Spiked’s Frank Furedi on the ‘new antisemitism’

In this article at http://www.spiked-online.co.uk/index.php?/site/article/2919, he writes:

“Unfortunately it is quite easy to become disoriented in the debate about the new anti-Semitism, since its focus is often on what people ‘really mean’ rather than on what they actually say.”

and

“…combining forensic skills, interpretive wits and moral judgements is not necessarily conducive to searching for the truth. Rather, such methods of ‘investigation’ might lead individuals to see something that isn’t there. Making a moral judgment call about what an individual really means is a highly subjective act, which can be influenced by the judger’s own prejudices and by other cultural and political assumptions.”

I bring to this article two understandings. One has its origins in a tongue-in-cheek remark from Leon Wieseltier that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has done everyone a favour by saying precisely what he means about Jews and, in doing so, removed the need for ‘pilpul’ – he acknowledges that we should be vigilant about circumspect Jew-haters who insinuate their meaning in acceptable language, and he also acknowledges that the intensity of hair-splitting implied by the term pilpul can err towards the spurious.

My second understanding is that there is an association between actual antisemitism and paranoia about antisemitism (actual antisemitism leading to paranoia about antisemitism, which irritates people who are not paranoid about antisemitism, which irritation may in turn be interpreted as antisemitism and so on).

I’m inclined to think that the act of interpreting what somebody could mean (and often the analysis this entails is much more rigorous than the term ‘pilpul’ might imply – unless you go in for pilpul of course), would mitigate any paranoia about antisemitism – the engagement represented by the kind of subjective critique about which Frank has misgivings always tacitly allows that such-and-such a text or utterance may not be antisemitic.

It is important to remember that not all prejudice is the same – Jews are one of many groups which, on account of some or other distinguishing feature, have historically experienced particular and distinctive types of discrimination not always immediately apparent to people outside that group. If we allow that discrimination marks the likelihood of future persecution, we shouldn’t be put off by the energy and time that some people dedicate to identifying antisemitism – and it would also be understandable if the majority of those motivated to do this were Jewish. In other words, what Frank rejects as subjective interpretation is unavoidable if we are to engage collectively, as a society, with the particular tropes of a particular hatred – whether that be hatred of Romany, older people (what self-respecting politically-correct person would ever say ‘elderly’, by the way?), or people with Downs Syndrome. And what he rejects as subjective interpretation also constitutes a product as well as a process – the product can be a helpful explanation of a text or utterance so that people who are not sensitised to a particular form of prejudice can better understand how it works against a given group. Engage assumes this kind of educative function, for example.

Frank continues:

“…it is easy to get carried away and exaggerate the sins of your opponents, to go over the top and slander your enemy – especially in our morally illiterate times, where it has become common to denounce your enemy for being ‘like the Nazis!’ Viewed in this context, it seems that calling Israelis ‘Nazis’ does not make you a closet anti-Semite. Rather it represents a sordid rhetorical strategy for laying claim to the moral authority of the Holocaust.”

It is a mistake to suppose that cheapness of the strategy has some bearing on whether or not it is antisemitic. And so we come to the murky area of intent – can you be an unintentional antisemite? I think not. Can you be unintentionally antisemitic? Yes, I have personal experience of being unintentionally antisemitic. It is also possible to discriminate incidentally against single parents (inflexible working hours), vegetarians (catering), overweight people (individual seating spaces on the Northern Line) and so on. It is possible to parrot the phrase “Israel is a Nazi state” without understanding either Israel or the Nazis. The parrot is not an antisemite, but the phrase is no less antisemitic. In their ignorance, many people believe that it is possible to both love animals and eat meat. Many people believe that it is alright to eat meat but not alright to eat a cat. All of this is not OK but it is normal, and we can only be judged on our motivation and ability to recognise and work against our ignorant prejudices. Absence of antisemitic intent does not mean that the strategy for debunking “the moral authority of the Holocaust” is not antisemitic.

When he equates outrage at the association between Nazism and Zionism with a desire of Jewish supporters of Israel to maintain moral authority, he ignores the argument that labelling people (or groups or entire states) as Nazis on the basis of some small or crude detail of comparison is antisemitic, no matter how deliberate or casual and no matter how advanced or empoverished the moral judgement, in that it both blurs and trivialises Nazi inhumanity. The wrongness of doing this is not exclusively antisemitic, because the Nazis did not work to exclusively erradicate Jews, but it is no less antisemitic for that. Nobody says it is exclusively antisemitic to equate Nazism with Zionism, or Islam or anything else – Frank has interpreted this and himself ignored or extrapolated from what many people have actually said.

It doesn’t always help to take Frank himself literally either:

“The West’s estrangement from Israel today does not mean it is ready to rethink its transformation of the Holocaust into a new moral symbol. All that it means is that the West increasingly embraces the ‘good Jews’ who were the victims of the Nazis, while distancing itself from the ‘bad Jews’ who are alive and kicking in Israel.”

Besides this getting us nowhere with or without inverted commas (it is impossible to distinguish good or bad Jews on the basis of whether or not they experienced the Holocaust – why would we expect victimisation in the Holocaust to inculcate superior ethical judgement or love for all humankind when its achievement was to turn people into animals?) this bit of Manicheanism demands a lot of interpretation, otherwise I come to the conclusion that Frank thinks the West believes the only good Jews are old or dead Holocaust victims, which he almost certainly doesn’t. What he probably means (see how interpreting isn’t always against the spirit of things?) is that any “estrangement” “the West” feels from Israel is a function of “weariness” towards a certain dominant section of Jewish political life rather than hatred, and therefore does not constitute a drive to rework the symbol of the Holocaust.

So, Israel, Frank would have it that the West is not out to get you – you’ve merely exhausted its good will, tried its patience, stretched its tolerance with your incessant demands for sympathy and protection. Frank thinks the West finds Israel irritating – but (and I hope to revise these comparisons – god only knows where the second one popped into my head from) it’s not like Ralph and Piggy in Lord of the Flies – nobody wants to get rid of Israel – it’s more like Katy in What Katy Did before she broke her back and learnt her lesson.

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