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anti-Semitism? You must be joking! - David Hirsh

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anti-Semitism? You must be joking! - David Hirsh

There are a number of distinct ways that the idea of anti-Semitism on the left and in the anti-Zionist movement is denied. One is straightforward. Some argue that there is no anti-Semitism, that a hostility to Jews is not the same as a hostility to "Zionists" and that the political narratives that emerge from the anti-Zionist movement are not at all problematic.

In this post, I am interested in looking at three other modes of denial:

1) anti-Semitism? Sorry I can't hear you

Some deniers of anti-Semitism put their hands over their ears. They just don't find it interesting. They are interested in racism against "the oppressed" or against "the other" but not against Jews. They think that compared to other racisms, anti-Semitism is insignificant.

2) anti-Semitism? Are you joking?

Some deniers of anti-Semitism think that it is a joke. They adopt a lighthearted tone at the very suggestion. Don't you know, they ask, that we are anti-racists? It is just funny, that we, who have been involved for our whole political lives in fighting racism are now accused of being soft on racism or unaware of racism.

3) ant-Semitism? You are a Zionist and a racist.

Some deniers of anti-Semitism adopt the first strategy but they augment it with denunciation. Their assumption is that anyone who raises the idea of contemporary anti-Semitism is doing so sneakily to divert attention from the crimes of the Israeli state. Anyone who talks about contemporary anti-Semitism is a "Zionist" and therefore an "oppressor".

Beate Zilversmidt of Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace organisation, has adopted the "hands over your ears" strategy.

Beate Zilversmidt asks: "Should one ponder about one's Jewish identity and how one now and then feels uneasy with certain expressions of the Palestinian solidarity campaign and of "treacherous" fellow Jews? Or is this perhaps the hour to put aside such finesses and strengthen the grassroots non-violent efforts of putting pressure on the Israeli government."

She adds that "I sincerely believe that these days a Jew who is against such things as cruelty against The Other - to which belong both occupation and racism - has the duty to in the first place fight against such tendencies among his own. Only after that can one do the fight against anti-Semitism from a strong moral position. This wasn't so obvious in the past when we Jews in no way were related to power. But "noblesse oblige." I know that Engage considers itself also against the occupation, but it's pathos and energy seem to be mostly absorbed by the heroic fight against every hint of left-wing ant-Semitism."

I don't think that fighting anti-Semitism is about "pondering one's identity" any more than the fight against anti-black racism is about black people pondering their identities or the fight against Islamophobia is about Muslims pondering their identities. There used to be a time when anti-racists opposed all racism - and opposition to racism wasn't thought to be conditional on identity. Also when people did not require a "strong moral position" from which to oppose racism. Why does Beate think that the fight against racism in the UK is to be laughed off as a rather self-indulgent and eccentric little foolishness?

I think that our campaign is about building a labour movement and a liberal and left discourse that is not disabled by ant-Semitism. Beate argues that the use in the Palestine Solidarity Movement of what she euphamistically refers to as "certain expressions" that make us "feel uneasy", should be ignored in these particularly terrible times for Palestine. They should be ignored, because not to ignore them would hinder the primary goal, which is to fight against the occupation.

Beate's central point seems to be that Jews are not "oppressed" and therefore we ought not to worry about ant-Semitism. Jews (noblesse oblige - ie using their position of nobility and power, are obliged) to fight for the "other" and not for themselves. Beate is not clear whether non-Jews (who may or may not be "the other") are obliged to fight against ant-Semitism.

It is in this way that Beate wants to silence talk of anti-Semitism in the Palestine Solidarity Movement. And the reason? Because she thinks that a Palestine Solidarity Movement free of such distractions will be of more use to the Palestinians. So until Palestine is free, we should shut up about ant-Semitism.

Michael Neumann, a philosophy professor at Trent University in Canada, whose work I first saw because it was recommended by Gush Shalom, thinks that anti-Semitism is a bit of a laugh. He also thinks that it is insignificant, does not realy exist, and what does exist will disappear when Israel itself ceases to exist. He says the following:

Undoubtedly there is genuine anti Semitism in the Arab world: the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the myths about stealing the blood of gentile babies. This is utterly inexcusable. So was your failure to answer Aunt Bee’s last letter.

The progress of Arab anti-Semitism fits nicely with the progress of Jewish encroachment and Jewish atrocities. This is not to excuse genuine anti-Semitism; it is to trivialize it.

If Arab anti-Semitism persists after a peace agreement, we can all get together and cluck about it. But it still won’t do Jews much actual harm.

Israel has committed war crimes. It has implicated Jews generally in these crimes, and Jews generally have hastened to implicate themselves. This has provoked hatred against Jews. Why not? Some of this hatred is racist, some isn’t, but who cares? Why should we pay any attention to this issue at all?

Neumann's modes of denial are both 1) and 2) above. His lightness of tone shows that he thinks the accusation of anti-Semitism to be a bit of a joke. And his "serious point" seems to be that anti-Semitism is just not at all worth worrying about. "Don't talk to me about ant-Semitism, talk to me about ..." is the formulation.

Sue Blackwell adopts a lighthearted whistling-in-the dark tone: "OK chaps, I know you are desperate to pin the 'anti-Semitic' label on me but just how low can you sink? Just carry on, you're doing a good job of digging yourselves deeper."

The lightness of tone is a form of denial. "Its just funny that you think I'm careless about ant-Semitism" it says. I'm not going to relate to what you say: rather, I'm going to laugh (if a bit nervously).

Another example of the light-hearted tone "hands-over-my-ears" response comes today from Deborah Fink, a main organiser of the concert that is to premiere the cantata in memory of Rachel Corrie. She responds to my post about Claire Short. Claire Short was proudly quoted on the "weeping skies" website as arguing that "US backing for Israeli policies... is the major cause of division and violence in the world". Deborah's response is as follows:

Thank you for publicising this cantata on your Web site -much appreciated. As the main organiser of the Nov 1st concert in which it will be performed, I don't have time to 'engage' in a discussion, but must say, that I do find it strange, if not revealing, that David does not specify whose house Rachel was trying to protect. It was a Palestinian doctor - Dr. Samir.

Maybe you'd like to use some other quotes as well, i.e Noam Chomsky, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, Miriam Margolyes, all of which are on the blog. It won't be so easy to dismiss these as anti-Semitic! Lots of Jews and Jewish organisations are supporting this, and a couple of Jews, including an Israeli, are performing in the concert.

Hope to see you there! Tickets are available from the Hackney Empire, priced from £10 -£17.50. Tel:(020) 8985 2424. Surplus funds will go to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.

Deborah, I'm very happy to publicise the concert (and again here). I am very happy that Rachel Corrie's bravery and terrible death underneath an Israeli army bulldozer is being remembered in this solemn and appropriate way.

The thing that I'm not happy about is the fact that you seem not to even have noticed what I had said. I had argued that Claire Short's quotation that you proudly carry on your website was absurd and dangerous. My argument was that Short's claim could only be understood as being part of an effectively ant-Semitic narrative.

And you seem to admit this with your comment that it won't be so easy to dismiss the others as ant-Semitic. But you then say that you don't have time to engage (ha ha very funny pun) in discussion. What is funny Deborah? Is it funny that a comment that is "easy to dismiss as ant-Semitic" is dirtying the website that was set up to the memory of Rachel Corrie? Just a bit of a laugh? Not worth thinking about or discussing? Why don't you just take it off the site, Deborah? Or why not phone up Claire Short and explain to her why her comments are inappropriate. Perhaps Claire Short didn't understand the significance of what she said. Perhaps Claire Short will give you another, more appropriate quote for you to use?

Nick Cohen, in  an
article about left and liberal anti-Semitism said the following: "If you challenge liberal orthodoxy, your argument cannot be debated on its merits. You have to be in the pay of global media moguls. You have to be a Jew."

This is the third mode of denial of ant-Semitism. When you hear the word "ant-Semitism" look for a Zionist. The very word is often understood as a signal of "Zionist" obfuscation. When someone talks about it, what they are really doing, is defending israel. That is why Nick Cohen's piece was flooded with ant-Semitic narrative in his comments section. And the main thrust of the criticism was not at all to do with ant-Semitism. People were trying to drown out his discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism with loud shouts of "Zionist!".

Disucssion of anti-Semitism these days, it is widely believed, is nothing but an attempt to defend Israel. Of course, there are some on the Israeli and Jewish right who do devalue the coinage of anti-Semitism in this way. The worst recent example of this is the settlers resisting their eviction from Gaza who wore the yellow star and claimed to be victims of an ant-Semitic attack by the Israeli army. But the idea that we on the left ought to accept the Israeli and Jewish right's misuse of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism is absurd. Some anti-Zionists do accept it.

Engage is in the business of creating and defending a space for the legitimate criticism of Israel. We have to defend that space against Sharon and Netanyahu, who don't want it to exist, and we have to defend that space against some anti-Zionists, who laugh off, or refuse to see, that there is a problem in the Palestine Solidarity Movement of ant-Semitism. And as long as the Palestine Solidarity Movement smells of ant-Semitism, it will damage the project to build solidarity and support for Palestinians and Israelis fighting for a free and democratic Palestine.

David Hirsh
Goldsmiths College

From - http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/comment.php?id=44

See also -

 A Criminal Amalgam: The Limits of Anti-Zionism I

The Limits of Anti-Zionism 2


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