Rich as honey dew – 3

Things have moved on a bit since I started this series – but I have started, so I’d better crack on and finish.

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 3.

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

I’m not going to relitigate the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-semitic; as you probably know if you’re reading this blog, I wrote quite a bit about that a few months ago. My starting point for this post, in fact, is that anti-Zionism is not anti-semitic; that one can oppose the policies, the interests, even the existence of the state of Israel while upholding the identity and interests of the Jewish people; and that, conversely, people who hold Jews in fear and contempt are quite capable of supporting Zionism, even doing so for anti-semitic reasons. (Extreme example: Morrissey, as far as one can tell, supports the state of Israel as a bulwark against Islam, while simultaneously denouncing kosher dietary regulations as barbaric.) Tell me your position on East Jerusalem and you’ve told me nothing about how you feel about Jewish identity, and vice versa; a secular assimilationist may be a Likud-sympathising hawk, a proudly observant Jew may be bitterly opposed to the entire Zionist project. (This isn’t news to anyone, surely.)

The question of Palestine is problematic, though, for two reasons. One is, at root, a question of numbers: although supporting the Israeli nation state certainly isn’t inherent to Judaism – or even British Judaism – it is the case that a large majority of British Jews are Zionists, at least in the sense that they identify with the Zionist project. (Which doesn’t mean identifying with the last few decades of Israel’s history, let alone with the current Israeli government; my sense is that the proportion of Likudniks and Revisionists in the British Jewish community is considerably lower than in Israel.) More to the point, while I can (and will) sit here saying that Zionism isn’t inherent to Jewish identity, that’s not the way it seems to many (or most) Zionist Jews; seen from the inside, supporting and identifying with Israel doesn’t have the quality of an optional extra or a lifestyle choice. This is a belief, and a loyalty, that matters deeply to those who hold it; challenging it or holding it cheap can feel like a deplorable lapse in taste at best, at worst an outright attack.

This in turn means that being an anti-Zionist Jew, as well as putting you in a numerical minority, is hard in itself; you will take a lot of flak from your own community, some of it animated by genuinely felt offence, some deployed in cynicism or contempt. Given the overriding need to develop a thick skin, it’s not surprising that some of those Jewish anti-Zionists – a minority of a minority of a minority – make a virtue of necessity; that, in Richard‘s words,

some people have cultivated a kind of gratuitous and performative political ‘toughness’, and defend this fragile ‘toughness’ as if it was the same thing as rigour and hard-headedness

In my experience, if you want to hear accusations of anti-semitism, collaborationism, outright Nazism flying – and then flying right back – there’s no better place to eavesdrop than an argument between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews; they really dish it out (on both sides). The point here isn’t that it’s OK when they say it; it’s deeply offensive and counter-productive whoever says it (although, to be fair, it is even worse when somebody from outside the community decides to pitch in). The point is that – going back a couple of steps – beliefs about Zionism are felt to be inherent to the believers’ identity as Jews, and everyone knows this. Consequently what gets attacked, on both sides, is neither a position on Zionism nor a Jewish identity, but something with elements of both:

“This Zionism which is inherent to your identity as a Jew – this is what I think of it!”

“Yeah? Wouldn’t you like to know what I think of this anti-Zionism that your so-called Jewish identity is built on?”

Think of the prefatory phrase As a Jew, used to link a Jewish identity to support for the BDS campaign, and by extension to challenge the assumption that Jews are Zionists; think of the contemptuous coinage “azzajew”, used (to his enduring discredit) by Norman Geras to delegitimate just that linkage. It’s about supporting or opposing the state of Israel, but it’s also about what it means to be a Jew.

The upshot is that anti-Zionism, in practice, has a nasty tendency to blur into wilfully causing offence to something many – or most – Jews regard as a key part of their identity as Jews. (And it’s also the case that Zionism, in practice, tends to give offence to something that a minority of Jews regard as a key part of their identity as Jews.) If you’re a Gentile and you get into the habit of using anti-Zionist attack lines, in the knowledge that they’re likely to cause offence, you shouldn’t be surprised if the question of anti-semitism starts to be raised – first and foremost by your political enemies, of course, but not only by them. This doesn’t mean that anti-Zionism is anti-semitic, or that it should be abandoned; on the contrary, I believe it’s correct and sorely needed. What it means is that we need to tread carefully and show some respect.

This is all the more important given that (my second point) anti-Zionism tends to bring you into contact, sooner or later, with people who are anti-semitic. Let’s start with Raed Salah. As you probably know, Raed Salah is a well-respected Palestinian politician who has been accused of – and, in effect, stood trial for – anti-semitic hate speech, including the ‘blood libel’; he is also someone with whom Jeremy Corbyn has, famously, taken tea. The British courts have pretty much found in favour of Salah; it’s been pointed out that the incriminating quotations are relatively few in number, and that some – perhaps most – of them only feature the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ in square brackets, which in turn suggests that there may be plausible alternative readings. Calling Salah an antisemite may be doing him an injustice. At this point I don’t want to rest my case on that line of argument, though. Rather, let’s suppose that Salah is in fact an anti-semite; that he does, in fact, hate(/fear/despise/etc) Jews. What does this tell us about Jeremy Corbyn, or his actions in meeting Salah?

I’ll give you a moment to reconsider your immediate answer to that one. While I’m waiting, here’s an interesting passage on anti-semitism by the academic Brian Klug.

our working definition of antisemitism, hostility towards Jews as Jews, is flawed. It should be amended to read: hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’. This might seem a minor, almost pedantic, difference but it totally alters the sense of the definition. That is to say, our working definition is not merely imprecise, it is positively misleading. It would be more accurate (if cumbersome) to define the word along these lines: a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are. … Thinking that Jews are really ‘Jews’ is precisely the core of antisemitism.

My grandmother wasn’t hostile to Asians as Asians; she had nothing against people who went to work, raised families and cooked recipes they’d got from their mothers. She did think that people who worshipped the wrong God were doomed to eternal damnation, but that category included many people who didn’t have brown skin – Catholics for a start. No, she was hostile to Asians as ‘Asians’ – smelly, unhygienic, violent, bestial people, figments of a racist imagination. Similarly, “hostility towards Jews as Jews”, without the scare-quotes (aptly named in this case), would mean hostility towards the category of people who abstain from pork, attend synagogue, see Jerusalem as a holy place, celebrate Passover and so forth. These are perfectly innocuous things to do: hostility to a group of people defined in that way would make no sense, even in the mind of a racist. So the core of anti-semitism is hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’ – or rather the conviction that Jews are, despite the surface appearances, ‘Jews’, with whatever attributes anti-semitism may load them. The left-wing anti-semite sees scheming, snobbish, hyper-intelligent lords of finance; the right-wing anti-semite sees scheming, low-minded sub-human subversives; the Nazi sees both. Either way – or both ways – it’s never Jews they see, always ‘Jews’.

There’s a difference, in other words, between hating a group in terms of a fantasised image of that group and hating a group on the basis of qualities that are actually characteristic of that group and its members. This is why hating women for the way they won’t stop talking is sexism, but hating men for the way they dominate conversations isn’t – one’s a fantasised hate-object, the other’s an accurate characterisation of the group. (The telltale sign is that the hatred is built in to the first image; men may just have a lot of interesting things to say, but the woman going on again, on again is always hateful, or risible at best.)

Where Jews are concerned, it may be argued that this is a distinction without a difference; hostility towards Jews, as Jews, can only be racist, whether the person expressing that hostility has a particular fantasised version of ‘Jews’ in mind or not. There is, however, one situation in which the scare-quotes or their absence would make a difference. As it happens, there was only one Jewish kid in our class at school, and he bullied me for half a year; he shoved me, he stole things from me, he mocked my inability to read Hebrew… he was quite the piece of work. Fortunately this didn’t last long and didn’t recur. Imagine it had, though, and imagine that it had started a lot earlier; imagine a Gentile kid who meets a total of, say, five Jewish people between the ages of 5 and 14, four of whom – quite coincidentally – had bullied him unmercifully. By the age of 14 that kid is going to have formed some pretty strong opinions about what Jews are like in general, firmly grounded in first-hand experience. We can tell him – and, over time, life will tell him – that his mental image of Jews-as-school-bullies is in effect an image of the ‘Jew’, not an accurate image of Jews in general. But until he’s acquired some evidence to the contrary he’ll be resistant to this message; it will be an accurate image as far as he’s concerned, for the simple reason that it is an accurate image of how Jews, in general, have interacted with him.

Of course, this is a wildly artificial example which doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about the ways in which actual non-Jewish people encounter Jews. At least, not in Britain. But picture yourself growing up and living as a Palestinian in the occupied West Bank or the blockaded Gaza Strip, or within Israel itself. Ask yourself how often, over the years, you would have encountered generosity or simple humanity from someone you knew to be a Jew – and how often you would have encountered the opposite, whether it was delivered with a mailed fist or an apologetic smile. Now ask your Palestinian alter-ego to sign up to the proposition that there simply is no reason to hate Jews as Jews; that anyone who feels hatred for Jews is making a fantasy hate-figure of imaginary ‘Jews’; that, if you say you hate Jews, you’re doing exactly the same thing that the Nazis did, and the Russian pogromists, and King Edward I who expelled the Jews from England. Do you think he or she is still listening?

Hating Jews, for some people, makes intuitive sense, for the simple reason that hateful acts have been committed (or defended, or condoned) by most or all of the Jews they have ever encountered. Extending this hatred to the Jewish people as a whole is still irrational – there is no rational reason to hate any human collectivity of that size and diversity – but it’s not the same kind of irrationality as the classic pogrom mentality; there’s a big difference between hating a group because you hate the things that powerful members of it have done, and hating a group because you think it’s evil and dangerous in itself, however powerless its members are . (The first kind of hatred is still irrational, is still anti-semitism, and can lead to the second kind. But they are different.)

Raed Salah is a Palestinian politician; he represents people whose land has been stolen (and continues to be stolen), whose rights have been ignored, who have been systematically denied justice, by a government which claims to represent the Jewish people. It would be hugely to Salah’s credit if he didn’t feel any hatred for Jews, or if he scrupulously refrained from generalising from those Jews he’d had contact with to Jews in general – we could rank him alongside Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, icons of an almost superhuman moral virtue. But it would also mark him out as far from normal in his responses to his and his people’s situation – and I don’t think we can reasonably insist that the Palestinian people choose their representatives exclusively from the ranks of secular saints. Simply put, Palestinians have good reasons for bearing a grudge against some Jews; it would be nice if they didn’t extend that hostility irrationally, but lots of Palestinians (like the rest of us) are liable to irrational thinking and generalisation from insufficient evidence.

This being the case, if we’re committed to bringing Palestinian politics and Palestinian politicians within the big tent of political legitimacy – which I think we should be – then somebody’s going to end up taking tea with anti-semites. To have looked this possibility in the face, and extended the hand of friendship to Salah anyway, is actually to Jeremy Corbyn’s credit – at least, I believe it will eventually be seen to have been to his credit. (Let’s hope we all live that long.) But it does impose a duty on Corbyn and people like him to demonstrate that they’re meeting Salah (or whoever) as representatives of the Palestinian people, not as ideological allies, and that they don’t endorse the anti-semitic views which have been attributed to them. And if they say – as well they may – that their opposition to anti-semitism is already being stated loud and clear, perhaps it needs to be stated even louder and clearer.

Until quite recently, these were niche arguments, which could rage in the activist undergrowth without having much effect on Labour as a party. But now, of course, Labour is led by an anti-Zionist (or, at the very least, a friend of Palestine), and anti-Zionist views are – finally – getting an airing in the mainstream of the party. Which means we’re making progress – but it also means we’re in unknown territory, and we need to tread carefully. Weaponised anti-Zionism – Zionism packaged in knowing and deliberate offence to felt Jewish identity – is probably good nasty fun for those who indulge in it, but ultimately it’s a pathology: a morbid reaction to the difficult conditions in which Jewish anti-Zionists have had to operate. In any case, it’s not a weapon that non-Jews should ever attempt to use. Similarly, some people may drift into anti-semitism as a morbid reaction to the conditions in which they have to live and work, and some of those people may nevertheless be worth engaging in dialogue; this is not to condone or excuse the anti-semitic element of their beliefs, which must be disowned and condemned. In short, if we oppose Zionism – as I believe we should – we must do so, clearly and equivocally, in a spirit of friendship with the Jewish people, as well as in solidarity with the victims of Zionism. The two are not incompatible; we should make sure we demonstrate that.

(Why is this a pessimistic post? Not because I believe that it’s impossible to keep anti-semitism out of anti-Zionism. I’m hopeful on that front: I think it’s entirely possible for people of good will to reach a position which is clearly opposed to (or at least critical of) Zionism while also being clearly and unequivocally opposed to anti-semitism. My pessimism concerns the prospects for bringing the Labour Party round to a position critical of Zionism; a lot more arguments are going to be had before we can make that happen, which almost certainly means that a lot more mud-slinging accusations of anti-semitism are going to fly. We’re going to need to be very clear about what we don’t believe, and also about what we do.)

 

 

 

 

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