Saturday, January 17, 2009

Talking about anti-semitism now

My Mum grew up in London, and when she was seven she changed schools. They had different routines at her new school and she was a little confused. When the bell rang girls were lining up in two places and she didn't know where she belonged. So she asked another student where she should go:

"Are you Jewish or Christian?" The girl replied.

My Mum said that she didn't know.

"If you don't know you're probably Christian" She pointed my Mum to the line for Christian assembly.

I bring this up as a way of saying that I'm not Jewish. A fact that I suspect that most regular readers of this blog would guess, because if I was Jewish I would have mentioned it.*

I have been following the debate about anti-semitism over at feministe (here and here) and Mandolin's post about the discussion. I may write a post about how and why I disagree with David Schraub's model, which he calls anti-subordination school (and therefore most of his argument). But there was something else I wanted to say first.

David Schraub started his argument by talking about Gaza, and he's conceded that's a mistake so I won't respond to what he said. But in the thread itself a lot of people did respond, and some said some variation of "now is not the time to be talking of anti-semitism."

I don't think this is true. I think now is as good a time as any to talk about anti-semitism. To say otherwise is to play into the idea that the middle east is a zero-sum game between 'Jews' and 'Palestinians' and I don't believe that. I don't think that opposing anti-semitism diminishes our ability to stand in solidarity with the people with Gaza. I think opposing anti-semitism strengthens the movement in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

I think this because I do not conflate the Israeli state with Jewish people. I believe that it is always important to draw distinctions between people and states that claim to represent them. I think it is particularly important that those of us who oppose the actions of the Israeli state don't conflate those actions with Jewish people (or Israelis).

I've seen it happen, of course I have. Often it comes out of the blue. Once I was walking home from a Palestinian solidarity demo with a couple of acquaintances. When we walked past a synagogue one of them ranted at the (empty and deserted) building, as if standing in solidarity with Palestine was standing against a synagogue.

I don't want to make the moral argument for opposing anti-semitism. I would assume that no-one needs me to explain to them what anti-semitism can do. Instead I want to make explicit the practical, or solidarity based argument about why it's vital for those of us who oppose the actions of the Israeli state to fight anti-semitism.**

I feel almost superflous writing any of this down, since so much of my thinking is influenced by Naomi Klein. Anti-semitism doesn't strengthen the Palestinians; it strengthens the Israeli state:

Why bother with such subtleties while bodies are still being pulled out of the rubble in Jenin? Because anyone interested in fighting Le Pen-style fascism or Sharon-style brutality has to deal with the reality of anti-Semitism head-on. The hatred of Jews is a potent political tool in the hands of both the right in Europe and in Israel. For Le Pen, anti-Semitism is a windfall, helping spike his support from 10 percent to 17 percent in a week.

For Ariel Sharon, it is the fear of anti-Semitism, both real and imagined, that is the weapon. Sharon likes to say that he stands up to terrorists to show he is not afraid. In fact, his policies are driven by fear. His great talent is that he fully understands the depths of Jewish fear of another Holocaust. He knows how to draw parallels between Jewish anxieties about anti-Semitism and American fears of terrorism. And he is an expert at harnessing all of it for his political ends.


But more importantly than the fact that anti-semitism strengthens Sharon, is the fact that it weakens us. All that most of us can offer those in Gaza right now is our solidarity. Allowing any form of anti-semitism as part of that solidarity is a big "NOT WELCOME" sign for Jews, and those who oppose anti-semitism. Mandolin said:
I don’t know about other Jews, but in my case, it often means I just shut down when I see conversation about Israel and Palestine. I am not wanted there. Either my voice is too progressive, or too Jewish. Such conversations will just make me sad and upset. So I pass.
If there's no space for her exactly how many other people are being excluded? That doesn't help the people of Gaza.

So what would it look like, to oppose anti-semitism within the movement to oppose the Israeli state? Like I've said an important starting point is not conflating Jewish people and the Israeli state, and the implications of this run reasonably deep. For instance the idea that now is not the time to talk about anti-semitism, relies on some level of conflation between Jewish people and the Israeli state.

But I don't think that's all there is, hell I've heard versions of the blood libel myth and the grand Jewish conspiracy in the last eighteen months. I think in order to fight anti-semitism, people have to listen to Jewish people about what anti-semitism is. I don't think that's an obligation to agree with any individual Jewish person (after all the idea of a Jewish hive mind is a tenant of anti-semitism). But I know I've learned a lot from talking about Jewish people who are involved in solidarity work against the Israeli state about what they see as anti-semitic.

And I think all of this work can make our solidarity with the people of Gaza stronger.

* You don't have to be reading long to figure that I am a white, without significant physical impairment, and from a middle-class background precisely because of the absence of markers to the contrary.

** I think many people see this as the weaker argument. I see it as the stronger one, and if I do ever manage to explain the different between my framework and David Schraub's I'll explain wy.

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