The antisemitism reports: against a zero-sum reading

It is how texts are read, not texts themselves that determine meaning. Applying this post-modernist lesson to the Chakrabarti and Home Affairs Committee antisemitism reports yields new political possibilities.

Keith Kahn-Harris
3 November 2016

Where is the meaning? From Sources of Spinoza's Metaphysics

Back in June, I wrote a piece for the Guardian, commenting on Shami Chakrabarti’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party. It was an incredibly fraught time. The Brexit vote had happened a week before and the antisemitism controversy in the Labour Party had been rumbling on for months. In the same week the report was published, Jeremy Corbyn’s support in the parliamentary party was collapsing.

My piece was published within a couple of hours of the report being published. It was based on a swift reading of the report and, as such, was not a forensic dissection of its contents. I was, I thought, pretty guarded about what I thought about it: there were some good things but it was likely to be greeted with disappointment in some quarters (and so it proved); it would not end the controversy (and so it proved).

The comment thread below my Guardian piece was filled with the usual vituperativeness. Rather than reading and reflecting on the report itself, the discussion was swiftly derailed over the question of whether Corbyn had compared Israel to ISIS at the report launch. Some comments accused the Guardian of pursuing a Blairite agenda against Corbyn.

Opinion on the Chakrabarti report swiftly coalesced: Corbyn’s supporters mostly welcomed it, his detractors and much of the Jewish community saw it as thin and non-specific at best, a whitewash at worst. The kerfuffle surrounding the launch of the report didn’t help heal any wounds.

In October came another antisemitism report. I didn’t write a piece on the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism. By that stage, it was clear what was going to happen: The reverse of the reception to the Chakrabarti report. So those who welcomed Chakrabarti, decried the Home Affairs report and vice versa.

And what did I think of both reports? There were things about both that I agreed with, and things that I disagreed with. The Chakrabarti report scored highly for its personal, empathetic tone, but poorly for its lack of detail and thin methodological framework. The Home Affairs committee report scored highly for its rigour, but seemed to hear from a narrower range of voices and its definition of antisemitism left as many questions as it answered.

I suppose that if you put a gun to my head, I’d probably be able to tell you which report was a better one. I suppose that if I took the time to do a detailed analysis of each paragraph on each report I’d probably be able to come up with some kind of aggregate ‘score’ of which one I prefer.

What I am incapable of doing though, is to wholeheartedly embrace or reject either. In fact, throughout this whole lingering antisemitism controversy — and the tale of two reports in particular — it’s become increasingly clear to me that I didn’t read these reports the same way that most other people do.

What has struck me is how far the various protagonists in the antisemitism controversy (in which I am also a participant, albeit intermittently) seem to have read the two reports in a kind of ‘zero sum’ way. They read them looking for an overall, sum total conclusion. They read them searching to find a reason to accept or reject them. And in the end, that’s what they’ve done.

There’s a kind of analogy to the ‘one drop’ versions of racism here: Just as some racists see one drop of non-white blood as polluting the entirety of its descendants, so one drop of disagreement with these reports seems to make any acknowledgement of the things one does agree with impossible. Or at the very least, the things with which one agrees become irrelevant and trivial.

There is, clearly, an enormous amount of hurt and suspicion on all sides of the antisemitism controversy. Reading, in this context, becomes an exercise in the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ (in the words of the philosopher Paul Ricouer): finding the telling ambiguity, the revealing obfuscation, the slipping of the mask that shows what ‘they really mean.’  A report cannot mean what it appears to mean; it can only be an exercise in bad faith.

This way of reading isn’t entirely invalid. Any text that deals with an intensely political issue cannot be hermetically sealed from the wider personal and political agendas of the authors. So what was at the very least a warming relationship between the Corbyn Labour Party and Shami Chakrabarti – and for some accusers an implicit agreement to write a friendly report in return for a peerage -  inevitably had some kind of impact on her report. And the fact that the Home Affairs Select Committee is made up of MPs from the non-Corbynite wing of the Labour Party and from other parties, undoubtedly impacted on the way they viewed antisemitism in the Labour Party.

But acknowledging that the reports – and, indeed, any kind of text – is the product of humans with particular agendas and interests, does not mean that these agendas and interests overwhelm them entirely. So when I read the two antisemitism reports, I tried, as far as I was able to put their context aside (albeit temporarily) and relate to them as texts alone. I searched for things I agreed with and things I disagreed with, but I didn’t aggregate these points of agreement and disagreement into a single judgement. I tried to avoid reading these texts as the vehicles for a unitary message that I could buy into completely or reject completely. As products of fallible human beings, I treated the reports as nothing more than a collation of views that I could never embrace other than partially.

They were not written by God. Or by the devil for that matter.

Of course, there’s a lot you can criticise about this way of reading:

  • - You could say that I’ve drunk the postmodern Kool-Aid and lost sight of the essential inner voice of the text.
  • - You could say that I’m too polyannaish and too nice to face up to a text that I really should reject.
  • - You could say that I’m too academic and have lost sight of the ways that politics work.
  • - You could say that if I read ‘Mein Kampf’ I’d probably be willing to praise Hitler’s sentence structure and that I’d praise Mussolini for making the trains run on time.
  • There’s some truth in all of this — hence I have been struggling with my response to the two antisemitism reports ever since they came out.

Yet maybe there is something that my approach can offer something other than anguished intellectual hand-wringing. Perhaps in a time of intense political turmoil, we need to remember the radical and subversive possibilities of reading. That is, the possibilities of reading texts in non-reductive and critical ways: to remind people that buried in both antisemitism reports there is potential for reading against themselves, for opening them up rather than closing them down.

What would this way of reading look like?

In the case of the Chakrabarti report, those who saw it as a whitewash of the extent and scale of antisemitism in the Labour Party, who saw it as anecdotal, unsystematic and self-indulgently personal, could subvert these features of the text and use them to offer a new reading: ‘The report articulates the pain that antisemitism causes on a human level; it is a call to action based not on mechanistic diagnoses and legalistic verbiage, but on a desire to find civil ways to engage with each other that avoid hurtful language; it absolves no one from the ever-present danger of falling into abusive antisemitic language, but teaches us to be ever-vigilant. That kind of reading, if adopted by those who saw the report as a failure to take antisemitism seriously, could make those they are accusing of ignoring antisemitism distinctly uncomfortable.'

Instead, by rejecting it (and seeing the points they agree with as obvious and trivial) they have allowed those who they accuse of ignoring antisemitism to see themselves as largely absolved.

As for the Home Affairs Report, those who saw it as adopting a definition of antisemitism that unfairly stigmatises critics of Israel and Zionism, could draw on the text’s formal, legalistic and systematic qualities: ‘While the report may use a definition of antisemitism that is incorrect, its attempt to think through antisemitism rigorously is welcome. Accusations of antisemitism are made in highly emotive ways, whereas this report suggests a calm and analytical approach. If we could find a way to draw on a wider range of voices to produce a framework that builds on the work of this report, perhaps we will be able to develop a robust ‘rules of the game’ that could take the heat out of controversies over Israel and Zionism.’

Instead, by rejecting the report, the field has been left clear for antisemitism to be officially defined without the participation of more diverse voices.

To be clear, I don’t embrace either of these alternate readings, at least not in their entirety. What I do embrace is ways of reading that avoid a self-defeating logic of acceptance or rejection. If nothing else, such a way of reading can be smart politics: by avoiding zero-sum reading, you can stay ‘in the game’, you cannot be excluded from the way these reports are used.  

There is one postmodern old saw that even those who are anything but postmodern relativists should embrace: that the meaning of texts resides in how they are read, not in the texts themselves. The lesson of the two antisemitism reports is that by taking control of reading we can keep political possibilities alive – and when we allow them to control us, we close down the possibility of change.

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