Thursday, June 09, 2011

The antisemitism of good intentions, continued

This post is around the UCU rejection of the European Monitoring Centre’s Working Definition of antitsemitism. Engage has lots of great stuff at the moment, including Talking Squid’s great “Are you antisemitic?” flowchart, Simply Jews’ call for action against the new antisemitism in the UK (Francis’ comments below it recommended), and Adam Langleben at Left Foot Forward. On very closely related issues, here's Philip Mendes on the left, antisemitism and anti-Zionism in Australia. Below the fold are extracts from two longer pieces worth your attention.

On anti-Israelism and antisemitism
This piece by Gilbert Ramsay at Bright Green Scotland, reflecting on an incident at St Andrews university, is interesting. Ramsay, whose wife is Palestinian and who does not believe in Israel’s right to exist (at least as a Jewish state), argues that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism in general, whatever Israel’s supporters say – but that does not mean there are no limits to acceptable debate on Israel. At the same time, we need to not see all racism, including all antisemitism, as uniquely evil and beyond the pale, but understand it in context. The piece is long and complex, and you should read all of it, but here is an extract:
what worries me is that, by creating a radical separation between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism we do two things: first, we risk ending up producing categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jews much is the same way as the anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani perceptively describes the production, by the Western media, of categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslim. It is easy enough to say that one does not have anything against Jews as Jews but that one does have a problem with Zionism. But what do we then do when we are confronted with living, breathing Zionists? Realistically, many Jews do in fact support the state of Israel, including its violent actions against Palestinians. Realistically, many people are born into Israeli citizenship. For these people, Israel is their country. And the prospect of its potential dissolution is understandably terrifying. To express to such a person views which (as it happens) I myself hold[...] in a certain kind of way might indeed be tantamount to intimidation.[...] I do think that it is worth considering at what point certain kinds of language directed at people who happen to be Israelis, or people who happen to be Jewish supporters of Israel ought to be considered socially unacceptable. I don’t think that the glib response of ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just anti-Israeli policies’ is necessarily enough.
 [...]while racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular is never ‘excusable’ as such, an understanding of how people come to express such views does, I think, help to move us away from the idea that anyone of any background in any context who can be shown to have some anti-Semitic opinions must on that account be utterly anathametised. 
 My point in the end is, I suppose, a simple one. For all we may talk about the profound inequality of power relations between Israelis and Palestinians, the total unbalance of a media discourse which equally apportions blame, we must still view pro-occupation Israelis as victims of their own circumstances – with understanding and a measure of sympathy. We must recognize (from our own position of relative comfort) that their fears have some justification, and that their present situation is a difficult one – however much of their own making. At the same time, if we are to shift the discourse on Israel-Palestine towards a more genuinely balanced recognition of the enormous underlying injustices which are locked into the present media narrative, we must start to confront the anti-Semitism issue head on, rather than just talking around it.
In striking contrast to the Liberal Conspiracy piece I quote below, the comment thread is of pretty high quality, and I recommend you read most of it too.

Poor research and poor reasoning
The anti-Zionist Ben White has a piece at Liberal Conspiracy on the EUMC Working Definition of antisemitism. White’s anti-Zionism is of the kind that frequently strays into territory that might be considered antisemitic according to the EUMC Working Definition, so I disapprove of LibCon providing him with a platform. Among his many inaccuracies and distortions is a misleading invocation of the Community Safety Trust (CST) as not thinking much of the WD. The CST’s Dave Rich replies and I extract some of his responses, as it relates directly to previous discussions here and as the quality of the comment thread is otherwise so dire that I would not recommend anyone go anywhere near it.
1. Ben White’s research is as poor as his reasoning. The Working Definition is linked to from the CST website and quoted in our guide to combating antisemitism on campus. We use it as it was intended: as a rough guide to antisemitism, a starting for investigation. It is not the sole, definitive definition and was never intended to be: hence all the caveats about context etc. 
I find the horror at the eumc’s consultation with Jewish groups laughable. Is the suggestion that it is wrong for a governmental body to consult with a particular minority when investigating prejudice against them? And if they found contradictory views, I guess they went with those views which carried more weight in that community. The issue with UCU is not so much their rejection of eumc as their rejection of Macpherson. In recent years large numbers of Jewish academics have complained about antisemitic bullying and harassment in the union and have been ignored, ridiculed and persecuted as a result. Many have resigned. You may disagree with their view of what is antisemitism, but this is their perception. The motion on eumc is just an attempt to formalise this, because the Union feels that any worries about antisemitism hamper their ability to campaign against Israel. In reality, eumc does no such thing. NUS use the working definition, but just last month passed a very pro-Palestinian policy. However for people like Ben White, “criticism of Israel” is a euphemism to hide an anything-goes attitude to attacking Israel and its supporters. But then what do you expect from a man who says he can understand why people are antisemitic?
 2. The Working Definition was drawn up to help law enforcement agencies and personnel identify antisemitic hate crimes. For example, when a policeman on the streets of Plotzk finds some graffiti on the wall of a disused synagogue, how does he decide whether it is plain criminal damage, or a hate crime? From our experience, this is a problem in many parts of Europe, especially Eastern Europe (not just with antisemitism, but with all forms of hate crime). The Working Definition gives some examples of the sorts of discourse that may be used antisemitically (if I can coin that word). 
 However, people also use the Working Definition to try to identify antisemitic discourse, including when anti-Israel discourse becomes antisemitic. It has its limitations in this area, partly because not all antisemitic discourse is criminal and context is very important in assessing whether discourse is racist or not, but it does provide a useful starting point. This is why the CST website states:
“The Working Definition should be regarded as a helpful set of guidelines, rather than a strict legal definition of antisemitism.”
 There are some people who disagree with the Working Definition. There are others who do not just disagree with it, but have taken active steps to try to obstruct its use. They do not do this in good faith; they do not do this out of a genuine desire to see the problem of antisemitism dealt with properly; often, they deny that such a problem exists at all, or in significant quantities. 
Such people try to obstruct any use of, or reference to, the Working Definition, because they feel it may prevent them from saying whatever they want about Israel and Zionism – even if what they want to say may be antisemitic in its tropes, references or impact. They don’t care about this last point. A good faith critique of the Working Definition would include consideration of how some anti-Israel positions or themes may be antisemitic, and how this can be avoided. Yet few of the people opposing the Working Definition within UCU have ever entered a serious, open-minded discussion about the possibility of finding antisemitic themes and tropes in anti-Zionist discourse (much less the possibility that such things may exist in their own anti-Zionist discourse), and where the limits of this discourse should lie.
This is partly because anti-Zionists (and especially Jewish anti-Zionists) are so narcissistic, they think the Working Definition is about them, the same way they thought the Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism was about them. They are wrong, of course. Most of the Working Definition has nothing to do with anti-Israel stuff. However, a great deal of contemporary antisemitism, both physical and discursive, takes place in the context of anti-Israel activity or utilises anti-Israel and anti-Zionist references. Therefore, a definition that did not consider how antisemitism may occur in this context would be incomplete.


Rob Marchant said...

Good piece, Bob. I have checked out the Ben White article (Ben and LC's Sunny commented on my own LabourList piece) and it's the usual nonsense.

Fabulous to see the classic hard-left trope "I do not accept the premise of the question" back in fashion, i.e. I have no counterargument.

The frustrating thing is, I don't even really believe the anti-Semitism is there as a fundamental trait in many of these people. They merely see Palestine as an underdog, support them and this is where their twisted argument ends up. Including seeing Hamas as noble freedom fighters. They follow it, like Enoch Powell, "destroyed by the remorselessness of their own logic".

bob said...

Thanks Rob. Yes, I agree in most cases it is not antisemitism. (Probably my title was hyperbolic and needlessly provocative!) In Ben White, I am not so sure...