In the name of Moses

29 Jun 2009 by CST

It is often said, not least by CST, that criticism of Israel is perfectly legitimate, just as it is of any other state. Equally, though, people who want to criticise or campaign against Israel should exercise care that their activities do not invoke or allude to traditional antisemitic imagery or language.

What forms that traditional antisemitic imagery and language, though, is often the point of contention, not helped by a widespread ignorance, even on the anti-racist left, of anything other than Nazi antisemitism. CST does not campaign on behalf of Israel or against its detractors, but we do try to show how antisemitism sometimes slips into anti-Zionist discourse, and about the antisemitic impact of some anti-Zionist politics. So in that light, we could offer the following:

  • Do not blame Israeli policy – the bits you don’t like – on innate Jewish characteristics or beliefs. The Torah does not instruct Jews to kill, quite the opposite.
  • The central tenet of modern antisemitism is the conspiracy theory. Try to avoid allusions to overwhelming Zionist or Jewish power and control of Western governments or societies. Remember that Zionism is a movement for Jewish nationalism in Israel, not a global ideology.
  • If mainstream Jewish voices express concern about antisemitism, at least give them a fair hearing. Do not assume that they are cynically raising the issue in order to silence you.

There is a surprising illiteracy on much of the anti-racist left about basic antisemitic tropes such as these, as has been pointed out before. You would not expect this to extend to the Institute for Race Relations, but the latest edition of their journal Race & Class (not freely available online) suggests otherwise. It opens with a poem, “Gaza”, by the director of the IRR, A Sivanandan, which includes this verse:

A drone has taken Nour’s head

And Ahmed’s shred to pieces

Of flesh and bone that none can mourn –

And all in the name of Moses.

The same issue of Race & Class has an article on “Palestinian resistance and international solidarity: the BDS campaign” (BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel). At several points, the article identifies “Zionism” as playing a central role in global western power:

We argue that the effectiveness of BDS as a strategy of resistance and cross-border solidarity is intimately connected with a challenge to the hegemonic place of Zionism in western ideology.

…

…support for this campaign can serve as a challenge to a particular element of western elite hegemony in the form of the ideology of Zionism… We argue that the effectiveness of such a civil society initiative, as a strategy of resistance and cross-border solidarity, can be usefully framed as an anti-racist movement that contests a post-second world war hegemonic construction of state ideology, in which Zionism plays a central role and serves to enforce a racial contract that hides the apartheid-like character of the state of Israel.

…

The campaign is designed to be flexible in its application and adaptable to specific conditions in various international, regional and local contexts. Consistently, however, the place of Zionism as a hegemonic element in western ideology has been challenged and debates regarding the nature of racism and anti-racism have inevitably ensued. Despite facing intense lobbying and opposition to varying degrees among organised Zionist interests, the BDS campaign has continued to grow.

…

The BDS movement, particularly in terms of its resonance in the global north, can therefore be understood as a counter-hegemonic movement.

As Moishe Postone explains, an analysis that gives Zionism a “central role” in global hegemony leads very naturally to an antisemitic conspiracy theory that “understands the abstract domination of capital – which subjects people to the compulsion of mysterious forces they cannot perceive – as the domination of International Jewry…it appears to be antihegemonic, the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination

What if mainstream Jewish communities, or others for that matter, believe that there is a problem with antisemitism and try to come up with measures to combat it? You would hope that the IRR would take this seriously, whatever their view of Israel and Zionism. In February of this year, the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism held its inaugural conference in London. This conference, which CST helped to organise, brought together parliamentarians, academics, anti-racist practitioners, police and other experts, to develop new policies to tackle antisemitism. But for the authors of this article, the conference had little to do with antisemitism:

“Perhaps as a tribute to the deepening influence of the campaign, a new configuration of international Parliamentarians, the Inter-parliamentary Coalition Combating Anti-Semitism (ICCA), has responded with its first meeting of nearly one hundred legislators from thirtyfive countries, meeting in London, UK, in February 2009. The summit challenged ‘anti-Semitism’ by attempting to conflate racist attacks on Jewish citizens in various countries with criticisms of Israel’s policies, the latter not least associated with the UN conference against racism that took place in Durban, South Africa in 2001. See ‘Anti-Semitism world summit begins’, BBC News UK, (21 February 2009), <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_ news/7892216.stm> (accessed 21 February 2009).”

Put to one side the astonishing egocentrism of the assumption that this unprecedented conference, hosted by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and attended by nearly 200 people from dozens of countries, was organised solely to counter the activities of the boycott campaign; just note the quotation marks around “anti-Semitism”, and the associated dismissal of the very idea that this was a genuine effort to talk about genuine antisemitism.

You can read the London Declaration of the conference here. It has 35 clauses; boycotts are mentioned just once, and Israel three times. There are lots of good ideas about hate crime legislation and monitoring, law enforcement training and other areas of international cooperation. All are ignored by the Race & Class article.

The rise in antisemitism in Britain in recent years has not been uniform. There are large parts of the country, and sectors of society, where antisemitism is entirely absent. There are other parts, though, which have proven to be hospitable environments for antisemitic notions to become established modes of thought; and the intellectual left is the most striking example. It is now quite common to find writers who think that their explanation of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is enhanced by references to enduring Jewish traits, or conspiracies, or cod psychology about the Holocaust, or what Jews – not Israelis, but Jews – teach their children. It comes with a refusal to entertain the idea that this might generate antisemitism, or reflect it, or even by motivated by it. You might expect the IRR to know better. Or maybe, in fact, you wouldn’t.


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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth