. So much so that he is being presented with ‘The  Award of Merit: Righteous Persons Who Fight Antisemitism’. (Whether the organizers still think he is quite so righteous after being found guilty of fiddling his parliamentary expenses, we do not know.)  At the head of the page in the programme detailing this award, and two others, is a photograph of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the right-wing, revisionist Zionist ideologue, whose ideas have inspired much of today’s ruling political elite in Israel and, so it clearly appears, the organizers of this symposium. Manfred Gerstenfeld receives the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ and Shimon T. Samuels scoops the jackpot with the ‘Jabotinsky Award’.

Samuels is the director for international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Paris and a long-standing promoter of the  notion of the ‘new antisemitism’. In July 2011, after attending a UN meeting in Brussels titled ‘The role of Europe in advancing Palestinian statehood and achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians’, he wrote to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon saying that the experience was akin to a ‘gangbang’. On 2 August 2012 he told the Jerusalem Post that the action of the Swiss Migros supermarket chain to label Israeli products from the West Bank was a boycott measure and must be viewed as ‘a continuation of Nazism’.

It shows just how far the academic study of contemporary antisemitism has become corrupted in some circles that the organizers of this symposium did not seem to feel a moment’s shame in so blatantly politicizing it by identifying so completely with the political ideology of Jabotinsky. As if this wasn’t enough to damn as bogus what’s billed as an academic event, the screening of Gloria Greenfield’s ‘documentary’, Unmasked Judeophobia, can leave no one in any doubt. The New York Times‘ reviewer Nicole Herrington wrote:

the film loses ground toward the middle, when it calls out individuals (often just by showing their images) and organizations for their passiveness or criticism of Israeli policies without giving a full account of the facts. The roster is long: the United Nations, feminists, the European news media, Alice Walker, human rights groups and American academics.

In the end the issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are conflated, weakening the filmmaker’s argument.

Less restrained, but equally reasonable, was this from James van Maanen’s film review blog:

I suspect there is some very good information in Gloria Greenfield’s new documentary, Unmasked Judeophobia: The Threat to Civilization (that sub-title alone should raise a red flag), but the repetitive, ham-handed manner in which it is presented is enough to make aware and thinking people — anyone, that is, who might find and be willing to admit as reprehensible some of the state of Israel’s current behavior toward its Palestinian residents — run for the exit.

This comment could equally be applied to the entire JSA symposium.

Anyone who disagrees with the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’ should always be prepared to discuss it with its promoters. And its promoters should always be willing to debate the notion with its critics. This is the only way that sense on antisemitism can be arrived at.  By the nature and format of this symposium, the JSA has clearly shown that it has no interest whatsoever in such a dialogue, even if one or two brave souls may try to speak up for the values that underpin true academic exchange.

(Thanks to Ben White for drawing my attention to this symposium and for sharing information and sources.)

Note: This post was amended on Friday at 13:51 to make it clear that the Tweet by Dave Rich of the CST referred to in the 5th paragraph was wrongly described as being sent expressing the official view of the CST. It was from Dave Rich’s private Twitter account, which makes clear that his tweets are his personal views only. Apologies to Dave for this error.

Gunter Grass, antisemitism and the inflation of evil

17/04/2012 Leave a comment

My post on openDemocracy, published on 16 April 2012:

The Israel factor has politicised the business of assessing antisemitism such that the vitriolic disagreement surrounding it has become about far more than just facts, intelligent judgment and expertise. What does Israel, what does anyone gain from this?

The widespread reaction to Günter Grass’s poem, ‘What must be said’—here is the best English translation I could find—in which he criticised Israel for its ‘nuclear power [that] endangers an already fragile world peace’ and its ‘claim of a right to [a] . . . first strike to snuff out the Iranian people’, confirmed three things.

First, there is a high level of sensitivity to perceived expressions of antisemitism by major public figures in Europe. The accusations of Jew-hatred levelled at the German Nobel laureate by (among very many others) Giulio Meotti and Benjamin Weinthal for example, came hot on the heels of a similar attack on Baroness Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, for allegedly drawing a moral equivalence  between the murder of Jewish children by Mohammad Merah in Toulouse and the killing of children by Israeli military forces in Gaza. (She equated the suffering of dying children, not the immorality of crimes.)

Click here to read the rest of the post.

Follow me on Twitter: hit the Twitter button in the right hand column

Muslims and Jews: beyond clichés and mutual demonisation

27/02/2012 1 comment

A fascinating and important workshop on relations between Muslims and Jews, organized by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University of London, began with a nuanced account of the treatment of Jews and Muslims in English law by Professor Maleiha Malik (King’s College University of London) and ended with the writer Karl Sabbagh defending his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon‘s antisemitic diatribe The Wandering Who? However unfortunate and deeply depressing the ending, the opening and closing sessions exemplified the intelligent conceptual approach of Professor David Feldman, the Director of the Pears Institute, to organizing the discussion, which was to tackle some issues from a thoroughly academic angle but also to get activists to speak and highlight how Muslims and Jews respond to day-to-day social, political and cultural issues that affect them individually and jointly.

This initiative, which is being undertaken jointly with partner institutions in America, Israel, France and Germany, is unquestionably important. The Pears Institute, together with the other eight members of the International Consortium for Research on Antisemitism and Racism, are committed to ‘reshaping and revitalising’ the academic study of antisemitism, but also to confronting the complex contemporary issues, such as the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, that make studying antisemitism in its current manifestations so fraught with controversy.

If we need reminding of the significance of this approach, we have only to recall the welcome demise of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA), which put political advocacy above scholarly objectivity. Unfortunately, the battle to ensure that dispassionate academic standards prevail over politicisation of the subject is by no means over. While the Pears Institute is making a hugely significant contribution to this effort, only a week or so ago the announcement of the launch of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, provides ample evidence that those who give priority to a prior political agenda, most commonly manifested through the promotion of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, over the serious analysis of contemporary antisemitism are still on the warpath. Among the members of the Academic Advisory Board of this centre are the former head of YIISA, Charles Small, and various figures, like Professor Ruth Wisse, Professor Dina Porat  and Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld, who supported the approach followed by Small at YIISA. Most tellingly, the Honorary Chairman of the Board is Professor Irwin Cotler, former Canadian Justice Minister, who has probably done more than anyone else to promote the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ and therefore contribute massively to the politicisation of the study of the subject.

Dispassionate and nuanced academic inquiry certainly characterised the first day’s papers on: Muslims, Jews and the law; representing Jews and Muslims in the media; and Muslims, Jews and multiculturalism. In particular the speakers in the session on multiculturalism – Nasar Meer (Northumbria University) and Humayan Ansari (Royal Holloway) especially – clearly showed, through historical and sociological research, that despite the political attack on multiculturalism so vigorously mounted since the turn of the century, the pursuit of multicultural policies in the UK has not stopped. Moreover, such policies have clearly helped foster integration, social cohesion and a sense of common national belonging, precisely the opposite of what political leaders like Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel claim.

On the second day, activists like Mohammed Aziz (Faithwise) and Edie Friedman (Jewish Council for Racial Equality) had their chance to talk about promoting action to strengthen civil society that aimed explicitly or implicitly bring Jews and Muslims closer together. Other activists focused on the political issues that divide Muslims and Jews. David Hirsh (Goldsmiths) and Daniel Sheldon (Union of Jewish Students) spoke about antisemitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict on university campuses. Alan Johnson (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM) and Karl Sabbagh argued about truth and lies in pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocacy.

Neither Aziz nor Friedman minimised the problems affecting the relationship between Jews and Muslims. But the practical work in which they are engaged gives cause for hope that shared common values and similar visions of Britishness and British society could provide the basis for improved relations over time.  However, the campus conflicts and the propaganda war over Israel-Palestine (especially concerning issues such as Israeli apartheid) show just how easily the stress on being ‘brothers in humanity’ can be overshadowed by politics and accusations of bad faith.

While the second day’s presentations were not billed as academic, nonetheless, grounding judgements in verifiable evidence must surely be common currency when the prevalence of antisemitism and the rights and wrongs of the Palestine-Israel conflict are under consideration. Yet this was sorely lacking. Hirsh said his concern was with antisemitism among the ‘chattering classes’, in ‘our world’ (by which he presumably meant academics and commentators). Using the phrase ‘bloody Jews’ is not something that would now damage an academic’s reputation, he claimed. But he could offer nothing more than anecdotes to back this up. As if to pre-empt criticism of the flimsiness of this approach, he continuously stressed that assessing antisemitism was ‘a political judgement’ and that arguing about definitions of antisemitism was a distraction. But if identifying antisemitism is fundamentally a matter of judgement, with no recourse to any agreed definition of what it is, who’s to say that one person’s judgement is better than anyone else’s? Hirsh’s ‘method’ is a recipe for anarchy and gives licence to anyone to set themselves up as an expert on the subject – precisely what has led to the degradation and devaluation of the academic study of contemporary antisemitism.

Equally troubling was Johnson’s exposition of the BICOM method of pro-Israel advocacy. This seems to involve acknowledging the legitimacy of a degree of criticism of Israel, but in such a way as to perpetuate the entirely false notion that the Israel-Palestine conflict is between two equivalent powers. Phrases like ‘two traumatised peoples’ and ‘it’s more important to be reasonable than right’ seemed designed to undercut clear evidence that Israel, as the occupying power, carries principal responsibility for the current state of affairs and to imply that it’s reasonable – for the ‘greater good’ – for Palestinians to give up their rights. He made much of BICOM’s concern with the plight of the Bedouin in Israel and of Arabs in Israel in general, but deliberately avoided using the term Arabs in Israel now use to describe themselves – Palestinians – and avoided any mention of the word ‘occupation’.

Sadly, Sabbagh’s presentation, supposedly an exposition of the ‘Lies of Zionism’, though heartfelt was misjudged. As one participant pointed out, while there are certainly Zionist lies, any competent researcher would also find lies in presentations of the Palestinian and Arab case. And the legitimacy of his argument was fundamentally damaged by the subsequent concerted critical pressure on him from quite a number of participants for his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s antisemitic book.

For the session on advocacy for Israel and Palestine to have provided a really useful basis for considering the impact of the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict on Muslim-Jewish community relations, it would have been better to have paired the BICOM representative with someone from an equivalent organization, such as the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). It would have then been possible to comment on the more fundamental ethical issues raised by such activity and what it meant for the self-perception of Muslim and Jewish citizens of the UK endeavouring to play a full part in British society and maintain their religious and ethnic distinctiveness. While it was perfectly right for participants to take Sabbagh to task over his endorsement of Atzmon, not only did Sabbagh not relent, it’s hard to see what was achieved by such an exchange, which I think must have left most people deeply disturbed.

Still, coming away from such an event disturbed rather than self-satisfied was entirely appropriate. It is hard to think of any other forum than the Pears Institute in which the discussion of the often very difficult issues raised could have been managed with such a degree of civility and respect. No attempt was made to pretend that  one event of this kind could do much more than identify issues for further exploration. And I hope that the further discussions that David Feldman indicated would take place in the UK, America, France, Germany and Israel will eventually lead to achieving the central goal of better Jewish-Muslim understanding.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

9/11 and the destruction of the shared understanding of antisemitism

16/09/2011 1 comment

This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy

Even before 9/11, the redefinition of antisemitism as essentially left-wing and Islamic prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish state of Israel—‘the Jew among the nations’—was well underway. But the popularity of this reformulation of what constitutes Jew-hatred, now commonly called ‘the new antisemitism’, gained decisive momentum as a consequence of the attack on the Twin Towers and has had far-reaching implications. So much so that Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s most prominent and possibly most influential public intellectual, could, with his trademark portentousness, confidently claim in his 2008 book, The Left in Dark Times, that antisemitism of the 21st century would be ‘progressive’—meaning essentially left-wing hatred of Israel—or not exist at all. This bizarre statement symbolises the damage caused by the influence of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, which has turned friends into enemies, helped open the door to fascism in Israeli politics and left Jews everywhere at the mercy of an idea that is ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.

What Levy confirmed, in a strikingly stark fashion, was that the term ‘new antisemitism’ means more than just critical discourse about Israel using antisemitic tropes. The concept contains the radical notion that to warrant the charge of antisemitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of those things which historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic view: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism, belief that Jews are racially inferior and so on. Given that the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ is fundamentally incompatible with any definition relying on elements which historians accept make up an antisemitic view, for anyone who agrees with the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ it’s but a short step to conclude that it replaces all previous definitions and then further to argue that no other kind of antisemitism exists.

How the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ took hold

Make no mistake, this is not an argument about semantics, but about coming to terms with changing political realities. There was never any basis in fact for Levy’s 2008 prediction that there would be no old style antisemitism in the 21st century. A cursory glance at antisemitism monitoring reports from the time prove that it was an absurd statement to make. Today, with indisputable hard evidence of the persistence of far right antisemitism in Europe, as well as the revelation of the role of Jew-hatred in the thinking of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, Levy’s rhetorical flourish looks even more ridiculous. As for the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’, it emerged as a way of explaining the reasons for the increasingly strident attacks on Zionism and Israel, which led to the country’s deteriorating international position. And it was then taken up by pro-Israel groups as a means of defending Israel and attacking its perceived enemies. The increasingly widespread acceptance of the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ since 9/11 has profoundly affected Israel’s foreign relations and the situation of diaspora Jews, especially in the major centres of Jewish population—the USA, France, the UK, Canada, Australia—but also in Western Europe generally and to some degree in the former communist countries.

Events in the year before 9/11 already appeared to lend credibility to the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’. The collapse of the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 (presented by Israel and its loyal supporters as a Palestinian betrayal), the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the autumn and the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish manifestations at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban in August-September 2001 were all explained as evidence of a deeply rooted, extreme, irrational anti-Zionism, seen by pro-Israel loyalists as conclusive proof that Israel was now incontrovertibly the ‘Jew among the nations’. When the Twin Towers were destroyed and the Bush administration moved rapidly to frame its response as declaring ‘war on terror’, it was inevitable that Israel, under the leadership of a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would seek to identify itself ever more closely with the US as a fellow victim of Islamist terror—indeed as the prior victim. Al Qaida’s ideology, which, in part, jointly demonised America and Israel, and also Jews in general, provided the Zionist right with even more justification for its argument that the ‘new antisemitism’ now posed the greatest threat to Jews since the Holocaust.

The far right, Israel and the battle against the ‘Islamization of Europe’

Antisemitism was thus recast as principally anti-Israel rhetoric emanating largely from Muslim sources. That rhetoric figured prominently in various forms of media in European countries with relatively large Jewish populations, like France, the UK and Germany, and was sometimes directed at Jews because of their support for Israel, but also because Jews and Israelis are often seen as one and the same. This—together with an increase in antisemitic incidents ascribed to Muslim perpetrators—led Jewish establishment leaders, while speaking the language of interfaith dialogue and the need to maintain and foster intercommunal harmony, to see the Islamist elements in Muslim communities as a direct threat to Jewish security. Some extended that fear to Muslims more generally. Despite the fact that the growing sense of Jewish belonging in Europe in the 1990s stemmed in great part from the success of multiculturalism and the positive influence of the culture of universal human rights, blame for Muslim hostility to Jews was now put down to multiculturalism’s alleged failure to integrate Muslims and the perception that rights values were being applied to all minorities except Jews. Both were seen as responsible for allowing the unrestrained attack on Israel to proceed unchecked. Add to this the fact that Israeli leaders were only too ready to redefine the Israel-Palestine conflict as a religious war, and it was but a logical step for Israel to come to be seen, in Slavoj Zizek’s words, as ‘the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion’.

Meanwhile, the far right had been undergoing a process of self-sanitisation: playing down its antisemitic past and distancing itself from Holocaust denial, and refocusing its animus towards the ‘other’ on ‘immigrants’ in general, but Muslims in particular. By the early 2000s, a new far right strategy emerged, exemplified by the National Alliance (AN) in Italy, the former neo-fascist party headed by Gianfranco Fini, who reached out to the Italian Jewish community to apologise for the party’s ‘former’ antisemitism and to express support for Israel, all against the background of a supposed shared understanding that Muslims were now the common enemy. The elected head of the Italian Jewish community rejected the NA’s approach, but some members of the community were not unsympathetic to Fini’s message and the issue became very controversial.

While some evidence emerged of Jews publicly identifying with far right groups in France and Austria, it never amounted to very much. More significant, however, was the far right’s increasingly warm pro-Israel rhetoric, which began to be looked upon favourably by the right-wing Zionist parties in Israel and their sympathisers in the Jewish diaspora. Geert Wilders, in his capacity as leader of the Dutch populist, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, visited Israel in 2008 and has been back a number of times since. Leaders of four other far right parties, the Belgian Flemish Interest, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats and a new German anti-Islam party, Freedom, visited Israel in late 2010 and were warmly received by settler leaders and other far-right Zionist politicians. And yet these parties had by no means abandoned their antisemitic roots.

We saw a striking example of this phenomenon in the UK in 2009 when a far-right Polish member of the European Parliament, Michal Kaminski, whose past antisemitic views were well documented, visited the UK in his then role as Chairman of the new right-wing EP grouping of which Cameron’s Tory Party were joint founders. Strong objections to the fact that the Tories were now consorting with Kaminski and his party were raised across the political spectrum and in the Jewish community. But a number of Jewish Zionist leaders, the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the Israeli ambassador and non-Jewish Israel supporters feted Kaminski because of his very publicly expressed support for Israel.

It has become quite clear that, as Charles Hawley writes in Spiegelonline, ‘in the battle against what right-wing populists see as the creeping Islamization of Europe, Israel is on the front line.’ But it’s not only right-wing populists who see Israel playing this role. A melange of Jewish and non-Jewish columnists, public intellectuals, think tank specialists and mainstream politicians who would utterly reject being labelled ‘far right’—such as Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail columnist), Daniel Johnson (Standpoint Editor), Douglas Murray (Centre for Social Cohesion) and Denis MacShane (Labour MP)—express similar views and harsh criticism of the Muslim community for not tackling the extreme hostility to Jews and Israel found in its midst. This same kind of alliance can be found in America and France.

The two main parties in Israel’s governing coalition—Likud and Israel Our Home—have not only been encouraged by the range of anti-Islam forces lining up behind Israel. They have clearly seen it as giving the green light for the slew of anti-democratic bills put before the Knesset in the last few years designed to reinforce the exclusively Jewish character of the state, brand Palestinian citizens of Israel as the internal enemy if they don’t accept Israel as the Jewish state, restrict the activities of human rights groups, undermine academic freedom and curtail freedom of speech. The failure of supposedly more moderate political leaders and of the parliamentary system as a whole to turn back this mounting anti-democratic tide has led respected commentators, academics and former military and security personnel to see the growth of deeply disturbing signs of incipient fascism.

Zionism’s ambiguous relationship with antisemitism

Many Israel-supporting Jews with progressive political views now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. As supporters of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and opposed to settlements and the occupation, the last thing they would have envisaged is finding themselves in the company of the far right, whether in Europe or in Israel. And yet many such Jews are convinced that the threat of a left-wing+Islamist ‘new antisemitism’ is severe and in maintaining their Zionism or pro-Israelism are simply stuck with unsavoury allies. Some Jews have simply chosen to cut themselves loose from their traditional progressive moorings. Others who simply refuse to join the anti-Muslim bandwagon and reject the post-9/11 Clash of Civilizations-type choice—‘you’re either with us or against us’—they feel they are faced with are left high and dry. If they edge towards those dissenting Jews who have doubts about Zionism, reject the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis and refuse to put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people, they are liable to face the hatred and vilification of Zionists whose arguments contain more than a hint of ‘some antisemitic logic’. As Zizek writes: ‘their . . . figure of the Jew . . . is constructed in the same way as the European antisemites constructed the figures of the Jew—he is dangerous because he lives among us, but is not really one of us.’

Zizek sees this as ‘paradoxical’, but—unfortunately—he’s wrong. In fact, from very early on in the development of the Zionist movement, opponents of Zionism were characterised using antisemitic stereotypes. In his 1897 essay ‘Mauschel’, the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, angered by anti-Zionists, painted the weak ghetto Jew that Zionism was supposed to banish forever as the bad Jew who speaks with a Yiddish accent, a ‘scamp’, ‘a distortion of the human character, unspeakably mean and repellent’, interested only in ‘mean profit’—attributes of an unmistakably antisemitic kind. To a great degree the use of demonising language to describe Jewish opponents of Zionism largely disappeared from mainstream intra-Jewish discourse because Zionism appeared to achieve such hegemonic dominance among Jews everywhere. But as dissenting views became more prominent in the last 20-30 years, so the language used to attack dissidents became ever more strident, once again appropriating antisemitic phraseology, as in, for example, Melanie Phillips’s description of the founding signatories of Independent Jewish Voices as ‘Jews for genocide’. (The dangers of using this kind of language, because words can be ‘performative’, are intelligently spelt out by Thomas Hylland Erikson in his openDemocracy piece, ‘The net of hatred: after Utøya’.)

Zionists were not only content to make direct use of antisemitic stereotypes, they also understood full well that antisemitism helped advance the cause, even as they promoted Zionism as the solution to the scourge of antisemitism. Herzl said that ‘the antisemites are Zionism’s staunchest allies’. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said in the 1930s that ‘le malheur of the Jews was the chance of Zionism’, and he and his followers knew all too well how to mobilize antisemitism for the achievement of their vision.

And there is another very contemporary example of how Israel and the Zionist movement are not beyond making common cause with antisemites. Millions of fundamentalist Christian Zionists in America are now among Israel’s staunchest supporters. Since 9/11 they have made funding pro-Israel propaganda groups, right-wing Zionist organizations and settlement activity, and providing political backing to the Israeli government’s hard line policies, a central plank of their foreign policy. But they do this because they believe that Christ’s Second Coming will only occur once the land of Israel is fully united. All believers will be transported to meet the Lord, while everybody else, including the Jews, will perish in the battle of Armageddon. So for Christian Zionists, Jews are merely a means to an end. However, it’s no secret that this ideology is suffused with antisemitism. But right-wing Zionists are quite happy to ignore such an awkward fact on the grounds that the support of Christian Zionists for Israel trumps their Jew-hatred.

Ten years on

Since 9/11, the growing popularization of the redefinition of antisemitism as hostility to the state of Israel has given licence to Jews and Zionists to act according to the maxim ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The forging of links between the Israeli far right and Islamophobic far right groups in Europe, embracing the position of Israel as the front line against the Islamization of Europe, turning a blind eye to the antisemitism of Christian Zionism, entrenching the exclusivity of Jewish nationalism in Israeli law and demonising Jewish dissenters using antisemitic rhetoric have all been made possible by placing Israel at the heart of what is considered antisemitism today. But as I have tried to demonstrate, these developments draw on a deeper, even more murky ideological and political reality: Zionism’s troubling relationship with antisemitism—what Professor Idith Zertal has described as the ‘complex, disturbing affinities, and mutual, even if undesired dependence and pragmatic partnership between antisemitism and Zionism’—and the ethno-national and ethno-religious exclusivism that was part of Zionist ideology from the beginning of political Zionism.

The prevailing spirit ten years on from 9/11 seems to be to draw a line under the events, admit to the mistaken policy decisions taken then and, in Jonathan Freedland’s words, abandon the ‘careless, undiscriminating monomania’ all too eagerly adopted at the time; to acknowledge that security can never be achieved by military means alone or by curtailing civil liberties and trampling on human rights. Regrettably, Israel, encouraged by hard line Jewish and non-Jewish supporters, hasn’t learnt these lessons. Not only is it continuing along the path followed since 9/11, more inclined than ever to see the world through the distorting prism of the ‘new antisemitism’, it is conniving in worsening its own isolation by drawing the wrong conclusions from events in its region. Rather than seek a positive accommodation with the democratic forces struggling to overturn dictatorships and autocracies in the Arab world, Israel has sought to prop up military juntas on the grounds of the narrowest and ultimately mistaken interpretation of its security interests. This, argues Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, is because Israel is now run by its own form of military junta. The diplomatic meltdown with Egypt and Turkey now facing Israel, as well as the damaging exposure Israel will experience as the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to seek support for the declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations comes to a head in the next two weeks, is a case of reaping what you sow. The result is likely to be increasing defensiveness, a strengthening sense of victimhood and even more reliance on an America that the Netanyahu government has made clear it does not trust. This is a high price to pay for treating the destruction of the shared understanding of what constitutes antisemitism as a victory.

Former Canadian Minister of Justice Cotler: ‘Calling Israel an Apartheid State is Not Antisemitic’

06/07/2011 2 comments

Professor Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission for Combatting Antisemitism, recently told Ha’aretz journalist David Sheen:

‘You can criticize an Israeli policy or action as having been not only a violation of human rights and humanitarian law but also, you could even say it was a war crime,’ the former Canadian justice minister said. ‘It may be, as I say, distasteful to see that, or witness that, but I don’t regard that as being anti-Semitic content. I think that that’s part of what is called rigorous criticism and discourse.’

‘Where you say that Israel is an apartheid state, even then – that to me is, it’s distasteful, but it’s still within the boundaries of argument’.

Cotler’s remarks seem to have been received in relative silence by the blogosphere and others who comment regularly on antisemitism. This is curious to say the least given that Cotler is probably the most significant and influential international figure in the propagation of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, a key example of which is calling Israel an ‘apartheid state’. That what Cotler now says is a fundamental change in his position is clear from his past articles and speeches. In an ‘Alert Paper’, New Anti-Jewishness, written for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and published in November 2002, Cotler gave examples of ‘new antisemitism’ under 13 headings. Under the third, ‘Ideological antisemitism’, he wrote:

This finds expression not only in the ‘Zionism is Racism’ indictment – and the singling out of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and Israel’s ideological raison d’être, for discriminatory treatment – but the further criminal indictment of Israel as ‘an apartheid state,’ and the calling for the dismantling of this ‘apartheid state’ – a euphemism for Israel’s destruction.

Although he has never said that all critiques of Zionism are antisemitic, Cotler has avoided foregrounding this view. But in the Ha’aretz interview he is clearly keen to redress the balance. He says:

I think we’ve got to set up certain boundaries of where it does cross the line, because I’m one of those who believes strongly, not only in free speech, but also in rigorous debate, and discussion, and dialectic, and the like. If you say too easily that everything is anti-Semitic, then nothing is anti-Semitic, and we no longer can make distinctions . . .

I think it’s too simplistic to say that anti-Zionism, per se, is anti-Semitic. It may cross the line into being anti-Semitic where it ends up by saying, ‘Israel has no right to exist’, or ‘the Jewish people have no right to self determination’, or, that the Jewish people are not even a people.

I can imagine that many who have rightly seen the Canadian MP and law professor as the standard bearer for exposing the ‘new antisemitism’, and have lauded him for coining the phrase ‘Israel is the Jew among the nations’, will be bitterly disappointed by this change of mind. And at the moment they are keeping quiet about it.

But it comes at a very significant moment in the context of developments in the UK in relation to controversies surrounding definitions of antisemitism. Just during the last week a challenge has been mounted by the celebrity lawyer Anthony Julius, on behalf of Ronnie Fraser, against the University and Colleges Union for ‘institutional antisemitism’, following the Union’s highly controversial decision to reject the ‘working definition’ of antisemitism drawn up by the now superseded European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). More or less immediately after the vote at the annual congress of the UCU, the establishment bodies of the UK Jewish community, such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Zionist Federation, went into overdrive as they started a campaign to label the UCU as institutionally racist and demand that the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigate. They have received significant backing from politicians. And when the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle, in which he attacked the UCU, this was taken as governmental support for the organized Jewish community’s stand. Lambasting the union for ‘boycotting visits by Israeli academics for a number of years’, Pickles argues that it’s not interested in securing freedom of speech but rather in silencing dissenting opinion. Various UCU decisions have ‘left many Jewish academics and students uneasy’.

When seen in this context, the latest resolution is in fact sending out a chilling message. It says that Jewish academics and students who perceive that they are being harassed or bullied should understand that they will be held to a different standard. It says that they should expect to be fair game for invective, and learn to live with feeling more vulnerable. Little wonder that the UCU has already seen many members of the Jewish faith, other faiths and none, vote with their feet and leave.

Julius’s letter to General Secretary Sally Hunt setting out UCU member Ronnie Fraser’s case against the UCU is written in the strongest terms. It accuses the union of breaches of the Equality Act 2010, threatens that unless a series of demands by Fraser are met – including the abrogation of the resolution rejecting the EUMC ‘working definition’ and a ‘commitment to sponsor a programme (for a minimum of ten years . . . ) educating academics concerning the dangers of anti-Semitism, with special reference to the relationship between anti-Semitism and what now passes for “anti-Zionism” ‘ – Fraser will make an Equality Act claim to the Employment Tribunal.

The letter is full of bombast and ridiculous hyperbole, and in places is just factually incorrect, but my concern here is not to analyse or critique the entire text. Rather, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that in two paragraphs listing the causes for Fraser’s complaint – i.e. the evidence of institutional antisemitism – the first item in each is the constant ‘anti-Israel boycott resolutions’, and it’s clear that the issue of boycott is a central bone of contention.

Whatever position you hold on boycotting Israel as a means of bringing pressure to bear on it to fulfil its international legal obligations, end the occupation and so on – and I have always opposed boycotting as a means of achieving this – it’s difficult to regard boycotting Israel as a priori antisemitic. Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent two years in the UK as the Israeli universities’ official coordinator of the campaign against the academic boycott, was adamant in remarks he made before finishing this assignment that it was both wrong and counterproductive to fight the boycott proposals on the grounds that they are antisemitic. If it reaches the point where the UCU had to defend itself against charges of institutional antisemitism at a tribunal, citing Professor Newman alone would be a strong defence.

Now that Professor Cotler has so publicly concurred with David Newman, UCU have an even stronger voice to use in their defence. It wouldn’t surprise me if Julius tried to use Professor Newman’s often strong criticisms of the Israeli government and his very dovish position on Israel-Palestine peace as a way of discrediting his view on boycott, notwithstanding the incontrovertible fact that Newman is a Zionist, heart and soul. But such a tactic would be impossible to use against Professor Cotler whose record as a defender of the Israeli status quo is impeccable and whose efforts to embed the concept of the ‘delegitimization’ of Israel in the international consciousness have been long-standing and sustained.

It’s true that Cotler says: ‘It’s where you say, because it’s an apartheid state, it has to be dismantled – then you crossed the line into a racist argument, or an anti-Jewish argument. ‘ In other words, that’s when call for boycott becomes antisemitic. But there are two problems with this argument. First, it would be extremely difficult to prove that the Union as a whole, in voting for boycotting Israel, is therefore saying Israel must be dismantled. Second, even if a handful of people in the Union do believe that boycott should lead to the dismantling of the Israeli state, however far-reaching or shocking such a view might be, it also cannot a priori be deemed antisemitic. If such people were arguing that the Israeli state should be dismantled in order to construct a single secular democratic state in which Jews and Palestinians, and anyone else living in the state, were fully equal, you might charge them with extreme naivety in believing that such a goal is attainable, but it would be grossly unfair to assume that they were advocating the proposal in order to implement an antisemitic agenda of exclusion, demonisation, dehumanisation and so on.

Of course, the Julius letter carries other alleged evidence of institutional antisemitism and I am not commenting on them at this point. As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m not in a position to judge whether the UCU is entirely devoid of institutional racism or antisemitism. I have no doubt that the Union may have behaved insensitively in some way, but I confess that it seems far-fetched to me that a charge of institutional antisemitism could be made to stick. Certainly, there is something about the bullying and aggressive tone of Anthony Julius’s letter that suggests he is simply trying to humiliate the UCU, frighten it into making redress, rather than demonstrating a serious determination to take the matter to a tribunal. But I would not take this for granted for one minute.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

Leading Holocaust Scholar Lipstadt Accepts Advocacy Sometimes Trumped Scholarship at Axed Yale Antisemitism Centre

17/06/2011 3 comments

Critics of Yale’s decision to close the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) were dealt a severe blow on 16 June when the highly respected Holocaust scholar and expert on antisemitism, Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, effectively accepted the reasons the Yale authorities gave for their decision to close the institution (as I did in my earlier post). At first calling the decision ‘strange, if not weird’, after consulting people at Yale she altered her view and concluded that YIISA’s efforts had ‘migrated from the world of scholarship to that of advocacy’.

Wild and unsubstantiated claims have been made about the so-called ‘real’ reasons for the closure. Yale gave in to pressure from Arab funders. YIISA exposed Muslim antisemitism and the authorities were nervous and uncomfortable with this. Yale, along with other American university political science departments, simply didn’t think contemporary antisemitism was a genuine subject for scholarly study. The picture revealed by Professor Lipstadt looks very different.

It seems that friends of YIISA within Yale ‘warned YIISA that it was providing fodder to the critics’ claim that it was not a truly academic endeavor’. Having attended YIISA seminars and the August 2010 conference, she herself concluded that ‘While serious scholars who work in this field gave the vast majority of the papers — and not dilettantes who dabble in it — there were a few presentations that gave me pause. They were passionate and well argued. But they were not scholarly in nature.’ She writes: ‘According to sources at Yale, the university’s leadership unsuccessfully worked with YIISA in an attempt to rectify some of these issues.’

The decision to axe YIISA is not a sign that Yale believes the subject is unworthy of study. On the contrary. ‘Yale has indicated that it is intent on . . .  replacing [YIISA] with an initiative that will address both anti-Semitism and its scholarly concerns.’

She draws two lessons from this ‘imboglio’. First, ‘there is a real need for serious academic institutions to facilitate and encourage the highest-level research on anti-Semitism. . . . Moreover, this research must focus not just on Christian anti-Semitism, but on Muslim anti-Semitism, as well’.

Second, this struggle also demonstrates the necessity of differentiating between those who do advocacy and those who do scholarship. Both are critical — but entirely different — endeavors. Let us not forget how rightfully disturbed the Jewish community has been in recent years about the way in which advocacy and polemics have permeated so many university courses on the Middle East. Too many students who take these classes find that they have entered a zone in which advocacy masquerades as scholarship. This is unacceptable, irrespective of the source from which it emanates.

Professor Lipstadt is right on both counts.

Sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if those shrill voices still hammering Yale for its decision, who would normally be listing Deborah Lipstadt as being on their side, will now turn on her. Anyone who can conclude the following after this affair – ‘Some American Jews, who had felt safe from antisemitism, will now be hurting’ – has lost all sense of proportion and could well end up blaming Professor Lipstadt for being responsible for legitimising the exposure of such American Jews to antisemitism.

Categories: Antisemitism

How Feelings of Jewish Insecurity are Aggravated by the Community Security Trust

13/06/2011 4 comments

I have always given credit to the Community Security Trust, the private charity that monitors and combats antisemitism in the UK, for its efforts to record expressions of antisemitism as diligently and rigorously as possible. Some accuse CST of deliberately exaggerating the numbers of antisemitic incidents – as if they were actually manufacturing reports from individuals and adding them to their lists – but I don’t believe for one second that this is the case. They go to considerable lengths to ensure that their statistics on manifestations of Jew-hatred are credible. And one very important testament to this is their polite but firm distancing of CST from the Macpherson Report’s recommendation that any racist incident must be recorded by police according to the categorization of it by the victim (I referred to this in a previous post):

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry definition of a racist incident has significantly influenced societal interpretations of what does and does not constitute racism, with the victim’s perception assuming paramount importance. CST, however, ultimately defines incidents against Jews as being antisemitic only where it can be objectively shown to be the case, and this may not always match the victim’s perception as called for by the Lawrence Inquiry. CST takes a similar approach to the highly complex issue of antisemitic discourse.

But where I and others have differences with CST is over the interpretation of the data they collect and the manner in which they carry out their self-appointed mandate to act as the guardian of the security of the UK Jewish community. And I have always been especially concerned to establish that it is perfectly right for the CST to be subject to public scrutiny of its operations; that a reasoned critique of what it does coming from within the Jewish community is entirely legitimate and should not be seen as unacceptable.

So I was greatly heartened to read Geoffrey Alderman’s recent two columns in the Jewish Chronicle, on 18 April and 10 June, taking the CST to task by questioning whether it ‘represents’ the Jewish community and arguing for much greater transparency about its policy-making and operations. I can hardly say that Alderman and I see eye-to-eye on many things, but on this issue – one which I first began to raise 10 years ago – I think he has done us all an important service by airing his concerns in public.

Unsurprisingly, the CST did not like Alderman’s intervention and he was slapped down in a letter to the JC from 27 communal grandees. Reporting this in his second piece on 10 June, Alderman provided evidence from decidedly un-grandee-like members of the community supporting his concerns. These criticisms of the way the CST operates echo numerous comments community activists and professionals have made to me privately, insisting that they did not want their names to be made public if I ever wrote about the issue. Most had dual reasons for wanting to remain anonymous: first, because they feared that the CST could try to pressure their employers, or the organizations they worked for on a voluntary basis, to oust them; second, because they were aware that such a climate of fear of antisemitism exists that they did not want to be seen to be undermining efforts to combat antisemitism, even though they did not believe that the climate was justified.

Interestingly, Alderman is not alone in publicly expressing reservations about ‘communal policy’ on antisemitism. In a remarkable op-ed on 2 June in the JC, ‘Don’t let antisemitism take over our narrative’, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg conveyed his fundamental concerns:

‘Either you’re for us or you’re totally against us’ expresses an oversimplified, often bigoted world-view. It’s easy to brand others as antisemites, hard to engage at the borders between ourselves and those who don’t see the world as we do. . . . My point is that we shouldn’t make ‘the world hates us’ our motto.

Whether or not he was referring directly to CST as being largely responsible for encouraging this mindset, I don’t know. But you only have to read the response of the Chairman of the CST, Gerald Ronson, to Alderman’s questions and criticisms, which Ronson gave in a JC op-ed on 29 April, to realise that the size, reach and influence of CST makes it perfectly capable of being a prime mover behind the creation of a ‘the world hates us’ atmosphere in the community.

And now we have a further deeply thoughtful and searching critique of the whole notion of ‘security’ and the role of the CST in a superb article by Rabbi Howard Cooper just published in the latest issue of the Jewish Quarterly (not yet available online). In ‘What is our security?’ Rabbi Cooper tells two stories. The first, drawn from a story he was told as a child, exemplifies how a relentless quest for security can produce precisely the opposite because it

can be hard to bear the reality that ‘security’ – what it is, what we need in order to achieve it, where it comes from, and what we feel threatens us – is an internal experience.

The second story is from real life and concerns a young Jewish woman who was organizing a children’s Channukah event at a provincial arts centre where she worked, but who developed doubts about going ahead after a woman in a hijab, recently arrived in the UK from the Middle East, asked her whether the event was open to everyone. She consulted the CST, but even though she says they were ‘measured and reassuring’, she felt constrained to cancel the event. Rabbi Cooper writes:

This story – and it is not a parable – filled me with an immense sadness. I knew that this enlightened young woman had a sound understanding of how we unconsciously project onto others disowned feelings from within ourselves, and then feel ourselves threatened by those very feelings. If even she had succumbed to collective Jewish unease about Muslims, what hope was there for our collective well-being in the UK, when the community is led by by those with a less-psychologically-informed and more outwardly belligerent approach to questions about security?

He continues:

We are driving ourselves mad because of a spurious fantasy: that there is something called ‘security’ that we can achieve and possess. But feelings of ‘insecurity’ are psychological, spiritual, existential – such feelings can’t be eliminated by more of this chimera we name ‘security’.

Such is our post-Shoah concern with security that the original meaning of security in Hebrew, ‘trust in what we cannot see’, has become precisely the opposite, ‘trust in the power of our own hands’. Has the Jewish tradition to articulate a moral vision now finally come down to ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’, what seems to be the fundamental ethos of the religious settlers in the West Bank, he asks.

Rabbi Cooper concludes:

Perhaps to experience ‘security’ we need a renewed faith in aspects of ourselves that we Jews used to attribute to the Holy One of Israel: a capacity for compassion and reverence towards other human beings, a capacity to discern forms of idolatry that offer false security, a capacity to transmute anger into a passion for justice, and an enduring capacity for truth-telling that holds the impossible tension between love of the Jewish people and a responsibility to the ‘other’, the stranger, the outsider, who may never love us but whose well-being is still our concern.

Not only moving, but sound advice. Especially important, and sorely needed today and at all times, is ‘truth-telling’, with telling truth to power a fundamental priority. Alderman, Wittenberg and Cooper have taken very significant steps in this direction. The grandees of the community, the self-appointed guardians of our ‘security’ and the mainstream religious establishment should immediately take note. They already have a lot to answer for.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

Categories: Antisemitism, British Jews

Antisemitism Research Just Improved: Yale’s ‘Initiative’ for Studying Antisemitism is Axed

10/06/2011 16 comments

For some years now I have argued that the academic study of contemporary antisemitism has been badly compromised by the growing politicisation of the subject. Back in September 2008, in an op-ed piece for Ha’aretz, I wrote:

Practically the entire business of studying and analyzing current anti-Semitism has been hijacked and debased by people lacking any serious expertise in the subject, whose principal aim is to excoriate Jewish critics of Israel and to promote the ‘anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism’ equation.

A number of institutions, supposedly tasked with undertaking serious research on antisemitism, have contributed to this situation. One of the foremost of these is the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA), established in 2006, and I had it in my sights when I wrote my op-ed.

On 7 June Yale University announced that YIISA would not continue beyond the end of this academic year. Donald Green, Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies where YIISA was housed, said in a statement that YIISA generated little scholarly work that earned publication in highly regarded journals, and its courses attracted few students. For all who genuinely support the principle of the objective, dispassionate study of contemporary antisemitism, the imminent demise of YIISA should come as welcome news.

Unsurprisingly, organizations that have contributed to the debasement of serious antisemitism research are not happy. The Anti-Defamation League’s National Director, Abe Foxman, said:

Especially at a time when anti-Semitism continues to be virulent and anti-Israel parties treat any effort to address issues relating to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as illegitimate, Yale’s decision is particularly unfortunate and dismaying . . . it leaves the impression that the anti-Jewish forces in the world achieved a significant victory.

The American Jewish Committee said it was surprised and saddened by the decision. AJC’s Executive Director, David Harris, warned: ‘If Yale now leaves the field, it will create a very regrettable void’.

Foxman and Harris were relatively measured in comparison with the report in the New York Post headed ‘Yale’s gift to antisemitism’. The writer claimed that Yale ‘almost certainly [decided on closure] because YIISA refused to ignore the most virulent, genocidal and common form of Jew-hatred today: Muslim anti-Semitism.’ She also added: ‘Some suggest that Yale feels it can act with impunity because, earlier this spring, one of YIISA’s most powerful backers died; without his money and influence, the school can rid itself of a politically inconvenient nuisance.’

YIISA’s funders are not revealed by the institution so it’s possible that closure may have something to do with the withdrawal of funds, though the story may just be a rumour set running by those who suspect an anti-Israel agenda at work. But whatever the specific reason, it was obvious from YIISA’s inception that it would promote the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, focus heavily on criticism of Israel and prioritise the issue of Muslim antisemitism.

Among the first papers presented at YIISA seminars were those by Dr David Hirsh (2005), a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London and founder of Engage, a website dedicated to opposing the boycott of Israel, Professor Shalom Lappin (2007), professor of computational linguistics at Kings College, University of London, and Professor Irwin Cotler (2006), professor of law at McGill University and a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. All three are well-known for their highly politicised approaches to current antisemitism.

Hirsh’s paper was essentially a continuation of his political battles with the anti-Zionist left over the issue of boycotting Israel, which he claimed was an expression of antisemitism. Lappin’s academic work is not in the field of antisemitism yet he was regarded by YIISA as a proper person to present a paper that linked modern anti-Israel sentiment in the UK with centuries-old English antisemitism and claimed that the political class in contemporary Britain had abandoned the Jews – and this was written at a time when, in Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government, Jews in Britain had never had a more pro-Jewish and pro-Israel national political leadership. Cotler has probably done more than anyone to popularize the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’ having been responsible for coining the phrase ‘Israel is the Jew among the nations’. His paper, effectively an exercise in sophisticated hasbara (propaganda for Israel), likened the current situation to the 1930s and developed a framework for identifying forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

The director of YIISA, Dr Charles Small, an academic with little experience of antisemitism research, had clearly put down a marker that Israel was going to be the central concern of YIISA. Had that concern manifested itself in scholarly papers objectively posing fundamental questions about the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, the nature of discourse about Israel, the relationship between Israel’s policies and antisemitism worldwide and so on, YIISA might have had an academic raison d’être. But inviting as speakers in the first few years people whose so-called ‘research’ was undertaken essentially to provide backing for preconceptions arrived at for political reasons, signalled that YIISA was to be a major centre for the further corruption of academic antisemitism studies. Not all who have given seminar papers or lectures at YIISA have been quite as blatantly partisan as my three first examples, though one or two have been worse. (A list of some of those exemplifying YIISA’s approach can be found at the foot of this post.*)

YIISA’s approach was fully exposed when it announced its first major conference, ‘Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity’, to take place in August 2010. A huge, 3-day jamboree, with 4 breakout sessions twice-a-day and 3 or 4 keynote lectures/plenary events each day, the conference was attended by many genuine scholars of antisemitism presenting bona fide academic papers, but a full panoply of participants attesting to the ‘new antisemitism’ agenda of YIISA was present. In May Small had already confirmed that ‘The largest number of papers, and therefore reflecting the greatest concern, address contemporary antisemitism and the demonization of Israel and those associated or made to be associated with Israel.’ There was a whole session devoted to the bogus concept of Jewish self-hatred, a keynote lecture by Itamar Marcus, a leader of the settler movement on the West Bank, titled ‘The central role of Palestinian antisemitism in creating the Palestinian identity’ and the conference opened with a speech by the Director for Combating Antisemitism at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The demonization of left-liberal Jewish critics of Israel and of Palestinians, the promotion of a Zionist-centric approach to antisemitism, the distortion and exaggeration  of Arab and Palestinian sympathy for antisemitism, the presence of presenters from NGO Monitor, Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI – all of these elements of the ‘culture’ of the programme fundamentally undermined YIISA’s claim to academic respectability.

It’s obvious from the size of the conference and the scale of YIISA’s activity that the organization was very well funded. And as is the case with much of academia, scholars as well as self-styled experts and researchers follow the money. Who would doubt the credentials and orientation of a research outfit based at such a prestigious university as Yale? The extensive advisory and management structure, packed with well-known names, testifies to the pulling power YIISA had. But of course, the composition of these bodies largely reflected the Israel-focused orientation of the initiative.

Some academics who attended the 2010 conference or who accepted invitations to present papers within the framework of YIISA’s seminar series knew perfectly well what the place was about and deplored what it stood for. But a few I spoke to felt that they could not ignore the Yale centre, that it would not be good for their careers if they declined the organization’s invitations. Their view was that they could avoid compromising themselves by sticking closely to their research topics and not getting hijacked into inadvertently endorsing YIISA’s politics. I don’t doubt that this is what they did. They guarded their personal integrity. But they could not avoid their names being used as another brick in the wall of publicity being constructed by the operation.

Thee is no doubt that the closure of YIISA, which it seems will take effect within a month or two, will leave a large hole in the international network of institutes, think-tanks, agencies and committees that have so successfully propagated the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, helping to redefine antisemitism in such a way that, as I put it in my September 2008 Ha’aretz op-ed:

to warrant the charge of anti-Semitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government, to denial of Israel’s right to exist – without having to subscribe to any of the elements which historians have traditionally regarded as constituting an anti-Semitic view. And it puts out of bounds the perfectly legitimate discussion of whether increased anti-Semitism is a result of Israel’s actions.

YIISA’s cheerleaders in the commentariat are certainly unhappy. Ben Cohen, who set up and ran the Z-Word Blog for the AJC – a site, now defunct, devoted to ferreting out anti-Zionism and purportedly exposing the antisemitic tendencies of anti-Zionists, especially Jewish ones – questions the motives of the Yale officials responsible for taking the decision to cut YIISA adrift, implying that they don’t understand what antisemitism is all about and that they have handed a victory to Arab extremists and virulent anti-Zionists. He admits that YIISA’s approach was not ‘value-free’, but expresses bewilderment as to why it was singled out when ‘Any dispassionate survey of the social sciences reveals that there is precious little “value-free” research going on anywhere.’ This is an astonishing statement. Even if it were true, it doesn’t make YIISA’s politically compromised approach acceptable – two wrongs don’t make a right.

In ‘Yale, Jews and double-standards’, the Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick is convinced that the Yale decision was political and she sniffs a conspiracy. Dependent on Arab money, Yale gave into Arab pressure she argues. While she rightly says that ‘discourse on anti- Semitism has been corrupted by politics’, she is blind to the fact that it’s institutions like YIISA that have been responsible for the corruption of the subject. She would have us believe that it’s anti-Jewish prejudice that’s at the root of the problem, ‘ part of the anti-Jewish turn that so many universities are taking’. And she makes no attempt to justify YIISA’s existence on the grounds that it’s undertaking objective research. On the contrary, she admits that YIISA was part of the fightback against anti-Israel and anti-Zionist pressure in academia and in student life on campuses. Therefore the Yale authorities’ decision was ‘unfair’. Echoing Ben Cohen, she says that objective academic assessment of YIISA is impossible because the academic and intellectual worlds are biased against the open discussion of Palestinian and Muslim antisemitism. Perhaps she hasn’t read YIISA’s mission statement, which stresses academic objectivity. Sold to Yale as a bona fide academic institution, it hardly then seems reasonable to blame Yale for judging it on that basis. And neither Glick nor Cohen dispute the fact that its academic output was not up to scratch.

The wider issue raised by YIISA’s imminent closure is whether it’s a watershed moment representing a rolling back of the politicisation of academic antisemitism research. I doubt very much whether the UK Universities and College Union’s decision to distance itself from the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism can be linked to it, although the vote brought to public attention that the EUMC’s successor body, the Fundamental Rights Agency, has in effect dropped the definition – a potentially damaging blow to the lifespan of the ‘working definition’. But the demise of the Z-word blog is perhaps a sign of the times since the AJC is not an organization that would normally give up on such an enterprise after such a relatively short period. It likes to be seen to be engaged in political work for the long term. (Z-word claims it still exists as part of The Propagandist website, a ‘magazine . . . for political junkies, thinking conservatives and the anti-fascist left’, but it’s just one stream of comment on the site.)

More significant, although it’s not in the US, is the example set by the establishment of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London.  Its Director, Professor David Feldman, an eminent expert on Jewish history, is taking a rigorously objective academic approach to his task, while not in any way ignoring the complex interconnections between contemporary antisemitism, Israel, Islam, Islamophobia, racism in general and policy questions. Feldman has won plaudits across the academic world for his stance, which gives the lie to the arguments of Cohen and Glick that antisemitism cannot be studied dispassionately and value-free. And while the Pears Institute is not in the US, the international nature of the field of contemporary antisemitism research means that what Feldman does could have a very significant impact beyond the shores of the UK.  With YIISA out of the picture and Pears at Birkbeck looking very secure, some sanity may now return to the discipline.

I say ‘may’ because the combined forces of those institutions and groups which have a vested interest in maintaining the ‘new antisemitism’-based politicised approach to the subject are very strong. YIISA was important, but the ship sails on with the Israeli government and the entire political right-wing in Israel blowing a powerful wind into its sails. And it’s not impossible that American Jewish funders will try to persuade Yale to change its mind, or get the money together to transfer YIISA to another institution, or set it up as in independent body.

I am by no means alone in having smelled a rat when YIISA came on the scene. I already quoted from Mondoweiss. The Magnes Zionist blog also knew the score. In a post on 9 June Jerry Haber cuts to the quick:

The moral of this story? Take an important phenomenon which is worthy of study and have it hijacked by people with an ideological agenda, who organize conferences that revel in Islamaphobia and rightwing Zionism, mixing mediocre academics and non-academics with serious scholars, all of whom have axes to grind – in short, trivialize anti-Semitism in order to silence critics of Israel – and sooner or later, God willing, real academics will write it off as an embarrassment.

* Some of the individuals who spoke at YIISA and are representative of its politicised orientation: Anne Bayefsky, Barry Kosmin, Edward Kaplan, Michael Oren, Emanuele Ottolenghi, Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Dina Porat, Matthias Kuntzel, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Ruh Wisse, Gerald Steinberg, Alan Dershowitz, Hillel Neuer, Kenneth Levin, Richard Landes, Melanie Phillips, Shimon Samuels, Robert Wistrich.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

Categories: Antisemitism

Don’t Distort Macpherson Report’s Recommendations on Racism to Attack the UCU

06/06/2011 4 comments

One highly significant consequence of the UCU vote on the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism has been the claim that the decision means that the UCU has rejected the Macpherson Report’s definition of racism. And that this justifies attacking the UCU for denying Jews the Macpherson-conferred right to be the sole arbiters of what is and what is not antisemitism. This was already anticipated before the debate. In the Jewish Chronicle on 26 May, Martin Bright wrote:

Senior figures in the Jewish leadership have voiced concerns [about the UCU motion on the EUMC 'working definition'] to Trevor Phillips, chair of the EHRC. A letter has been sent from the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust, urging the body to make a stand on the issue.

The Jewish organisations have suggested that Mr Phillips re-emphasise the recommendations of the Macpherson Report into the murder of the south London teenager Stephen Lawrence.

This defined a racist incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’, and is now the definition used by police when antisemitic attacks are reported.

The Board, the JLC and the CST have also written to UCU general secretary Sally Hunt and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber to ask them to sign up to the Macpherson definition of racism.

Among those commenting since the vote, a similar and perhaps even identical strategy is being advocated. For example, Adam Langleben, writing on the Left Foot Forward website, says:

[The 'working definition's] widespread adoption would appear to be in line with the recommendations of the MacPherson Inquiry, whose report following the death of Stephen Lawrence stated that an incident is racist if: ‘… it is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’

Langleben then goes on to quote the Macpherson Report’s definition of institutional racism and states: ‘This seems to be exactly what has occurred in the UCU.’ He concludes:

Jewish organisations are now calling for an EHRC formal inquiry, a demand supported by John Mann MP. For the UCU, not only to ignore the concerns of its Jewish academics and community members - but to actively vote to dismiss them out of hand - disgraces the Left.

If ‘disgrace’ accrues to anyone in this debate, I’m afraid it’s to those arguing in this fashion.

If by ‘definition of racism’ what is meant is a comprehensive definition of the term, the fact is that the Macpherson Report did not provide any such thing. It had a lot to say on the subject, because the failures in the police investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder were largely due to conscious or unconscious racism. But Macpherson gave only two definitions in relation to racism. The first appears in the Report as follows:

DEFINITION OF RACIST INCIDENT

12. That the definition should be:

‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’.

13. That the term ‘racist incident’ must be understood to include crimes and non-crimes in policing terms. Both must be reported, recorded and investigated with equal commitment.

The second is a definition of institutional racism:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

It’s surely obvious that neither separately nor taken together do these definitions comprise a comprehensive definition of racism. However, they are both used to attack the UCU.

As far as whether the UCU is institutionally racist, since it is an institution, it’s theoretically possible that it is racist. Macpherson did not intend the concept to apply to the police force alone, but to any institution. I’m not a member of the UCU and while I’m partially familiar with some of the accusations against the UCU in relation to Jewish members expressing their concerns about antisemitism, I’m not in a position to make a judgement.

However, I do know that the UCU held a series of three all-day events last year, in Brighton, the University of Northumbria and at the UCU central office in London, under the heading ‘The Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, The Holocaust and Resistance, Yesterday and Today’. This was in fulfilment of a resolution passed at the UCU 2009 conference to begin a campaign against antisemitism. The presenters were not only knowledgeable about the subject, but also represented a range of views on the issue of the relationship between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. They included Philip Spencer, Robert Fine, Brian Klug, David Hirsh, Gilbert Achcar, Mary Davis, Tom Hickey, John Rose. Sally Hunt chaired the Brighton event. The union produced an excellent educational wall poster on the Holocaust and subsequently a publication ‘The Legacy of Hope: Resistance, Yesterday and Today.’

The holding of these events does not in and of itself acquit the UCU of any accusations that might be made against it of institutional antisemitism, but it certainly makes such accusations rather difficult to stand up. And it’s curious to say the least, that in all the ire and threats directed at the UCU by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, Engage and so on, the fact that these events were held is, as far as I can tell, never mentioned.

But far more important is the use made of the first definition: of a racist incident. This is because it has been widely interpreted as laying down a general rule as to who and who is not entitled to define the racism experienced by a particular minority or ethnic group. We can see this in the speech Ronnie Fraser gave during the UCU debate on the motion to distance the union from the EUMC definition:

Congress, Imagine how it feels when you say that you are experiencing racism, and your union responds: ‘Stop lying, stop trying to play the antisemitism card.’

You, a group of mainly white, non-Jewish trade unionists, do not have the right to tell me, a Jew, what feels like antisemitism and what does not.

Macpherson tells us that when somebody says they have been a victim of racism, then institutions should begin by believing them. This motion mandates the union to do the opposite.

What Fraser implies here and what is stated and implied very broadly, for example by the Union of Jewish Students I believe, Israeli politicians and representatives of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, is that only the group that experiences racism is entitled to define what that racism consists of. In other words, only Jews can define what antisemitism is because they are the ones who experience it. So from a specific instruction to the police that the victim’s perception of the motive for an attack is what the police must record as the motive for the attack, we move to a general rule that only the victim can define the racism he or she experiences.

That this elision is highly problematic was in fact recognised by the Community Security Trust. Its Antisemitic Discourse Report 2009 states:

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry definition of a racist incident has significantly influenced societal interpretations of what does and does not constitute racism, with the victim’s perception assuming paramount importance. CST, however, ultimately defines incidents against Jews as being antisemitic only where it can be objectively shown to be the case [emphasis added],and this may not always match the victim’s perception as called for by the Lawrence Inquiry. CST takes a similar approach to the highly complex issue of antisemitic discourse, and notes the multiplicity of opinions within and beyond the Jewish community concerning this often controversial subject.

Clearly, the CST has sympathy for the principle that the victim’s experience must be heard and taken into account, but that ultimately judging what constitutes antisemitism must be determined objectively. It cannot rest solely with the victim.

This is a commendable statement and an important reservation concerning the Macpherson definition of a racial incident. But it brings us back to what the Macpherson Report was setting out to achieve by framing the definition of a racist incident in this way. This is not by any means difficult to establish. It was conscious or unconscious racism that fatally affected the ability of the police to conduct a professional investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The report goes into this in great depth. Most of the recommendations therefore relate to reforming and improving police behaviour. And the definition of a racist incident was clearly meant as a very simple and very direct way of doing that: insisting that police must not only keep accurate records of racist incidents, but that they must record that an incident is racist if the victim says it is. At no point does the report move from that very specific and narrow point to a generalisation that racism is what the victim says it is. And I am certain that neither Macpherson nor his fellow inquiry members ever intended that readers of his report and recommendations should understand that this what what they meant.

There are therefore absolutely no grounds for attacking the UCU for rejecting the Macpherson definition of racism. It did no such thing; there is no such definition.

This turns the spotlight back on the organizations, groups, activists, bloggers and so on who are using this as a tactic to attack the UCU for its decision to distance itself from the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism.  Sadly, it’s once again a sign of the appalling leadership being offered to the Jewish community by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the CST, the Zionist Federation, the Union of Jewish Students and other groups. Their egos are being massaged by people like Adam Langleben who writes on Left Foot Forward that the EUMC ‘working definition’ is ‘the definition that the democratically elected representative bodies of the Jewish community broadly agree on’ – that is ‘democratically elected’ as in ‘mostly self-appointed’ and ‘representative’ as in ‘representative of a minority, and mostly a tiny minority: namely ourselves’. And they’re aided and abetted by websites like Simply Jews that write hyperbolically about ‘the extent this teachers union will go to bury its inherent single minded racism against its Jewish members’ and laughably excoriate Jewish leaders for offering no ‘viable leadership to combat manifestations of modern antisemitism’ – when it sometimes seems Jewish leadership thinks it’s doing nothing else.

They really must stop and think again. If they don’t listen to me, they should read Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s 2 June op-ed article in the Jewish Chronicle. ‘Don’t let antisemitism take over our narrative’ he pleads.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are the dominant concerns of British Jewish life today. And anyone who engages at the challenging frontiers between Islam and Judaism, Israelis and Palestinians, may fear short shrift. . . . Our story, and our telling of it, is becoming strident.

He states clearly that ‘vigilance is necessary’ but goes on:

Yet, without relinquishing such vigilance, I believe it is important to uphold a narrative of greater imagination and tolerance. ‘Either you’re for us or you’re totally against us’ expresses an oversimplified, often bigoted world-view. It’s easy to brand others as antisemites, hard to engage at the borders between ourselves and those who don’t see the world as we do.

‘My point is that we shouldn’t make “the world hates us” our motto,’ Rabbi Wittenberg writes. This is precisely what Jewish leaders are doing in their intemperate and deeply misguided response to the UCU vote.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

Categories: Antisemitism

The Farcical Attack on the UCU For Voting Against Use of the EUMC ‘Working Definition’ of Antisemitism

02/06/2011 30 comments

There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those sickened by the Universities and Colleges Union’s decision to ban use of the European Union Monitoring Centre’s ‘working definition’ of antisemitism. At the UCU’s annual congress in Harrogate a large majority supported Motion 70 that resolved:

  1. that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints)
  2. that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved
  3. that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.

The stated reason for this decision?:

Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.

Critics of the UCU’s decision are having none of this. Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council said: ‘After today’s events I believe the UCU is institutionally racist’. His view was echoed by Jon Benjamin, the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said ‘the UCU has . . . simply redefined “anti-Semitism” itself. . . The truth is apparent: whatever the motivations of its members, we believe UCU is an institutionally racist organization’. Martin Bright, the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, tweeted: ‘opens gates to campus antisemitism’. Paul Usiskin, chair of Peace Now UK, said: ‘The UCU legitimises and perpetuates the evil of antisemitism.’ The Fair Play Campaign Group issued a statement that ended: ‘The truth is apparent: whatever the motivations of its members, we believe UCU is an institutionally racist organisation’. Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel, delivered an emotional speech opposing the motion. He said the union had crossed a red line, and ‘only antisemites would disassociate themselves from the EU Working Definition and vote in favor of the resolution’. John Mann MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, is taking the charge of ‘institutional antisemitism’ against the UCU so seriously that he has stated that the claim ‘should be investigated independently, ideally by the EHRC [Equality and Human Rights Commission]‘.

Despite these furious reactions, the motion does not say the UCU must now ignore instances of antisemitism. On the contrary, it acknowledges that there is a ‘genuine antisemitism’ that must be fought, and that the UCU must continue ‘to combat all forms of racial and religious discrimination’. But the critics make it clear that they don’t trust the UCU; that by making it impossible to call to account, on the basis of the EUMC’s ‘working definition’ of Israel-linked antisemitism, critics of Israel who are seen as crossing a line into antisemitic discourse, licence is effectively being given to antisemites in the UCU to express antisemitic sentiments.

It’s hard to believe that the EUMC ‘working definition’ is the only bulwark preventing the UCU from giving free rein to its alleged institutional antisemitism or, deliberately or otherwise, from encouraging and then turning a blind-eye to campus antisemitism. Yet this is undoubtedly what the union’s critics seem to be arguing, often in a language that borders on the apocalyptic. But to be fair on the critics, the language of some of those who have campaigned to distance the UCU from the EUMC ‘working definition’ is also pretty extreme and unbalanced.

And surely, therein lies the problem. Reading the live blogging from the congress, the speeches, recriminations, reactions and past reports on this long-running battle, which essentially began when the union initially voted on an academic boycott of Israeli universities back in 2005, the sense that much of this is taking place in a hothouse that has tenuous links to reality is rather powerful.

First, in the wider world of discussion about antisemitism, the notion that civilisation as we know it is about to come to an end because the UCU has distanced itself from the EUMC definition is quite absurd. It’s true that the status of the ‘working definition’ has changed significantly. The EUMC no longer exists and has been replaced by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which seems to have more or less abandoned the ‘working definition’. The FRA appears not to believe that the definition is a useful working tool. An FRA official told Richard Kuper: ‘Since its development we are not aware of any public authority in the EU that applies it’. Moreover, ‘The FRA has no plans for any further development’ of the ‘Working Definition’, the official said. And in its latest publication on the topic (August 2010) it doesn’t even mention the ‘working definition’.

Nevertheless, if the FRA were intending to go further and reverse the current status of the definition among national and international agencies, whether governmental or non-governmental, as well as among antisemitism research institutes and monitoring bodies, it would almost certainly encounter an impossible task. For despite the fact that it was called the ‘working definition’ and that the contentious clauses exemplifying different ‘ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context’ were not described as a priori antisemitic, the EUMC document has virtually become the definition for such organizations, with practically the status of a holy text.  The US State Department treats it as gospel in its antisemitism reports. The influential All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Antisemitism urged the British government to adopt it formally. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) employs the definition. The European Forum on Antisemitism, founded in 2008 with participants from 15 European countries as well as the USA and Israel, but effectively a front organization for the American Jewish Committee, seems to exist primarily to promote use of the working definition. The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre back it, as does the European Jewish Congress and numerous official national Jewish representative bodies and Jewish communal defence groups. (Mark Gardner, communications director of the Community Security Trust, which describes itself as ‘protecting the Jewish community’ in the UK, mounted a vigorous defence of the working definition just days before the UCU vote.) Set against this phalanx of international support for the ‘working definition’, the UCU vote is but a mere pinprick.

And it’s a sad fact that the existence and extensive promotion of the ‘working definition’ has done as much as anything to legitimise the discourse of the ‘new antisemitism’, the notion that Israel has become the Jew among the nations and that therefore extreme criticism and anti-Zionism are a new version of the antisemitism that existed prior to the establishment of the state. Rather than make it easier to identify antisemitism, the promotion of the ‘working definition’ and the entrenchment of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’ have so extended the range of expressions of what can be regarded as antisemitic that the word antisemitism has come close to losing all meaning. And it therefore makes agreement on what is and what is not antisemitic more fraught and more contentious. It’s a simple fact that until the early 1990s, before the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ gained acceptance and before the ‘working definition’ was introduced, there was broad agreement on the nature of contemporary antisemitism. Today, scholars and commentators writing on current antisemitism are bitterly divided among themselves.

Second, the responses (quoted above) from Jewish community officials and representatives and other defenders of the ‘working definition’ show a complete lack of balance. If Ronnie Fraser is correct and only ‘antisemities’ would dissociate themselves from the ‘working definition’, this places a significant number of highly respected Jewish and non-Jewish academics working in the field of antisemitism research in the dock. And it would mean that the FRA officials, who have clearly sidelined the original EUMC document, are also antisemites. John Mann MP should thus be clamouring for these Jew-haters to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights, just as he wants the UCU to be investigated by the EHRC in the UK.

Typifying the tenor of these responses is the myth, succinctly articulated by the Board of Deputies chief executive Jon Benjamin, that it’s the UCU that is redefining antisemitism. In fact, it’s the EUMC that redefined antisemitism. What the UCU seems to have done is seek to revert back to the time when a common sense consensus about the nature of antisemitism existed. Even Mark Gardner, in his CST blog piece, acknowledges that there has been such agreement:

The “working definition” is not so necessary in Britain perhaps, where antisemitism is generally well understood and defined by politicians, courts, Police and Jews

(although he rather cheekily omits mention of academics, since it would undermine the tone of much of his piece, which casts certain academics as villains). As Richard Kuper writes in an updated analysis of the ‘working definition’ just published on openDemocracy, Benjamin, Fraser and others

[make] you wonder what happened before “the definition” was propagated in 2005 (when presumably no-one had a clue as to what antisemitism was, and without this particular document no-one now would have either).

Given that hardly any discussion of contemporary antisemitism takes place today without Israel, Zionism or anti-Zionism cropping up, it was probably unrealistic of the UCU anti-EUMC definition protagonists to think that we can all just return to the status quo ante. But it’s not a redefinition that’s required, rather a clarification of how certain forms of discourse on Israel can fall into the classic definition of antisemitism around which academics and researchers can reach agreement – and indeed we have such a clarification in the form of Dr Brian Klug’s article ‘The collective Jew: Israel and the new antisemitism’ (which he recently updated for his book Being Jewish and Doing Justice). And what’s interesting about Klug’s article is that it figures prominently in the EUMC’s report, Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU 2002-2003, published in 2004, the report credited for being the impetus for the framing of the ‘working definition’. According to Mark Gardner and others:

The Monitoring Centre compiled the ‘working definition’ because this was a central recommendation of its own 345 page report ‘Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU 2002-2003.’

A convenient story, but untrue. If the ‘working definition’ had really emerged from this report, it’s hardly likely to have diverged so radically from Klug’s formulation of a consensus definition of antisemitism that the report quotes from so favourably, but diverge it most certainly does.

The truth is that it was the first report on manifestations of antisemitism in the EU compiled by researchers at the Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung (Centre for Research on Antisemitism) at the Berlin Technical University, completed in 2002 but never published by the EUMC, which led to the framing of the ‘working definition’. It was the Board of the EUMC that took the decision not to publish and a huge controversy erupted when the whole affair became public.

The official reason given by the Centre was that the methodology was flawed and its findings deemed to be biased. But it’s widely believed that the real reasons for the suppression of the report were somewhat different. Some members of the Board were unhappy that hostility to Israel was included and that the report laid the blame for much of the post-2000 upsurge in antisemitic incidents in Europe on young Muslims and pro-Palestinian perpetrators. Jewish members of the Board linked to the European Jewish Congress based in Paris were angry and leaked the report to the press, complaining that appeasement of Europe’s large Muslim population was behind the decision not to publish. The resulting bad publicity severely embarrassed the EUMC and its director, Beate Winkler, damaged its reputation and left Winkler in a state of depression.

Enter the American Jewish Committee in the form of its Director of International Affairs, Rabbi Andy Baker, who had been active in Europe for many years, making and maintaining connections with Jewish communities, Jewish leaders, national politicians, EU politicians and the Council of Europe, and taking a special interest in antisemitism. Baker knew Winkler and met with her in the aftermath of the controversy. He saw that she was weighed down by the criticism levelled at her and the EUMC and that she had no plan as to how to restore the organization’s reputation.

Baker’s diagnosis was that the problem arose because the EUMC had no definition of antisemitism that would satisfy Jewish leaders, activists and researchers and he proposed to Winkler that she move quickly to convene a meeting of such people from Jewish circles to draft such a definition. Baker was clear in his own mind that the essential element in such a definition would be singling out certain forms of criticism of Israel and Zionism as antisemitic. I doubt whether he told this to Winkler, who was persuaded of the value of the course of action Baker had proposed. But he knew that those invited to the meeting would need to be broadly sympathetic to the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’ and since Winkler was not well-versed in the names of people working in the area of antisemitism research, he was able to determine who attended.

I believe the initial meeting took place in summer 2003. In fact I got wind of it – and this was long before I learned the details I’ve just recounted, details told to me directly and triumphantly by Andy Baker in, if memory serves, 2005 – at the time from Pascale Charhon, who was then running CEJI (Centre Européen Juif d’Information), a Brussels-based body linked to the Anti-Defamation League. I believe that Charhon had been consulted by Baker on who to invite though was not privy to Baker’s particular agenda. She sounded me out as to whether I could attend an EUMC discussion on antisemitism, which was due to take place within a week or two. I said I would try to come (I was on vacation abroad at the time). But Andy Baker knew about my opposition to the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’ so, not suprisingly, I never received an invitation.

At this point, my story meshes with Richard Kuper’s account in his openDemocracy article, when he describes the meetings that then took place, from which those who were not sympathetic to the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis were excluded and at which the AJC itself, in the form of Kenneth Stern, the organization’s principal expert on antisemitism, took the leading role. I understand that a draft of the ‘working definition’ was circulated more widely before it was finally released and it may have been as a result of feedback then received that the formulations of Stern and his colleagues, which contained no qualifiers – so that, for example, ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’ would always be antisemitic – were altered to read ‘could’ be antisemitic, ‘taking into account the overall context’.

Andy Baker’s ‘personal’ initiative – but one that was fully in tune with the AJC’s increasingly hard-line, pro-Israel agenda, its aim to be a major player in Europe, influencing European action on antisemitism and appearing to command a leading ‘advisory’ role on the European Jewish stage in order to appeal to its domestic American Jewish constituency from whom the organization raises the many millions of dollars required to keep it afloat – has proved remarkably effective. I doubt very much whether he expected what he proposed to Beate Winkler as a fix for the EUMC and a feather in the cap of his organization to achieve the iconic status it now occupies.

But the truth is that, given the genesis of the ‘working definition’, which in my view was a scandal, the fulminations of the Jewish establishment, the CST, Engage, John Mann MP, the World Union of Jewish Students etc. over the UCU vote are farcical. Certainly, the UCU activists who pressed for the adoption of Motion 70 are not angelic philosophical types approaching this issue with nothing but defence of the purity of academic research in mind. They have a political agenda in relation to Israel-Palestine and they’re fighting for it and their tactics are not pretty. It’s not an agenda I share, but as Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent a few years in the UK combating proposals to institute a boycott of Israeli academic, concluded, it’s a political fight that needs to be fought with political arguments, not with accusations of antisemitism.

The critics of the UCU decision don’t seem to understand this. They think nothing of accusing Jews who see things differently from them of being antisemitic. At one moment they tell us the ‘working definition’ is ‘the EU definition’ (which it isn’t and it never was). The next moment they tell us it’s only advisory and is a work in progress. They manipulate the findings of the report of the Macpherson inquiry into the killing of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence and falsely claim it decreed that only members of the group who experience racism can define what that racism consists of – so that anyone who denies Jews exclusive rights to define what is and what is not antisemitism – i.e. the UCU – is antisemitic.

If only the UCU vote did indeed signal the demise of the EUMC ‘working definition’. It would open up far more possibilities for rational discussion about the nature and danger of antisemitism today, discussion that would not be rendered moot by those who are determined to politicise the subject. But I’m not holding my breath.

Categories: Antisemitism
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.