Sunday, November 30, 2008

Stephen Sizer and Leeds University

Stephen Sizer is campaigning on his blog against Leeds University adopting the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism. He may have copied this piece from the Electronic Intifada website.

According to this motion there were 21 antisemitic incidents affecting Leeds students last year, and there have been more so far already this year, so for Stephen Sizer to be standing against a measure which seeks to counter this trend is disturbing at best. Why is an Anglican vicar campaigning against a measure which seeks to protective wellbeing of Leeds University's large Jewish student population? Isn't Rev Sizer supposed to be countering antisemitism? Doesn't he insist that he is antiracist? (Oh, and, if Rev Sizer is so concerned about freedom of speech, why did he disable comments on his blog when people criticised him?)

Bernard Harrison has answered the Electronic Intifada piece with devastating brilliance on the Engage website, here. I can't really do better than copy Harrison's piece, below. I've underlined or italicised my favourite bits.

On Friday November 28, the Leeds University student union will be considering a resolution to adopt the EUMC's working definition of anti-Semitism, in order to fight growing anti-Semitism at that university.

The Leeds student Palestinian support group has protested the motion, in a statement which has appeared on the Electronic Intifada, and has been picked up by other blogs.

The main claim made by this statement is that the definition of anti-Semitism arrived at by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) is so unreasonably restrictive that, “if adopted, the motion will shut down debate on the extent to which Israel should label itself as a state for the Jewish people as opposed to a state for all its citizens, such as the Unitied Kingdom or other liberal democracies.”

One could object straight away that this “objection” is in the form of a complex question, that ancient logical trick of which the stock example is “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Israel is not a “Jewish state”, nor does it “label itself” as one, which is hardly surprising, since it is Israel’s many enemies who think it in their interest to so “label” it. Unlike many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, Israel is neither a religious nor an ethnic monoculture. Its present population is 7,337,000, of which only 75.5% are Jewish. The reminder are Israeli Arabs (1447,000) or non-Jewish immigrants and their children (318,000). All these people enjoy full rights of citizenship.

Nor do the logical confusions implicit in this brief but brainless sentence end there. Even if Israel were to all intents and purposes a religious or ethnic monoculture, that in itself would not establish that it was not a liberal democracy. Since plenty of liberal democracies are, to all intents and purposes, monocultures of one type or the other, the two issues are not only separate, but have no bearing whatsoever on one another. And in any case, Israel is a liberal democracy.

But (leaving aside the demonstrable lousiness, as arguments, of the “arguments” in question), one would have thought, anyway, that someone who complains that the observance of a restriction on anti-Semitism will deprive him of his best arguments is more or less hanging a notice round his neck saying “Look at me! I am an anti-Semite!”

This thought has clearly filtered through to the authors of the Leeds PSG statement, who have accordingly looked around for some means of neutralizing it. One knows very well, speaking as a non-Jew with a beady eye for his fellow non-Jews, that the best way of clearing oneself of a charge of anti-Semitism is to get a Jew to do it for one (which is why, among other things, Hitler and his friends found the writings of Otto Weininger so convenient.) For whatever reasons (and many at least, are perfectly respectable ones, for which one should feel at least some sympathy) supportive Jewish voices are seldom lacking on these occasions, nor are they on the present one. The authors of the PSG statement abandon independent argument after their fourth paragraph, the heart of which I quoted above, and instead turn for succour to three Jewish organizations with well-run websites, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, European Jews for a Just Peace, and Jews Against Zionism.

Of these, the last is an organization of Orthodox Jews whose objections to Zionism are religious rather than political. Their stance on anti-Semitism is the traditional Orthodox one that it is a punishment imposed on Jews by (as they would write the word) G-d, for their faithlessness in falling away from strict observance of the Mitzvot, a faithlessness of which the establishment of the State of Israel is merely the most blatant instance. Whatever one might want to say about this position, one thing that is clear is that it has no bearing whatsoever on the adequacy or inadequacy of the EUMC definition. A voice from the interior of another moral universe, it simply has no business being cited in this debate.

Of the other two organizations, the best attack on the adequacy of the EUMC definition is mounted by Jews for justice for Palestinians, whose page on the subject can be accessed here.

The page contains a letter sent to the EUMC in 2005, raising various concerns about the definition. If any succour is to be found for the authors of the Leeds PSG statement, one would suppose, it will be here. But the level of argument operating here is, if anything, weaker than that in the PSG statement itself.

The letter opens with a complaint to the effect that EJJP was not among the Jewish organizations consulted by the EUMC in the lengthy process which resulted in the drawing up of its definition. Public bodies do tend to decide, however, and on the whole have a right so to decide, who they think it worthwhile to include in their consultations. What the EJJP has to show, therefore, is that the EUMC made a serious error in leaving them out. In order to show that, it must provide telling grounds for regarding the definition which emerged from these putatively defective consultations as itself defective. This the EJJP sets out to do in the second part of its letter, headed “On content”. Unfortunately the three main (bulleted) objections set out in this turn out all to be non-sequiturs of one sort and another. Here they are:
1. The definition asserts that it is anti-Semitic to deny Jews, alone of all the nations of the world, the right to self-determination. To this the EJJP replies that not all Jews “equate self-determination with Zionism”, citing the Orthodox tradition, Buber, and sections of the current Israeli left, as instances. This is clearly factually correct, but equally clearly irrelevant to the issue. Even if some members of a nation do not desire national self-determination, it is still an instance of prejudice to deny that nation a right to self-determination, unless one holds that no nation has a right to self-determination, which in practice no-one does.

2. The definition says that one form of anti-Semitism consists in “applying double standards by requiring of it behaviour nor expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The EJJC retort is that “This is a formulation that allows any criticism of Israel to be dismissed on the grounds that it is not applied to every other defaulting nation at the same time.” This seems simply to misunderstand the force of the EUMC’s point. That point is not that it is prejudicial to criticize a nation for a criminal act unless one simultaneously mentions every other nation whose record is so stained. It is, rather, that it is prejudicial to criticize a nation for acts which in the case of any other nation would not be considered criminal. Clearly this formulation places no restraint whatsoever on any deserved and non-prejudicial criticism of Israel.

[contrary to the claim in the piece copied by Sizer that "the motion will shut down an area of perfectly legitimate debate."]3. The EUMC definition says that it is anti-Semitic to hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. The EJJP replies that “This is the flipside of a position frequently expressed by Prime Minister Sharon and many Zionists, that refuses to make any distinction between the interests of Israel and those of Jews worldwide.“ This reply is vitiated by the difficulty of attaching a clear meaning to the phrase “is the flipside of”. If it means that Sharon and some unnamed collection of Zionists are guilty of the conduct identified as anti-Semitic by the EUMC in this clause, then plainly it is false. Saying that the existence of Israel serves the interests of Jews worldwide is clearly not the same thing as saying that Jews worldwide share responsibility for the actions of the state of Israel. The first claim is very possibly true; the second is not so much false as conceptually incoherent: one might as well argue that because I am British I share responsibility for Gordon Brown’s recent nationalization of two British banks, and am therefore liable to be sued by the shareholders. One cannot conduct any intelligible politics on the basis of this kind of inane drivel.
Given the feebleness of the arguments brought against it by people very anxious to discredit it, in short, the only conclusion to be drawn is that the EUMC definition deserves to be adopted by the Leeds student union, not least in view of the level of anti-semitic incidents and intimidation of Jewish students on campus recorded by its supporters. Let us hope that the vote goes in favour of Motion 4.

[This piece was written for Engage by Bernard Harrison, E. E. Erickson Professor Emeritus at the University of Utah, formerly a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, and author of The Resurgence of Anti-semitism: Jews, Israel and Liberal Opinion.]


Yossi said...

Why is this bloke getting involved in student affairs? It's none of his business what students in Leeds vote for! It's like you said James, what the **** is a minister of religion doing OPPOSING antiracism? Beyond belief.

James said...

shocking isn't it?

I liked this post on other people who are seeking to oppose Motion 4: