Part-1 The Link
In a twitter conversation with me regarding the limits of free speech, Tim Squirrell – former head of the Cambridge union – revealed something striking. It strikes at the very heart of a pernicious trend: its main justification. It revealed the justification for the oldest hatred in its newest form, infecting campuses and social milieus. It revealed anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism. It revealed, most of all, how the tropes of classical bigotry can be found in a modern, political context. I wanted to highlight a contradiction in his reasoning regarding free speech. And, in doing so, he revealed to me something obvious about a separate issue: that the normalisation of anti-Semitic attitudes is grounded in an assumption that Israel is privileged and Palestinians are not.
I’ll start by focusing on the aspect of free speech, my main dispute with Squirrell. Squirrell believes freedom of speech should be circumscribed if a person of privilege uses it irresponsibly. If a person of privilege expresses bigotry to victimised groups – blacks, gays, women, trans – he is exercising his freedom of speech irresponsibly. He isn’t according with the principles underpinning just societies; protecting the weakest within society. Therefore, because of his lack of responsibility to the weakest in society, his rights should be circumscribed. This emphasis on responsibility, though, is naturally inconsistent. This is because a privileged person does not have the right to express bigotry but a victimised does, as long as this bigotry is directed upwards to the powerful.
I strongly disagree. I believe all viewpoints – hateful or not – should be free from censorship. This is for functional and principled reasons. Allowing hateful views to be expressed exposes them to transparent scrutiny, and so makes refutation public. (How else is civil society meant to undermine the reasoning of bigotry if it isn’t out open?). Furthermore, freedom of speech means that, because every person is endowed with individual liberty, the right to express an individual viewpoint is essential to a functioning liberal society. The emphasis should not be on exercising this freedom responsibly. Doing so transforms it from a liberty, grounded in individual conscience, into a duty to accord to certain norms and practices established by groups. The norms and practices Squirrell wants to defend include protecting the weak from bigotry. And in doing so, he implies censorship is a form of empowerment. He reverses a transformative cultural trend. He reverses the assumption of individual liberty being emancipatory and censorship destructive, he does this gleefully.
And, in gleefully emphasising freedom of speech for some but not others, he reveals the justification for the new anti-Semitism. Under the guise of anti-Zionism, justified by the exact reasoning Squirrell offers: those with power deserve greater hostility than those destitute of it. Israel, in having power, prestige and wealth -immeasurably more than its Palestinian neighbours – deserves greater hostility than the apocalyptic fascists seeking its annihilation. In emphasising this logic, the genocidal anti-Semitism of Hamas is normalised.
How does Squirrell get to this point? Well, his conception of free speech is informed by his ethics, protecting weak groups from harm. Some speech, argues Squirrell, are so sufficiently repugnant they impinge the well-being of certain groups and constitute harm. Racist views harm the dignity of people of colour, likewise misogyny for women. Because his conception of free speech is grounded in his ethics, it is reasonable to infer the viewpoints he would allow for free speech are those he deems morally acceptable. Anti-Zionism is morally acceptable, other bigotries are not. “Oh” you say, “But Squirell said anti-Zionism and not anti-Semitism”. He reveals something doubly striking here. For, in saying he accepts anti-Zionism and not anti-Semitism, he misunderstands the nature of power in feeding the oldest hatred. The reasoning that underpins virulent anti-Zionism, which Squirrell accepts, is equivalent to the reasoning that underpins a strand of anti-Semitism: Jewish power, and the consequent duty to resist it.
It is this logic, of analysing power above principles, and a conception of privilege above values, that nourishes the conspiracies and vampiric fantasies of the new anti-Semites. Israel is the incubus, sucking the innocence of Palestine. It is this logic that is disempowering to those sympathetic to the Jewish state, and leading to resurgence in anti-Semitic attitudes.
Part-2 Manifestations of the new anti-Semitism
A basic feature of bigotry and prejudice is its disconnection with reality. Those who espouse racist or sexist views don’t do so due to a function of power relations, they espouse these bigotries because they fashion something at odds with its reality. Black people may be viewed as dangerous and hostile, this is at odds with their reality as mostly normal. The same is true with Israel. The hysteria surrounding Israel is at odds with its reality as a pluralist, democratic state engaging in protracted wars with undemocratic, closed societies. This rhetoric is damaging. Chatham House recently revealed that, in Britain, Israel is viewed more unfavourably than North Korea and Saudi Arabia- and every other state in the Middle East. This is at odds with its reality as having the highest standard of living in the Middle East and the longest life expectancy. And, as the former head of human rights watch, Robert Bernstein, noted:
Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What is most worrying is that this disconnect with reality in regards to Israel is seen most acutely in campuses and university forums. Criticism of Israel isn’t anti-Semitic. Yet anti-Zionism isn’t criticism of Israel. Zionists accept that democratic societies welcome – and even demand – criticism and scrutiny. But when this criticism is disconnected from reality, when it is unique to Israel or disproportionate to the reality of Israel, it transforms from criticism to prejudice.
In a Kings College university debate this week, ostensibly dedicated to discussing Israeli policies, the anti-Zionist activist and academic Norman Finkelstein recycled numerous anti-Semitic tropes. He was roundly applauded, treated warmly by the students. The debate also featured Alan Johnson, head of BICOM and writer for the Jewish Chronicle. According to Johnson:
Finkelstein’s speech dripped with contempt for a “non-existent, pseudo and contrived antisemitism.“He invited the students to unearth a plot, a vicious fraud.
The taboos fell like nine pins. “Jews are tapped into the networks of power and privilege,” he said. “You marry a Jew, it opens doors,” because Jews are “the richest ethnic group in the United States”. Maybe there was some little stigma, sometimes, directed at some Jews, but so what? It’s not nice, but it is “socially inconsequential”. In fact – he actually said this, I have the tape – it is more socially consequential to be short, fat, bald or ugly than to be Jewish. “Look,” he said, “most people carry on in life, bearing these stigmas. It’s called life. Get used to it.
“These are bad times”, concludes Johnson. Indeed, they are.
In university societies across the country such as in SOAS, BDS resolutions are being passed (73% of people were in favour in SOAS). The BDS(M) movement is a phenomenon which implicates Israelis in collective guilt, ostracises the freest nation in the Middle East, and targets Jewish intellectual and cultural freedom. It is a noxious mix of masochism, bigotry and philistinism. Or, as MJ Rosenberg – a fervent critic of Israel, no less – put it:
… the BDS movement is not targeting the occupation per se. Its goal is the end of the State of Israel itself.
The BDS movement isn’t just an attack on Jewish intellectual and cultural freedom. Its venom is spilling uncontrollably into the streets. In South Africa, BDS members congregated around a Zionist conference. They jeered anti-Semitic abuse, crucially under the cover of anti-Zionism. “You Jews don’t belong here”, they jeered. “You think this is Israel, we are going to kill you!”, they bellowed. This was all described in a recent Hareetz column.
The growing presence of the BDS movement, and the hateful attitudes it inspires, should be a cause for worry for everyone.
In the university of Southampton a debate is being advertised about Israel. Debates enliven universities and centres for learning, they enrich one’s critical faculties. What is being advertised is not actually a debate though, but something else. Something sinister; an orgy of splenetic fury directed without challenge against Israel. Richard Falk, Ghada Karmi and Jeff Handmaker are the guests invited and they all question Israel’s right to existence. And so they all question the right of Jews to self-determination. I don’t think they should be banned from doing so, but will they be challenged? I think not.
The new anti-Semitism is accerlating under the aegis of anti-Zionism. The CST, a Jewish charity that monitors anti-Semitic incidents, reported a spike of attacks during the Gaza war last year. In July and August alone, they were 500 anti-Semitic incidents. Dave Rich, a spokesperson for the organisation, is quoted in The Guardian as saying examples of abuse include:
“Jewish people in the street having ‘Heil Hitler’ shouted at them by someone with a Palestinian flag hanging out of their car.”
A campaign against anti-Semitism survey reports that, “77% of Jews questioned have witnessed anti-Semitism disguised as political comment about Israel”, and ;”82% of Jews [questioned] say boycott of Israeli goods is intimidation”.
In the streets of Europe, banners have been held out endorsing Hamas and Hezbollah and Israel being traduced as child-killers. The blood libel is being resuscitated. (Can anyone conceive a situation whereby many people in Britain occupy London and endorse placards expressing support for the BNP?) These people are by-and-large not ill-educated Nazis or David Irving-esque fascists. They’re self styled progressives, riven with self-righteousness who, by accepting the conspiracy of power structures, generate apologia for fascism.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the BBC’s Tim Wilcox asked a Parisian Jewish guest whether there was a connection between killing Jews for being Jews and the policies in Israel. In a Channel 4 interview with a Jewish guest, who recorded himself being abused for 10 hours in Paris, Jackie Long felt it appropriate to bring up Israel. The link is there. The link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is entrenched in our minds and unavoidable.
Israel is a locus for peoples pathologies and conspiracies- it binds their hatred. Israel exists as a projection for loathing Jews, enmeshed totally with the tropes used to denigrate Jews; omnipotent power; infanticidal bloodthirstiness; enormous wealth and influence. These tropes and pathologies, utterly at odds with reality, justified by resistance to power, are being normalised and entrenched by those who should cherish tolerance.
If the left and others cease their obsession with power structures, and cease their crippling inability to confront Islamic fascism – paralysis, often induced by acquiescence to cultural relativism – it can begin to correct these problems. It can begin to confront and correct the resurgence of anti-Semitism in its midst. It can begin to recognise prejudice isn’t bound by power but deep conspiracies. And conspiracies can only be denuded by liberty; the freedom to challenge ideas, to debate issues, the freedom to unmask anti-Semitism in its latest manifestation and not cower to the spurious definitions offered by Tim Squirrell. There has to be a platform for a battle of ideas, and our side has to win. I fear we won’t. I hope I’m wrong.