Our panellists battle it outby Alan Johnson, Jonathan Rosenhead / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
©Blend Images/Rex/Shutterstock Is it anti-Semitic to boycott Israel? The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement calls for an economic, academic and cultural boycott of Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians. The UK, United States and other governments have criticised BDS as anti-Semitic and tried to prevent organisations, such as local authorities and student unions, from supporting it. This is the most protean of racisms and it has shape-shifted again. Old-fashioned Jew hatred still exists, but anti-Semitism today is often found—as the Labour Party is discovering—in the smelly borderlands where an anti-Israeli sentiment of a particularly excessive, demented kind, commingles with and updates—often unthinkingly—older anti-Semitic tropes, images and assumptions. I call this “anti-Semitic anti-Zionism” and I think it has a programme. It intends the destruction of one nation state in the world—the little Jewish one. And the core of the BDS movement does seek to eliminate Israel. Norman Finkelstein, a high-profile critic of Israel, has railed against the “duplicity and disingenuousness” of the BDS movement, which claims to be agnostic on Israel. Finkelstein argues, “At least be honest with what you want: ‘We want to abolish Israel, and this is our strategy for doing it.’” Whether you marched with the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s or not, if you want to destroy the world’s only Jewish homeland, you’ve wandered into those borderlands. Its discourse is not “criticism”—and there is much to criticise—but something much darker. It bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become receptacles for the tropes and ideas of classic anti-Semitism. In short, that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of bloodlust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment, and so on. And then there is the spreading filth of Holocaust inversion: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, is Adolf Hitler, the Israeli Defence Force is the SS, Israelis are Nazis. The BDS movement has taken this demonising discourse into every nook and cranny of civil society and has poisoned all it comes into contact with, from the churches to the trades unions to the Labour Party. Professor Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom and senior research fellow of BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) You do go to rhetorical extremes. I had hoped this exchange might calm and clarify an important debate. Setting up ghoulish straw men so that you can satisfyingly knock them down doesn’t hack it. I will try to practise what I preach. Your case, when stripped of the cartoon villains, comes down to a useful neologism; useful, that is, to you. I would like to dwell on “anti-Semitic anti-Zionism” as a concept. As Brian Klug, a philosopher and a noted scholar of the subject, has said of anti-Semitism, “the word matters because the thing matters.” He suggests a working definition: “anti-Semitism is a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.” Your neologism confuses categories: the question of anti-Semitism as a pathological and distorted dislike of a certain kind of Other, with anti-Zionism which is a legitimate political concept. Zionism was and is a nationalistic and political movement to establish a Jewish homeland. But there were people already settled on that bit of land. The outcome has been a steadily escalating programme of discrimination, dehumanisation and violence against the Palestinians that has outraged many people round the world. Even many Jews, such as myself. Some of us have now come to see that outcome as contained, in embryo, from the outset. The accusation of a “new anti-Semitism” is a political project, developed as a shield against the many legitimate and indeed compelling criticisms of Israel. Boycott is by far the most effective tactic to impress on the Israelis that their actions have consequences. That is why it has become such a priority to try to brand it as anti-Semitic. Play the man, so as not to have to address the ball. The sheer irresponsibility of deliberately blurring the edges of anti-Semitism for political purposes continues to shock me. Real anti-Semitism, though less prevalent and virulent than before, hasn’t gone away. There is still a real, if medium-sized wolf, out there. Jonathan Rosenhead is Emeritus Professor at the LSE and Chair of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine) I find the way you pose the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism—absolute separation—unpersuasive for three reasons. First, history has utterly transformed the political meaning of “anti-Zionism.” It meant one thing in the early 20th century: an argument among Jews, mostly, about how best to meet the threat of anti-Semitism. It now means something entirely different after the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948: a programme of comprehensive hostility to all but a sliver of world Jewry, a reactionary programme for the eradication of the Jewish homeland. Second, you ignore the history of parts of the left. What of the long decades of globally distributed Stalinist anti-Semitism dressed up as “anti-Zionism”? What of the 230 books published in the USSR between 1969 and 1985 alone about the supposed Zionist-Masonic conspiracy against the Soviet Union? Over 30 years ago, I fought alongside the Union of Jewish Students to stop the far left drive to ban Jewish societies on UK campuses. They had the same reductive view of Zionism as you do. Third, you employ what David Hirsh, the Goldsmiths academic, calls “the Livingstone Formulation,” which holds that those raising the issue of anti-Semitism are doing so dishonestly, in order to de-legitimise criticism of Israel. But that is complacent. When Salim Mulla, the suspended former Mayor of Blackburn, said on Facebook that it is “bloody obvious” that Israel was behind some Islamic State attacks, you can’t seriously think that was legitimate criticism of Israel being smeared as anti-Semitic by tricksy Zionists, can you? I am in a losing battle against non sequiturs. No one is saying anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. And it is certainly upsetting when it does appear, as it can, on the left. However, showing me examples of anti-Semites on the left in recorded history is not an occasion for shock-horror. The question is whether there is today a tendency for anti-Zionism, and in particular the boycott of Israel, to be a cover for anti-Semitism. Or an expression of it. I have just watched ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interviewed about anti-Semitism on Newsnight. Asked about his personal experience of anti-Semitism, he replied that he “had not experienced a single episode of anti-Semitism in my life and I’m not exactly low profile, you know Chief Rabbis are fairly well known to be Jewish.” I can beat Rabbi Sacks. I have had two (both just verbal), one in the street in Liverpool around 1955, one in a Notting Hill pub around 1970. No Labour Party supporter was involved, except myself. But continuing this line of thought, last night I watched Yoav Shamir’s film Defamation. Its subject is the Anti-Defamation League, which fans American paranoia about anti-Semitism. In the film the veteran Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery is asked about anti-Semitism. His answer is that you need a “magnifying glass” to find it. There is more to the Sacks interview. He said that it is because overt anti-Semitism is nowadays so socially unacceptable that it had to shape-shift into anti-Zionism. The possibility that it had anything to do with Israel’s policies is simply excluded. And if I criticise Israel and support a boycott I am a “self-hating Jew.” Karl Popper would have loved these unrefutable hypotheses. You claim boycotting Israel is the “most effective” way to solve the conflict. I disagree because Palestinian statehood will only be achieved by deep mutual recognition, face-to-face negotiations, excruciating compromises on both sides, and the division of the land into two states. And boycotts just get in the way of all that, for four reasons. It gets wrong what the conflict is about. You think Israel has peace in the palm of its hand, but won’t hand it over, so your job is to prise its fingers away. Not so. Israel crossed that Rubicon in the 1990s and made major offers to end the conflict by the creation of a Palestinian state—take another look at then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2007. This is no movie with goodies and baddies, but a tragic and unresolved conflict between two peoples, both Europe’s victims, both with legitimate claims for national self-determination, who have so far failed to negotiate a division of the land. You propose the best way to secure the trust, mutual recognition and compromise needed for peace is to… exclude Israelis, and only Israelis, from the economic, cultural, sporting and academic life of humanity. It’s a very unlikely proposition. Boycotting Israel is counterproductive: it creates a sense of siege there, reinforcing reactionary trends, damaging the peace camp, undermining the democrats most committed to mutual recognition and peace. Boycotting Israel is unjust: boycotting a civil society to express your opposition to a government is unjust too. Finally, boycott activism gets in the way of the constructive activism we really need: pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, pro-peace. I notice that you have moved away from whether the boycott is anti-Semitic. I am fine with that. Accusations of anti-Semitism distort a previously well-understood term for political purposes—in particular to discomfit critics of Israel. So, following you, how, realistically, can change occur in Israel/Palestine? Your vista of engaged negotiations might work in a cloud cuckoo land where Israel’s earnest seeking of peace has been thwarted only by the rascally Palestinians. But Israeli “offers” have always contained unacceptable pre-conditions. Sometimes an insistence on a prior recognition of Israel as the nation state of all the Jewish people (but without specifying its boundaries). Sometimes the decision to continue or restart settlement building during the negotiations: think two men discussing dividing a pizza while one is busily eating it. And so on. Keep talking, keep negotiating, take the land. Israel has now burrowed so deeply into what might have been a Palestinian state that it is no longer an option. We have a one-state solution already. Our governments say “naughty, naughty” but do nothing. Israel gets away with it, and without any of those “excruciating compromises” you talk of. Governments take no action, but the world’s civil societies are appalled. That is what a boycott is—the conjoining of the otherwise powerless to become a mighty force. Israel used to view its two biggest strategic threats as an Iranian bomb, and the BDS movement. Now only the latter is left. Quite possibly it will strengthen the hardliners in Israel in the medium term. But the “peace camp” you talk about evaporated long ago. Only when Israel’s public sees that their country’s actions have consequences that affect them personally will they begin to realise that compromises, however painful, will have to be made. And then we will have real instead of sham negotiations.