David Hirsh

The Jerusalem Declaration defines the 'community of the good'

By focusing on hypotheticals it ignores what antisemitism is really like

April 01, 2021 14:47

Here's what's happening with the "Jerusalem Declaration". Jews who hate Trump and Netanyahu are trying to cement their membership of the larger community that hates Trump and Netanyahu. Because they feel that their membership is precarious; and that feeling is very frightening.

It is in this context that IHRA looks like a right wing "pro-Israel" instrument. Some of the clever ones concede that IHRA isn't that in its essence, in its text, but they say that IHRA is right wing in its use. They fight IHRA as though it is a tool of Trump.

What the Jerusalem Declarationists are trying to avoid is what happened to us in Britain. They don't want to find themselves politically and intellectually homeless, excluded both from an antisemitic left and a populist racist right. They don’t want to be vilified, branded as racists, and (especially) treated as vulgar and unscholarly.

The Jewish Studies profs decided to pick a lane. The lane they've decided to pick is the broad left. And the political concession they have offered it is formidable. And perhaps they imagine that the broad left will be grateful that the Jews have stayed with it, and have offered protection against the ‘right wing’ charge of antisemitism.

But the cost is also formidable. The cost is that in an effort to stay with the mainstream movement against Trump and Netanyahu, against racism and against the danger of right wing antisemitism, they have agreed to call a truce with left wing antisemitism in the interests of unity against the right.

IHRA does not designate anything as being antisemitic. IHRA gives examples of things that we know are frequently antisemitic and it says that a given case which is similar may, according to context, be antisemitic. And IHRA guarantees that criticism of Israel can not be considered antisemitic.

If an institution adopts IHRA, it is affirming that it understands that sometimes things that look like hostility to Israel can be antisemitic. That affirmation is important because there is a significant antisemitic movement which thinks of itself as not antisemitic but only as critical of Israel.

Jerusalem seeks to do the opposite. It asks institutions to affirm that BDS, unreasonable, disproportionate and intemperate speech, singling out Israel as uniquely colonial or apartheid, and saying that Israel has no right to exist, are not ‘in and of themselves’ antisemitic.

All the work here is done by the clause ‘in and of itself’. We could have a tedious scholarly seminar about whether those things are, in and of themselves, antisemitic. But what we need to know is something else. We need to know if they’re actually antisemitic. We need to know empirically whether those things are at the heart of contemporary left antisemitism.

What we know is that the kind of antisemitism which threatens the left, and by which if normalised on the left, the left threatens Jews, appears precisely in these ways.

We know because we’ve seen it, around the world, but perhaps in its most clear form in Britain. The big profs of Jewish Studies have missed it or have chosen to play it down. When BDS is treated as legitimate in a social space, it brings with it antisemitic rhetoric, antisemitic emotions and antisemitic exclusions. We know this not ‘in and of itself’ but empirically. It always does. When Israel is treated uniquely as not a nation but as a ‘colonial settler state’ or as the only apartheid state in the world, it teaches people to think of Israel, and the Jews who are assumed to support it, as symbolic of all the evil things that the community of the good opposes.

And that’s the point. The Jerusalem Declaration is not a scientific document about antisemitism, it’s a political document which stakes out the boundaries community of the good. The Jewish Studies profs are offering a deal to the antisemites: allow us to stay and we’ll kosherize you as not antisemitic; we’ll do it ‘asa Jew’.

And, as an individual, and as part of a community which has been excluded from the ‘community of the good’ by rhetorical violence, I have plenty of sympathy with the big profs. But, obviously, in the end, it’s a pact with the devil.

Antizionism is not a nice set of scholarly positions, it is a movement which threatens Jews and which threatens the very democratic culture which the populist right also targets. The Jewish Studies profs have no chance of understanding antizionism ‘in and of itself’ unless they understand its sociological reality in the world as it exists. Contemporary antizionism has many continuities with older forms of antisemitism and with the ‘socialism of fools’ of Bauer and Bakunin. In its modern form it was specifically shaped by Soviet apparatchiks as a weapon against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, bourgeois Zionist nationalists’ and against ‘imperialism’; meaning anyone who opposed the USSR. And antizionism’s specific history in the Middle East is significant, with an input from Berlin during the war via the Mufti of Jerusalem, with an input from Moscow via Ba’athism and Arab nationalism, and with an input from Tehran via Hamas and Hezbollah.

The bad news for the Jewish Studies profs is that their position is less comfortable than they imagine. When populism takes hold, anti-populists get squeezed out. That happens both on the right and on the left. And since populism needs an ‘enemy of the people’, and since the antisemitic notion of ‘the Jews’ has evolved over centuries, in quite distinct times and forms, to offer an emotionally satisfying repersentation of that enemy, antisemitism is a danger of both right and left populism.

You can’t fight one populism with another populism. Both populisms agree that the democratic state is a fiction of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’. They appear as enemies but they collaborate in squeezing out democratic and rational politics.

You can’t fight right populism by making an accommodation with left antisemitism just as you can’t fight left populism by making an accommodation with Orban and QAnon.

You can’t fight left antisemitism by defining its distinctive rhetorical building blocks, in the real world, as not ‘in and of themselves’ antisemitic.

The Jerusalem Declaration does not help the fight against antisemitism, it de-legitimises IHRA, which is itself a tool in the fight against antisemitism. 


April 01, 2021 14:47

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