Sunday, November 30, 2008
In his essay, ‘The freedom of self-definition’, Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-Jewish winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature, reflects on Jewish identity in light of his experience during the Nazi Holocaust as a concentration camp inmate. He writes: ‘In 1944, they put a yellow star on me, which in a symbolic sense is still there; to this day I have not been able to remove it.’ He goes on to say that the name or label ‘Jew’ is ‘an unambiguous designation only in the eyes of anti-Semites’. I understand Kertész to be saying that the yellow star was not just a form of identification but a whole identity. Pinning the star to his breast, they were pinning down the word ‘Jew’, determining what it meant. Kertész observes that ‘no one whose Jewish identity is based primarily, perhaps exclusively, on Auschwitz, can really be called a Jew’. What he means is that they cannot call themselves a Jew – they cannot define themselves as Jewish – because the word is not theirs to use: it is someone else’s brand stamped on them and they are stuck with it: ‘Jew’.
Antisemitism is best defined not by an attitude to Jews but by a definition of ‘Jew’. Defining the word in terms of the attitude – hostility – rather than the object – Jew – puts the cart before the horse. Indeed, hostility is not the only ‘cart’ that the horse can ‘pull’ behind it.
Who, then, are the ‘Jews’ that the antisemite hates – or fears or despises or envies
or admires? What is the ‘unambiguous designation’ of the yellow star that Kertész ‘to thisday’ is unable to remove? When they pinned the badge on him and he became a ‘Jew’, what did he become? He ceased to be a mere mortal and became, in a way, timeless: a cipher of the eternal Jew, an expression of ‘Jewish spirit’ and ‘Jewish consciousness’. He became powerful, wealthy, cunning; rootless and cosmopolitan, merciless and vengeful, depraved and demonic; arrogant yet obsequious, secretive yet flamboyant, legalistic yet corrupt. He became a member – and agent – of a people apart, a state within a state, a cohesive community that holds itself aloof. At the same time, this powerful, wealthy, cunning group infiltrates society, pursuing its own selfish ends. Across the globe its hidden hand controls the banks, commerce and media, manipulating governments and promoting wars among nations. Wherever there is money to be made or power to be seized, he, Kertész, the ‘Jew’, can be found, even if only in disguise. Fundamentally, the yellow star designated the Jewish peril: a parasite that preys on humanity and seeks to dominate the world. This is what Kertész became when, stripped of everything except this badge, he was made a ‘Jew’ in Auschwitz.
In short, antisemitism is the process of turning Jews into ‘Jews’. (Brian Klug, 'The collective Jew: Israel and the new antisemitism', Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 37, No 2, June 2003)
If anti-Zionists replicate such a gesture, he maintains, then they certainly are antisemitic. That is, if they pin a 'yellow star' on Israel, converting the self-styled Jewish state into the 'Jewish' state, a sort of timeless cipher of a 'Jewish spirit' or in Bernard Lewis' phrase a manifestation of "cosmic evil", they are guilty as charged by Phyllis Chesler, Bernard Lewis, David Mamet, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Walter Lacqueur, Daniel Pipes, Abraham Foxman, Melanie Phillips, et al. I think this a fair standard. Since I am one of 'they', moreover, I am anxious to protest that 'they' largely do not and are not, and that antisemitism is logically incompatible with anti-Zionism. The problem with this is that the charge from the "new antisemitism" crowd is not susceptible to such a rebuke. It does not make the distinction that Klug does, insisting instead that while criticism of Israel is not in itself antisemitic (albeit its intensity and supposed unfairness, they argue, is evidence of antisemitism), opposition to Zionism as such is antisemitic. Israel is 'the state of the Jews', the 'Jew of nations', and the attempt to deligitimise it is merely antisemitism transposed onto another plane. Moreover, Zionist logic holds that only by 'normalising' the status of Jews as a nation, integrated into a global system of nations rather than dispersed among other countries as a 'foreign' element, can antisemitism be thwarted and security provided for Jewish people. The attempt to roll back or undermine this project can only be interpreted according to such logic as an attempt to prevent normalisation and security. Finally, cultivating hostility to the 'Jew of nations' has wider ramifications since, it is argued, it has resulted in a growing climate of hostility experienced by Jews beyond Israel, from verbal abuse and sleights to physical harrassment and violence. Assertions of such a rising arc of harrassment have often been expressed in the most strident and hysterical accents. Alain
Nonetheless, the underlying idea has been reproduced by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia whose 2003 report considered displays of support for the PLO to be antisemitic, and by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Antisemitism (published a mere month after the end of Israel's invasion of Lebanon), which held that delegitimising Israel by reference to apartheid or calling it a racist state is an act of aggression against the "Jewish people", and thus antisemitic. Denis MacShane MP has recently written a book, 'Globalising Hatred', devoted to the idea of a 'neo-antisemitism' that no longer depends on racial and religious dogma but rather centres on the vilification of Israel. Based on the nebulous EUMC 'working definition' of antisemitism [pdf], which includes "claiming that the state of Israel is a racist endeavour" as an example of antisemitism, supporters of Israel at Leeds University are pushing a motion stating that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, with the implication that any groups championing anti-Zionism should be denied access to union funding and freedom to operate. (NOTE: I have been advised that, contrary to earlier reports, the motion has not been won yet, and may still be thrown out). In fact, the EUMC definition also includes disproportionately singling out Israel for criticism, even though doing so is by no means an obvious case of antisemitism. Disproportionate attention to a specific injustice may in fact be a morally scrupulous thing to do. It would be morally ineffective to deploy one's energies and attentions in an entirely equal and proportionate way. Even where it is not a matter of such scruple, it may have reasoning behind it other than antisemitism. It may just be partisan. The effect of such indiscriminate reclassification is obviously to inflate the number of antisemitic instances recorded, and thus reinforce the claim that the world is experiencing a rise in antisemitism.
Despite the insistence on novelty, the theory of a "new antisemitism" is not at all new. The term first emerged in the context of the 1967 war, and was the title of a 1974 book published by the Anti-Defamation League, which argued that radical Left and pro-Arab opinion were the new vectors of antisemitic ideology. It was, as I pointed out previously, a habitual theme of the neoconservative right during the 1980s. An important component of the current hypothesis, explicated by Bernard Lewis in his 1986 book Semites and Antisemites, is that the locus of this "new antisemitism" is the Middle East, from which it filters into traditionally antisemitic European centres via Muslim immigration and - in the past - the influence of antisemitic Soviets. Thus, the 'two Easts' were held co-responsible for the phenomenon, while the 'West', particularly the Anglosphere, was implicitly congratulated for its historically progressive, liberal and humane values which alone were sufficient to mandate Euro-American dominance. Today, Bat Ye'or and co-thinkers hold that Arabs, Muslims and certain European politicians have formed a pact that derails Europe from its natural alliance with the US and Israel, diverting it instead down a cul de sac called 'Eurabia'. Meanwhile there is a cottage industry devoted to collecting expressions, real or contrived, of Muslim and Arab antisemitism. MEMRI is the most notorious dispenser in this industrious and invidious trade.
Part of the charge against the anti-Zionist left, then, is that in its sympathy with anti-colonial forces and Third World liberation movements it has adopted a discourse that is objectively antisemitic, (and thus also liable to reproduce to a tee the antisemitic tropes of Old Europe). A corollary of treating anti-Zionism as objectively antisemitic is that pro-Zionism is objectively not antisemitic. The century old tradition of collaboration between antisemites and Zionists is acceptable because those antisemites objectively embraced the means by which their own doctrines would be undermined and the Jewish people strengthened. So, whether it is antisemites in the upper echelons of the British civil service cutting deals with Zionist leaders, or Israel working with the Nazi-inspired Phalange and allying with Anwar Sadat who fought alongside the Nazis in WWII, or Zionists embracing the most reactionary antisemites from the US Christian Right, it is all part of the necessary dirty work entailed by the need to build and conserve the purported safeguard. One could even go further and argue that the explicit colonialist and imperialist ethos of the Zionist founding fathers, from Herzl to Ben Gurion, was itself an unfortunate necessity in a world characterised by empires and colonies and in which the project's only chance lay in acquiring a colonial sponsor. Therefore, objectively, collaboration with European empires served anti-imperial ends that would be expressed when the Zionists finally expelled the Brits. And if it follows that the greater part of Palestinian Arab society must be destroyed, a process which Martin Shaw argues fits with current definitions of genocide, then it is only to prevent another Shoah. In just the same way, contemporary anti-Arab racism in Israel and among the pro-Israel commentariat is instrumental to creating a positive atmosphere for the 'Jewish state', and thus is objectively anti-racist. Anti-racist racism, anti-genocide genocide, anti-colonial colonialism: a great deal of arrant nonsense becomes 'objectively' true if one follows this logic.
The strangest thing about the "new antisemitism" charge is that its champions almost uniformly maintain that failing to distinguish between the state of Israel and Jewish people is a certain sign of antisemitism. This is true enough, but is usually explained just before they go on to insist that you can't be opposed to Israel without opposing the Jewish people (and also that people like this and this are traitors). To plant one flat-footed, strident assertion on top of the other, each new assertion obliviously contradicting the previous, is not a unique method of exposition and argument. It is just that in the case of this argument, it can't be avoided. Either the progenitors of "the new antisemitism" come out openly and admit that they themselves are among the most energetic disseminators of antisemitism, or they drop their charge, or they proceed as if they were blithely innocent of any contradiction on their part and return to shrill denunciations.