Thursday, 17 May 2012

Anti-Semitism and Criticism of Israel

Along with my letter and those of Laurence Davis and Raymond Deane in yesterday's Irish Times, there was a 'pro-Israel' letter from David Fine.

Mr Fine asserts that there is 'something wrong' with Irish democracy 'if cultural groups are prepared to boycott the only functioning democracy in the Middle East', and if these groups support instead 'a quasi-state whose party in power has enshrined the demand in its own constitution to "drive the Jews into the sea"'.  He endorses Minister Alan Shatter's description of efforts by Palestine activists to persuade Dervish to give up its planned Israel tour as 'cultural fascism'.  Fine goes on to assert that 'Any form of opposition to the Jewish state ...  can only be interpreted as a veiled form of anti-Semitism'.  He then notes that Israel, 'unlike the Palestinian state', guarantees the vote to all its citizens, regardless of their ethnic background, gender identity, and so on.

This statement is problematic in various ways.  Firstly, it denounces 'cultural fascism' and then, without missing a beat, suggests that any form of opposition to the Jewish state is anti-Semitic - a formulation that is awe-inspiring in its totalizing reach. Secondly, the statement is factually incorrect.  Let's deal with the facts first.

Israel is not 'the only functioning democracy in the Middle East'.  Turkey is another democracy in the region, albeit also with serious flaws.  Israel is better characterised as an ethnocracy, because of the priority given in its Basic Laws to the Jewish people.  In that Basic Law, Israel is defined not as the state of its citizens, but as the state of the Jewish people.  This has the immediate and practical result of rendering all non-Jews in Israel as second-class, in juridical terms.  Furthermore, under the terms of the Law of Return, it means that a Jewish person living in Paris or Miami has the automatic right to citizenship of Israel, whereas a Palestinian person living in Cairo, whose parents left in 1948, has no such right.  Uri Davis has pointed out how at its inception the state of Israel transferred certain functions pertaining to the state over to organisations which are constituted only to assist or work for Jewish people.  A good example of this would be the administration of state lands by the Jewish National Fund.  Because the JNF continues to see its function as, indeed, the Judaization and 'redemption' of the land of Palestine, the ability of Palestinian citizens of Israel to buy or trade in land is fundamentally restricted.  A more recent example of this kind of structural racism would be the 2003 Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law.  This law prevents Palestinians from the Territories who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves becoming citizens of Israel. It was renewed by the Supreme Court in 2006 and extended to persons from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.  The publisher of Ha'aretz, Amos Schocken, said in 2008 that the existence of this law on the statute  books turned Israel into an apartheid state.

Fine's statement is completely unclear as to what Palestinian 'state' he refers to.  Neither the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, nor the Hamas government in Gaza could be said to exercise anything like true sovereignty, so there is no Palestinian 'state'.  Neither the PLO Charter, nor the Covenant of Hamas (which is deeply problematic, and shot through with elements of anti-Semitism) make any mention of an ambition to 'drive the Jews into the sea'.

As to the idea that any opposition to the  Jewish state is a veiled form of anti-Semitism, well, the intention of such a statement is to delegitimize and block any criticism of Israel by the use of one of the worst slurs or aspersions that can be cast in the post-Holocaust world.  But there is a number of problems with this strategy:

1) it seeks to block all opposition, of any kind - be that militant or written or verbal or political or cultural or religious, violent or non-violent. We should note that it even blocks criticism of Israel by Jewish people, and by Israeli citizens.  This kind of blanket suppression of opinion is, surely, one of the essences of fascism; 

2) it elides the differences between the Jewish state and Jewish people everywhere.  Far more Jews live elsewhere in the world than in Israel.  Not all Jews identify with the 'Jewish state' - many of the most courageous and powerful critics of Israel are Jewish.  Not all Jews inside Israel identify with or fully endorse government policy.  Not all Jews fully identify with Zionism.  This statement in fact arrogates to Israel the right to represent all Jews everywhere, whether they like it or not.  This too is hardly democratic;

3) the fact is that the charge of anti-Semitism is thrown so often, and so easily, these days means that it has become profoundly and dangerously cheapened.   Its use by someone like Fine elides the gulf of difference between Nazi advocates of genocide and non-violent protestors who demonstrate outside Israeli embassies.  This elision, too, is characteristic of the fascism Fine purports to oppose.

One excellent point of reference in discussion of this kind is the work of the brilliant Jewish-American philosopher and cultural theorist Judith Butler.  Butler teaches at UC Berkeley, and is best known as a theorist of gender and sexual identity working at once in the Hegelian and poststructuralist traditions.  But she has also written influentially on hate speech, and she has long been an anti-Zionist activist.   In August 2003, she published an essay in the London Review of Books, 'No it's not anti-semitic', which she then re-published in extended form in her collection of political essays, Precarious Life (2006).  It starts off from statements made by Larry Summer, president of Harvard University, about campus 'anti-Semitism', and proceeds, carefully and politely, to demolish positions such as that of David Fine.  Anyone interested in the debate about Israel and Palestine should read it.


No comments:

Post a Comment