July 26, 2009

The future of a rotten definition of antisemitism

I have written at length about the excessively broad way in which the term 'antisemitism' is used, for example here. And a lot more on the subject and the much idiocy surrounding it can be found here on JSF through the tag cloud or the search function to the right. But this takes the cake. Hat tip to the post below for leading me to it.

From the REPORT OF THE ALL-PARTY PARLIAMENTARY INQUIRY INTO ANTISEMITISM of 2006:
We take into account the view expressed in the Macpherson report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry that a racist act is defined by its victim. It is not acceptable for an individual to say ‘I am not a racist’ if his or her words or acts are perceived to be racist. We conclude that it is the Jewish community itself that is best qualified to determine what does and does not constitute antisemitism.
This paragraph is a fine example of spinning valid ideas and torturing them until they confess to unwarranted conclusions that serve sinister interests. The cited Macpherson report of 1999 examined institutional racism in the context of police investigations and policing in communities of color. The report, quite contrary to the poor reading above, did not identify racism as whatever the victim imagines. It cited plenty of hard objective evidence. For example:
One universal area of complaint was to do with the use of police powers of 'stop and search'. Statistics for 1997/98 showed that "black people were, on average, five times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. The use of these powers for Asians and other ethnic groups varied widely." Black people are also "more likely to be arrested than white or other ethnic groups". The Inquiry concluded that ' It is pointless for the police service to try to justify the disparity in these figures purely or mainly in terms of the other factors which are identified. The majority of police officers who testified before us accepted that an element of the disparity was the result of discrimination. (A Summary of The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (Cm 4262-I))
Only in this established factual context of disempowered communities policed in a manner that is obviously and indisputably discriminatory, the inquiry recommended that the police defines as 'racist incident...any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person'. The report did not therefore define racism as whatever an alleged victim of racism believes. On the contrary, the report provided an objective definition of institutional racism that our antisemitism obsessed friends chose to ignore. However, faced with evidence of widespread, objective racism and clear evidence that police officers were unaware of their own prejudices, the report recommended that the perception of the victims be taken seriously (because hard evidence suggested that it was not) and an investigation of racism be conducted based on the claim of the victim rather than the perception of the officer. It does not follow that the perception of the victim alone should be sufficient for actually labeling behavior as racist. Classifying an incident as a prima facie 'racist incident' does not establish racism just as classifying a police investigation as a 'murder case' does not establish that a murder actually occurred.

The Macpherson report recommendation cited above is sound. It analyzes racism in the context of marginalized communities. In this context, the view and perception of members of those communities are systematically discounted. It is obvious that people who are subject to abuse have better understanding of that abuse than others; their opinion ought to count. That it doesn't is itself an aspect of racism and also an obstacle to overcoming it. Forcing authorities to take these perceptions seriously is therefore one tool in fighting racism. We should have a strong presumption that people whose perceptions of their own conditions are systematically discounted are victims of racism, and therefore, we should have a presumption in favor of the likely validity of these perceptions. However, it is not the perception that validates itself, but the objective evidence, including the evidence that the perspective of the victim is systematically discounted that creates the strong presumption in favor of it. Thus, the reason we need to pay more attention to what people of color think about racism is not the mere fact that people of color claim they are victims of racism but because there is solid evidence that they are and that ignoring their experience and perception is a salient aspect of it.

The easiest way to dispatch the ridiculous "racism is whatever feels to me like racism" interpretation of the Macpherson report is to generalize it. There are plenty of high earning tax payers who consider high taxes discriminatory. In their perception, they are victims. Are rich taxpayers in the best position to decide what constitute unfair taxation? They are plenty of men who think having to ascertain that a woman really wants to have sex with them is an unfair burden put on their frail male shoulders. In their mind, they are victims. Should men be the judges of what is a fair or unfair burden regarding sexual consent? There are plenty of self-described "nordic" people in the U.S. who feel federal policies such as Affirmative Action are unfair and discriminate against them. Are white supremacists "in the best position" to define what constitutes racism against white people? Closer to home, in our beloved Israel, there are plenty of Jews who believe that it is discriminatory against them that Arabs don't serve in the army and don't pay taxes on houses built without (unobtainable) permits. Should we really conclude that in Israel there is systematic institutional racism against Jews? These examples can be generalized in the following way: having one's expectation of privilege unmet is often experienced by the subject as discrimination. The superficial similarity of affect between the experience of suffering an abuse of a right and that of suffering a non validation of an unearned privilege does not of course warrant equal treatment for both; those whose rights have been trampled need to be defended whereas those whose unearned privilege has not been fully validated need to be educated.

In the case of the British Jewish community and antisemitism, there is no evidence that Jews are socially and politically marginalized in any way. There is no evidence of systemic discrimination by any state authority, and no evidence that the perceptions of Jews are systematically ignored by authorities. If at all, there is more evidence that the opinions of "the Jewish community" (a suspect concept to begin with) are taken way too seriously by public authorities. What other community can marshal so much public inquiries and hearings on the basis of so little actual harm to its members? Sure, since antisemitism is directed at Jews, Jews have a more intimate experience of antisemitism than non-Jews. Their opinion thus warrants special consideration. But all the evidence suggests that the opinion of Jews is already given all the consideration that is warranted and then some. The appropriate level of special consideration should not include the discretion to define antisemitism in an unreasonable way for illegitimate purpose.

That brings us to the next paragraph of that pathetic document. After telling us that the professional representatives of the Jewish community should be left to define antisemitism in whatever unreasonable way they wish, the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry proceeds to prove exactly why this level of discretion is unwarranted by providing a clearly unreasonable definition of antisemitism.
Broadly, it is our view that any remark, insult or act the purpose or effect of which is to violate a Jewish person’s dignity or create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him is antisemitic.
Writing a good definition can often be hard, but there is a level of sloppiness than one does not expect from paid public servants with a degree in Law or two. According to the aforementioned definition, if I call Alan Dershowitz a douchebag (as I am happy to do), that is antisemitic because he is Jewish. Of course, it would be very different if I were to call Dershowitz a stinking crooked-nosed money-lending International Jew (to be clear, I don't; douchebag is fine, really). But the definition does not make this elementary distinction. This cannot be a mere oversight, as the report goes on to claim that the provided definition is based on an established legal model, and
...reflects the definition of harassment under the Race Relations Act 1976.
Let us examine this claim: The relevant paragraph from that act reads (3A):
  1. A person subjects another to harassment in any circumstances relevant for the purposes of any provision referred to in section 1(1B)where, on grounds of race or ethnic or national origins, he engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of-
  • (a)violating that other person’s dignity, or
  • (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him. (UK Government)
Our drafters are somewhat cavalier with the truth. Their definition indeed "reflects the definition of harassment...." like a broken, scratched and foggy mirror. First, the whole matter of actual harassment, that is the question of relations of power and discrimination, which is the very core of the Race Relations Act, has been eliminated altogether. Then, so was the crucial phrase "on grounds of race or ethnic or national origins." Namely the drafters chose to broaden the definition of antisemitism by taking the legal definition of harassment from the Race Relations Act of 1976 and extending it to acts, insults, and even remarks that occur outside of any context in which harassment or discrimination can take place, and by extending it to such instances in which the "victimized" person merely happens to be Jewish even if the incident is not motivated by it in any way.

Sloppy? It stretches credulity. The drafters knowingly dropped specific language in order to define antisemitism as any instance of saying something nasty about a person who happens to be Jewish, regardless of whether this involves any discrimination or denial of rights or even any connection to the recipient's Jewishness. The Race Relations Act and the Macpherson Report are both mentioned in order to create a false semblance of similarity to issues of racism facing communities of people of color. But these texts had to be gutted and mauled precisely because the agenda of the campaign against antisemitism is not to defend Jews from discrimination but to defend the unearned privilege that is accorded to (some) Jews in the West as a result of the role Israel plays within the global structures of imperialism. These sloppy definitions and their proliferation in official documents are both an example of the operation of this privilege and a strategy of expanding it by delegitimizing public challenges to some of the ideological beliefs favored by the representatives of Western Jewish communities, most notably the defense of Israeli apartheid.

Why go at length debunking a relatively unimportant paragraph in a three year old report? Note the MO. The All Parliamentary Inquiry did not actually use its own ridiculous definition in its own report. It knew better. For example, in paragraph 59, the report says "The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations...accept that when a Jew is attacked or a Jewish building is vandalised, this should not automatically be classed as an act of antisemitism." Nevertheless, the definition is there for a reason. This year, we find it quoted as if it were an authority of antisemitism by the recent EISCA report. (The same happened to the no less sloppy definition of the EUMC.) In this manner what started life as a trivial piece of bad writing slowly becomes received wisdom. Soon enough, someone will suggest writing this language into the law, citing all these previous citations as evidence of authorial weight and public consensus.

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