By Winston Pickett
May 21, 2012
Teaching can be the ultimate instructor. It is where your most basic assumptions are challenged, amplified – or both.
Take the notion that simply ‘talking’ about antisemitism would spark debate. If I had any doubt that introducing the subject would lead to a spaghetti junction of contentious issues and live-wire associations – those misgivings were jettisoned during the first 20 minutes of my first class.
With the mere introduction of the topic and the ostensibly ‘safe’ route of asking participants to say what they understood by antisemtism, it didn’t take long before a Pandora’s Box of competing definitions burst open. Anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism, racism, Jew-hatred and xenophobia all clambered for recognition while hot-button local events vied for equal time as concrete illustrations.
What started as an academic excursus quickly got real.
References were made to a a recent act of vandalism which drove a 64-year old Brighton pensioner from her home, while other participants cited an invective-laced disruption of a performance by the Jerusalem Quartet during the Brighton Festival.
The woman, known personally to some in the class, had walked out of her flat earlier this month to find a swastika painted on her car – an act of vandalism capping weeks of verbal abuse and classified by the Sussex Police as a hate crime.
The concert disruption had been mounted only the week before by a local contingent of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign both outside and inside the Brighton Dome, shouting to passers-by and concert-goers to boycott ‘apartheid’ Israel. It touched a raw nerve among eyewitnesses in my class, some of whom felt hurt and upset that a cultural bridge-builder should be hijacked by ideologues with an aggressive political agenda.
But was it antisemitic? Or were the protesters, however noisy and unsavoury their message, simply exercising their right to freedom of speech? At what point did the shouts of “apartheid Israel” and “war crimes” cross over from disturbance to harassment – so much so that they physically kept the audience from listening to an evening of Schumann on eight separate occasions before hecklers were removed from the concert hall?
It didn’t take long for a welter of attendant questions and subjects to spring forth. How effective were the Jewish community and law enforcement authorities in addressing both incidents? What are individual and communal responsibilities when it comes to preventive strategies or mounting counter-demonstrations when faced with protests containing implicit or overt antisemitic content?
What are the criteria by which we can evaluate whether an act, a statement, a behaviour or even an attitude constitutes antisemitism? How do they differ from racism and group discrimination?
And then, once the label is properly affixed, what options do we have in terms of countering it?
Clearly ‘talking’ about antisemitism – that is, the act of discussing and defining it – is one thing. Forging strategies against it is another.
Perhaps, I thought, it will be impossible to separate ‘antisemitism’ from its ‘antidotes’ after all.
Whether or not this was the conclusion my class came to was impossible to tell on ‘opening night’ of our 8-week seminar. Many questions would have to remain open, waiting for more focused discussions to come.
Yet help in terms of getting a handle on what constitutes a hardcore ‘group discrimination’ when singling out Israel and Israelis for exclusion came when one participant later emailed me a column in the Guardian by Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub.
Responding to a decision by a Manchester mental health and social care to dis-invite Moty Cristal, an Israeli professor and expert on mediation and negotiation theory – someone whose bona fides include active participation in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a previous speech before the Muslim Council of Britain – Taub lays bare an underlying dynamic.
For it wasn't Cristal's competence, his scholarship, his credentials or his experience that was the object and cause of his exclusion, but rather his membership in the collective Jewish enterprise known as the State of Israel.
All of which led me to reflect: Jewish collectivity as miasma. Does a more antisemitic meme exist?