Thursday, March 23, 2006

Why anti-Semitism matters

This is prompted from three pieces posted on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" by Jon Pike, David Hirsh, and David Clark. My intention is not to repeat what has already been said by others, nor to repeat myself (I've posted under Clark's article under my real name) but to argue, briefly, why anti-Semitism matters.

This is to assume that anti-Semitism actually exists as a significant prejudice that animates social actions and political movements in the world today - a proposition that is by no means universally-accepted. Rather the case being made in relation to Livingstone by his defenders is that the charge of anti-Semitism is being used disingenuously as a cover for the actions of the Israeli state with regards the occupation.

I've suggested previously that this effectively to argue that contemporary anti-Semitism either doesn't exist independently of the state of Israel or if it does, it is insignificant in relation to other forms of prejudice such as Islamaphobia - and further that this view is historically implausible and from the data we have regarding the increase of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, an unjustified position given the contemporary evidence.

In arguing the case of why it matters, I make the following assumptions:

1) There can be no question that some use the charge of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of Israel.

2) There is no doubt that some use criticism of "Zionism" as a proxy for hostility to Jews as such.

3) Anti-Semitism exists independently of people who use it in the fashion described in point 1; independently from people who criticise the actions of Israel as a state rather than a nation; and independently from the existence of the state of Israel as such.

Insisting on point 3, I'd argue it matters a great deal for the following reasons:

  • Because the numerical frequency of incidents that manifest one species of racial hatred may be outstripped by another - this is no reasons for it to be treated as if it were relatively unimportant. Indeed one could argue, even if it were the case that anti-Semitic attacks could be understood as a function of the Israeli state - why does that make the experience of victims who have no connection with Israel somehow less grievous? It would be astonishing and indeed disgraceful if the increase in anti-Muslim attacks in British cities post 9/11 and particularly post-7/7 were rationalised in this fashion.

  • Because if one classes oneself as 'progressive', implicit in this idea is the notion that the human race can improve its collective conduct - obviously through the application of technology to the business of human production and organisation but also informed by the lessons of history. Or to put it another way, and more negatively, isn't it a legitimate source of dismay that what could reasonably be considered one of the oldest and enduring, most sophisticated, elaborate and organised human prejudices ever known still persists, despite the experience of the 20th century? And again to put it negatively and more personally, why does one encounter such hostility when it is suggested that the existence of anti-Semitism should be highlighted and combated, needing no weightier justification that the feeling that if we can learn this lesson from history at least, what hope is there of us learning any others?

  • Because beyond the existential experience of the victims of anti-Semitic abuse and assault, it functions as a political ideology that misdirects the focus and imputes the source of the region's, or in the most extreme cases the world's, problems to the existence of a state that cannot possibly have the influence it is believed by some to have. Hence any involvement - or even the suggestion of involvement - by western governments in relation to other states who oppress their religious and ethnic minorities and who may have also outstanding UN Resolutions against them such as Syria, Turkey, Ba'athist Iraq and the Sudan, are immediately declared to be illegitimate compared to the outstanding matter of a settlement in Israel/Palestine. This despite there being neither qualitative or quantitative reason for doing so. This is not to say that there are not more rational reasons to oppose said involvement by western powers in the affairs of other nations - but this is to beg the question of why more weight is not given to these, rather than the attention given to the state of Israel - as if this was the quintessential international case that trumps all other concerns.

Beyond this, given that anti-Semitism exists, and given its gruesome historical precedents, why does one even have to justify calling attention to it? Why are those who do so (falsely) accused of taking a position with regards to the occupation with such frequency and without evidence? And more personally, why whenever the subject of anti-Semitism has appeared in this space does it attract a hostility that is both quantitatively and qualitatively much greater than that attracted by one's support for the invasion of Iraq, despite the latter being associated with more casualties than have been experienced in the Occupied Territories in a similar time-frame - and this despite never having written a single syllable in support for said occupation?

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