Antisemitism as epiphenomenal

A first form of the Israel alibi for contemporary antisemitism is the impulse to treat such of the antisemitism as there is acknowledged (by whomever) to be – in Europe, in the Arab world – as a pure epiphenomenon of the Israel-Palestine conflict. One instance of this was the statement by film director Ken Loach in March 2009 that if there was a rise of antisemitism in Europe this was not surprising: ‘it is perfectly understandable’ (my emphasis), he was reported as saying, ‘because Israel feeds feelings of antisemitism’. The key word here is ‘understandable’. This might just mean ‘capable of being understood’; but since more or less everything is capable of being understood, it would be pointless to use the word in that sense about the specific phenomenon of a rise in antisemitism in Europe. ‘Understandable’ also means something along the lines of ‘excusable’ or, at any rate, not an issue to get excited about. To see plainly the way in which Israel acts as an exonerating alibi in this case, one need only imagine Loach, or anyone else on the left, delivering themselves of the opinion that a growth of hostility towards, say, black people, or towards immigrants from South Asia, or from Mexico, was understandable.

Another instance of this first form of the Israel alibi is provided by a thesis of Gilbert Achcar’s concerning Holocaust-denial in the Arab world. Achcar is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a longtime leftist; he is editor of a volume of essays on The Legacy of Ernest Mandel. Holocaust-denial – as I shall merely assert and not argue here – is a prominent trope of contemporary antisemitism; it is indeed continuous with a practice of the Nazi period itself, when camp guards and the like would mock their Jewish victims by telling them that not only were they doomed to die, but also all knowledge of what had happened to them would be erased. They would be forgotten; the world would never know. Achcar accepts that Western Holocaust-denial is an expression of antisemitism. Much Arab Holocaust-denial, on the other hand, he puts down to such factors as impatience in the Arab world with Western favouritism towards Israel, a suspicion that the Holocaust has been ‘amplified’ for pro-Zionist purposes, and exasperation with the cruelty of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Whether or not these explanations are valid, a racist belief does not cease to be one on account of its having context-specific causes. No one on the left would dream of suggesting that a belief that black people were lazy, feckless or simple-minded, was less racist for being held by a certain group of white people on account of motives which eased their way towards that belief. But the Israel alibi is currently exceptional in its legitimating power in this respect.

No antisemitism without deliberate intent

A second form of the Israel alibi for antisemitism is the plea that antisemitism should not be ascribed to anyone without evidence of active hatred of Jews on their part; without, that is to say, some clear sign of antisemitic intent. A well-known case of this second form arose with Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Seven Jewish Children’, following upon Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008-9. This play puts into Jewish mouths the view that Palestinians are ‘animals’ and that ‘they want their children killed to make people sorry for them’; but that there is no need to feel sorry for them; that we – the Jews – are the chosen people and that it is our safety and our children that matter; in sum, that ‘I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out’. I will not insist here on how this echoes the blood libel; it is enough that Churchill ascribes to the Jews, seeing themselves as chosen, murderous racist attitudes bordering on the genocidal. On the face of it, one would think, this is a clear candidate for antisemitic discourse.

Churchill, however, disavowed that charge when it came from critics. She did so on the grounds of what one might call an innocent mind. No antisemitism had been intended by her. On the one hand, the blood libel analogy had not been part of her thinking when she wrote the play; on the other hand, those speaking the offending lines in it were not meant to be Jews in general, merely individual Israelis. Churchill is evidently innocent here of any memory of the figure of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, long thought of, despite his being only one character, as putting Jews in a bad light. She is innocent, too, of her own generalising tendencies in naming her play ‘Seven Jewish Children’ and then linking the broad themes of the Jews as victims of genocide and as putative perpetrators of it in their turn.

Contemplate, briefly, the idea of a sociology of racism in which racism was held to be a matter exclusively of mental attitudes, of what some given person or group of persons had in their minds and, most particularly, of hatreds explicitly formulated; but not also of a language that embodies negative stereotypes, or of unconscious prejudicial assumptions, or of discriminatory practices, and so forth. For no other kind of racism would such a narrowly-conceived sociology be taken seriously even for a moment.

A much more recent instance of the same thing is Günter Grass’s poem ‘What Must Be Said’. It imputed to Israel, on the basis of absolutely nothing in the way of evidence, a genocidal ambition against the Iranian people. Grass has been defended in his turn on the grounds that he is not personally an antisemite – as if this might settle the question of whether or not his poem contained antisemitic tropes.

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