by Friends of Palestine Society
One of the pitfalls of campus activism in solidarity with Palestine is coming into conflict with Jewish students and specifically Jewish student organisations that have taken an explicitly pro-Israel stance. This informative blog post reveals the extent to which many young Jews view support for Israel as integral to there religious identity, and how more critical views of Israel are marginalized within Jewish campus organisations. The post gives several striking examples of the commitment of some Jewish organisations to evangelising for Israel. It describes a competition amongst pupils at Jewish secondary schools to find the best advocate for Israel and how the stated intention of one Union of Jewish Students organised visit to Israel is to “highlight the key messages to bring back to campus.” Reading this you cannot escape the conclusion that we are not being faced with scholarly debate but PR.
One of the key tactics of PR is misdirection- the diversion of your opponent from the debate at hand to a disparate, safer, topic. The diversion we are increasingly seeing is the accusation of antisemitism. This may well be, in part an expression of a genuine feeling amongst Jewish students of being under attack. This is unsurprising given Jewish people’s historic status as an oppressed group and the extent to which the nation of Israel is central to many Jews religious identity, something encouraged by mainstream Jewish educational establishments, as outlined above. It’s also not unfounded in every instance. Whilst unfortunate, it isn’t remarkable if some Muslims and especially Palestinians have come to feel a general antipathy towards Judaism given their treatment at the hands of the Israeli state, a state that styles itself as the ultimate outworking of Jewish identity. I’m also not in the position to rule out the existence of some whose criticisms of Israel are motivated by a deep-seated hatred of any overt expression of Jewish identity. However, it has also become clear that antisemitism has come to be used as a reflexive defence against criticism of Israel.
This has come to be a regular experience for Birmingham friends of Palestine, with many of our events being picketed by Jewish students. Complaints to the University are also common resulting in our being made responsible for security costs at events, a serious problem for the society. Recently we were subject to proceedings by the Student Groups Committee at the Guild of Students over comments made by an outside speaker at one of our events, something that could have resulted in the society being derecognised (fortunately this didn’t happen, although we were forced to print a clarification) Recently, we have become aware of a new tool in the armoury of those who wish to marginalise criticism of Israel: a definition of antisemitism proposed by a little known committee of the EU in 2005. The so-called European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) working definition outlines a number of features of discussions of Israel that its authors regard as potential manifestations of antisemitism:
o Denying the Jewish people right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour.
o Applying double standards by requiring of it behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
o Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
o Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
o Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.
Now a number of these points are extremely problematic. The first point presumably means “a state of Israel” explicitly defined as a Jewish state although it doesn’t make that clear. Clearly this is an ethno-nationalist endeavour. Some would regard that as racist in and of itself without singling out Israel or Judaism in that regard. I would disagree. I believe that it is legitimate for an ethnic or national group to aspire to a state based on that group. Jews in particular have more reason than most to desire the refuge of a state of their own and all that entails in terms of sovereignty and military protection. The problem comes when this aspiration is prioritised over the fundamental rights of any other individuals or groups of people. The establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine- a region that historically had a non-Jewish majority- logically required either the forced removal of pre-existing non-Jewish residents from the land or the implicit erasure of those residents’ identities as equal citizens of the country in which they live. This is undeniably racist, and has begotten further racism amongst Israelis, as they must rationalise why Palestinian’s rights are either unimportant or at least subordinate to Israel’s national aspirations. Particularly problematic is the framing of this clause in terms of Jewish people’s right to self-determination. In practice Palestinians have had very little self-determination as a direct and natural result of establishing and sustaining the State of Israel. So the right to self-determination of Jewish people is defined as unconditional and fundamental whereas the self-determination of Palestinian people is conditional upon it not coming into conflict with the principles and security of the Israeli state.
The second point like the first is hopelessly imprecise. It doesn’t make clear whether it refers to holding Israel to standards above those currently adhered to by other democratic nations, those standards which consensus would hope that they would aspire to, or the particular ideals of the speaker suspected of applying double standards. Either way, this clause chimes remarkably well with an accusation regularly thrown at critics of Israel, as anyone familiar with this debate will know. Thus it has great potential as a weapon to be used against critics of Israel. It is a licence for “whataboutery” the derailing of the discussion of Israel’s actions by sidetracking the opponent into an irrelevant debate on the behaviour of and the opponent’s views on other countries.
The next two clauses are less problematic, and describe behaviour that is at least insensitive to Jewish people’s sensibilities surrounding their history. However there is also a risk that these could be used as a “gotcha” tactic to catch out speakers who don’t have any hateful intentions. We have experienced this at Birmingham with our recent disciplinary action after an outside speaker- former US soldier and antiwar activist, Mike Prysner- likened some of Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis. We made clear that we feel that such comparisons are unacceptable as they take advantage of some of Jewish people’s most painful collective memories in a way that outweighs any insight they may provide into the current situation in Palestine. Nevertheless this was a short section of a talk that didn’t primarily concern Israel and some present felt that one, well known, Jewish student tried to goad the speaker into making controversial remarks. The subsequent disciplinary proceedings felt like a deliberate attack on the activities of the society as a whole.
How then did such a flawed document come to be produced by an official agency of the European Union? Richard Kuper of Jews for Justice for Palestinians describes how the definition was drafted in a non-transparent process heavily influenced by back room lobbying. The contentious parts of the working definition seem to be largely identical to work by Dina Porat, of Tel Aviv University amongst others. Porat views anti-zionism as, in itself a variety of anti-semitism. According to Kuper, the EUMC and it’s successor body, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) abandoned the working definition after its lack of utility in monitoring the prevalence of antisemitism became apparent. It appears never to have developed beyond draft stage.
Nevertheless, it was endorsed by a parliamentary enquiry on antisemitism, although it was subsequently rejected by the then Government on the grounds that it “is in fact a work in progress and has not been recommended to states for adoption” according to the EUMC’s own evidence to the committee. (The Government would go on to endorse the, potentially even more problematic, Stephen Lawrence Enquiry definition that states that any action is racist-or antisemitic- if any observer perceives it as such). Extensive lobbying by Jewish student organisations resulted in the working definition being adopted by the National Union of Students and our very own University of Birmingham Guild of Students.
Whilst the working definition itself tentatively notes, only, that the clauses relating to Israel could represent antisemitism “taking into account the overall context.” In practice this caveat is often abandoned as can be seen in this Youtube video of audio clips from Mike Prysner’s talk (the full recording can be found here and the official Friends of Palestine video here). It appeals to the EUMC working definition as an absolute authority, and from there on in it is deemed unnecessary to further establish their case: a statement is antisemitic because the EUMC says (or to be more accurate, once said) it is. Similarly, CIF Watch, a website dedicated to- or as some might put it, obsessed with- recording examples of, what it terms antisemitism, on the Guardian newspaper’s online comment site, uses the EUMC working definition to demand that both Guardian writers and commenters whose statements could fall within the definition, be barred from the site. It’s worth noting that some of the writers identified are Jewish and at least one is Israeli. Statements are often described as “violating” the EUMC definition, as if it were a code of conduct. As we have seen, it was never intended as such. It’s original intention was as a definition to be used in monitoring the prevalence of antisemitism. When it was found to be ineffective for even that purpose, it was dropped by it’s own sponsors.
It is clear that the EUMC working definition is used to confine the discussion of the situation in Israel and occupied Palestine within terms of the choosing of Israel’s defenders. Usually they will allow that some criticisms of Israel’s actions are acceptable, but demand that this be in proportion to “those leveled against any other country” although these are never defined. In an article linked above Dina Poratm, one of the main architects of the EUMC definition, writes that such criticisms aren’t antisemitic if they targets ”a specific program, policy, political leader or party… as it might…in respect to any other country.” Thus, individual actions of the Israeli state are offered up as subjects of free debate, but their historical and idealogical underpinnings are kept off limits. Even if these boundaries are observed, the critic may still fall under suspician if he or she is perceived as too fervent or too focused on Israel.
We foresaw the problems associated with this definition when our Guild council endorsed it but were unable to prevent it from being passed. The dual nature of the Jewish people as a historically oppressed group and the Israeli state with an agenda to repel criticisms of its own, often oppressive, actions, presents a challenge to the usual liberal consensus that victims of prejudice are the best judges what constitutes that prejudice. I have heard at least one non-jewish student express the opinion that the opposition amongst Jewish students to the Mike Prysner speech, represented proof that it was unacceptable, as the opposition wasn’t restricted to “a few extremists” but seemed to be the majority opinion of the Jewish student body. This sets up one group as the arbiter of the acceptable limits on the discussion of the oppression of another group. We are seeing our fears of the effect of this motion, confirmed, and intend to try to overturn it within the next year. It is incumbent upon anyone who with any concern for the situation of Palestinians or for the free discussion of ideas at our Universities to challenge this document.