Yale Announces New Program for the Study of Antisemitism to Replace Discredited YIISA

The Yale Provost, Peter Salovey, wrote to friends of the university on 20 June announcing the establishment of the Program for the Study of Antisemitism (YPSA), which will replace the axed Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism. He writes in his letter:

I have been gratified to learn that Professor Maurice Samuels and a group of faculty colleagues have expressed interest in the creation of a new scholarly enterprise, the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism (YPSA), and that the Whitney Humanities Center has agreed to sponsor it. Professor Samuels, who will convene YPSA, has written an award-winning book on Jewish fiction writers in France, and he is currently working on a major study of the portrayal of Jews in French literature and culture from the time of the Revolution through the present. Professor Samuels’s recent courses offered to Yale undergraduates have included ‘Jewish Identity and French Culture’ and ‘Representing the Holocaust.’

Pledging research support for students and faculty wishing to undertake serious work under the aegis of YPSA, the Provost continues:

YPSA will encourage serious scholarly discourse and collaborative research focused on antisemitism, one of the world’s oldest and most enduring prejudices, in all its forms. YPSA will be open to the entire Yale community.

I am hopeful that this program will produce major scholarship on the vitally important subject of antisemitism.

When the axing of YIISA was announced, after Yale’s faculty review committee concluded that its research and publications were not of sufficiently high quality, the Yale authorities indicated at the time that they would find some other means to continue serious research on antisemitism at the university. In the stampede to condemn Yale, its critics either ignored this message or dismissed it. Now that it looks certain that a new venture, headed by a Yale faculty member with excellent scholarly credentials, is to be set up, I wonder whether those who wildly accused Yale of all manner of nefarious reasons for closing YIISA will now withdraw their accusations and apologise? I’d advise Yale not to hold its breath.

Before giving unreserved credit to Yale, we do need to see exactly how the new operation will operate, what its research agenda will be, how it will be decided who is to be invited to give seminar papers and so on. But the initial indications are positive.

Nevertheless, the entire episode has sharply dramatised the degree to which contemporary antisemitism studies have been hi-jacked by people who put their political opinions and projects above the demands of objective scholarship. When the distinguished Holocaust historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt acknowledged that the work of YIISA had been infected by this tendency and wrote about it in an article for the Forward newspaper, the cries of pain and anger from those in denial of this truth, expressed in the form of disgusting, insulting and contemptible comments on her piece, were deafening.

What has transpired could present an opportunity for a thorough transformation: away from politically-driven pseudo-research to a much greater emphasis on and prevalence of dispassionate work in this area. But as Dr Jonathan Judaken commented on my original post on the YIISA closure, things are likely to get worse before they get better because

as the blog indicates, ‘Context is everything.’ And the context is on quicksand and the next couple of years in the Arab-Israeli conflict are going to be difficult and may be some of the most tragic yet. More than anything it is this context and comparative and historically sensitive frameworks that is missing from both sides in this rhetorical warfare.

Still, there are some encouraging signs that some sanity is returning to research on current antisemitism, strengthening the hand of the many scholars who have held fast to high standards. It would be to everyone’s benefit if that sanity ultimately prevails.

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Acting responsibly as a trustee is what counts, not your views on Hamas – response to Martin Bright

This piece is cross-posted from the Independent Jewish Voices website where it was published yesterday. Here’s the backkground: Martin Bright, the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, originally attacked two organizations, Forward Thinking and CitizensUK/London Citizens, which develop dialogue with faith communities, for associating with people who allegedly support Islamist terrorism.  I responded on IJV (cross-posting to my blog) arguing that it would be wrong to stop engaging with such people. We may not like their views, but you have to talk to your enemies. Martin responded on his Spectator blog on 11 June accusing IJV of turning a ‘blind eye’ to the danger these people represent. I answered Martin’s arguments in the post below:

Martin Bright’s response to my post on his and the Jewish Chronicle’s witch-hunt of London Citizens is wholly inadequate, fails to engage with the arguments I presented and is frankly rather patronizing. In her post, Miri Weingarten presented a completely unvarnished picture of Hamas and then set out a perfectly realistic proposal, although undoubtedly difficult to achieve, that acknowledges the necessity of upholding Hamas’s legitimacy as a political entity, but outlines ways of helping the people of Gaza move to a position whereby they will choose a government that respects human rights. She’s certainly not advocating making ‘common cause’ with Hamas, nor was such an argument advanced in my original post. To then flippantly write ‘[I] look forward to the first Jewish left-wing woman to serve in a Hamas-led government’ shows he really never took Miri’s argument seriously.

The problem with Martin’s argument is that he seems not to understand that it’s sometimes necessary to dialogue and work with people, some of whose views one rejects or even abhors, in order to achieve peace, justice, the inculcation of international human rights. This is what happened in South Africa, Northern Ireland and other conflict zones. And it’s what some highly respected figures from the political, military and security establishments in Israel advocate in relation to Hamas: Israel must talk to the Islamists, they say. (It’s also what was advocated in an open letter in Der Spiegel from 24 former heads of government, foreign ministers and peace negotiators, including former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami.) That’s not making common cause with Hamas in the sense of helping Hamas achieve an aim that is inimical to human rights principles. And when push comes to shove, I think I’d rather rely on the judgement of Israelis I know who have the best interests of Israel at heart than on the judgement of someone who can’t seem to seem to understand that accepting that a person who expresses support for Hamas can legitimately work for a charity helping London’s citizens does not mean that you sign up to the antisemitic articles in Hamas’s charter.

I used to run a large charitable grant-making foundation and am now a trustee of a relatively small one, so I know all about the responsibilities of trustees and have had a lot of experience working with them. What’s fundamentally important is that trustees fulfil their duties responsibly, doing due diligence, acting fairly and honestly, owning up to conflicts of interest, acting ethically in relation to the charity’s aims. On more than one occasion I realised that a trustee held prejudiced views of a minority group. Much as I abhorred the person’s views, it was clear that they were not influencing the decisions made by the charity so I was ready to live with the situation. This seems to me to be the fundamental test to be applied to someone like Junaid Ahmed. As long as his views of Hamas do not prejudice the decisions he is part of making for London Citizens then he should be allowed to get on with his job.

As for possibly ‘turning a blind eye to the concerns raised by End Child Detention Now about [Citizens UK’s] peculiar partnership with the UK Border Agency’, this is not only a red herring but it insultingly implies that tolerating someone in their role of trustee of a charity who has expressed support for Hamas goes hand in hand with denying the human rights of children. I—and I’m sure other members of the IJV Steering Group would agree with me—deplore utterly the incarceration of the children of asylum-seekers and if Citizens UK is doing anything to aid and abet their unfair detention, I would condemn them. (We’re planning to post on this specific issue in due course.) But Martin’s JC report on the issue is singularly opaque and never explains precisely what Citizens UK is doing wrong. Even assuming that they are denying the human rights of children, this is a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of all the trustees and they all need to be held accountable, and has nothing directly to do with the views of Junaid Ahmed.

Martin tweeted me asking that I not use the term ‘witch-hunt’ because ‘it doesn’t help the debate’. Well, it helped elicit a response from him, so it served a purpose. But more importantly he might ponder rather on the intensely partisan politics that his newspaper now stands for, the rhetoric used in the paper to promote those politics and his own role in using language that contributes to the paper’s ‘shrill’ tone. To me, his use of such accusatory phrases as ‘darlings of the political class’, giving London Citizens ‘a free pass’, ‘make common cause with religious authoritarians’ represents a rhetoric far more worrying than my use of the term ‘witch-hunt’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Lipstadt is right on both counts.

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

Posted in Antisemitism | 3 Comments

A Damp Squib?: Doubts About the New UK ‘Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace’ Movement

Yachad, a new ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ movement, inspired by the American J Street liberal, political lobby group, was launched in the UK in April. Much heralded and anticipated, since its website went live, little has been heard from it. Is Yachad a damp squib?

To answer this, it’s important to understand the context out of which Yachad emerged.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that over the last 15 years Jewish opinion in the UK has become increasingly critical of policies pursued by Israeli governments. So what? Well, at 300-330,000, however small is the UK Jewish population, its backing for Israel, as one component of Diaspora Jewry’s worldwide support, is seen as very important by the Israeli leadership. On the one hand, should Jews in the UK en masse do the unthinkable and formally dissociate themselves from Israel’s policies, I can imagine that a Netanyahu government would, in public, shrug it off and find excuses to explain it. On the other hand, I’m sure that, in private, they would be appalled and very worried since Israel exploits Diaspora Jewish support to provide legitimacy for its actions and as a crucial cushion bolstering its deteriorating international position. Practically every Israeli government has treated Diaspora Jewry as an extension of its domestic constituency, coopting it, speaking on its behalf, as Netanyahu did recently, especially at times of great political difficulty, as a way of exporting its internal crisis.

Potentially, therefore, if critical Jewish opinion could be mobilised on a large scale, it could have a serious impact on Israeli strategic thinking and policy-making and bring much closer the conclusion of a just peace with the Palestinians. But the big question is: Can critical opinion be mobilised on such a scale? I have endeavoured to be optimistic about this possibility. When the American J Street liberal lobby group was formed in 2008, proclaiming itself ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ and setting out to challenge the hegemony of AIPAC, I welcomed it and hoped something similar could be set up in the UK. Late in 2009, I acknowledged that no one had yet ‘discovered the formula for turning dissent and deepening disquiet among many Jews, not just in America but worldwide, into an effective political force’, but remained hopeful that encouraging such a development would bear fruit. Then, in July 2010, the results of an online poll of British Jews’ opinions on Israel, conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) with advice from Ipsos MORI, revealed ‘signs of considerable disquiet’. In a Prospect magazine web exclusive I wrote:

It’s true that British Jews also feel a continuing close attachment to Israel—most of the respondents said that Jews have a special responsibility for its survival— . . . But when the majority of respondents (67 per cent) also see Israeli politics as corrupt, and three quarters think that orthodox Judaism has too much influence in Israeli society, British Jews are sending a strong signal to Israel’s government.

The poll also revealed that over half of British Jews feel that they have the right to judge Israel and over a third say that ‘if Jewish people consider criticism of Israel to be justified, they should always feel free to say so in the British media.’ In the winter 2010-11 Jewish Socialist magazine I wrote: ‘A broader, more assertive Jewish coalition can surely speak out to the UK. Only a bold and imaginative leadership is required to mobilise it.’

I wrote this last comment, the Jewish Socialist article as a whole, as well as the previous two pieces for Prospect and the Guardian‘s Comment is Free, aware that there was much talk going on about setting up either a European J Street-type group or a UK one. Although I personally did not feel that J Street’s positions on Israel-Palestine went far enough, I recognised that it was an important development and should be supported. So in the same vein, I felt that an equivalent British organization, appealing to the Jews in the UK who feel close to Israel but also feel a deep sense of disquiet, could make a major impact both within the British Jewish community but also in the wider society, among opinion formers, policy-makers and politicians. In my own small way, I wanted to encourage it and argue that it should be a ‘broad church’, like the US J Street, including in its ranks those Jewish critics of Israel whose criticisms of the country have led to their being demonized by the mainstream, establishment organizations of the community and often deemed unfit to be considered as members of the community.

Two months ago, a group taking its inspiration from the US J Street cautiously and in a rather low key fashion edged its way into existence through the launch of its website and a report in the Jewish Chronicle. The group, which describes itself as a ‘movement’, is called Yachad, Hebrew for ‘together’. Yachad, according to its director Hannah Weisfeld, ‘ is about standing together with our community and with Israel – with those who want to see a secure and peaceful Israel flourish’. Like the American J Street, it stands for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the securing of Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state. It expects that the border between the two states would run close to the 1967 lines, ‘subject to minor adjustments through mutually-agreed land swaps, with a Jewish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and an Arab Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.’ It uses the same language as J Street, calling on all those who are ‘pro-Israel and pro-peace’ to join, help build support for the steps that would lead Israel ‘to make peace a reality’, especially since ‘the two-state solution is now in peril’. Significantly, the opening paragraph of Yachad’s statement of core principles, reads:

We are Jews who love Israel, who stand with Israel, whose lives are bound up with Israel. We believe in its right not just to exist, but to flourish. We stand against those who defame it.

Although inspired by J Street, Yachad is significantly different. First, its Hebrew name signifies that its primary focus of attention is the Jewish community. Second, it’s not a political lobbying organization. Rather, it will concentrate on education and advocacy, although what the content of the advocacy will be is not explained. Third, it seems to set a qualification for membership not demanded by J Street by stating ‘We are Jews who love Israel’. So Jews who want it to exist and flourish but would not say that they ‘love’ Israel are presumably unwelcome.

Given that Yachad made a deliberate choice not to launch itself on the real public stage with bells and whistles, as opposed to launching in cyberspace, it may seem unfair to draw attention to the fact that it made very little impact. But, it’s not at all unfair since a number of other web launches have been managed much better and secured extensive media coverage. Moreover, a reservoir of goodwill towards the initiative had been building up. Many people felt that the time was right for the establishment of a UK J Street, especially since Mick Davis, the chairman of the United Jewish Israel Appeal, the UK Jewish community’s largest Israel charity, last autumn publicly criticised Netanyahu’s policies and said that it was only right that British Jews should make their feelings known about the impact Israel’s policies were having on the Jewish community. Even a few short years ago, what Davis did would have been unthinkable. If he could say such things, why not also the ‘silent majority’ of British Jews who feel the same?

Unfortunately, there are too many things about Yachad which suggest that it stands little chance of being the voice of the silent majority. First, take the name. A Hebrew word that even relatively few Jews would understand is hardly likely to help the organization have an impact outside of the Jewish community. Yet to fulfil its aim of helping Israel take steps for peace, Israeli governments are only likely to take notice if they see such an organization commanding widespread support among Jews and having influence outside the Jewish community. With a name like ‘Yachad’, which non-Jews are likely automatically to mispronounce, it’s very doubtful that the movement would ever have such influence.

I suppose that the response to this would be: ‘But Yachad explicitly states that it’s not a political lobby’ (which takes me to my second point). To my mind this is part of the problem: the conflict is a political one. For a group like this, which is focused on achieving a clear political objective, not to engage directly with the forces that make and influence British Middle East policy is a big mistake. Yes, lobbying here is not the same as it is in America. Yet it has become more like America in recent years and there is no doubt that lobbying is an integral part of the British political scene.

Third, J Street, which is focused largely but not exclusively on developing a Jewish constituency, feels no need to require ‘love of Israel’ from its members and supporters. Why is it necessary to ‘love’ Israel to be able to sign up to Yachad’s statement of core principles? If Jews want to express their relationship with Israel using the word ‘love’, then they have every right to do so. But for me, and I know also for many others, love of country has an unconditionality about it that is entirely inappropriate because it too easily licences an unbridled nationalism. It also excludes a whole range of complex relationships that many Jews have with Israel, which may be to do with largely positive or largely negative experiences of the country, or may arise through political or intellectual reconsiderations, renewed engagement with autonomous Diaspora Jewish life and so on, but which do not mean that such Jews do not have Israel’s best interests at heart. Yachad may think that what it’s doing is transcending a traditional left-right political divide, but it’s creating other unnecessary divisions instead.

Fourth, following on directly from ‘love’, it became clear during the discussions that were taking place  prior to the launch that Yachad wanted to distance itself from Jewish Israel-Palestine activists that it regarded as too ‘extreme’. However it wanted to present itself – as young, new, untainted, mainstream, loyal or whatever – there seemed to be no room for veteran activists with years of experience in working for Israel-Palestine reconciliation and peace because someone had deemed them to be beyond the pale. This hardly seems to comply with the wording of Yachad’s core principles which speak of ‘broadening the current conversation about Israel in the Jewish diaspora’. Excluding such people from Yachad rather suggests that instead of striking a blow against the demonization of Jews whose criticisms of Israel are judged to have put them outside of the ‘communal consensus’, the movement is regrettably reinforcing that demonization.

I understand that there was some rethinking of this wrong-headed approach shortly before the web launch and an informal meeting with some long-standing activists took place, but my sense is that it was very half-hearted and that very valuable suggestions put to Yachad’s founders were ignored.

Fifth, I wonder whether there are some internal problems hampering Yachad’s development. For an organization so long on the drawing board, with Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland acting as a key non-executive advisor and Stephen Grabiner, formerly of Sir Ronnie Cohen’s private equity partnership Apax, a key player, the lack of a serious infrastructure – the director, Hannah Weisfeld, is the only paid professional – suggests that substantial funding for operations has not been forthcoming.

There are clearly some very media savvy, intellectually able and youthful people on Yachad’s Board, so perhaps they are confident that they know what they are doing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that at the moment. And there will be serious repercussions if Yachad fails to become the broad movement, tapping into the disquiet that a majority of Jews feel about Israel’s direction, that it has set out to be. Given the upheavals in the Arab world, the seemingly unstoppable further entrenchment of the occupation, the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and the anti-democratic direction being taken by Israel’s polity, there is an urgent need to mobilise British Jewish opinion that is both critical and constructive. Failure to do so at this juncture will leave the peace camp in the UK even more fragmented than ever and the chance to challenge the Jewish establishment’s deleterious position on Israel will have evaporated.

I fear that without a serious rethink of Yachad’s strategy and some major changes in its core principles, it will be the damp squib it needn’t have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

Rabbi Cooper concludes:

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

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

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Posted in Antisemitism, British Jews | 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Antisemitism | 16 Comments

Jewish Chronicle: End the Witch-Hunt

This piece is cross-posted from Independent Jewish Voices

Three weeks ago the Jewish Chronicle published a front page attack on the Pears Foundation for providing funds to Forward Thinking, a charity aiming to build greater understanding ‘between the diverse grassroots Muslim communities and the wider society’ and ‘to promote a more inclusive peace process in the Middle East’. The basis of the attack was that at one of its many meetings, one of the people on the panel had a connection to the 7/7 bombers. No credit was given for the wide ranging work of Forward Thinking in bringing together protagonists – in this country and the Middle East – from different sides, or for the times Israelis have been invited to give their government’s viewpoint.

On 26 May it was the turn of London Citizens to come under attack from the UK’s leading, and longest-established, Jewish periodical. London Citizens is a widely admired community group, which works within London’s different faith communities and has been the main force behind establishing the concept of a Living Wage for the city’s lowest paid workers. The JC‘s criticism was that, during the 2008-9 Gaza conflict, the Deputy Chair of London Citizens, Junaid Ahmed, had spoken in support of the ‘heroes of Palestine’, including figures involved in Hamas.

Both Forward Thinking and London Citizens are respected for the work they do to support some of the most vulnerable communities. The attacks by the JC, if successful, would have the effect of shutting down debate, preventing dialogue between communities and making organizations afraid to work with disaffected Muslims.

We may not like Hamas, either their beliefs or their actions. But the reality is that Hamas are the elected government of Gaza and were seen by many in the Muslim community – in this country and elsewhere – as defending their communities during Operation Cast Lead. Many Israelis (57 per cent according to this poll) see the boycott of Hamas as futile and believe that Israel must talk to Hamas, not because they agree with the organization but because they recognize you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.

The JC would not only not talk to Hamas, it would ostracise any organization which includes any individual who has ever spoken in favour of Hamas. Now some care needs to be taken when considering which organizations to encourage, given that there undoubtedly are extremist elements in the Muslim community. However the route of the JC, of effectively only approving of talking with those who agree with you, is a path towards isolation for the Jewish community. As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg put it in a separate piece by Martin Bright in last week’s JC: ‘The Jewish community will be far weaker if we all shelter within a comfort zone labelled “They all hate us out there”.’

It is time for the JC to put aside its witch-hunt and welcome those groups seeking to engage with the Muslim community and with Palestinians, whether or not we agree with their viewpoint.

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Posted in British Jews, Multiculturalism | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEFINITION OF RACIST INCIDENT

12. That the definition should be:

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

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

The second is a definition of institutional racism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Antisemitism | 4 Comments

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

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

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

The stated reason for this decision?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Antisemitism | 30 Comments

A Millstone Round His Neck: Obama’s Yes to Bibi’s ‘No Negotiations Unless Palestinians Recognize Israel as Jewish State’

I watched live coverage of the press conference given by President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron at Lancaster House on 25 May. Towards the end, a journalist asked Obama an intelligent question about the Middle East speech he made a few days previously. In his answer he spoke of the necessity of there being:

A Jewish state of Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine.

Obama made a specific point of referring to Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ in his Middle East speech, thereby giving legitimacy to the Netanyahu government’s insistence that there will be no peace deal with the Palestinians unless they recognize Israel as the ‘Jewish state’. It seems pretty obvious that Obama used this formulation as a way of reassuring Israel that America has its central existential interests at heart in order then to secure Netanyahu’s agreement to negotiations on the basis of the statement he made in his Middle East speech: ‘The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.’

This quid pro quo fell flat when Netanyahu dismissed the 1967 borders proposal as unworkable because Israel could never be secure if it returned to the Green Line – the ‘Auschwitz borders’ he and other Israeli leaders called them. But the ‘Jewish state’ concession was now a fact. Never mind that, until it was first mooted as a precondition for negotiations under George W. Bush, the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the ‘Jewish state’ had never before figured in any peace negotiations. It was always enough that the Palestinians recognize the existence of the state of Israel, which they did in the framework of the Oslo Accords. By endorsing the recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ as a precondition for peace negotiations, Obama has simply raised the bar for getting such negotiations off the ground.

Many commentators have pointed out the absurdity of introducing this complication into efforts to restart peace talks. For a start, Israel can call itself what it likes, in the same way that East Germany called itself the German Democratic Republic. The West was not obliged to sign a document confirming that East Germany was indeed democratic – they knew perfectly well that it wasn’t – before any diplomatic discussions with the country could take place. Recognition of the East German state was enough. And there are many other good reasons why introducing the ‘Jewish state’ concept into peace discussions is unnecessary.

But hearing Obama distinguish ‘A Jewish state of Israel’ from ‘a sovereign state of Palestine’ suddenly brought home to me in a new and even clearer fashion the absurdity of insisting that the ‘Jewish state’ formulation be accepted by the Palestinians as a precondition for any serious peace talks.

For argument’s sake, what if the Palestinians wanted to do the same? That is, what if they insisted that theirs would be a Muslim state of Palestine and wanted it referred to and recognized as such in these terms in all future peace negotiations, or at least stated that it was a decision of the Palestinian Authority that the future state would be designated thus: the Islamic Republic of Palestine? The argument that such a title would be inappropriate because there would be Christian Palestinians living in this state is invalid given the fact that Israel calls itself a Jewish state even though 20 per cent of the population is not Jewish. On what basis should Palestine be denied when Israel is permitted?

That, however, would not be enough to deter those who objected to Palestine declaring itself an Islamic state. Others would say that experience shows Islamic states cannot be truly democratic – Iran, for example. But again, this would not hold water since Israel, by declaring itself the ‘Jewish state’, prioritises its theocratic over its democratic character.

In reality, the main objection to a ‘Muslim state of Palestine’ would be on the grounds that a Palestine calling itself ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ is likely to reflect Islamist tendencies and therefore would be anathema to the West. Moreover, it’s almost certain that Israel would refuse to negotiate with the PA if the Palestinians’ precondition for talks was Israeli acceptance that the future Palestinian state would be Muslim. It would undoubtedly see this as a further threat to Israel.

Of course, the Palestinians have no intention of declaring Palestine an Islamic state, but working through the implications of what would happen if they did shows just how unfairly the putative state of Palestine is being treated. America raises no such objections when it comes to what Israel wants to call itself, yet the way it treats its Palestinian-Arab citizens and the Palestinians under its ultimate control in the West Bank and Gaza – the former as second class citizens, the latter as undeserving of respect for their human rights – should have made the US administration think far more carefully about the consequences of legitimizing the Israeli government’s demand that the Palestinians be compelled to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The key to solving this conflict is prioritizing the absolute equality of human rights of Palestinians and Israelis, not legitimizing sectarian self-appellations that contain licence to discriminate against others.

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