Anti-Jewish hostility provoked by the Gaza offensive: Is antisemitism the right word for it?

With his permission, I am publishing on my blog a Facebook post by Dr Steven Beller, an independent scholar based in Washington DC, which presents an alternative analysis of the anti-Jewish hostility currently being experienced in Europe as a result of Israel’s offensive against Gaza. Dr Beller was a visiting scholar at George Washington University and a Research Fellow at Peterhouse College Cambridge. He is the author of major books on Austrian and Jewish history and also an expert on the history of antisemitism. He authored Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press (2007). The post was written in response to a New York Times article, which appeared on 2 August, entitled ‘Antisemitism rises in Europe amid Israel-Gaza conflict’. All antisemitism is unacceptable, but Dr Beller questions whether it’s the right term for the hostility in Europe to Israel and Jews. It’s important to hear this view because at times like this, various commentators fail to understand the context in which this hostility appears and are therefore liable to spread hysteria and paranoia. Particularly unfortunate is the fact that we are seeing the recycling of an article written by Howard Jacobson in February 2009 about responses to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a piece that generates far more heat than light. Comments on Dr Beller’s post are welcome.

I am not sure ‘antisemitism’ is the right term any more for the hostility in Europe to Israel and the Jewish communities in Europe, which, on the evidence of this article, appears now to be mainly coming from young Muslim immigrants in Europe. If the leadership of those Jewish communities adopt an approach of complete solidarity with the aggressive foreign policy of Israel, as a sovereign state separate from the countries in which those Jewish communities live, then this is an externalized relationship of conflict, unlike the historically internalized relationship of conflict.

When political antisemitism was at its height, from c.1870 to 1945, there was no sovereign Jewish state to hate. All hostility to Jews was internal or against a spectral ‘Jewish conspiracy’ whether of the ‘Judaeo-Bolsheviks’ or the ‘Elders of Zion’. Zionism, ironically, was supposed to solve this hostility by making Jews whole human-beings in their own state. Now we have that state, Israel, which Zionists wish us to think of as the ‘Jewish state’, the political expression of the Jewish nation’s/people’s right to self-determination (so a complete identification in Zionism between the state of Israel and the Jewish people).

When some critics of Israel conflate their target of hostility with the Jewish communities in the various countries, they are only doing what Israel and its Zionist supporters have said they should do -saying that you are in complete solidarity with Israel means that you share responsibility for Israel’s moral decisions and actions. So blaming Jews along with Israel for what Israel is doing is just like blaming American people abroad for what Americans are doing. (Israel does not see Jewishness as a religious category, but as a national one.) This might be a little unfair, but it is not racist, and has a certain logic to it (if you accept the idea of national collective responsibility, which most of us do, at some level.) I cannot see how that, per se, can be classified as ‘antisemitism’ (as it is in this myopic article), which has much worse, racist, paranoid and irrationalist, connotations, and the whole moral burden of the Holocaust.

Calling this hostility to current Israeli policies (which in any other context would be viewed as extreme nationalism), and towards the Jewish communities who are usually explicitly, and almost always implicitly, supporting these policies, ‘antisemitism’, or even the relatively recent ‘new antisemitism’ appears to me a deliberate attempt by Israel and its supporters to obfuscate the actual political and moral situation, and to smear Israel’s opponents with the guilt of the Holocaust. Let us call these protests ‘anti-Israeli’, ‘anti-Zionist’, or even, at a stretch, ‘anti-Jewish’, but I do not think they have the same causation as historic antisemitism, and it is misleading to continue dragging this term in here.

Even when historical antisemitic tropes are used by Arab and Muslim opponents of Israel and the supporters of its policies, the core reason for them doing this (to bolster their arguments) appears to me to be Israel and its anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, policies. If there is a rise in anti-Jewish hostility, and anti-Jewish attacks, in modern-day Europe, the main provoker of this hostility is what Israel does, either in expanding settlements, bombarding Palestinian civilians, or making deliberately excessive demands on a relatively moderate Fatah Palestinian leadership in peace talks. The existence of Hamas, and its defiance in letting missiles be lobbed into Israel is a tragic development (brought about partly by Israeli attempts to undermine Fatah), but the answer is not more violence that jeopardizes the position of Jews all over the world, but rather a genuine attempt to make sustainable peace. If Israel continues its attitude of defiance of international legal norms and of the wishes of the international community as regards settlements, then this is almost inviting a real resurgence of a form of historical antisemitism, together with, ironically, a xenophobia exacerbated by Islamophobia.

By the way, is it not ironic that one of the ‘experts’ avers that ‘violence always starts in the mind’. So where, one might ask, did the violence being visited on civilians in Gaza come from? Could it be Jewish nationalist (Zionist) prejudice and hatred against Palestinians? For simply refusing to go away?

Steven Beller


Posted in Europe | 18 Comments

Another faulty, pseudo-academic antisemitism initiative

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.

Posted in Antisemitism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

The abuse of dissenting Jews is shameful

If you missed my op-ed – which was a kind of trailer for my just-published book – in the Guardian on Tuesday 21 August, here it is below. Judging by the over the top reaction from Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Leadership Council on Twitter and Alan Johnson of BICOM on the Cif thread, I must have hit a raw nerve.

Is the US state department’s decision to label extremist settler violence as ‘terrorist‘ going to make the Israeli government more likely to enforce the law to protect Palestinians? Those diaspora Jews already critical of Israel’s trajectory will surely doubt it. But is the Israeli government really bothered by the doubts of Jewish critics abroad?

The fact is that Jewish diaspora support is vital for Israel, whose governments have taken that support for granted for decades, exploiting it to bolster the country’s international position. But they also treat Jewish communities as subservient to Israel by claiming to speak and act on behalf of Jews everywhere. Were that support to weaken dramatically and Jewish diaspora critics of the Netanyahu government’s policies become dominant, Israeli officials privately acknowledge that the state would face an unprecedented crisis.

While this outcome is far from realization, fear that growing Jewish criticism could seriously challenge Israel’s assumption of Jewish solidarity is a principal reason why the country is devoting resources to strengthen Jewish support, in close collaboration with Jewish communal leaders and pro-Israel advocacy groups worldwide.

One method of achieving this is to make it harder for Jews to criticize by accusing them of disloyalty, succumbing to ‘Jewish self-hatred’, and being ‘fellow travellers’ of antisemites – spurious and groundless charges. Jewish critics with radical ideas for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – particularly those who stress there is a Jewish moral obligation to support Palestinian rights and that this is in Israel’s own interests if it wants to be a genuinely democratic state – are subjected to a process of vilification, demonization and marginalization. Since such Jews often describe themselves as being outside the organized Jewish community, ostracising them has been effective.

The Jewish establishment in the UK – which includes the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, the Zionist Federation and numerous private groupings of the great and the good – is highly experienced at this. I saw it happen in the 1980s when communal leaders sought to make life impossible for the small but highly active radical Jewish Socialists’ Group. And I became a target for such treatment myself when I was appointed head of the influential Jewish Policy Research (JPR) thinktank for a second time in 2005, an experience I recall in my book The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist.

By then I had served the community professionally for 26 years. A Zionist for decades, I was one no longer. But I wished passionately that Israel would become a democratic state for all its citizens, end the occupation, recognise the Palestinians’ right of return, and acknowledge that Israel’s establishment in 1948 was a Nakba, a catastrophe, for the Palestinians. I had no intention of using JPR as a platform for advocating these views but rather made one of my principal aims creating space for Jewish critical thinking and debate about how Jews should relate to Israel, to its policies towards Palestinians and to the serious impact of its actions on European Jews. I believed that only through open and civil discussion of these issues could the necessary change in diaspora Jewish opinion occur.

But those who thought my views were beyond the pale had other plans for me. As head of one of the community’s major institutions, I represented far more of a danger than so-called marginal Jews. Brazen efforts were made to prevent my appointment, and then, once hired, to force me out. Prominent public figures staged high-profile resignations from JPR’s board. Communal leaders secretly sought to silence me and undermine JPR’s work. After three years, I concluded it was impossible to carry out my responsibilities effectively, and at the end of 2008 resigned.

In the four years since then, has anything changed? Is it any easier for critics to find a receptive communal audience? There are reasons to think it should be. A 2010 survey of Jewish opinion in the UK revealed that while 72% described themselves as Zionists, 74% opposed settlement expansion and 35% said Jews should always feel free to voice public criticism of Israel. New ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ groups that support a two-state solution and an end to occupation have emerged. Even one of British Jewry’s most senior leaders – Mick Davis, chair of Britain’s largest pro-Israel charity and CEO of the mining conglomerate Xstrata– criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, questioned some of Israel’s policies and called for criticism to be voiced freely throughout the community.

But even as opportunities for expressing dissent appear to have grown, rightwing Zionists staged a media-savvy fightback, using the usual accusations of disloyalty and ‘giving succour to our enemies’, especially targeting liberal Zionist Jewish critics. The latest charge is ‘”Jew-washing“, Jews using their Jewishness to give token cover for [boycotting Israel] and even antisemitism’ – a calumny, itself redolent of antisemitism, promoted by the Israel-based, rightwing NGO Monitor. Spearheading this crusade is an assortment of columnists, bloggers and thinktankers of an aggressive and apocalyptic mindset who smear their targets to the edge of actionable defamation. Even Mick Davis was attacked and has since been tellingly silent. Many leading Jewish communal professionals I know have grave doubts about Israel’s direction but censor themselves for fear of losing their jobs, funding or establishment support.

Yet attacks on Jewish critics are becoming desperate, for obvious reasons. Even many liberal Zionists are demonstrating their support for a ‘selective’ boycott, aimed at shunning everything to do with the Jewish settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories. So, too, are some prominent Israelis, including Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset, a well-known and influential figure among diaspora Jews, who publicly announced his position in an Independent op-ed. Many young British Jews are exposed to the reality of life in the occupied West Bank through visits and contact with Israeli human rights groups. While a just Palestine-Israel peace has never seemed more distant, the tectonic plates of Jewish diaspora awareness of Israel’s self-destructive path are definitely shifting.

That dissenting Jews are still demonized is shameful and undermines Jewish pluralism. But it’s manageable. Because the Jewish diaspora’s support matters so much to Israel’s leaders, the quest for serious, open and civil debate among Jews about what is really best for Israel must continue.

Posted in British Jews, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

Gunter Grass, antisemitism and the inflation of evil

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.

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Now Ken has apologised to London’s Jews, was Freedland right to say ‘I won’t vote for him’?

A day or two after Jonathan Freedland wrote an op-ed published in the Guardian announcing that he could not vote for Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, because ‘he doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’, I started to write a blogpost taking issue with Jonathan’s argument and conclusion. Unable to complete it immediately because of other commitments, I sat down yesterday afternoon (Thursday 29 March) to finish it and discovered that Ken had written a long-ish conciliatory article for the Jewish Chronicle in which he effectively apologised to the Jewish community for hurt he had caused – actually using the words ‘humility’, ‘sorry’ and ‘regret’. He paid tribute to the Jewish contribution to London, pledged to work better with Jewish Londoners, not to promote one faith or community over another, promote interfaith and inter-community dialogue, in which, he acknowledged, Jewish-led organisations have taken a lead.

The tone of the piece was remarkably contrite. But especially surprising were his remarks about Israel and Jewish peoplehood. He stressed that he does see Jews as a people, that he opposed the academic boycott of Israel, visited Israel because it’s democratic and supports a two state solution, with ‘strong economic ties to make both states economically successful and committed to lasting peace’.

It’s quite clear that a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to bring about a rapprochment between Ken and London’s Jews following the disastrous ‘Chatham House’-style dinner on 1 March at the London Jewish Cultural Centre between Ken and some prominent members of the Jewish community who were Labour supporters. This event was supposed to draw a line under the past and lay the ground for a new beginning. But it seems that Ken signally failed to enter into the future-looking spirit of the gathering. According to a leaked letter written to Ed Miliband by some of the attendees, Livingstone suggested that ‘as the Jewish community is rich, [it] simply wouldn’t vote for him’. He also made other remarks which, it’s claimed, amounted to negative stereotyping of Jews.

I am sure that many people will be unconvinced by Ken’s sudden need to say sorry and will say that it’s narrow electoral calculation making him do it (and that he has had his arm twisted by Labour Party Central). You can find just such a view on Harry’s Place. Perhaps. But even the sceptical Martin Bright, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, seems to regard this as a significant and highly unusual step, for which Livingstone himself has taken responsibility:

ultimately the decision to eat humble pie lay with Ken Livingstone himself, and though the Jewish community will never take him to their heart, some may at least give him credit for admitting he was wrong.

I don’t think it ever had to get to this point. Whatever Ken did to alienate Jews was compounded by the ill-judged and immature response of the Board of Deputies of British Jews under the presidency of Henry Grunwald in 2005. Grunwald made a strategic error in ratcheting up the confrontation with Ken, egged on by various hotheads. Although I am not in any way party to what has been happening over the last few weeks between Ken and the Jews, I suspect that had the methods that were applied to produce the current outcome been deployed five or six years ago, the likelihood of any further ‘Ken and the Jews’-type dramas would have been minimised.

Whether Ken’s apology will sway Labour-supporting Jews who were preparing to follow some other course of action or inaction rather than vote for Ken remains to be seen. Which brings me back to the original starting point for this blogpost: Jonathan Freedland’s op-ed, which I suppose remains as relevant as it was last week, because those who sympathised with Jonathan’s view may well be thinking of his piece again in the light of Ken’s JC article. I therefore continue below with my original draft post, with some additions in the light of the most recent developments:

*   *   *

I think Jonathan Freedland is wrong to conclude that because Ken Livingstone ‘doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’, he ‘can’t vote for Ken’ as London’s mayor.

I’m not saying this because I believe Jonathan is wrong to make Ken’s impact on his Jewish sensibility the touchstone for his electoral judgement. He’s perfectly entitled to assess Ken’s suitability as mayor from a Jewish perspective if he wishes. But it is important to understand that he is not just expressing a personal preference based on his appraisal of Ken’s attitudes to Jews. He’s saying that it is not in Jewish interests to vote for Ken even if you believe his policies for London are right.

Equally, I am not arguing that Jonathan has reached a wrong conclusion because he is wrong about Ken’s attitude to Jews. As it happens, I don’t agree with Jonathan on this. Yes, Ken has caused offence. Yes, he may ‘show Jews a “hard heart”‘. But to say that Ken ‘doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’ is a very harsh and sweeping statement and I don’t believe it’s proven by the examples recalled in Jonathan’s article. Nonetheless, whether he is right on this or not, it doesn’t effect my argument. My disagreement with him is about what should be the right response by Jews to a candidate deemed to be unsympathetic to them.

But is there any point in arguing with Jonathan? After all, his Guardian piece was written as a personal statement, not a call to arms. He’s entitled to his views and one should respect them. Nevertheless, as one of the Guardian‘s principal columnists and an influential figure in the Jewish community, Jonathan must at least be aware that he is in a very strong position to sway Jewish opinion. Furthermore, he is very likely to have an impact on non-Jews who sympathise with his characterisation of Ken’s attitudes to Jews. Jonathan must know this and I would guess that he’d be more than happy if others followed his lead. Jonathan’s article therefore matters. Even more so if the race between Boris and Ken turns out to be very close. So his piece deserves a response.

There are three main reasons why I think Jonathan is mistaken.

First, by not offering any practical political alternative, he leaves Jews in limbo. Is he saying that he won’t vote at all? If the policies of the three candidates were equally bad you could argue that there is some sense in this. But Jonathan firmly believes that Ken’s policies are best for London. This also seems to make it perverse to vote for the Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick. Is he then, in effect, advocating disengaging from the political process? If so, wouldn’t this be politically highly irresponsible?

Second, given that he has decided to prioritise Jewish concerns, what does that mean exactly? If it means that you feel so upset with a candidate, you turn your back on the whole business, this is hardly mature politics. Surely, anyone really bothered about Jewish concerns must take a wider view of what’s good for the Jews. It’s hardly likely that any candidate, however noble and attractive, will have a set of policies or an outlook that in all respects is positive for Jews. A personal compromise is almost always inevitable. Jonathan rejects that, implying that he did it once but can’t do it again. But why not? It’s the stuff of politics and political choice.

Third, and this is my main argument, I think Jonathan is acting in a way that flatly contradicts the manner in which Jews have achieved so much over the last few centuries in terms of attaining emancipation, equal rights etc. If Jews in previous generations had behaved as Jonathan advocates, opting out because a candidate held some views that made them feel uncomfortable, yet the fundamental thrust of that person’s policies would clearly be of advantage to Jews, we’d still be in ghettos. For example, although Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary in the Attlee Labour government that swept to power in 1945, was known to have antisemitic views, as far as I know this did not prevent Jews from supporting Labour in the general election of that year. In the early 1990s, I once had a private conversation with the former Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, and was rather taken aback by some comments he made about Jews that, while not antisemitic, seemed to sail awfully close to constituting anti-Jewish stereotyping. He was a pretty blunt speaker so I imagine that I was not the only person in the Jewish community to have become aware of this. Yet I don’t recall ever hearing any doubts expressed among Jewish leaders and commentators about Callaghan’s attitudes to Jews while he was a senior Labour Party politician in the 1970s.

Of course there are red lines not to be crossed; candidates and parties to be shunned and opposed. Often, it’s not difficult knowing where these red lines are. But there are times when it’s harder to judge. I think it’s fair to say that in some respects for many Jews those times have become harder in recent years because of the part the issue of Israel plays in British politics, which has led to the deeply damaging phenomenon of some Jews, here in the UK but more seriously in France for example, expressing support for far-right, anti-Muslim parties, which say they back Israel because it’s the front line of the battle against Islamism. But for all Ken Livingstone’s dubious embracing of the homophobic Egyptian Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who justified suicide bombing, it seems to me to be a serious misreading of Ken’s politics to place him among the perceived enemies of the Jews.

Frankly, I was rather surprised to see Jonathan travelling so far down the road of identity politics in his Guardian article. I think there is a distinct difference between, on the one hand, being aware of the impact of political policies on Jews and actively campaigning on them, yet remaining universalist in political outlook, and on the other hand, allowing Jewish identity or sensibility to be the principal determining factor in one’s political outlook. (There are very good examples of some American Jewish organizations that successfully achieve the former.) The danger inherent in identity politics has been starkly highlighted by the deeply depressing result of the West Bradford by-election, in which a massive Muslim swing to the maverick George Galloway, who shamelessly pandered to what he perceived to be Muslim interests, wiped out the Labour majority. I can’t believe Jonathan approves of such a development for one second, and yet it seemed to me that his article could easily be read as endorsing this kind of ethnification of politics.

I think there are two lessons that can be drawn from the ‘Ken and the Jews’ drama. The first is that for ethnic and religious minorities that are or have been disadvantaged, the fight for civic equality, political representation, an end to discrimination, and the basic desire just to be treated as equal citizens and not as the ‘other’, never fully comes to an end. The persistent nature of prejudice means that gains achieved can be eroded in certain circumstances, and not necessarily in ways that are overt or deliberate. Nevertheless, Jews today are far less vulnerable to this process than other minority groups, which does not mean that we can afford to be complacent, nor that we should shirk our responsibility for fighting for the rights of other minorities to achieve the same status in British society that Jews now have.

The second lesson is that, as Jews we need to pay far more attention to detoxifying the role that the Israel-Palestine conflict plays in British politics and inter-communal relations. This is fundamentally a matter of first and foremost telling the truth to ourselves about the deeply damaging nature of Israeli government policies and the legally and morally unacceptable manner in which Israel as a state behaves towards the Palestinians both inside pre-1967 Israel and in the occupied territories. This is not something we must do to please or appease anyone else. It’s simply a matter of being true, come what may, to the human rights principles we say we believe in and which have been so central to the positive transformation of the position of Jews in the world since the end of the Second World War.

Posted in British Jews, British politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The one-state solution’s unlikely ‘supporters’: AIPAC and British Jewish leaders

Despite the dire warnings, it seems that civilisation as we know it did not collapse after last weekend’s student conference at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, on Israel/Palestine and the One-State Solution. Who’d have guessed?

US Senator Scott Brown called on Harvard to cancel the conference. It promotes the ‘elimination of the Jewish state’, Abe Foxman, Executive Director of the US Anti-Defamation League, wrote to the President of Harvard. ‘[T]here can never be any legitimate discussion of a concept which, by its very nature, will result in the end of the Jewish character of Israel’, Foxman continued, calling on him to ‘forcefully denounce’ the conference. ‘The one-state idea is a recipe for Israel’s destruction,’ said American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris. ‘The Harvard One-State Conference, promot[es] the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination, . . . a so-called one-state solution is a non-starter, except for those who seek a world without Israel.’

After the event, The Crimson, Harvard’s daily newspaper, reported: ‘Though critics of the conference anticipated the panelists would only present arguments for a one-state solution, attendees emphasized that the conference facilitated discussion and dialogue on varied possibilities.’ One of the conference’s student organisers, Lena K Awaad, said: ‘Many people expected the conference to have one specific idea, but [the panelists] brought forth very different perspectives on a one state solution’. And during some of the events, panelists responded directly to critics accusing them of promoting a one-sided dialogue.

Those who turned their fire on the Harvard Students should have had a different conference in their sights: the annual Washington jamboree of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where the real one-state action was taking place. On the evening of 5 March, Bibi addressed the 13,000 delegates and within the first minute proclaimed ‘Jerusalem – the eternal and united capital of Israel’. Nothing new in that, of course, but the two-state solution as commonly understood includes the designation of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. If Jerusalem is the ‘united capital of Israel’, that leaves no room for it also to be Palestine’s capital. For that to come into being Jerusalem would have to be divided. A Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital would not be acceptable to the Palestinians and therefore, at the very least, the de facto one-state regime that already exists would be perpetuated. Such a scenario would by no means be looked upon with disfavour by AIPAC. As Peter Beinart pointed out

the organization’s 2012 ‘action principles’ . . . which will guide AIPAC’s legislative agenda for 2012 [and] were approved in private session by the body’s National Council the morning that the conference began . . . consist of 12 bullet points, none of which mentions the words ‘Palestinian state’ or ‘two-state solution.’ To the contrary, some are actively hostile to the idea. In point six, for instance, AIPAC pledges to ‘work for the recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.’ But every serious model for a two-state solution—be it the parameters outlined by Bill Clinton in December 2000 or the Geneva Accord struck by former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 2003—envisions the opposite: a capital divided between a Jewish and Palestinian state.

Moreover, when Ameinu, a progressive Jewish group on AIPAC’s National Council, introduced an amendment ‘gesturing modestly’ towards a two-state solution, the proposal was defeated by a voice vote of roughly 300-5.

The hasbaristas, graduates of the Bibi school of Israel advocacy, will no doubt produce all manner of non-denial denials that neither Bibi nor AIPAC reject the two-state solution. But this smoke screen cannot conceal either the reality on the ground, where Israel’s infrastructural grip on the West Bank and East Jerusalem is tightening day-by-day, or the reality on the political level where one-state, repressive and fundamentally discriminatory, is openly advocated by the right-wing and proto-fascist politicians. Only last week, Noam Sheizaf reports, the well-known settler MK Uri Ariel, member of the radical right National Union party, called on Israel to annex the West Bank immediately giving all Palestinians living there the status of residents in Israel, similar to those living in East Jerusalem. In this single state:

Residents have access to social security, health insurance and they can vote in municipal elections. They don’t have the right to vote in national elections or be elected to the Knesset, and they cannot purchase homes on state land. All residents will be able to become Israeli citizens after five years, subject to a test in Hebrew and a loyalty oath.

Sheizaf adds:

Ariel’s ideas are in line with similar thoughts expressed by rightwing hawks recently, among them Moshe Arens, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, former chief of staff for PM Netanyahu Uri Elizur and Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely. All of them spoke on record in favor of a one-state solution in a feature piece I did for Haaretz a couple of years ago.

In light of the above, the fuss made about the Harvard conference looks even more absurd, especially in the context of America’s free speech principles. Even if objectors to the gathering argued that it promoted hate speech, the standard response would be ‘the best way to combat hate speech is more speech’. Be as opposed to one-state ideas as you like, but discuss them into the ground, don’t try to bury them in the ground by overtly or covertly preventing people from discussing them.

AIPAC is a very powerful right-wing, pro-Israel lobby group, but on Israel-related issues it doesn’t always represent the views of the majority of American Jews, who remain determinedly liberal and vote Democrat over Republican by between 3 or 4 to 1. Neither does it represent the attitudes of Israelis on the key issue of the moment: Iran. A recent poll showed that only 19 per cent of Israelis supported an attack on Iran without the support of Washington and 42 per cent said it should attack only if the United States backed the decision. So what, I wonder, did American Jews and most Israelis make of the candidate for the Republican nomination for POTUS, Rick Santorum, when he openly called for war against Iran this a.m. (6 March) in his speech to AIPAC, and the audience went wild with excitement. And then called on his God to bless AIPAC.

Although this is happening across the pond, it should worry us deeply here. Most commentators seem to believe that Obama effectively neutralised Bibi and made it difficult for him to pursue a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally in the coming months, but I’m not so sure. The tenor of Bibi’s speech suggested that he will do all in his power to recover ground and keep the military option in the very centre of the table. He’s probably banking on the fact that Obama will become increasingly preoccupied with his re-election campaign as the weeks pass and may have his hand forced if Israel strikes Iran, for fear of handing a propaganda victory to the Republicans, who will paint him as anti-Israel and weak if he doesn’t back the Israelis with military support.

This is also bad news from the point of view of the fortunes of the British Jewish community. If an Israeli strike becomes more likely it will do nothing for the Jewish population’s sense of security, given the political fallout and the possible increase in risk of terrorist incidents. But what we should be doubly worried and indeed angered about is the support being lent to AIPAC positions by the major establishment organizations of the community. Representing the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews at the AIPAC conference is the JLC’s Executive Director, Jeremy Newmark, who seems to be fully backing the AIPAC ethos if his enthusiastic Tweets are anything to go by. That the two bodies which claim to represent the wider interests of British Jews should be aligning themselves with such a hawkish, anti-Obama administration, pro-settlement, anti-two-state solution Israel lobby group is quite disgraceful. For Brirtish Jewish leaders who at one moment are demonising and lambasting people willing to discuss the merits or otherwise of a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and at another moment are tacitly supporting the repressive, discriminatory one-state idea (now virtually a reality) favoured by AIPAC is thoroughly detrimental to the interests of the British Jewish population.

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‘Like going down Memory Lane’: Brits For Peace Now raises hopes but offers nothing new

The launch of Brits For Peace Now (BFPN) at Portcullis House, London, on 27 February reflected well on its young leadership whose energy and dynamism ensured a good turnout — testament to the continuing desire for a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict among British Jews. Between 150-200 people made the very large reception room look comfortably populated. I had a sense that spirits were lifted by this demonstration of interest in the rebirth of an organization that, in its former guise as British Friends of Peace Now, was in effect defunct. The enthusiasm of the two co-chairs, Dan Arenson and Dan Levene, was infectious. Yossi Mekelberg, the Middle East expert at Chatham House, acknowledged that this was not a propitious time for the peace movement but it was right ‘to lay the groundwork for when the time for peace is right’. The chair of Peace Now Israel, Yariv Oppenheimer, insisted that the two-state solution was the only way of achieving an end to violence and lasting peace. Fighting for this and for Israel’s democracy, now under political attack in the Knesset, were Peace Now’s priorities. The support of BFPN was important for Israel.

But slick PR, a prestigious venue, hopeful words and youthful passion are all very well. The question is, will BFPN make any difference? I certainly couldn’t see anything in the event itself that suggested it will. Unfortunately, to attract 150-200 to a launch of this kind does not mean very much. Especially since I’m sure that a significant proportion were people already involved in other peace groups. I myself saw at least 20-25 friends and acquaintances I knew to be active in at least one other such organization. Providing yet another framework for the same people who are already active is hardly going to change the way the Jewish community thinks.

I suppose that with a young leadership BFPN perhaps might have more luck reaching out to what is indeed a very important constituency: Jews in their 20s and 30s. And they must be given a chance to do this. However, the launch of Yachad, billed as the UK’s J Street, set out to do something very similar, but I have not seen any evidence that they have achieved any kind of breakthrough. Moreover, while I’m all in favour of creative competition in the Jewish community, to have two such similar organizations targeting the same generation seems rather unwise. There is certainly a level of disquiet about Israel’s policies across much of the Jewish community and it should be possible to tap into it to build a broad coalition. But the re-launch of a British Peace Now support group suggests that no one is achieving that aim. One more small and worthy organization is merely added to the existing list.

The heartfelt words of Mekelberg and Oppenheimer also did little to suggest BFPN is offering anything new. Mekelberg tried to strike an optimistic note, but it was telling that his most memorable line was that being at the launch was ‘like going down Memory Lane’. Peace Now was founded in the late 1970s, long before the Oslo Accords. To carry the word ‘Now’ in the name of an organization for more than 30 years must raise questions about what it can ever do to help reach a resolution of the conflict. Don’t get me wrong, Peace Now does some very important work, first in monitoring settlement activity and seeking to combat the proliferation of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and second in combating anti-democratic trends in Israeli society. But it’s losing the battle on both of these fronts.

Oppenheimer laid great stress on the two-state solution, as did Mekelberg, as if it were the only sure fire way of reaching a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict. But their failure to acknowledge that the actual possibility of achieving such an outcome is now virtually non-existent, given the entrenchment of Israeli power and control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, showed a depressing failure to face up to the truth. A creeping, repressive, undemocratic one-state reality is being constructed by the Netanyahu government. If Peace Now in Israel and BFPN don’t face up to this fact and address it, they will remain marginal to whatever’s coming down the pike.

It’s understandable that the director of Peace Now in Israel should want to garner as much support from diaspora Jews as possible. It needs financial and moral assistance. But whether another UK branch of an Israeli organization is what British Jews need as a vehicle for expressing their views on the Israel-Palestine conflict is very doubtful. BFPN aims to educate Jews and non-Jews about the dangers of West Bank settlement, publicise the struggle for peace taking place in Israel and lobby the British government to encourage peace negotiations, but being tied to an Israeli organization, there is no guarantee that it will do that with a clear-eyed focus on what is best for British Jews. It says that it’s ‘also in a unique position to combat advocacy of the one-state solution, as well as calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions in British political discourse’. But why it should be so positioned is not clear. And why should it be seen as such a good idea anyway, when the language BFPN uses usually means buying in to the levelling of demonising accusations of antisemitism against people who advocate one-state and BDS?

I still firmly believe that British Jews can help themselves, Israel and the Palestinians by acting independently to make people aware of Israel’s disastrous policies and by taking a hard-headed, human rights-based approach to advocating a peace with justice for Palestinians and Israelis. While I wish the BFPN team well, they have a long way to go before they can confidently prove that this is the role they are fulfilling.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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Muslims and Jews: beyond clichés and mutual demonisation

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

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My book’s done, now back to blogging

Dear Blog: I missed you.

Yes, it’s true. I gave up blogging temporarily while I worked intensively on my book, an exploration of my engagement with Zionism and Israel going back 50 years. Much of the last four or five months has been taken up with editing my original completed manuscript: turning a 207,000-word behemoth into a slim, streamlined, cool-looking 99,000. At the beginning of the process, when someone said ‘It’s like tearing off your own flesh’ I was dismissive. ‘Oh, I’ve been an editor for years and I don’t mind cutting my own writing.’ Well, I eventually made it, but it was bloody painful at times. It reminded me of the conundrum of the flea hopping across a table half-way and then each further hop is half the distance of the one before. How long will it take to get to the other side? It gets closer and closer all the time, tantalisingly so, but will never ever reach its destination. That’s how I felt cutting my ms.

At one point I thought I’d never get there, but I did, and the breakthrough came when I’d reached about 127,000 working on screen, printed out the whole thing and worked on the hard copy. Although it sounds ridiculously mechanical, I started to set myself a target of cutting one-fifth from each page, on average, but the discipline worked–together with the fact that having a better visual sense of its shape seemed to open up more possibilities of what could be omitted.

I finally submitted the completed ms to my publishers, Pluto Press, last week and publication is planned for summer/autumn. There will still be more work to do, but the ship has been launched, as it were, with just the full fitting out to complete before the passengers can see inside. I won’t reveal the title here until Pluto’s July-December catalogue appears.

So, while I’m not exactly at a loose end, I plan to re-enter the blogging pit in a gradual fashion over the coming weeks. I’ve often wanted to enter the fray in the past months, but knew that I had to stay focused on the book. I plan to comment on matters both small and large, from the exaggeration of the level of antisemitism in Scotland to the Asian-style authoritarianism that has taken hold in Israel; from those terribly aggressive secularists marginalising religion in the UK to the ideological underpinnings of the Cameron Tory Party; from the far right and the slippage of its sanitising makeover to the further decline of the idea and dream of Europe.

But I also intend to explore other ways of expressing my views and, as you’ll understand, using whatever outlets I can to publicise my book. And I’m also hoping to revamp the look of my blog and make it more connected to the wider world of comment and information-providing.

And then there’s just a small matter of the next book . . .

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A Hungarian Jewish novelist meets the challenge of being different in difficult times

Gabor Szanto is a Hungarian novelist, short story writer, poet, translator and cultural entrepreneur whose Jewish identity informs all that he does. A key figure in the revival of Jewish life in Hungary post-1989, Szanto is the founding editor of Szombat (Sabbath), a Jewish political and cultural monthly, a periodical that is as ready to do verbal battle with the country’s less than perfect political establishment as it is to take to task what has often been a very reactionary Jewish establishment. Hungary’s Jewish population numbers between 80-110,000, although only a relatively small percentage is actually engaged in Jewish religious or cultural activity. That Szanto has succeeded in keeping Szombat alive and vibrant over two decades is both a testament to his perseverance and his realistic optimism about the future of Jewish life in Hungary.

The political pendulum has swung back and forth in Hungary since 1989, with social democrats vying with right-wing nationalists for ascendancy. The current rightist government of Viktor Orban is particularly illiberal, anti-democratic and unfriendly towards all minority groups in Hungary. Anti-Jewish innuendo is apparent once again in the public space, just as it was after 1989 when Istvan Csurka’s Magyar nationalist party, MIEP, was gaining popularity and feeding fears that antisemitism would become an influential factor in Hungarian national politics. Today it’s the far-right Jobbik party that leads the way in smearing Jews. And Orban’s Fidesz party has done nothing to distance itself from this. Rather it co-opted Jobbik-type rhetoric so that it could appeal to growing far-right opinion in Hungary.

In spite of these developments, Szanto continues in his quest to carve out a space for Jewish culture and thinking in mainstream Hungarian society. He explained something about the conditions in which Jewish life operates in an interview he gave to a Hungarian website based in Canada in 2008. Here are a couple of excerpts from it:

Interviewer: Since the collapse of the so called ‘socialist’ regime in 1989, anti-Semitism has surfaced and is more and more apparent in Hungary. Unlike Germany the Holocaust here is not regarded as a national trauma. If I may make a point: Hungary is almost unique in the world in that it simultaneously tolerates (or permits) open anti-Semitism and a blossoming Jewish culture. Isn’t that very bizarre? Isn’t that, using Nietzsche’s expression, ‘living dangerously’?

Gabor Szanto: Some say the anti-Semitism had a huge impact on the Jewish ethnic revival. . . But more seriously, there definitely is antisemitism, and it is tolerated in the media of the political right. It is trendy among youngsters to be on the radical right. It is a kind of rebellion against the mainstream. Jewish and Hungarian coexistence in the past 100 years has been analyzed in several of my essays. People in Hungary are not conscious enough about the historical past, including the Shoah. One of Hungary’s major neuroses derives from the two World Wars: the loss of two-thirds of the territory of the country after World War I. Hungarian identity is also very fragile. There is a minority complex, a constant fear that the nation will disappear . . . On the other hand, Jews also have a fear of the ‘Other’, because of the traumas of the Shoah and because of the fragile Jewish identity. People with fragile or no identities, desperately need the ‘Other’ to create an enemy to be afraid of. By comparing themselves to this ‘Other’, they can try to recreate their own identity on the remnants of their ‘original’ identity.

I: Do you see any future for Jewish youth in Hungary?

GS: After the Shoah European Jewish life can never be the same as before. After the Communism it is also very difficult to start Jewish life. But each generation brings about people who take up the intellectual challenge of individual thinking, of being different, even in spite of difficulties.

You can read the full interview here.

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