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Shaw-Geras debate

Norman Geras continues the extended debate between Martin Shaw and David Hirsh
The practice of discrimination
Norman Geras, Normblog, 19 Sep 2008
The new anti-anti-semitism
Martin Shaw, theory and politics, 21 Sep 2008

In recent months I have become publicly engaged for the first time with the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine – although obviously I have long held private views about this conflict. On the first page of my book What is Genocide? (Polity 2007) I wrote, among several examples of how past genocides figure in current politics, that ‘The spectre of the archetypal genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, stalks twenty-first-century relations between Israelis and Palestinians.’ By this I meant no more than that the Holocaust influences thinking about the conflict on both sides, so that, for example, some Israelis see the Holocaust in every attack on Jews in Israel, and some Palestinians go so far in their opposition to Israel as to deny the Holocaust. Later in the book, however, I used the Zionist drive to expel Arabs from Mandate Palestine, in the run-up to 1948, as one example of how forced migration involves genocidal thinking.
In the light of this later analysis, my opening statement was picked up by an Australian academic, Mark Baker, writing in Australian Jewish News, as an indication that I believed that Israel might be planning to do to the Palestinians something like what the Nazis did to the Jews – although my words bear no such interpretation. This in turn led Baker to imply, through a thoroughly distasteful anecdote about a scientist in the Nazi era, that I am not only incorrigibly anti-Israeli but also anti-semitic. I requested and eventually received an apology which was published in Australian Jewish News’ print edition (although it is not to be found on their website, from which the offending article has also been removed).
Following this I read an article by David Hirsh in Democratiya, an online centre-left journal on whose advisory board I serve, implying that the academic boycott of Israel, proposed at one point by the British Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), was not only wrong but inherently, ‘institutionally’, anti-semitic. I fired off a short letter challenging this idea, which provoked a long reply from Hirsh, who it turns out runs an organisation called Engage devoted to this issue. I responded also at length; he replied again; and I was given the last word – so a brief comment turned into an extended debate.
Now Norman Geras, another supporter of Engage, has joined the fray. His is also a lengthy piece, but unlike Hirsh, Norman (whom I know a little from our days in different fragments of the far left many years ago) does refer carefully to my argument. He also makes some reasonable points – yes, I agree that the boycott (which I never supported) discriminates against Israeli academics, but this is hardly the clincher that he seems to think it is, since no, that still does not mean the boycott campaign is anti-semitic.
Norman’s version of the latter argument is that ‘The academic boycott … targets Jews, though not all Jews, and for no good reason that anyone … has yet come up with. That seems to me to provide prima facie grounds for describing it as anti-Semitic.’ This is truly bizarre, since the boycott targeted Israeli Jews, on the manifest grounds of their being Israeli rather than their being Jewish, and while it is not justified to discriminate against all Israelis, or all Israeli academics, simply because they are Israeli, it was quite clear in this case that it was because of their Israeli citizenship and presumed linkage to the policies of the Israeli state, and not because of their Jewishness, that these academics were targeted. It is exactly the same principle, misguided though it is, that guided the boycott of academics from apartheid South Africa in the previous generation, and in neither case has the campaign been inspired by racism. While it is not justified to discriminate against academics because of the policies of the Israeli state, there is simply no good reason to doubt that the stated rationale of the boycott, opposition to these policies, rather than hostility to Jews as such, is in fact the reason for this campaign. Why not answer it on these terms rather than resorting to the argument of implicit, ‘institutional’, anti-semitism?
Nevertheless Norman cannot let go of the idea that there is an inherent link between anti-Israelism and anti-semitism, and therefore he asks ‘how does Martin exclude the possibility that … there might be at least threads of anti-Semitism staining the boycott campaign?’ And he wonders ‘how Martin can be so sure that no attitudinal anti-Semitism, that is, no anti-Semitism on his own very restricted definition of it, is at work in the academic boycott campaign’. So I am being called to account for not being more concerned about the possibility of anti-semitism, that is to say, a hypothetical danger. While I accept that one should be concerned about this possibility, it does not seem to me to weigh very heavily against all the actual, clearly existing dangers to Palestinians from Israel’s repressive policies, or indeed to Israelis from the attacks of Palestinian armed groups. As Norman goes on to write, ‘If I want I can spend all my free time campaigning against Israeli policies I regard as mistaken and unjust, like the occupation of the West Bank and (once) Gaza, or the Jewish settlements on that occupied territory.’ These policies include, one might add, the confinement of Palestinian academics which is far more harmful than anything that has been done to any Israeli academic. So that would seem very much more appropriate than spending one’s time worrying about the hypothetical anti-semitism of what is now, in any case, a failed boycott campaign, which has hardly harmed a single Israeli scholar.
The other big problem with Norman’s discussion is that he refuses to accept my broadening the argument from the boycott to opposition to Israel in general. This was for the good reason that the ‘anti-semitism’ charge is not merely an argument of those who oppose the UCU boycott. It is widely made or insinuated by supporters of Israel against its critics in all sorts of specific arguments, as I experienced myself withAustralian Jewish News, and as John Meiersheimer and Stephen Walt have extensively documented inThe Israel Lobby. Since Norman has ‘no quarrel’ with my ‘overall judgement’ that ‘on any serious assessment, antisemitism [cannot] be regarded as politically potent in Western societies today – by historical standards it is definitely weak – or a major theme among Western critics of Israel’, it seems to me that he really ought to question why he gives his support to David Hirsh’s dogged campaign to tar the boycott movement with anti-semitism. This charge, in this and many other cases, is little more than an underhand way of attempting to discredit opposition to Israel. In the end it raises more questions about the commitments of the anti-anti-semites than it does of the anti-Israelis.

This is quite interesting, Prof. Shaw. I have taken a stab at the question of singling out Israel for moral criticism on my own blog, here:

I would add to your last response to David Shaw that one does not need to accept Pappe’s claim that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was an essential pillar of Zionist policy, or that it was deliberately undertaken as part of a master-strategy, to view the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as central to the development of political Zionism in the 1940’s and 1950’s. (Let us not forget that there were a few cultural Zionists, like Magnes and Buber, who opposed it)

Even Benny Morris’s weaker claims are sufficient to demonstrate that such ethnic cleansing was approved by many main Zionist players before, and by all others after, the fact.

Indeed, the decision of the Zionist leadership and the State to bar Palestinians from returning to their homes, on the basis of their ethnicity, a ban that included Palestinians who took no part in the hostilities, should be viewed as the primary act of ethnic cleansing — even if, contrary to facts, all the Palestinians left during the hostilities because they were exhorted to do so.

Indeed, even if one accepts the rightwing Zionist narrative of 1948 put forth by scholars such as Yoav Gelber and Efraim Karsh, Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing in its refusal to let Palestinians return.

And a small point: as you point out, the foundational document of the State of Israel, as interpreted by subsequent legislation, speaks of a state of the Jews, which is defined as a religio-ethnic category. The non-Jewish citizens of the state are excluded from the nation-state, whereas a pork-eating Russian atheist whose paternal grandfather was Jewish yet whose father was a Russian Orthodox priest, is privileged to “return” to his homeland.


A final (?) reply to Norman Geras
Martin Shaw, theory and politics, 26 Sep 2008

Norman Geras responds to my last post to the effect that I haven’t responded to several of his points. Here they are (as he now summarises them) with my responses:

(a) A central point, indeed the main burden, of my post was that there are symbols, discourses and, above all, practices of prejudicial discrimination, and though these are often accompanied by prejudicial attitudes and motives they are not identical with, or reducible to, them. This is a well-known theme in the sociology of racial, ethnic and gender prejudice, a fact to which I also alluded. Martin says nothing in reply.

Of course there are such symbols, discourses and practices. But neither Norman nor David Hirsh has provided evidence of any that actually play a significant part in the Western opposition to Israel. Indeed Norman appeared in his previous post to endorse my statement: ‘I do not think that on any serious assessment, anti-Semitism can be regarded as … a major theme among Western critics of Israel.’ Absent evidence, what are we arguing about?

(b) I drew attention to the consideration that reasons which might (though they also might not) look credible as reasons for general campaigning over Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians look distinctly dubious as reasons, specifically, for singling out for disadvantageous treatment Israeli academics – Israeli academics alone – among the academics of this wide and heavily-populated world. Martin passes this argument by without comment.

Put another way, this seems to be a question about why other current solidarity campaigns (e.g. over Tibet, Burma or Zimbabwe) do not target academics as a way of getting at oppressive regimes, whereas the anti-Israel boycott, like the anti-apartheid boycott before it, has done so. I don’t really know the answer to this – although perhaps because Israeli academics are (unlike academics from many other oppressive states) significant players in global English-speaking academia, they seem plausible targets to some anti-Israeli campaigners, where academics from China, Burma or Zimbabwe aren’t? But I can’t exactly see how anti-Semitism explains the discrepancy – unless, absent evidence, anti-Semitism explains all discrepancies?

(c) I asked how a ‘sociology of activism’ could justify an academic trade union – not merely, be it noted, this or that individual or a voluntary assemblage of like-minded activists – treating the academics of a single country differently from the academics of every other country (despite, I will add here, records of oppression and mass murder elsewhere than in Israel sufficient to keep the human rights NGOs very busy indeed). Martin doesn’t trouble himself about this one either.

Clearly the sociology of activism does not justify this – but it might explain it, as I suggested in my response to David Hirsh.

(d) I gave reasons for thinking that, even if attitudinal anti-Semitism isn’t of preponderant weight in motivating the boycotters, it plays some role among them. And I said that, given that it does, we should call it by its proper name and oppose it. This Martin also doesn’t answer – except by dodging it. What he does is to transmute the strains of attitudinal anti-Semitism that I suggested there are into a mere possibility, a ‘hypothetical’ anti-Semitism. Where, before, I said that Martin makes light of such anti-Semitism as he allowed there was ‘among Israel’s critics’ and more widely than that, now he makes even lighter of it. It’s a possibility and no more than that.

I am more than happy to recognise and condemn attitudinal anti-Semitism wherever it plays a role – but unless I missed something, while Norman suggests reasons why there could be anti-Semitism, neither Norman nor David has presented any evidence that it actually plays a serious role in current Western opposition (as distinct from some Arab opposition) to Israel. Indeed the absence of such evidence seemed to be the reason for David’s original argument that the boycott campaign represents ‘institutional’ anti-Semitism.

(e) … I joined a debate about whether or not the academic boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic, and the arguments I made are pertinent to that question. Had the debate been about Israel and Palestine in general my arguments would have been differently shaped and focused. …

Norman still misses the fact that for me the debate was always broader than the academic boycott of Israel, as I made clear in my original arguments with David.

(f) For the second time, Martin has invoked the academic boycott of South Africa as if it might provide a good analogy. But it doesn’t and, by its very nature, it couldn’t. … First of all, South African universities were not staffed only by Afrikaners, but by English-speaking South Africans as well – I don’t know exactly in what proportions but both groups had a substantial presence there. Consequently, the prejudicial discrimination involved in that boycott was against South Africans and not against Afrikaners. It is, in any case, not credible to suggest that that boycott could have been racist or have contained a racist component. Martin might choose to discount the fact that there is no history to speak of in the West of anti-white racism that could have been at work in the boycott of South African universities, whereas there is a very long history of anti-Semitism. But others of us are less inclined to feel complacent about the latter. It is one of the many unhappy consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict that there is today a sector of left and liberal opinion become both blasé and cynical about that history, and which is ready to treat others who are less lightminded about it as if we looked upon the long persecution of the Jewish people and its most calamitous outcome as a mere convenience of political argument.

I’m sorry, Norman, but this will not do. I am not at all light-minded about the history of the persecution of the Jews, let alone the Holocaust (I’ve long recommended your own book concerning the latter to students), but I don’t think you’ve presented a good reason for dismissing the analogy with South Africa. First, there are good reasons for comparing the Israeli and South African situations in general. Israel is and South Africa was a settler state in which the pre-existing populations were dispossessed and then confined. True there are important differences – Zionists were not motivated by doctrinal racism towards Arabs, but nevertheless perpetrated, in 1948, a more radical destruction of Arab society than anything the South African Nationalist regime achieved against the blacks. Second, this is the major past example we have of an academic boycott. That boycott was indeed of South African academics as a whole, but few of them were from the oppressed black majority (just as few Israeli academics today are from the large Palestinian minority); and most came from the white population that benefitted from apartheid (just as most Israeli academics come from the Jewish population that benefit from the Israeli state). And contra Norman, ‘reverse’ black racism against whites was not unknown in the period of the anti-South African boycott, not least in the USA, but would anyone have thought of assuming that even blacks who supported that boycott must be motivated by such racism? I agree that anti-Semitism has a longer pedigree and may be more deeply ingrained, although pretty certainly it is declining in importance compared to other prejudices such as anti-black racism and Islamophobia in the populations of Western societies. But does is there any good evidence for supposing that in Western academia or the Western left today, the milieux that generated the boycott, anti-Semitism is a significant current, strong enough to have a major influence on the boycott or any other anti-Israeli campaign?

Norman, like me you’ve lived in these milieux for four decades or more – admittedly I’ve experienced them as a non-Jew, while you’ve lived in them as a Jew – but do you have any real evidence? I for one am not prepared to spend any more time debating suppositions, conjectures and hypotheses.


Yet more on Israel and anti-Semitism
Martin Shaw, theory and politics, 5 Oct 2008
As our debate about ‘anti-Semitism’ in the opposition to Israel winds down, Norman Geras thinks he has found another weakness in my argument, in my agreement with ‘the sociological truth that racism is not only a matter of overt expressions of hostility, but can also inhere in symbols, discourses and practices of discrimination. Still, in the same paragraph Martin insists on being presented with evidence of attitudinal anti-Semitism among the boycotters. He thereby undoes his apparent acceptance of the point.’ No – because we still need evidence and analysis of the ‘symbols, discourses and practices of discrimination’, just as we do of attitudinal racism – and Norman’s argument relies hugely on assumption and assertion and hardly at all on evidence or analysis.This is clear when Norman returns to another of his arguments that I hadn’t addressed: ‘I gave [he says] the hypothetical example of a university that closed certain positions to women, and argued that this would constitute sexist discrimination whatever the attitudes of those supporting it. Martin offered no answer to that. Yet he remains confident that a boycott policy targeted solely on academics of the Jewish state, and who are therefore mostly Jews, has nothing of anti-Semitism about it.’ My answer is this: while any campaign against the racially exclusive character of the Israeli state will necessarily be experienced as hostile by many Jews who support this state, it need not target Jews as a whole, even within Israel, and indeed many Jews are among those who support such campaigns. This is clearly different from a blanket ban on women.

Norman makes much of my confession to not knowing precisely why the boycotters should pick out Israeli academics for unfavourable treatment. A correspondent has drawn my attention to Stan Cohen’s chapter, ‘The Virtual Reality of Israeli Universities’, in the collection A Time to Speak Out, just published by Verso. Stan makes the point that Israeli universities ‘have been intimately connected with the project of nation-building’, and are effectively nationalist institutions – and that the idea of a ‘nationalist university’ is an oxymoron. He analyses the ‘culture of denial’ in Israeli universities concerning the crimes of the Occupation. His account suggests that there are good reasons for criticising most Israeli universities and academics. While these are not reasons to boycott all Israeli academics (a policy that Stan, like me, does not defend) they do help me point, again, to the glaring logical flaw in Norm’s own position. Just because there are no good reasons for such an all-embracing boycott does not mean that the not-so-good reasons have to do with anti-semitism. They are more obviously to do with the policies of the Israeli state – and the complicity of too many Israeli universities and academics in these policies.

A couple of final responses. First, I am concerned, and somewhat surprised (since I don’t have similar reports from other Jewish friends), to hear that Norm has personally experienced several instances of anti-Semitism in recent years, but I still doubt that the academic and left milieux in which we have both worked for four decades are saturated with anti-Semitism to the extent that this significantly explains the boycott campaign, let alone the wider concern about Israel and the Occupation.

Secondly, to end on what may be a controversial note. What do I make, Norm asks, ‘of the fact that on the UCU activists’ list Israeli actions in Gaza are compared to those of the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto?’ I do indeed indeed find this an extreme comparison, and it is not one I would have made, since Jews in the ghetto were subjected to a confinement far more complete, brutal and life-threatening than that of Palestinians in Gaza, and of course it turned out to be a precursor to mass murder, which the Palestinians are not facing. However the use of an exaggerated comparison, a common ploy in political campaigning, is not necessarily anti-semitic. Nor do I find the comparison objectionable in principle. Gazan Palestinians in 2008, like Polish Jews in 1939-40, are confined in a small territory and subjected to systematic depradations of their conditions of life. The difference is one of degree, certainly a large one, and probable final outcome, rather than of kind. I find it shocking that 70 years after the confinement of Polish Jews in the ghettos, a self-proclaimed Jewish state should be content to confine another people in the manner that the Gazans are confined, and that some Jewish socialists should use indiscriminate accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ to discredit the outcry against this and other policies of the Israeli state.

This correspondence is now closed.

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