Cutting through the bullshit.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

EU slams Gandhi

Mark Elf, over at Jews sans Frontières, drew my attention to Arthur Neslen’s post on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ site. Entitled ‘When an anti-semite is not an anti-semite’, the article discusses the EU Monitoring Commission’s ‘Working definition’ of anti-Semitism, which has come up on this blog before.

His main point is that under the EU definition, such luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein would be tarred with the antisemite brush, while Lee Barnes of the Nazi British National Party might very well not. According to Neslen, it turns out that the framer of the EU definition was one Kenneth S. Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s specialist on antisemitism. What prompted Neslen’s article is that Britain’s National Union of Students has adopted it as official policy. It’s frightening that other bodies are now jumping on the bandwagon. Neslent claims ‘the British government has pledged to re-examine its own definition of anti-semitism’ and ‘the US state department's special envoy for combating anti-semitism’ has endorsed the EU Working definition. In fact, according to the State Department site that he links to is quite explicit that ‘The recitation of the EUMC "working definition" of anti-Semitism should not be construed as an acceptance of that definition, or the statements and examples thereunder, as United States policy’. Still, it’s a worry that they’ve given it pride of place there and I’m not aware of any other definition on the State site.

Anyway, I was impelled to post this as a comment there.

Canadian philosopher Michael Neumann argues, somewhat tongue in cheek, that when the definition of antisemitism is perverted to incorporate principled opposition to Zionism and to Israeli policies in this way, it transforms antisemitism from a racist atrocity into a virtue. And that really is one of the dangers of a widespread acceptance of a definition along the lines of the ‘Working definition’.

The approach I want to take here is to analyse the relevant passage of the ‘Working definition’ and see where it leads.

To begin with, I think it’s important that we know exactly what the EUMC definition actually says in this regard:

Examples of the ways in which anti-Semitism 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 (e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor).

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

· Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize 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.

However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.

1. The right to self determination

It is all very well to demand the right of self determination for Jews in Palestine, but it is not exclusive of other internationally recognised human rights. To use the right of self determination to establish an ethnically exclusive state that deprives the indigenous population of their rights, including, significantly, the right to self determination itself, is an exercise in the crudest cynicism. This is in fact one of the reasons that the existence of a State of Israel as a specifically Jewish state is a racist endeavour.

2. Double standards

Contrary to the opinion of people who don't accept the conventional rules of argument, in a discussion of Israeli policies, Saudi and Jordanian policies aren't actually relevant. The fact is, most critics of Israel are also critical of other countries. And uncritical supporters of Israel demand quite unreasonably that every time anyone criticises Israel, they firsts criticise Egypt, or Pakistan, or Canada, whether it’s relevant or not. It is also relevant to point out that whatever crimes the Jordanian government may commit against its own citizens and its neighbours, it never claims to be doing it on my behalf, as Israel does. In making this claim, Israel gives me special rights to criticise its policies and its existence and indeed, in my view, imposes a special obligation on me to do so.

3. Symbols

It probably really is antisemitic to accuse Israel of ‘christ killing’ and the like, although those who are serious about the right to freedom of expression would want such forms of atrocious speech protected.

4. Nazi comparisons

This is another red herring. Nobody claims that the state of Israel is rounding up Palestinians and literally transporting them to death camps. But former Israeli Justice Minister, Yosef Lapid, himself a Holocaust survivor and Chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, was recently reported comparing the behaviour of Hebron settlers with the antisemites who tormented him in his childhood in Yugoslavia. On 1 December 2004, however, Akiva Eldar reported in Ha’aretz that Machsom Watch had filmed 28 year old West Bank music student Wissam Tayam being forced to play his violin for the entertainment of the soldiers at the Beit Iba checkpoint near Nablus. Trivial examples, perhaps, but the point is that if Israelis are so sensitive about comparisons with the Nazis, it would behove them to eschew behaviour that invites such comparisons.

5. Collective responsibility

Ultimately, the EU ‘Working Definition’ undermines itself. If it is anti-Semitic to deny that a Jewish state has a right to exist, or to compare Israeli policies to Nazi policies, the inescapable implication is that it is anti-Semitic because to do so impugns all Jews, and not just Israelis or the Jewish state itself. If it reflects upon Jews in general to criticise Israel in these ways, then that must mean that those defining anti-Semitism believe that all Jews actually are responsible for the State of Israel and its policies. So Stern and whoever else framed the ‘Working definition’ are themselves ‘holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel’. In this way, by defining antiZionism as anti-Semitic, the EU and those who seek to apply the ‘Working Definition’ betray that, under their own definition, they are anti-Semitic themselves.


  1. Good response. Re: the 'self-determination' section - perhaps they mean objection to the very principle of a Jewish state as a racist endeavour (as opposed to objection to the actual Jewish state in Palestine)?

    If not, then it is indeed a ridiculous definition of "anti-Semitism".

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jamie, and welcome to the Bureau! I'm glad you liked my post. The wording is 'claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor'. That's precisely my claim, wherever it's established. And I absolutely reject any accusation of antisemtism. On the contrary, the idea that Jews can't join with others to fight racism but need to wall ourselves off in some ghetto is the one that's antisemitic.

  3. My question is: Are all these people truly so clueless about what is racism and what the freedoms that are part of a democratic process are; or are these people so amoral that they are willing to repeat the actions so much of the west did with the Jews during Nazi Germany, but this time with the Palestinians because it is more convenient to do so than not to?

    Perhaps I shouldn't be so harsh. There has been some indication that there are severe penalties for those who seek high public office but do not toe the "we are friends of Israel line". This is also combined with guilt over the past. Unfortunately, one sees how otherwise good meaning people can succumb to Fascism.

  4. In response to a comment I posted on Jews sans Frontieres, Arthur Neslen points out that I missed the text on the State Dept site that the footnote I quoted is a footnote to,

    'In light of the longstanding commitment of the U.S. to free speech and other individual freedoms as demonstrated within our Constitution, the Office of the Special Envoy believes that this definition provides an adequate initial guide by which anti-Semitism can eventually both be defined and combated, and therefore presents this "working definition" as a starting point in the fight against anti-Semitism.'

    I don't retreat from my characterisation of the footnote as a successful hedge, but they are certainly trying to have it both ways.'s know how it goes!

  5. The EU's working definition falls at the first hurdle:

    "Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor)"

    The right of national self-determination is not absolute. In particular, it cannot be used as an excuse for denying the rights of others. The right of national self-determination, therefore, can only be legitimately exercised on the basis of consistent democracy. I defend the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. A nation is defined by common experience, particularly common experience of national oppression, so if the Jewish people weren't a nation before World War II, they were afterwards. There's a mighty large gap between that, however, and recognising the State of Israel.

    First of all, Israel was built on stolen land (like Australia & the United States were!) - and, just in case there's anyone who hasn't been paying attention, the theft hasn't ceased. Self-determination via ethnic cleansing is not acceptable, something both the EU & the US can accept when Serbia is involved, but have trouble getting their heads around when Israel is mentioned.

    Second, Palestinians in Israel don't have equal rights. Precisely because the State of Israel is a Jewish State, it is not the State of all its citizens. Palestinians in Israel, even as citizens, are discriminated against in many ways. A Jewish State is, in fact, a moral abomination, and has the same ethical content as a White Australia or an Islamic Republic.

    If the Jewish people were to exercise their right of national self-determination on a democratic basis, it would require, first of all, the right of return of all the Palestinian refugees of 1948 & their descendants, with compensation for stolen property. Second, it would require a plebiscite and the formation of a Jewish-majority State only on the territory which voted for it. And, third, it would require that the Jewish-majority State (whatever it might want to call itself) operate on the basis of equal rights for all.

    How likely is this? Not very. Taking the territory of the old British mandate territory of Palestine, the population of Jews & Palestinians there is about equal. Once you let the refugees come home from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt & the rest of the diaspora (and even if you recognise that probably only a minority would exercise the right), the Palestinians would be a strong majority. A Jewish majority would probably only be found in an area around the size of Greater Tel Aviv - not exactly an impressive result for all that Zionist effort.

    Nationalism is never the solution to oppression - whether of the Jews or of any other people. There has to be a better way to fight anti-Semitism. And there is.

  6. Sorry, ABIM, I'm going to have to take issue with you about this, 'There has to be a better way to fight anti-Semitism.' Zionism - the nationalism you are referring to - is not a way to fight antisemitism at all. Indeed, it is explicitly a reputationation of that fight and a sop to antisemites. It was probably not intentional, or inevitable, but it has also become the principal pretext for real antisemitism in the world today. But neither is it coincidental.

    Now when you write of the Palestinian right of return, 'probably only a minority would exercise the right', I surmise that you allude to the famous 2003 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research survey and I refer you to my analysis in my 'Who ordered herring?' post a few weeks ago (

    In a nutshell, 10% agreed they would 'Return to Israel in accordance with an annual quota and become an Israeli citizen' as one of five options in a scenario where a Palestinian state had already been established and compensation was on offer. Note also the quota stipulation. Thirteen percent rejected all five options, presumably those who prefer the right of return without hedges.

  7. This will have to be quick, since there's a cup of tea waiting for me.

    First, Ernie is quite correct that Zionism is not a method of fighting anti-Semitism. In practice, it has even found advantage from stoking it in certain circumstances. The EU's "working definition of anti-Semitism", however, can be taken up by ill-informed people as a yard-stick against which to measure actions. And there's definitely a better way than that.

    Second, I did read the article Ernie mentioned - closely, in fact. I think that a fair repatriation offer (i.e. not the one presented in the survey mentioned) would get a significantly greater number of takers than the 10% you refer to. It wouldn't necessarily be a majority, though, especially if the ohter options on offer were fair (e.g. adequate compensation and integration into the current host society with equal rights).

    In any event, the number of prospective takers of a fair offer should not be a determinant of whether it is made. On that I think we can both agree.