FFIPP-UK: Responding to Censorship/ Bechler – follow up

What’s in a Definition?

Rosemary Bechler

7th September 2007

The publication of Robert Fine’s contribution to the FFIPP debate on Anti-Semitism and Israel: Responding to Censorship – Freedom, Speech and Action provides a welcome opportunity to focus on one of the issues raised in that wide-ranging seminar. I have commented in detail elsewhere on various aspects of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism, but Robert is surely right to concentrate on the new definition of anti-Semitism recently offered up by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and amply deployed by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry.  How should we respond to this new definition? What function does it serve?  I agree with much of what he writes, but reach very different conclusions in answer to these two questions. FFIPP rightly detected the opportunity for an important debate in these different and related positions, one I hope I can advance here. I too claim no special expertise for the views I am about to express.

I cannot disagree with Robert’s starting-point. He warns us against an analysis of any major conflict which only blames one side, but acknowledges the deteriorating circumstances in terms of instability and human cruelty in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and asserts his conviction that ‘the primary responsibility for seeking a solution to the present misery lies with the occupier – it is the responsibility of power.’ I agree with this approach to responsibility for conflict, but perhaps more importantly I agree that it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the question of what is to be done about it that provides the all-important context and backdrop for any discussion of the historic role of the new FRA definition of anti-Semitism.

However, I would go further than Robert in specifying the context in which this definition has emerged and begun to be deployed in the UK and elsewhere. The new definition of anti-Semitism, first aired in January, 2005 by the EU Monitoring Centre Against Racism and Xenophobia coincides with what Henry Siegman recently described in the London Review of Books as the closing stages of what ‘may well be the most spectacular deception in modern diplomatic history’. Siegman, director of the US/Middle East Project, and former head of the American Jewish Congress from 1978 to 1994 argues that, ‘Israel’s disingenuous commitment to a peace process and a two-state solution is precisely what has made possible its open-ended occupation and dismemberment of Palestinian territory’, a process which has now with the creation of ‘the first in a series of Palestinian bantustans’ in Gaza, ‘largely achieved’ its objectives. He believes that ‘the Quartet – with the EU, the UN secretary general and Russia obediently following Washington’s lead – has collaborated with and provided cover for this deception by accepting Israel’s claim that it has been unable to find a deserving Palestinian peace partner.’ And he urges the US and its allies to speak the truth about the impediment to peace, ‘since Israel’s only hope of real long-term security is to have a successful Palestinian state as its neighbour.’

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that this is an exact and truthful description of what has been happening over forty years of Israeli occupation, surfacing just at the moment when the impact of those years in terms of facts on the ground is becoming perilously evident to people around the world. Were this the case, wouldn’t we have to at least entertain the possibility that the anxiety about criticism of the policies of the Israeli state manifested in the OSCE process leading to the Berlin Declaration and beyond and issuing, amongst other things, in the FRA’s new definition of Anti-Semitism, is in fact anxiety not only about the possible rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, but about the possible consequences of perfectly legitimate criticism of the Israeli state, viewed from the perspective, not simply of human rights or anti-racist concerns, but, in particular, from a highly politicised security perspective?

When Robert asks us what is wrong with the EU report and the parliamentary commission ‘inviting us to consider where legitimate criticism of Israel stops and something more dangerous and possibly anti-Semitic begins’  – he has paid scant regard to the possibility that there are many powerful interests in the world today including, but not confined to, powerful elites in Israel, for whom legitimate criticism of Israeli state policy is considered far more dangerous than a rise in anti-Semitism – at least insofar as it might prevent them from reaching what they regard as central security objectives.

Tony Lerman’s contribution to the FFIPP panel discussion outlined the history of the way Israel has taken an interest in defining, monitoring and combating what it alleges to be anti-Semitism for many years and the acquiescence of the international community in this process. I won’t go over that ground. But the questions I wanted to raise in my contribution were those raised by European Jews for a Just Peace (EJJP) – a federation of Jewish peace organisations in ten European countries – when they first queried the shift of definition of Anti-Semitism in 2005 towards one centred on attitudes to Israeli policy: Could it be that the new definition of Anti-Semitism is designed to confuse and deflect attention from criticism of Israeli policy at a critical time in Middle East politics? And, is it really the best way to defend the Jewish community in the UK or anywhere else, to plunge us into what is essentially a spilling over of Middle-East conflicts into Europe?

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has on and off since its inception in the Cold War been accused by its critics of a selective choice of human rights and democracy campaigns to suit the strategic interests of the West. The FRA, we learn, has recently been upgraded from a modest outfit monitoring European racism and xenophobia for the EU’s Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Directorate-General to a body with a much more extended budget and mandate under the  Justice, Freedom and Security DG. Add to this the discovery that the new definition was worked on and promoted by specialists in Tel Aviv University and the American Jewish Committee who were particularly interested in how to define anti-Zionism as ‘politically-based anti-Semitism’, and we find ourselves in a very particular world in which there are many concerns apart from race relations. In the FFIPP seminar, Robert suggested that it was understandable that Israel would want to take an interest in anti-Semitism as a phenomenon, and that it was a curious kind of conspiracy theory which cited the OSCE and the All-Party Inquiry as shadowy co-conspirators in some mighty deception. But is it far-fetched to imagine that in the era of the ‘war on terror’ there might be significant geo-strategic interests, and not just a ‘few unscrupulous people’, who see a value in directing attention to a ‘rise in anti-Semitism’ in Europe and who unwittingly or wittingly distort the phenomenon that is receiving this kind of attention in the process? How else is one to explain the character of the new Working Definition of Anti-Semitism and the circumstances which brought it about?

I disagree, therefore, with Robert’s argument that a bunch of not very academic people – at the FRA and in the All-Party Inquiry – have made what he presumes is a bona fide attempt, ‘more or less adequately’, to formulate their own criteria for identifying a new type of anti-Semitism (he disagrees with these authors insofar as he dismisses the idea that this is a new form of anti-Semitism). Firstly, academics have worked hard on what used to be called the Working Definition. Secondly, take a look at the Working Definition Examples and the convoluted arguments they engender and ask yourself what has been achieved by the new definition. There is no clarification, but a great deal of obscurity. And there is one inescapable outcome from all this obscurity, as the EJJP argued at the time. The new definition ‘fosters a presumption that those who criticise the state of Israel in all kinds of legitimate ways are in fact covert antisemites.’ The microcosm/macrocosm central argument that criticism of Israeli state policy is a cover for singling out Israel for special treatment, isolating it among the nations, and thereby casting it in the role of ‘the collective Jew’ is simply not credible. But it is a very useful way of deferring any conclusions among the increasing numbers of people worldwide who are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what the international community might usefully do about it.

It must be possible, for example, to distinguish carefully between all the different interests that contribute to the power of a pro-Israel lobby and its influence on the media, and an anti-Semitic myth of a world Jewish conspiracy. But as Robert points out in his criticism of Mearsheimer and Walt, also published by Engage, it takes a more wide-ranging analysis and more thorough-going research than these hard-working academics had available to them. And while they are being taken to task in a furore of criticism and counter-criticism for erring on the side of a conspiracy theory, the nugget of truth in their account – namely the questioning of whether the US should continue to give massive support and military aid to Israel while that state pursues ‘its ethnic exclusivism, its militarism and its crimes against the Palestinian people’ goes unanswered and undealt with.  Once again, the international community is let off the hook. Simply the allegation of anti-Semitism, however feeble its foundation, is sufficient to deflect attention from the real issues of ‘the responsibility of power’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Robert began with, and the urgent need to bring that conflict to an end. That is one of my concerns.

But Robert also has serious concerns. He is troubled by what he sees ‘as a tendency to downplay anti-Semitism itself (for example, by arguing that the physical protection of synagogues is unnecessary) and to discredit those who are concerned about anti-Semitism.’ I can see that I might lay myself open to this criticism given the gathering incredulity with which I try to follow the uneven and contradictory evidence offered in the All-Party Inquiry. However, I for one am not arguing that physical protection is unnecessary, simply pointing to the fact that the Inquiry’s ‘findings’ that it is perceived to be necessary and therefore is necessary are inadequate and circular arguments. More is at stake here than circular definitions. The report surrounds its conclusion that there is a rise of a new anti-Semitism by pages of suggestivity rather than clear evidence. Let us take as one example, the school in Manchester which it compares with a school in Paris which was firebombed in 2003. We learn that on the advice of the police and the Community Security Trust, ‘the campus is surrounded by reinforced fencing and monitored by CCTV cameras. The windows are fitted with anti-shatter glass and the wall nearest the road is reinforced. Access is controlled and limited to two entry points staffed by full-time security guards and parents are also asked to participate in a security rota. Bomb drills are conducted in addition to the standard fire drills.’ (para 33) Richard Littlejohn’s TV film which essentially gave a blow-by-blow dramatisation of the All-Party Inquiry findings showed us the unhappy silhouette of this school and the policeman accompanying some of its inmates onto the premises as he has done for some time. Littlejohn asked him if this was necessary and why it was necessary, to which the answer came, ‘Unquestionably’ because there had been ‘Hostile reconnaissance’.

What did the policeman mean by ‘Hostile reconnaissance’? Are we talking now about ‘the new anti-Semitism’ which the All-Party Report tries to warn us against, or something that has been going on for longer? – everyday British yobbishness which doesn’t take kindly to living with difference, the BNP, home-grown Islamists, ‘the left’ or something much more alien to our shores?  The Report keeps all its and all our options open. It asserts that a globalised mass media and in particular, anti-Jewish propaganda as broadcast by ‘Egyptian and Syrian state television … to millions of homes’ must ‘have a direct effect on attitudes and community relations in Britain’. (No corresponding weight is given to the recognition that the actions of the Israeli state and its allies might have an even more direct effect.) Further paragraphs call attention to state-sponsored disinformation of various kinds including the spreading of Holocaust denial and ‘classical anti-Jewish stereotypes’. These combine with accounts of how far right and radical Islamicist websites peddle such crazy conspiracy theories as the ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, and merge with other passages relating the inclusion of synagogues amongst the targets of terrorist acts around the world. All are said to take their toll on communities within the UK.

The general effect of such an accretion of detail is to reproduce the blurred combination of fear of a domestic threat and foreign encroachment which is the hallmark of the ‘war against terrorism’, without a clear assessment of either phenomenon, let alone the impact of one on the other. It removes the phenomenon well outside the category of everyday bullying whilst giving us not much more of a handle on its causes and effects. I think this shapeless suggestivity endangers rather than protects the Jewish community in the UK. Against such a heightened atmosphere of generalised suspicion, is it a good idea to encourage young Jewish students who may well have been brought up to have a special fondness for Israel to report to their Vice Chancellors or to the police if they feel their loyalties and beliefs have been offended by fellow-students who disagree with them about the causes and remedies for the Middle East conflict? Is this conducive to the robust public debate the world urgently needs about the Middle East conflict, good community relations, to their personal safety, or even to national and international security? Is it the best way to deal with critics of UK policy on the Middle East to criminalise people who feel alienated from and completely frustrated by the lack of progress in what Siegman calls ‘The Great Middle East Peace Progress Scam’? I couldn’t agree more that genuine campaigns for justice for Palestinians and against anti-Semitism are one and the same thing. But let us have a genuine campaign against anti-Semitism. Let us see the evidence and let us have a credible and clear analysis of that evidence. The All-Party Inquiry offers us neither resource.

My father lost many of his family in the Holocaust and some subsequently in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but had this not been the case, I agree with Robert that anyone who is a democrat must fight against racism and be concerned for anyone who feels that he or she is the victim of anti-Semitism. Robert has two warnings for people like myself. Firstly, he urges us to be prepared to detect anti-Semitism in ourselves. OK – but I’d much rather put my energies into trying to be as clear as possible about what I am criticising and what I am not criticising. For this reason, I cannot agree with his suggestion that ‘it would be surprising if opposition to “Zionism” (defined, say, as the right of Jews to their own state) did not sometimes overlap with anti-Semitism.’ Zionism should never be criticised on the basis that it is a Jewish claim – one Jewish version of everyone’s right to have a homeland. It should be criticised because it is ethnonationalist in its treatment of non-Jewish people within the Israeli state and amongst its neighbours. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, ‘Zionism …imported into the Middle East a Central European concept of …organic nationhood, founded on ethnicity and blood (or “land, descent and the dead”)… the very version of nationhood from which the Jewish people had had to flee’. As a historic movement, Zionism coincides with the realisation in the aftermath of Nazism, the holocaust, and the brutality of the Second World War, that there could not be peace and justice in the world without a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is not surprising if this latterday ethnonationalist endeavour is less tolerated than the many similar exercises in carnage which have long preceded it. But this is not to single out Israel. On the contrary. Israel’s ethnonationalism is only a stark example of something that is once again stalking Europe and the wider world: the rise of monocultural nationalism with its inevitable attendant effects of the abuse of minority and civic rights, the abuse of the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers and the potential for unleashing the state’s capacity for violence, at home and abroad. This may be one reason why the international community finds it hard to point an accusatory finger at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Secondly, Robert warns against well-meaning critics of Israel who find themselves tipping over not only into anti-Semitism, but into even more unsavoury anti-Semitic company, thus linking forces around ‘a common ‘anti-Zionism’[which] would constitute a real threat to democratic politics.’ It is not clear to me why the attempt to build a majority consensus out of different constituencies agreeing on only one thing should be anti-democratic, let alone a real threat to democratic politics. I only wish it were possible. However, apart from the fact that I would not align myself with anyone I thought anti-Semitic, I would not align myself with anyone, left or right, who believed that violence or war was the way to solve the problem of Zionist ethnonationalism. But I want to be consistent in working for a real peace process in the Middle East. Let us by all means distinguish carefully between the actions of the Israeli state and those of Israeli civil society. But let us also be vigilant in combating enemy images wherever we find them. Robert should at least consider whether the ‘new Anti-Semitism’ doesn’t contribute to a new set of enemy-images produced in a war in which we should have no part.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017