Thursday, January 25, 2007

David Hirsh on the increasing respectability of anti-semitism & anti-Zionism

David Hirsh, a British sociologist and democratic leftist, is a co-founder of Engage, which was originally formed in 2005 to help mobilize opposition to the AUT blacklist of Israeli academics from a perspective committed to support for a negotiated two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including an independent Palestinian state and an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories captured in 1967. Engage played a significant role in helping to get the blacklist overturned by the AUT membership.

The Engage website continues to be be a an important and enlightening focus for fighting anti-semitism and anti-Zionism (in the sense of bias against and hysterical demonization of Israel, not criticism of specific Israeli policies)--particularly, though not exclusively, in their "left" and otherwise allegedly "progressive" forms. (I happen to be affiliated with Engage, and I strongly recommend visiting the Engage website and its on-line Journal.)

People like David Hirsh are engaged in a Sisyphean task. In a brief but cogent interview with London Independent, Hirsh points out that over the past several years assorted versions of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, often in complex combination, have continued to become increasingly respectable in wide sectors of "mainstream" discourse. This is depressing, but it happens to be correct, so it's a reality that needs to be faced honestly.

Hirsh might have added that there are also increasing tendencies to smear any criticisms of anti-semitism or extremist anti-Zionism as McCarthyite attempts by an allegedly all-powerful "Israel lobby" to "stifle debate," suppress open policy discussions, etc. That kind of stuff is standard in Britain, but we're now seeing more of it here in the US, too. The intent is to intimidate legitimate critics of anti-semitism or anti-Zionism into keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, or at least to restrict themselves to embarrassed, defensive, low-key whimpers.

How to respond? This dilemma is the subject of David Hirsh's intelligent letter to the Jewish Chronicle (also below), which is due to be published tomorrow. As Hirsh concludes:
Britain's Jews should draw more heavily on the radical anti-racist and cosmopolitan traditions; we should be strong and united against antisemitism and we should be loud and clear in favour of a Palestinian state.

Enough of [....] flag-waving conservatism in the face of legitimate criticism of Israel and enough of [....] 'keep your head down and whisper in powerful ears' conservatism in the face antisemitism.
Good advice for American Jews, too.

Yours for reality-based & morally serious discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

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The Independent (London)
January 25, 2007
Against The Grain: '"Zionist" has now become an insult, an epithet for evil'
Interview by Nick Jackson

David Hirsh is lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He argues that anti-Semitic ways of thinking are becoming acceptable in Academe and public life, and that this encourages rising levels of violence on the street

"There are many spheres in Britain in which it has become common sense that Israel is a unique and radical evil in the world. 'Zionist' has now become an insult, an epithet for evil.

These shared assumptions about Israel are fertile ground for the emergence of an anti-Semitic movement. Much of the far right is now adopting the language of the anti-Zionist left. And you have people being accepted in the Palestine solidarity movement, such as Gilad Atzmon, who denies being anti-Semitic but says he is "an anti-Zionist".

"Contemporary anti-Zionism emerged after the 1967 war, but there's now a clear, accelerated process of mainstreaming going on. It's even big in the Liberal Democrats. What does Baroness Tonge mean when she says that the 'pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips'?

"The Association of University Teachers boycott showed how such discourse can lead to exclusion of Israelis from campuses and conferences. They say, 'Israelis not Jews', but we have to look at how that operates in reality. Some who campaign for a boycott of Israeli thinkers, artists, scientists argue for a McCarthy-esque test, by which Israelis may be allowed to be part of the global community if they denounce 'Zionism' or its 'apartheid policies'. Boycotts of Israelis wouldn't help the peace process in the Middle East, and would provide the basis for anti-Semitism here.

"There's an overenthusiasm about anti-Zionism. British and American operations in Falluja cared less about civilian casualties than Israeli operations in Gaza. Israel is far from the most serious human-rights abuser on the planet, but how to explain this focus on the uniqueness of Israeli evil? People rightly get upset about Palestinian children dying in the conflict, but it's an easy slippage from outrage at particular incidents to a notion that 'Israel is a child-killing state'; from politics and protest to blood libel and demonisation. And then Israel gets compared to the Nazis: it makes no sense, but there have been placards of the Star of David and swastikas at demos.

"You can see it in the way people think about Hizbollah and Hamas. Both have openly genocidal policies towards the Jews, and yet, in the summer, placards reading, 'We are all Hizbollah now', were accepted on peace demonstrations." [JW: See here.]

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David Hirsh: Letter to the Jewish Chronicle (posted on the Engage website)

The debate in the JC between two conservative Jewish leaders is instructive.

Isi Leibler argues for a right wing 'Israel right or wrong', 'defend the occupation' conservatism, while Antony Lerman responds with a left wing case for a softly softly conservative approach to antisemitism. Leibler wants us to close our eyes to Israel's human rights abuses. Lerman hasn't yet noticed that the anti-Israel over-enthusiasm that is becoming normal in Britain comes laden with antisemitic undertone and threat.

Britain's Jews should draw more heavily on the radical anti-racist and cosmopolitan traditions; we should be strong and united against antisemitism and we should be loud and clear in favour of a Palestinian state.

Enough of Leibler's flag-waving conservatism in the face of legitimate criticism of Israel and enough of Lerman's 'keep your head down and whisper in powerful ears' conservatism in the face antisemitism.

David Hirsh

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