Can opponents of Israel criticise the Jewish state without indulging prejudice?

Anthony Julius and David J Goldberg debate.

Secular Israelis argue with ultra Orthodox Jewish protesters in Beit Shemesh, Is
Secular Israelis argue with ultra Orthodox Jewish protesters in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Photograph: Getty Images

The great refusal

Principled enemies of Israel are rare – but Edward Said was one. By Anthony Julius

There is a muddle concerning the connections between “criticism of Israel”, “anti-Zionism” and “anti-Semitism”. It is caused by the acceptance of three commonplaces in contemporary unthinking about the 120-year contest over control of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

The first commonplace is that anti-Zionism must not be confused with anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism is an elevated political stance, informed by angry compassion. Anti-Semitism, by contrast, is no more than a benighted prejudice, informed by ignorance and malice. Call this the “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitic” position.

The second is that criticism of Israel should not be confused with anti-Semitism. Again, it is the difference between the two that is stressed. Criticism is by its nature proportionate and informed; anti-Semitism, by contrast, is fantastical and ignorant. Call this the “criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic” commonplace. The third one is that accusations of anti-Semitism directed against “anti-Zionists” and “critics of Israel” are smears, mostly co-ordinated by the Israel/ Jewish/Zionist lobby, and are designed to discredit courageous, compassionate truth-tellers. Let’s call this the “bad-faith Zionists/courage­ous anti-Zionists” commonplace.

The first two are wrong because they are too categorical; there are certain anti-Zionist positions, and criticisms of Israel, that are indeed informed by anti-Semitism. The third is just plain wrong. No one needs courage to criticise Israel, and the contrary proposition itself (that there are powerful Jewish forces out to suppress the truth) is an anti-Semitic trope.

These commonplaces are not just wrong, they are obviously wrong. It is unfortunate that the defence of the activity of criticising Israel is so mixed up with bad faith, because criticism performs a valuable service. All Jews have an interest in Israel. It is both an experiment in Jewish self-government and the guarantor of Jewish safety everywhere in the world. Diaspora Jews are very junior participants in this experiment; they are also the beneficiaries of the guarantee. They thus have a double stake in the Jewish state, and so they subject it to judgements, ethical or prudential, critical or laudatory. This is not just their right; it is their duty. More than that, it is also inevitable. It can no more be resisted than can the wind be wrestled into submission.

What, however, of principled opposition to Israel from an anti-Zionist perspective? That it is possible to take an anti-Zionist position almost wholly untainted by anti-Semitism is evident from the career and writings of the late Edward Said, who died in 2003.

Said was a distinguished literary critic, and a forceful advocate of the Palestinian cause. Born in 1935 in Jerusalem of a well-to-do family, he spent much of his early life in Cairo before leaving for the United States. He wrote widely on literary topics and this work is of enduring value; he wrote and broadcast equally widely, though with less certain effect, about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Though his reputation remains high in academic circles, his opposition to what passed for the Middle East peace process left him somewhat marginalised in certain Pal­estinian circles. He argued for a distinct kind of critical method, one both secular and oppositional, as relevant to the explication of a peace agreement as to a poem or novel.

His early book Beginnings (1975) was a fresh and invigorated examination of the implications of embarking on certain kinds of intellectual undertaking – novels, philosophy, even literary criticism. His major work Orientalism (1978) set out to expose the west’s false and self-serving conception of the “Orient”. A later book, Culture and Imperialism (1993), presented more general arguments for the complicity of western culture with the west’s imperial enterprises.

Said was an unrelenting opponent of Zionism. He named Israel as his people’s enemy. His work contributed to the formation of a discursive ambience that made it possible to call into question Israel’s sovereign existence. He was no mere “critic of Israel”, but an anti-Zionist. It was easy enough for Jews to reciprocate his enmity – particularly for those Jews to whom the establishment of Israel was a precious moment of self-realisation in a century of calamity.

Reading Said’s work can be an exasperating experience. He made many political misjudgements, few of which he was willing later to acknowledge. He could not be relied on to quote accurately. He gave the Palestinian cause the benefit of every doubt; the Zionist cause always stood condemned. Western aggression was taken to be a constant; Arab (and, latterly, Palestinian) aggression was overlooked. His attempts to understand Jewish perspectives were often inadequate. Incautious silences marked much of his work. Moreover, he could not be trusted to speak reliably about Israel or the history of the Jews in the Middle East. There are many examples of his slackness with the facts – and always in one direction.

For instance, he once said, “The town of Hebron is essentially an Arab town. There were no Jews in it before 1967.” This was not a true statement. For over 2,000 years, until 1936, there was a continuous and substantial Jewish presence in Hebron, mostly tolerated, always subordinate. Said insouciantly erased this history as well as the principal cause of its termination, the 1929 Arab riots. Over a few terrible days in August, 67 unarmed Jewish adults and children were killed, 60 others were injured, a Jewish hospital was ransacked, synagogues were razed to the ground, prayer books were burned and Torah scrolls were ripped up. The rioters chanted militant Arab slogans: “The law of Muhammad is being implemented by the sword” and “Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs”. Alan Saunders, head of the Palestine Police, told the commission that investigated the massacres in Hebron and elsewhere: “If a man was a Jew, it was good enough for him to be killed or stamped out.” The Hebron massacre and the dispossession of the town’s Jewish population – a Jewish “naqba”, or catastrophe – remains a potent symbol for Israeli settlers.

But Said was not an anti-Semite. He did not treat Zionism as an aspect of some notional Jewish project of world domination; he did not endorse The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He did not allege that the United States is under the control of Israel or the Jews. He did not deny the Holocaust, nor did he appropriate it for his own political purposes. He did not relate the Israelis to Nazis, or Zionism to Nazism. He did not use Israel as an excuse for Arab political and economic failings. He rejected the UN’s 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution. He deprecated boycotts and unequivocally condemned the perpetrators of the 11 September 2001 attacks. He had a sincere appreciation for dissenting Jews and he could also see the merits in one or two Zionist Jews. He attempted to grasp the meaning of Israel for Jews. His later work frequently invites Arab readers to a collective self-criticism. He made repeated and trenchant criticisms of the corruption and incompetence of the Palestinian Authority. Reflecting on Hamas, he warned against secular intellectuals making common cause with religious movements.

In an interview with a Cairo newspaper, Said distinguished the Palestinian struggle from the Algerian and South African struggles, and cited Rosa Luxemburg’s statement that one cannot impose one’s own political solution on another people against their will. “As a Palestinian who has suffered loss and deprivations,” he said, “I cannot morally accept regaining my rights at the expense of another’s deprivation.” He did not dismiss  anti-Semitism. What is more, Said acknowledged the existence of Palestinian, and Arab, anti-Semitism.

In the manner of its operation, anti-Semitism is akin to the mythical Ring of Gyges, which allowed its wearer to become invisible, thus freeing him to act without detection. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon argues that even the most moral person would exploit the opportunities presented by the ring:

There is no one . . . iron-willed enough to maintain his morality and find the strength of purpose to keep his hands off what doesn’t belong to him, when he is able to take whatever he wants from the market stalls without fear of being discovered, to enter houses and sleep with whomever he chooses, to kill and release from prison anyone he wants, and generally to act like a god among men.

Like the Ring of Gyges, anti-Semitism lib­erates, not by making the criminal invisible, but by making the crimes invisible as crimes. The anti-Semite is able to own his actions because they have been bleached of fault. Anti-Semitism makes him a god among Jews, if not a god among men. It is in this limited and specific sense that the Nazis, when most bestial, were gods among the Jews.

Said refused to wear the ring. To the objection that this was as nothing in comparison to his attacks on the iniquities of Zionism, Israel and the west, the correct response, I think, should be: yes, perhaps this is so, but one should not ask for too much. He was an enemy, not a friend. One does not look for admiration from one’s enemies, only for a certain moral self-discipline. Said possessed this.

Within the Palestinian diaspora, and even more in the company of the Palestinian diaspora, Zionism had many adversaries with the self-discipline not to be seduced by anti-Semitism. They are a dwindling band.

Anthony Julius’s “Trials of the Diaspora: a History of Anti-Semitism in England” is out now in paperback (Oxford University Press, £12.99)

No longer a “special case”

Anger at Jews is sometimes fuelled by Israeli policy, writes David J Goldberg

I subscribe to the old-fashioned notion that, before commenting on a book, one should read all of it, and not just the blurb on the cover. So I can confidently claim to be one of the few people in the world who has read Anthony Julius’s interminable history of anti-Semitism in England, Trials of the Diaspora, to its bitter end.

Judging by the article opposite, Julius has rowed back a long way from his assertion in Trials that there is in the UK “an obdurate, harsh anti-Semitism resistant both to reason and to considerations of decency”. Perhaps he now recognises that the hair-splitting distinctions he tried to make between a bewildering variety of anti-Semitisms and anti-Zionisms – rational enmity against the Jews, irrational enmity against the Jews, Jews as irrational enemies of Jews, progressive anti-Semitism, the new anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, Anglo-Muslim anti-Zionism, Anglo-Jewish anti-Zionism, Anglo-Christian anti-Zionism, and so on, all broken up into subspecies – were largely caricatures rather than objective sociological studies.

This time, he has limited himself to just three categories, or what he calls “commonplaces”, in “contemporary unthinking about the 120-year contest over control of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean”. That use of “contest” to refer to the several wars, many thousands of dead and wounded on both sides and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians uprooted since Zionist pioneers first settled there at the end of the 19th century is rather strange; as if Julius were refereeing a boxing match, not a bloodstained and bitterly intractable conflict. He is again guilty of similar insensitivity later on when he calls the 1929 massacre by Arabs in Hebron of 67 unarmed Jews, with scores more injured and widespread destruction of Jewish property, “a Jewish ‘naqba’”. There can be no mitigation for that rampage, and yet to describe it using the specific term in Arabic for the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, which cost thousands of lives and made up to 750,000 people homeless, is gratuitously slighting to Palestinians.

Of his three commonplaces, Julius dismisses the first two as categorically wrong – “there are certain anti-Zionist positions, and criticisms of Israel, that are indeed informed by anti-Semitism” – but he omits to tell us which these are and why. When he reflects on the third commonplace, of bad-faith Zionists v courageous anti-Zionists, his train of thought becomes almost impenetrable. Apparently it requires no courage to criticise Israel, whereas to impute bad faith to Zionists is an anti-Semitic trope of the “there are powerful Jewish forces out to suppress the truth” variety.

Having set up three Aunt Sallies to his own specification and demolished them to his own satisfaction, Julius proposes the late Edward Said as the ideal, principled anti-Zionist whose opposition was “almost wholly untainted by anti-Semitism” (why the weasel qualification?). Granted, he was an enemy of Zionism and Israel, but a “good” enemy who possessed “a certain moral self-discipline”.

Said is no longer alive to respond to this condescending, “imperial” appraisal, but one can imagine his eloquently vituperative reaction to being depicted as the type of Palestinian Uncle Tom whom Zionists could do business with. Instead, one is left to ponder why Julius felt the need to rehabilitate the reputation of Palestine’s best-known public intellectual.

Perhaps Said’s name has been added posthumously to that ever-lengthening list of anti-Semites sedulously compiled by right-on defenders of Israel. In recent years, the list has included, with or without justification, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Barack Obama, David Irving, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mel Gibson, Max Hastings, Mary Robinson (the former UN high commissioner for human rights), Amnesty International, Save the Children, Christian Aid, John Galliano and Ken Livingstone – conflating bona fide anti-Semites with those who dare to express a critical opinion about Israeli policy in the occupied territories.

Having famously outed T S Eliot as a great poet but constipated anti-Semite and then gone on, with Deborah Lipstadt, to have Irving legally branded as one in the high court, Julius is jus­tifiably regarded as an expert on the subject. He is our primmer, English version of Alan Dershowitz in the US; under their scrutiny, all anti-Semites quail, whether their prejudice is real or putative. When the furore broke over John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s tendentious book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, it was to Julius that the Jewish Chronicle turned. He acquitted the authors of anti-Semitism but found them guilty of carrying a previously undetected strain of the virus: they were “proto anti-Semites”, whatever that means.

So, it must be irksome for a scrupulous jurist and fastidious literary critic to have his name invoked by extremist supporters of the Israel Lobby whenever they hurl their accusation of anti-Semitism against individuals and organisations. In that case, his encomium for Said could perhaps be seen as a coded restraining order – a warning that to play the anti-Semitic card always, regardless, eventually robs it of its potency, and a plea to Israel’s more fervid defenders to display a little of the same civilised discourse, moral discipline and self-restraint exemplified by their enemy Said.
I do not underestimate the threat posed by anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe, the Middle East and large parts of Asia. The intimidation and harassment faced by Jewish students have been well documented. Vile calumnies against the Jewish “race”, shameful reiterations of the blood libel in Arab textbooks and newspapers and “Jewish world domination” conspiracy theories are readily available on the internet.

My argument with Julius is about the ubiquity and malignancy of the virus. I refuse to accept that – in the words of a bestselling book by one of America’s more hysterical drum beaters for Israel – there is evidence of a “global war against the Jews”. Nor, I am sure, does Julius believe that. Yet he does not acknowledge in his commonplaces that sometimes anti-Jewish animus can be fuelled by Israeli actions such as 2009’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the killing of nine people aboard a Turkish aid boat heading there in May 2010. More often, hostility stems from the link that ignorant minds automatically make between all Jews and Israel (a linkage that most diaspora Jews, including myself, are ready to accept as the price of having a Jewish state), though supposedly educated people are also guilty of conflating the two.

I experienced this at a recent fundraising event for Human Rights Watch, another organisation that often gets tarred with the anti-Semitic brush. A documentary was shown called Five Broken Cameras, a joint Palestinian-Israeli production that has already won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival and has been screened in Berlin. It is a deeply moving film that records, through the lens of its Palestinian co-director, five years in the life of his son that coincide with five years of protests in Bil’in, a village on the West Bank, against the Israeli appropriation of 70 per cent of its land – allegedly for security purposes but really for the benefit of a nearby Jewish settlement. The case has attracted international attention, a weekly choreographed danse macabre for the benefit of press and TV. On Fridays after prayers, the villagers advance towards the security fence, but are driven back with baton charges, water cannon and rubber bullets – sometimes live. So far, two villagers have been killed and several badly wounded.

The film was applauded by an audience with a large Jewish contingent. We Jews do take human rights seriously, even though our moral vision can become selectively blurred where Israel is concerned. Then we adjourned for refreshments, where I was introduced by our Jewish host to an elderly, well-spoken man, an academic or former diplomat, I surmised.

We agreed that it had been a powerful film. “So what are you people going to do about it?” he demanded suddenly. I asked him what he meant by “you people” and said that many of us, English Jews or Israeli, frequently expressed our disquiet about human rights abuses in the occupied territories.

He waved that aside. “Will the soldiers be punished?” I said that I had no idea but frankly doubted it, as the natural instinct of all governments is to defend the reputation of their soldiers. He went into overdrive. Israel was an appalling country, a disgrace, “the greatest danger to world peace”. I asked him if he felt that it was a mistake that Israel had been created in 1948. “Absolutely, yes!” he said.

Which was the opening I had been angling for. I asked if he had the same sentiments about Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the ayatollahs’ Iran, the generals’ Burma, Assad’s Syria and every other of the UN’s failed states. And if not, why not – or was it only Israel that should be delegitimised? A wary look dawned in his eyes as I concluded sweetly: “And will you tell me next that some of your best friends are Jews?”

Every decent person would agree that anti-Semitism – blanket hostility to all Jews qua Jews – is despicable. Since 1945, however, despite tensions in the Middle East sometimes spilling over on to the streets of Europe, it has been easier and safer to be a Jew than black or Muslim.

What Jewish communal leaders need to learn is that we are no longer a “special case”. In today’s polyglot, multicultural societies, we have to time-share with other faith identities and ethnic groupings, each with its own demands for recognition and favourable treatment. To understand that requires a broader perspective than our usual anti-Semitism = anti-Zionism = anti-Israel tunnel vision. Or does saying that make me an anti-Semite?

Rabbi Dr David J Goldberg is emeritus rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London and the author of “This Is Not The Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel” (Faber & Faber, £14.99)