By Winston Pickett
May 31, 2012
Part of the joy that comes with investigation and research is the intellectual ride. You’ve got your topic. You may even have a working hypothesis to test. You prepare your field of inquiry and formulate your questions.
If it’s a newspaper story, you line up your interviews. If it’s a research paper, you fire up your search engine.
Now things start to get interesting. You start fine tuning your questions as your preliminary research begins to reshape the thrust of your inquiry. Your thesis begins to evolve and suddenly you discover a new angle that’s even more compelling than the one you began with.
Welcome to the evolution of my class.
Every week, under the rubric of ‘Talking about Antisemitism’ we’ve veered into the ‘anti-Zionism vs. antisemitism’ conundrum. Each session, new examples are cited from current events, each bearing fresh layers of complexity.
Tonight, no doubt, we will discuss this week’s (failed) agitations by boycotters to prevent London’s Globe Theatre from presenting a Hebrew version of the Merchant of Venice because of the Habima Theatre Company of Tel Aviv is purportedly complicit in Israel’s ‘racist’ policies towards the Palestinians.
As with all inquiries – particularly ones as multi-tiered as the anti-Zionism/antisemitsm nexus – the mind longs for clarity. Distinctions will be sought – frequently in an attempt to answer those who charge Israel with discrimination, colonisation or being an apartheid state – all in the service of demonstrating that the accuser’s facts are wrong, that art transcends barriers or that the actors and the theatre company are independent and don’t conform to Israeli policy or a national ‘agenda’.
In other words, tonight’s discussion will inevitably look for ways to counter the anti-Zionist tirade, as was suggested last week under the rubric of ‘education’ – whether in the form of ‘positive PR’ (hasbarah) or the thoughtful and deliberate ‘correction’ of bias with incontrovertible facts.
But if a key method for achieving clarity when discussing antisemitism is to offer a ‘lens’ for detecting its component parts, then any ‘tool’ that brings us closer to that goal is welcome.
It’s around here that my own ‘eureka moment’ kicked in.
As an analyst you look for detail, complexity and nuance – particularly when addressing an audience that possesses more than a baseline knowledge of your topic.
As a teacher, however, those presuppositions fade and you find yourself gravitating to slightly harder edges.
So what does make an argument – whether anti-Israel or anti-Zionist – antisemtic? Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland once wrote an exquisitely crafted analysis of the subject in a volume called A New Antisemitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st Century Britain (Profile 2003). Yet for my purposes I found myself returning to a far more useful explication by former Soviet refusenik and Israel Minister for Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky.
If anyone has experienced the brutal force of state-sponsored antisemitism first-hand, it's Sharansky.
In a 2005 op-ed Sharansky offered what he called the “3-D” analysis. What makes ‘anti-Zionism’ antisemtic are three criteria: demonization, deligitimisation and double standards – criteria that are echoed in official reports by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the U.S. State Department and the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism.
Thus, if an argument (1) contains components that articulate or suggest Israel as the apotheosis of evil, (2) fails to judge other countries exhibiting human rights abuses with the same standard or (3) denies the legitimacy of the Jewish state by questioning its right to exist – chances are what’s driving the argument is more akin to a more classic form of group hatred more than anything else.
It is this hatred, fuelled by a Soviet-era propaganda machine and exported throughout the Arab world that cemented the foundational canard that enabled “Zionism equals Racism” to gain traction and ultimate endorsement by the United Nations in 1975. That resolution, which took 16 years to repeal, nevertheless epitomizes the eradicable nature of a lie which, as Melanie Philips correctly notes, continues to infect the consciousness of the European elites today.
In fact, so prevalent is the ‘logic’ of Israel as a ‘racist state’ that it is almost impossible to dismantle it. Counter-arguments, says Phillips, no matter how brilliantly formulated, “will be dismissed out of hand -- on the basis that everyone knows that the lies about Israel are actually the unchallengeable truth.”
Yet if the ‘Zionism is racism’ meme is impervious to rational analysis (my class has already the ‘irrational’ nature of antisemtism insofar as it is able to embrace mutually exclusive stereotypes simultaneously), can ‘talking about antisemtism’ – no matter how clear-headed –ever work as an ‘antidote’ unless it takes place in the most civil and open-minded of interchanges?
Perhaps not. But this is where my second epiphany kicked in.
Even though it may be futile to counter the irrationality of antisemitism with reason, some in my class hinted at approaches that may be more effective in attacking the problem from another angle.
Consider this: If we are prepared to weigh the impact of ‘educational initiatives’ on the receptive mind – everything from teaching about the Holocaust to promoting scientific and economic virtues of Israel as a ‘start-up nation’ – then what about ‘self-education’?
Or as one university student passionately blurted out at the beginning of class: “I’m here because I believe it’s important not only to learn about antisemitism – which is more prevalent than ever – but also because growing up in a part of the UK with hardly any Jews, I’ve learned that defending myself against hatred has made me a better Jew and a better person.”
To which my only thoughts were: “I think I’ve just hit pay dirt.”
Thank God I’ve got five more weeks to see where this line of inquiry will take us.