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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.

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

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

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