Perceptions of Jews or perceptions of antisemitism?
“I’m not neutral in this debate, as I’m an anti-Zionist diasporic Israeli Jew most of whose family have been murdered by the Nazis… and I have fought against the homogenizing and reifying effects of identity politics.”
The saga about antisemitism, the Left and the British Labour party just goes on and on. In April Labour MP Richard Burgon, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Lord Chancellor, was forced to apologise for saying that the enemies of the Palestinian people are not the Jews but Zionists and Zionism. He was forced to apologise because the Labour Party has adopted the definition of antisemitism that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRI) adopted in 2016.
This is an account of antisemitism which incorporates what is known as the ‘new antisemitism’ into its definition. ‘Classical antisemitism’ focused on discrimination against the rights of Jews to live as equal members of whatever society they inhabited. However, most contemporary controversies around antisemitism have been a result of the extension of the notion to include discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations, with Israel as the targeted “collective Jew among the nations”.’ The ‘new antisemitism’ concept seeks to conflate the notion of racism against Jews with any critique of Zionism, the Israeli occupation or the Israeli state in generic terms.
The ‘new antisemitism’ concept seeks to conflate the notion of racism against Jews with any critique of Zionism, the Israeli occupation or the Israeli state in generic terms.
While the notion of ‘new antisemitism’ spread during the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is not a new phenomenon. An article I published in the British feminist paper Spare Rib in 1984, (to be reprinted in Feminist Review, forthcoming), warned against the long-term dangers of such a conflation. However, in recent years the legitimacy of this notion has spread from the USA to the EU and elsewhere and received a particular boost when it was absorbed into the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016.
Since then, this definition has been adopted by many national and international bodies. The composers of this definition emphasize that the detection of antisemitism should be contextual and supply a long list of illustrative examples of what might be interpreted as antisemitic in particular contexts. However, the illustrative examples include and thus equate the use of traditional antisemitic stereotypes, such as the Jewish conspiracy to rule the world or blood libel, with claims that the state of Israel is a racist endeavour or comparing any Israeli policies to those of the Nazis, regardless of the further context or basis of these claims. While initially the Labour party declined to include such illustrative examples in its adoption of the definition, this objection was eventually overruled – hence the requirement for Richard Burgon to apologise for his argument against Zionism.
The conflict around Labour’s adoption of the definition has been both controversial and highly emotional. This is not only because of its many internal inconsistencies, or because the definition of antisemitism has become a tool of the Right, inside and outside the Labour party, which it has. It is also because constructions of the subjectivities of British and other diasporic Jews are all too often embedded in what Jamie Hakim has called ‘popular Zionism’, where support for Israel has become a central plank of their self-identities as Jews.
The American Jewish author, Nobel Laureate, holocaust survivor, Eli Weisel wrote once that ‘Jerusalem is in my heart’ and therefore that he has a right to claim it. This centres his sense of identity and belonging in a country in which he has not lived, and places that affiliation above any of the claims of others, such as the Palestinians who are continuing to live under Israeli occupation and control. His claim is a rather extreme version of the common claim of ‘popular Zionists’ that they feel offended and hurt if somebody criticises Israel and Zionism, and that therefore this should be considered antisemitic. Even radical Jews who do not hesitate to criticize the current Israeli government or even the post-1967 Occupation, can be heard to argue that to describe Zionism as a settler colonial project, ‘erodes their Jewish subjectivity’.
The American Jewish author, Nobel Laureate, holocaust survivor, Eli Weisel wrote once that ‘Jerusalem is in my heart’ and therefore that he has a right to claim it.
We need to understand the subjective aspirations of so many Jewish progressives, including my parents, who were so intent on building a just socialist society in which Jews would not suffer any more from antisemitism, that they never considered the outcomes for the Palestinians of that project. No wonder that those of us, Israeli and diasporic Jews who are anti-Zionist, have been described as ‘self-hating Jews’. Our individual and collective Jewish selves have been conflated with Israel as integral to our collective representation.
Arguing that antisemitism should incorporate criticism of Israel and Zionism has meant that the debate on antisemitism has virtually ceased to be about actual discrimination, exclusion, exploitation, as well as the attacks on and murder of Jews – the ways in which other racisms are usually assessed – but has become a controversy about what Jews perceive to be antisemitism, and whether or not criticism of Israel is part of this phenomenon or not.
The situated gaze
I’m a great believer in encompassing the situated gazes of all the participants if one is to determine ‘the truth’ in any given social encounter. However, such an intersectional dialogical epistemology is very different from a relativist one, which gives ultimate validity to any situated standpoint, while ignoring the overall context, the power relations between them, as well as any possible validity for the other situated gazes.
We do not have space here to enter into a detailed critique of versions of identity politics which tend to homogenize all members of a certain social category or grouping, thus collapsing together individual and collective constructions of identity, social categories and social groupings. In such an environment, people can come out with declarations that ‘as a woman’, ‘as a Black’, ‘as a Jew’, this is what they feel, and thus this is how they have the authority to define the situation on behalf of all women/Blacks/Jews.
Such a position makes invisible conflicts, disagreements and unequal power relations within such social categories and how these relate to other social divisions. It also obscures the fact that those who speak were never endorsed or elected to represent the members of this grouping or category of people. Transversal politics have developed as an alternative to such identity politics, to help activists see themselves primarily as advocates for, rather than representatives of identity groups and to be self-reflective as well as empathetic to the differential power positions that they occupy.
Transversal politics have developed as an alternative to such identity politics, to help activists see themselves primarily as advocates for, rather than representatives of identity groups.
Social oppression and discrimination are not mutually exclusive. The same working-class heroic men, fighting the class war at work and in the streets, can come home and beat up their wives, and advertently or inadvertently have also benefited from being part of colonizing and imperial nations. Elsewhere, I have differentiated between a support for all victims, whatever their politics and values, from our positionings as human rights defenders – and transversal solidarity, which is an alliance across borders and boundaries, among all of us who share the same emancipatory values. To use a recent example, I object to the breaching of human rights which has been involved in the stripping of British citizenship from the ISIS recruit Shamima Begum – but I would never consider her as a political ally.
Sadly, those who have been subject to different kinds of racisms, can themselves become the perpetrators of racism. Therefore, while we should not be afraid of confronting and fighting against antisemitism and other forms of racism, we should also not be afraid of criticising the victims of antisemitism and racism when such a criticism is due, while continuing to fight for their human and civil rights.
Recently, such controversies around the issue of antisemitism have arisen, in quite different contexts, in both the UK and the US. As discussed above, in Britain the controversy has been linked to the resistance inside and outside of the Labour party to Corbyn’s leadership. In the US, controversy has focused on the Women’s March leadership, but also on what has surfaced in the commentary as ‘campus culture’. Interestingly, this controversy has focused in on the notion of intersectionality, cited by the Harvard Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz as ‘a code word for antisemitism’. People like Dershowitz are equating American patriotism with being pro-Israel and taking a stand against antisemitism so defined.
As in the UK, this controversy in the US has been raised as a condemnation of a putative antisemitism of ‘the Left’, but in the US it has also been primarily associated with identity politics of feminist women of colour, Black and Muslim. Here, also, the issues of Israel, Zionism and the Palestinian plight are of central importance, but in addition, there is also a discussion of White privilege.
In the US, also, the issues of Israel, Zionism and the Palestinian plight are of central importance, but in addition, there is also a discussion of White privilege.
Black women and women of colour, even when not socialist, usually share an anti-colonial perspective. As such, they oppose the Israeli occupation and support the Palestinians in their struggle, which these days often means supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign against Israel. Within the discourse of the ‘new antisemitism’ and with the encouragement of the Israeli propaganda machine which sees in the BDS campaign a major threat, this political solidarity can be interpreted as antisemitic.
The central situated gazes at stake in both contexts are first and foremost, those of Jews – and they are the hegemonic majority of Jews – who although they might be critical of particular policies of the Israeli state or its Prime Ministers, feel that their subjectivity is painfully undermined if there is any opposition to the Israeli state and Zionism as such, which they see as the collective representative of contemporary post-Holocaust Jewishness.
Other Jews – like the Jewish Voice for Labour in the UK and Jewish Voice for Peace in the USA – also resist antisemitism, as well as other forms of racism. But they see this as completely separate from the issue of supporting Israel and, as human rights defenders, they are concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, especially because they feel the need to emphasize that this is done not ‘in their name’.
Another important differential situated gaze – especially in the American context – is that which constructs Jews as White, a majority of whom are middle class, and therefore part of the privileged Whites who cannot be allies in the anti-racist anti-colonial struggles of people of colour. Many Jews feel that constructing them as White in this way eradicates not only the Jewish history of poverty, persecution and struggle, but also homogenizes and reifies all constructions of Whiteness. Some of these Jews, however, conflate this position with an unconditional support for Israel.
I’m not neutral in this debate, as I’m an anti-Zionist diasporic Israeli Jew most of whose family have been murdered by the Nazis and their local helpers in Lithuania; an antiracist activist and a socialist feminist who has also been a founding member of Women Against Fundamentalism and I have fought against the homogenizing and reifying effects of certain types of identity politics.
The fight against antisemitism and racism is not helped by the different ways identity politics operates – both on the right, but also on the left. The way Israel is constructed as the unquestionable representative of contemporary Jewishness plays a very destructive role in all of this.
The way Israel is constructed as the unquestionable representative of contemporary Jewishness plays a very destructive role in all of this.
While I’m very concerned with defending the rights of all oppressed, occupied and racialised people, my transversal political allies are those with whom I share my normative value system and for this, it is vital in contemporary political debate to separate out the questions of antisemitism and support for Zionism and Israel.
Members of certain social groupings have to fight against predetermined hierarchies of authority. As a member of ‘Women Against Fundamentalism’, I have worked closely with feminists from ‘Catholics for Free Choice’ who argued that not all Catholics are represented by the Pope and successfully resisted Vatican attempts to exclude them from the list of recognized NGOS at the UN conference in Cairo at 1994 on Population and Development.
As Jews, thankfully, we do not have any one religious or political hierarchy which claims to represent us all: except for the Israeli government, of course. However, it is still the case that most of world Jewry are not citizens of Israel, and that even if and when we became so, we would still have the right – like those American activists carrying placards in anti-Trump demonstrations – to declare, ‘Not in My Name!’.
The Israeli rightwing government and its policies having become explicitly more and more extreme, with Israeli PM Netanyahu giving ‘absolutions’ to more and more international extreme right leaders in Hungary, Poland, Brazil and elsewhere – a small ‘comfort’ in the longer term might be, however, that the inherent contradictions within the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’ are becoming more and more difficult to sustain.
Cockburn, C. and Hunter, L., 1999. Introduction: Transversal politics and translating practices. SOUNDINGS-LONDON-LAWRENCE AND WISHART-, pp.88-88.
Dershowitz, Alan, 2017, ‘Intersectionality is a code word for Antisemitism’, The Washington Examiner, March 30
Hakim, J., 2015. Affect and Popular Zionism in the British Jewish community after 1967. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(6), pp.672-689.
IRHI definition of antisemitism, 2016, https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/working-definition-antisemitism
Klug, B., 2003. The collective Jew: Israel and the new antisemitism. Patterns of Prejudice, 37(2), pp.117-138.
Lerman, A., 2013. “The New Antisemitism”, paper presented at the Anti-Jewish and Anti-Muslim Racisms and the Question of Palestine/Israel Symposium, LSE, 17 December
Weisel, E. 2001, ‘Jerusalem is in my heart’, New York Times, 24 January
Yuval-Davis, N., 1984. "Zionism, Antisemitism and the Struggle against Racism", Spare Rib, September, pp. 9-14.
Yuval-Davis, N., 2006. Human/women’s rights and feminist transversal politics. Global feminism: Transnational women’s activism, organizing, and human rights, pp.275-95.
Yuval-Davis, N. 2013. “Antisemitism, islamophobia or racism? Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms and the question of Palestine-Israel”, openDemocracy, 24 December
Yuval-Davis, N. & Hakim, J., 2015. “Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms and the question of Palestine/|Israel”, Open Democracy, 28 September
Yuval-Davis, N., 2015. Situated intersectionality and social inequality. Raisons politiques, (2), pp.91-100.
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