July 02, 2011

More attempts at defending the working definition

Engage has reported a resignation and a threat to resign from Universities and Colleges Union on account of UCU's rejection of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism. Harry's Place was pretty angry about the UCU position placing the acronym, FUCU, on its masthead for a few days following the UCU vote. Now one its regular posters, Sarah Annes Brown, has posted a defence of the working definition on her own blog.

Many defenders or promoters of the working definition rely heavily on the fact that in the section designed to curb criticism of the State of Israel the preamble refers to the "overall context" of what is said and it says certain things "could" be construed as antisemitic rather than stating simply and directly that they are antisemitic. Sarah is no exception.
Sometimes it is difficult to be sure whether words or actions are discriminatory or not. A lot depends on the overall context.....

For those wishing to recognize and avoid anti-Semitism, the Working Definition produced by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) is a useful tool. It includes manifestations of anti-Semitism which hardly need to be pointed out, for example ‘calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion’. But it also includes more subtle forms of anti-Semitism, many of these linked to anti-zionism, such as ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’. It should surely be possible, for example, to criticise Israel’s policy towards Gaza in the strongest terms without needing to invoke the Warsaw Ghetto.
So hold the thought that Sarah has focused on comparing Israel to the nazis while we return to context:
The working definition notes that, with all these possible diagnostic criteria, the overall context must be taken into account when making a judgement. One probably isn’t going to fret too much about the ‘overall context’ of a call to genocide. But it is true that some of the criteria are calculated to help identify rather less threatening cases, including the accidental use of an antisemitic trope, which – just like a single chance use of the epithet ‘narcissistic’ to describe a homosexual – should probably be overlooked. But where there is a whole cluster of subtle innuendos in a single article the Working Definition can help pinpoint a real problem. For in order to be truly useful any guidelines for helping identify prejudice must go beyond the obvious. For example, burning a mosque is pretty clearly Islamophobic, but what about criticising Halal slaughter? Here, as with antisemitic tropes, there would be a need to look at the overall context. The issue of Halal food is certainly often manipulated by anti-Muslim bigots – but that fact shouldn’t be used to close down debate about animal welfare.
That's sound reasoning. She continues:
There is a similar tension, potentially, between antisemitic discourse and criticism of Israel. Given the inevitable intersection between hostility towards Israel and antisemitism it is of course going to be hard to police the boundary between fair criticism and racism. These debates notoriously attract those with extreme views – ranging from those who think antisemitism and anti-Israel feeling are pretty much synonymous, to those who believe they don’t overlap at all. The Working Definition may well help resolve such differences, but it isn’t like a piece of litmus paper which will automatically tell you whether a person or a statement is or is not antisemitic.
Which makes you wonder why zionists are going so ape to defend the stupid thing but hang in there.
Given its value as a tool for combatting discrimination, it might seem rather odd that the University and College Union should have decided to repudiate the Working Definition
At what point in Sarah's post or anywhere else did the working definition's "value as a tool for combatting discrimination" become a "given"?

After a little swipe at the principle of international solidarity:
It seems quite bizarre for the union to proscribe any consideration of the Working Definition, to dismiss the whole document, and to resolve to disassociate itself from the definition in any relevant public discussion. And is this really a priority for members when Higher and Further Education are being faced with unprecedented cuts and a radical overhaul of fees?
Sarah returns to the context caveat:
It is interesting to look at, to use the Working Definition’s phrase, the ‘overall context’ of this motion. The UCU has a longstanding preoccupation with the academic boycott of Israel, even though it has received legal advice that such a boycott might well be discriminatory and illegal.

Many members have resigned over this matter, and others have expressed great disquiet. The UCU has refused to deal with members’ concerns, and in 2009 voted down a motion to investigate these resignations. Last year it invited a speaker, Bongani Masuku, to speak at a seminar to discuss a boycott of Israel, even though the South African Human Rights Commission had deemed that his statements amounted to hate speech against South Africa’s Jewish community. Clearly the union has not itself been inhibited to any worrying degree by the Working Definition. Given this overall context, it is not surprising that more members are being driven to resign.
Oh I see, so the context of the UCU's campaigning against Israel makes it antisemitic. But which section of the working definition is the UCU falling foul of and which context would allow for solidarity with the Palestinians by a trade union?

The parts of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism that appear to be designed to forbid criticism of Israel are within this section:
Examples of the ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context could include:
• Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.

• Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

• Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (for example claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis.

• Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

• Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Much is made by supporters of the definition of the "taking into account overall context could include" caveat. There is a problem here. There is no context by which it could not be construed as antisemitic to invoke the idea that Jews killed Jesus or the blood libel.  It could only be antisemitic in any context.  The same goes for "holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel".

That leaves "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour", "applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation" and "drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis".

Do the promoters of the working definition accept that there are many contexts in which it is by no means antisemitic to say that Jews are not an appropriate case for self-determination? Do they accept any context for the assertion that the establishment and continued existence of the State of Israel is indeed a racist endeavour? Do they accept specialist campaigning against the occupation or against zionist rule throughout Palestine? Do they accept any comparisons of Israel to the nazis?

Sarah has managed to avoid all mention of these things save to say that we can criticise Israel without invoking the Warsaw Ghetto.  But she does link to the resignation letter to the UCU by one Professor David-Hillel Rubens, presumably, given the context, with approval.

His letter asserts the following:
One part of that working definition rejected by the union stands out: it is anti-Semitic to ‘deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination’, within some borders, unspecified as what they might be. It is hard for me to comprehend how anyone could consider this relatively anodyne claim as unacceptable, let alone reject it as a current form of anti-Semitism, which it most certainly is.
No "could", no "context". "It is antisemitic to ‘deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination’, within some borders, unspecified as what they might be."

So according to Rubens, Jews have a right to self-determination irrespective of borders and with no mention of the right to self-determination of the people who live within any eventually specified borders. Not only that, "it most certainly is" antisemitic to suggest otherwise according to this professor of philosophy.

Not only that, back in 2009 there was an attempt to have comparisons of Israel's behaviour to the nazis made illegal. The proposal was contained in this report from the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, chaired by Denis MacShane. The report drew heavily on the EUMC working definition and contained the following:
Four different variants of playing the Nazi card have been discussed in this report. The one fundamental common denominator between them that has been stressed - apart from the invocation of painful collective memories of Nazi atrocities - is that they all result in harmful consequences. The most contentious of the three variants involves the playing of the Nazi card against Israel and its founding movement, Zionism. Drawing attention to the consequent harms in such a case should not be intended, or taken, in any way as an attempt to suppress criticism of Israel and its military practices. Instead, it is a call not to use particular words, even in the most trenchant criticism, because some words wound. Most people would surely agree that this is a very reasonable plea once those hurts are articulated.
It very kindly allows for some criticism of Israel but it seeks outlaw the use of "particular words" with no reference to context. I believe this was the first attempt at having the working definition adopted as law and it met with short shrift from Antony Lerman at the time.

Anyway I think we can conclude that this reference to context is as bogus and disingenuous as the working definition itself.  I am guessing that supporters of the working definition will allow for no context whereby it is permissible to call Israel an essentially racist state that should be abolished in favour of a democratic secular state. The EISCA allows for no context in seeking to forbid comparisons of Israel to the nazis. The use of antisemitic symbolism (blood libel, deicide) are clearly antisemitic regardless of context and holding all Jews responsible for anything is also clearly antisemitic regardless of context. That leaves the old chestnut of "double standards" which essentially rules out any specialised campaigning against Israel since I am guessing in any context such campaigning would be held to be antisemitic by the supporters of the working definition.

So when the supporters of the working definition start playing their games over context, ask them, when is it ok to say that the State of Israel simply has no right to exist?

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