Cutting through the bullshit.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Michael Neumann, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and antisemitism

Update: I have moved Michael's response to this, my reply to him, and a related exchange to a new thread entitled 'Exchange with Michael Neumann' dated 2007 03 03.


The other day there was a discussion on Jews sans frontieres where Trent University philosopher, Michael Neumann came up. On 20 February, a commentator identifying as ‘ej’ quotes from an article Neumann published on Counterpunch on 4 June 2002. In a nutshell, ‘... since we are obliged to oppose the settlements, we are obliged to be anti-Semitic. Through definitional inflation, some form of anti-Semitism becomes morally obligatory.’

When I first read ej’s extracts, I thought that’s a clever rhetorical trick, but if he intends it as any more than that, it’s ridiculous. There is no reason to embrace anti-Semitism and it’s important to contest the Zionists’ attempts to coopt the term for their own nefarious purposes. In reality, elsewhere in the article ej quotes from, he does make an attempt to define anti-Semitism, although not entirely successfully, in my view. I think this is his preferred definition:

… action or propaganda designed to hurt Jews, not because of anything they could avoid doing, but because they are what they are. It also applies to the attitudes that propaganda tries to instill. Though not always explicitly racist, it involves racist motives and the intention to do real damage.

The article as a whole couches this discussion of the definition of anti-Semitism as part of an argument,

I think we should almost never take antisemitism seriously, and maybe we should have some fun with it. I think it is particularly unimportant to the Israel-Palestine conflict, except perhaps as a diversion from the real issues.

I gather that the point he is trying to make is that the vast majority of accusations of anti-Semitism are frivolous and that the recurring announcement of ‘the new antisemitism’ has never been more than a smokescreen for Israeli atrocities. If I’m right about that, he has a curious way of expressing it there. Later, though, he makes the point

If in France, for instance, the Front National starts advocating transit camps for Jews, or institutes anti-Jewish immigration policies, then we should be alarmed. But we should not be alarmed that something alarming might just conceivably happen: there are far more alarming things going on than that!

And this important observation in much the same vein,

To regard any shedding of Jewish blood as a world-shattering calamity, one which defies all measurement and comparison, is racism, pure and simple; the valuing of one race's blood over all others.

In the course of the debate on JsF, there was a link to another piece on Neumann’s site that appears to be a response to a criticism by the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith, which had accused him of antisemtism. The article doesn’t link to whatever it is a response to. It begins with a defense of a passage he quotes from ‘a private email correspondence allegedly reproduced on the Jewish Tribal Review site’. Since he claims interpretation of that passage depends on missing context and he can’t even confirm the accuracy of the quote, I am not going to address it apart from suggesting that, if he actually did write, ‘‘My sole concern is indeed to help the Palestinians, and I try to play for keeps. I am not interested in the truth, or justice, or understanding, or anything else, except so far as it serves that purpose’, I’d have thought it would be rather a curious position for a professional philosopher to adopt. Also, I will return to the first sentence of the contested paragraph, about his ‘sole concern’, from which he doesn’t resile, and I surmise provides context for the balance.

Actually, there is a link on his tripod site labelled, ‘Here are some comments on a piece by Nick Cohen of the New Stateman [sic] concerning Ted Honderich and his views on terror and the Middle East. In some respects my views are not those of Professor Honderich, but the flaws in Cohen's accusations may be of some general interest.’

Coincidentally, Ted Honderich had a profoundly embarrassing piece on Comment is Free a few months ago where he also refers to Neumann. I only learned of the Honderich piece after comments closed, but I did write a critique of it.

Anyway, here’s my take on aspects of Neumann’s response to the CJC. In it, he quotes himself in the article linked above,

"Do we want to say it is antisemitic to accuse, not just the Israelis, but Jews generally of complicity in these crimes against humanity? Again, maybe not, because there is a quite reasonable case for such assertions. Compare them, for example, to the claim that Germans generally were complicit in such crimes. This never meant that every last German, man, woman, idiot and child, were guilty. It meant that most Germans were."

When people accuse ‘most Germans’ of complicity with Nazi atrocities, they are not levelling that accusation against US citizens born in Germany, much less their grandchildren. If they did, they would rightly suffer accusations of racism. The significance of German complicity, as far as I’m concerned, is that they were there, in Germany watching their Jewish neighbours carted off during the Holocaust. If they were ignorant of what ‘their’ government was doing, it was a thoroughly wilful ignorance. And presumably they, more than anyone, could do something about it.

This is quite different from Neumann’s accusation of complicity by ‘most Jews’ in Israel’s crimes. He’s implicating people whose ancestors haven’t stepped on Palestinian soil for 2000 years! Diaspora Jews individually per se have no influence over Israeli government policy. There are organisations in the US and perhaps elsewhere that may be able to exercise some influence, but they are not at all representative. Certainly individual diaspora Jews could not do anything to remove the Israeli government. Not that it would matter, because every Israeli government has had the same basic policies. Furthermore, while it is easy for those of us who make a point of keeping informed about such things to criticise the ignorance of people who rely on the mainstream media for ‘information’, they are actually the ones who are normal. And in that context, American and Canadian and British Jews who are blissfully unaware of what’s going on in Palestine are just not in a situation analogous to Germans in Germany.

So Neumann’s analogy illuminates nothing. The question remains: Is it ‘antisemitic to accuse, not just the Israelis, but Jews generally of complicity in these crimes against humanity?’ And at one level the answer depends in part on which crimes against humanity. If what we’re talking about is the day to day oppression, the checkpoints, the house demolitions, the extrajudicial executions, the administrative detentions, and so forth, these are the kinds of things that the mainstream media studiously insulate their audience from. When they allow a revelation through, they frame it in a war context, ‘Israel acts to protect innocent civilians from the Palestinians’ wanton terror’, ‘Israel has a right to self defence’, and all that rubbish. I think there may well be some truth to an assertion that people who support Israel don’t want to know, but still, they do have a kind of excuse. They would have to make a point of informing themselves. Their failure to do so is deplorable, but I don’t think it actually amounts to complicity.

On the other hand, if the crimes against humanity Neumann has in mind are those that arise directly and inevitably from the very establishment of Jewish ethnocratic state, the ethnic cleansing of 1948 in particular, can anyone reasonably claim that the consequences are not inherently obvious? Do we need first hand knowledge of the events to know that the whole idea of a Jewish state is a racist atrocity? Is there any excuse for unquestioningly accepting the myth of ‘a land without people’? In my view, no, there is no excuse. In this case, you don’t have to go out of your way to inform yourself of the facts. On the contrary, you have to perform quite demanding cognitive contortions to avoid the conclusion that a Jewish state anywhere is an inherently racist undertaking and that a Jewish state in Palestine is unavoidably at the expense of the non Jewish population.

Although it isn’t explicit in the article under discussion, the article that it quotes from leads into the quoted text with

Zionists came thousands of miles to dispossess people who had never done them the slightest harm, and whose very existence they contrived to ignore…the racial supremacist ideology…deliberately making Palestine unliveable for Palestinians…Its purpose is not defense or public order, but the extinction of a people…genocide that portrays its perpetrators as victims…Israel is building a racial state…Palestinians are being…shot because Israel thinks all Palestinians should vanish or die, so people with one Jewish grandparent can build subdivisions on the rubble of their homes…ethnic nationalism…

Anyone who ‘supports Israel’ implicitly contrives to endorse these crimes and must therefore be complicit in some sense. But that still doesn’t answer the question, whether it is anti-Semitic to single out Jews generally to implicate in these crimes, when others are in most relevant respects just as complicit.

Neumann reckons, again quoting himself,

"it would still be reasonable to say that many, perhaps most adult Jewish individuals support a state that commits war crimes, because that's just true."

That would indeed be reasonable to say. It would be at least equally reasonable to say the same of Jewish children. I think it would be about equally reasonable to say it of non Jewish adults anywhere that there are significant Jewish populations, and certainly of the members of particular millenarian Christian cults, US politicians, and lots of other identifiable groups.

Neumann continues,

‘I stand by that statement. It has nothing to do with racism, which posits ingrained, biologically based faults.’

But actually, the definition he proposes for racism does not accord with the usual meaning of the term. He is identifying a population of Jews by unspecified criteria. But we know who he’s referring to. If the statement is meaningful at all, it can only be those of us who Israel claims to be acting on behalf of, the group defined by the Law of Return, or by the Nuremburg Laws, or something of the sort. It’s a population basically defined by descent, although one of the markers of membership is adherence to Jewish religious ritual, either by the member or by an ancestor. He is not attributing a biological fault to this population. He is claiming that by virtue of descent we incur some responsibility to ‘at the very, very least - even if you *do* nothing - advocate something that will stop the crimes." (’. I think he is right, this is not a racist assertion. When the state of Israel claims to be committing human rights violations in our name and for our benefit, we do incur an obligation to distance ourselves from it and to work against it.

How does this special responsibility impact on our culpability for Israel’s crimes? Are Jews somehow more complicit than others who support Israel? Israel claims to act on behalf of all Jews. Jews and non Jews alike who support Israel do so on the basis that they accept Israel’s claim. Since the claim is false, diaspora Jews derive no material benefit from Israel’s existence or from its crimes against humanity. On this basis, my inclination is to say that Jews are neither more nor less complicit than non Jews, although it is perhaps more deplorable when Jews shirk the responsibility to speak out. On the other hand, it may not be irrelevant that Jews who support Israel believe that they do enjoy some material benefit, in the form of some kind of safety net, from Israel’s existence. And there are actual material incentives for those Jews who exercise their ‘rights’ under the Law of Return, with additional perks for those who settle in the West Bank.

If an argument like this seems sterile and inconclusive that’s because it is. It is not useful to single out an ethnic group on that basis and assign special blame for their false consciousness and complacency. Nearly everyone in capitalist society harbours ideas – ‘the ruling ideas’, ‘the muck of ages’ – that are inimical to their own interests, to their workmates interests, and the struggle for human liberation. And nearly everyone supports ‘a state that commits war crimes’. It is, after all, euqally reasonable to accuse anyone who fails to condemn the US, and Britain, and Australia, and Canada. Indeed, apart from their war crimes in the here and now, the US, Canada, and Australia were also founded on genocidal atrocities more than on a par with Israel’s. The passage of time has not erased these crimes and the survivors remain victims of their racism. So yes, we do ‘want to say it is antisemitic to accuse, not just the Israelis, but Jews generally of complicity in these crimes against humanity’.

But that’s not the point. There are real distinctions to make. One of the tasks of the movement for peace and justice in Palestine is to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians, whether they suffer under the bootheel of Israeli occupation forces, as twelfth class Israeli citizens, or as stateless refugees languishing in squalid camps. Another is to undermine the ideas that bring people to tolerate and even applaud that suffering and its causes.

In this context, we can single out for special opprobrium the ideologues who promulgate the myths and lies and distortions that allow those ideas to persist – the Alan Dershowitzes and Joan Peterses and Ted Lapkins. And we can contrast them with those like Jimmy Carter and Norman Finkelstein and Tanya Reinhart and Antony Loewenstein and Neumann himself who are disseminating information about how Israel treats the Palestinians and refuting some of the Zionist propaganda. In my view, we can make a further distinction between those who accept, even argue for, the fundamentally racist sectarian Jewish ethnocratic state in Palestine and those who insist that only a secular state with equal rights for all, regardless of religion or ethnicity, can deliver a just peace.

Neumann’s own position seems to be ambiguous. In the article he quotes from in the article under discussion, he is explicit about the crimes against humanity that the foundation of Israel entailed. But in this article, he goes on to write,

‘I do not advocate the destruction of Israel or even insist on implementing a Palestinian right of return.’

If he doesn’t advocate the destruction of Israel, presumably he accepts that it’s ok for a Jewish ethnocracy to continue to exist in Palestine. He implicitly endorses the foundation of a state in the 20th century on a deliberate campaign of terrorism and ethnic cleansing with malice aforethought. Those are not the crimes he enjoins all Jews to advocate the end of. But they are crimes and they are racist crimes and to endorse them, or even accept them, is to implicate oneself in the racist project of cleansing Palestine of Palestinians. He amplifies this by refusing to insist on the right of return. It is hard to reconcile this position with the one he allegedly articulated on the Jewish Tribal Review site, ‘My sole concern is indeed to help the Palestinians, and I try to play for keeps.’ The only sense I can make of this is that he concurs with Jimmy Carter and so many others who have conveniently forgotten that the Palestinians comprise not just those currently living under Israeli military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, but also the some 1.4 million ‘Israeli Arabs’ and millions of 1948 refugees. I can’t see how buying into this artificial division of the Palestinians can help them.

To all appearances, his further apology, ‘I acknowledge Israel's right to defend itself, to fortify its borders, even to make genuinely pre-emptive strikes across its borders’, confirms that he accepts the existence of a racist Jewish ethnocracy, although he could be more specific. What could he mean when Israel has always explicitly refused to define its borders? What is Israel supposed to be defending itself against? Iranian nukes? Or the ‘demographic time bomb’?

Although it apparently conflicts with the position he took in the earlier CounterPunch article, I think what he is really getting at here is that like Jimmy Carter and many other supporters of the Jewish state, he regards establishing a Jewish ethnocracy on 78% of Palestine, massacring and expelling hundreds of thousands, refusing redress to the victims for six decades, making the survivors twelfth class citizens, in fact all the atrocities arising from the events of, as ok. The crimes that concern him are those arising directly from the occupation of the other 22% of Palestine in June 1967. I understand how those with illusions in the UN and so forth might be able to justify this kind of distinction on the basis of ex post facto recognition of Israel under UN General Assembly Resolution 273 and the condemnation of the occupation of 1967 under UN Security Council Resolution 242, among others. But Neumann doesn’t provide even that kind of justification. He doesn’t say what gives Israel the ‘right to defend itself’. Perhaps there is some kind of implicit statute of limitations that excuses the crimes of 1948?

In any case, I agree with Neumann that because Israel claims to act on our behalf, Jews have a special responsibility to speak out. Israel’s fundamental claim is that its establishment and existence as a Jewish state with a Jewish majority provides refuge for every Jew. That is what we have to condemn. A racist, settler colonial state does not provide refuge. Quite apart from any moral, ethical, or political objections anyone might have to it, the expulsion of the Palestinians to create a Jewish majority is the single most significant pretext for actual violence against diaspora Jews since the Shoah. It is a lie that these crimes were committed on our behalf. And it is not just a lie. Implicating all Jews, or ‘Jews generally’, in the crimes of Israel’s creation is a racist lie and an anti-Semitic lie. For those whose ‘concern is indeed to help the Palestinians’, our task is not to excoriate ordinary people who act on the basis of the propaganda and lies they have absorbed. It is to undermine the propaganda and mobilise against the crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Palestinians.


  1. I liked this posting a lot. One minor thing regarding Canada.

    It is interesting that apartheid was applied in Canada. The intent was different, the effects were not.

    In 1836 Bond Head plotted out a dramatic shift in Native policy, arguing that it would be "best for the Indians" if they would be completely removed from the influences of white society and allowed to continue their rustic, subsistence-level hunting and fishing lifesystels elsewhere. (The Iroquoian Nations had a long agricultural tradition that predated white society and was even now being destroyed by it, but that didn't fit the romantic image of the Noble Savage and was thus discarded.) Canadian History for Dummies by Will Ferguson p 193

    The similarities between the formation of Canada are clearly there. The issue is has Canada repudiated them? The answer to that question appears to me to be a distinct maybe.

    On the plus side there is John Diefenbaker (reduced to a minority government in an election with the help of a US spy in 1962) who among numerous other things helped end the Commonwealth's status as "a club for white nations" by supporting the inclusion of Ghana, the Commonwealth's first African member state. Canadian History for Dummies pg 353 There are also recent native land claims settlements that have provided enough land to start upsetting the local white population. There have been attempts at introducing native justice into our justice system - with things like sentencing circles. There has been a lot of recognition of the crimes that have been committed - including relatively recent native experiences at religious schools.

    On the minus - our close ties with Israel - even when Israel uses forged Canadian passports to try an assassinate people shows that at some level we really haven't figured out what we have done in the past well enough to be aware when we assist Israel in doing the same thing, either that or we are not as sorry as we like to think we are. Of course this is complicated by the guilt that Canadian society rightly feels over our treatment of Jews during the time of Nazi Germany. But that leaves us back at the question of repudiation. Making amends for racism to one group by engaging in racism against another does not show repudiation.

  2. While I largely agree, I am not quite as ready to condemn those who don't embrace the one state solution, or the right of return. In particular, it is possible to convince oneself that "to help the Palestinians" it is better to push for a Palestinian state on only 22% of the territory of Palestine soon than to demand something that the Israelis will not agree to in the foreseeable future.

    I don't want to say I agree with this position - I believe it is up to the Palestinians themselves to make that determination - I just don't think there's necessarily a contradiction here.

  3. Let me add another perspective here.

    I am not a Jew. My family of origin was, though, and it spent its energy (money, time, effort) for years in supporting and organizing support for the Zionist movement and eventually, the State of Israel.

    Eventually, part of my family of origin got up and moved there - hauling off an unwitting young girl (myself) and making me complicit in the crimes committed there.

    I've left Israel and Judaism, but I feel I still bear some blame - some karmic debt, if you like, for all the wrong wrought by my family. It is beholden upon anyone who SEES a crime happening to report it; knowledge is power - and power is obligation.

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  5. Thanks to edwin, christian, and shunra for your comments.

    In case it wasn't clear, I wasn't accusing Canada of apartheid. I was accusing it of being founded on genocidal settler colonialism. It's a long time since I lived there and I was a stupid kid more concerned with 5th Century Athens than 20th Century Toronto at the time. But it doesn't surprise me if the Canadian government has made greater strides towards redressing Native People's grievances than, say, Australia. They couldn't very well have done much worse!

    I agree entirely with you Christian that it is up to the Palestinians what they want to do. But which Palestinians? How do we incorporate the Israeli Arabs and the disapora into such a decision? I certainly do not accept that the PA can speak on behalf of all Palestinians.

    Furthermore, while I may support whatever the Palestinians decide to do, my support is critical. I am entitled to my own view on the matter. I have been saying for over a month now that I was going to write a review of Ali Abunimah's One country. One of the excuses for my procrastination was that I hadn't finished reading Virginia Tilley's One state solution. Now I've done that and have no further excuses. So I hope to post it here shortly. That review will provide a comprehensive argument against partition. As near comprehensive as I can manage, anyway. Abunimah and Tilley reckon the populations are too intertwined to separate. My own view, in a nutshell, is that there are two sets of arguments. One is that partition leaves the Jewish state intact. Support for this involves you in very unsavoury implications, including endorsing ethnic cleaning in principle. The other set of arguments revolves around the practicability of establishing a truly viable Palestinian even on the full 22%. The likelihood of a full withdrawal to anywhere near the Green Line, I think you'll agree, is vanishingly small. The outcome I actually anticipate is something along the lines of the four cantons Tanya Reinhart identifies in Roadmap to nowhere. At that point the advocates of partition will be reduced to bleating, 'That's not the two state solution we meant!'

    In response to Shunra, I think you raise two issues that Michael addresses or alludes to in his response. One is the definition of a Jew, the other is the question of collective responsibility.

    When you write that you are not a Jew although your family is Jewish, I surmise that you mean you have rejected Judaism, the religion. But 'Jewish' is an inherently ambiguous term that also denotes an ethnicity. An ethnicity, or 'race' is ultimately a construct of the racism that created it. As I wrote elsewhere recently, ‘the Nuremburg and ancillary laws defined a Jew explicitly as a racial category in terms of descent from two or more Jewish grandparents, whose race was determined on the basis of religious observance. In other words, although the intent was a category defined strictly in terms of descent, religion was used as a proxy marker of descent two generations back. The Nazis didn’t just pretend Jews were a racial group. By identifying Jews as a race, they created the race. That’s as real as race gets as a category. It doesn’t matter what markers the racist claims to use in identifying members of a race. What makes it a race is not the markers, but the racism. Just like any other kind of racism, it is based on the racists’ perception of race as a biological category.‘

    If you have formally converted to another religion, then the Law of Return would exclude you. Under the Nuremburg Laws, if one or two of your grandparents are not Jewish, then in principle, you are not a Jew if you’ve converted. If three or four of your grandparents are Jewish, then it doesn’t matter whether you’ve converted or not. The reason I go on about this is that it is the racists who define the race. So you may protest as much as you like that you are not religious, or even show some evidence of conversion, but it’s not going to keep you out of the ovens, and that’s what counts.

    As for collective responsibility, I intend to address it in my reply to Michael’s comment, but to summarise, I don’t accept it in principle. You are not responsible for what others do, even if you approve, unless you actually urged them to do it in the first place. I’m not sure about the situation where you actually benefit, much less where you believe that you benefit. In any case, I don’t think any of those scenarios actually fit the definition of collective responsibility. So if you feel you need to accept blame for wrongs your own family has done, I beg to differ. This is quite a different thing from the responsibility you mention to intervene to avert a wrong being done, which applies to anyone. As I think I wrote in the blog entry, a Jew is not more complicit in Israeli crimes than a non Jew just because Israel claims to be carrying them out on behalf of Jews. However, since only a Jew can say, ‘Not in my name, you don’t!’, we incur a responsibility to do just that.