David Hirsh is a senior lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and the founder of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel. Hirsh is a graduate of City University, London. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy and Social Theory and a PhD from the University of Warwick. Hirsh won the Philip Abrams Prize for the best first book in sociology from the British Sociological Association in 2004 for his book Law Against Genocide: Cosmopolitan trials.
In your book, you present quite a frustrating description of the impregnable defense that antisemites on the left seem to have:
This antisemitism is insulated by a layer of discourse that casts suspicion against anybody who experiences it, analyses it or opposes it; it casts them out of the community of the oppressed and of the progressive. In this way the Jewish community as a whole, when it raises the issue of this type of antisemitism, is cast out of the community of the oppressed and of the progressive.
My question: If merely raising the issue of left-wing antisemitism disqualifies one from the progressive conversation, what course of action do anti-antisemitism activists have at their disposal in this era of polarized press, politics and cultural conversations? Do you have any insights regarding how these people can be reached, or do you believe that direct engagement with antisemitic left-wing dogmatists is already a lost cause at this point in time?
Contemporary antisemitism, in particular those forms of antisemitism which have the possibility of becoming significant in mainstream culture and politics, is not explicitly antisemitic. Indeed, it is carried by people and it is tolerated within spaces which think of themselves as being intolerant of antisemitism. It isn’t that antisemites hide their real intentions under democratic rhetoric, there is no hiding going on; they truly feel themselves to be opponents of antisemitism. Their self-understanding is different, however, to the understandings that others have of them and of what they do and say. Some opponents of antisemitism fight for antisemitic ways of thinking and they angrily reject any suggestion that they are doing so. They cannot see it and they do not believe it.
There is general agreement that racism is something much more significant than discriminatory or demonizing ideas that people have in their heads. Racism is also an objective and external social phenomenon, it is about shared meanings, commonplace norms and accepted practices; racism is about power relations across society, it is not simply an individual moral failing.
But when ‘antiracist’ carriers of antisemitism are challenged, they revert to the model of individual moral failing and they look inside their own souls to see if they are guilty. They find themselves not guilty. They then typically respond with angry denials and with counter-accusations. Given that the accusation is so completely false, they cry, there must be some hidden explanation for why it was made which is independent of the issue itself. It has become a standard response that accusations of antisemitism are made in bad faith by people who believe them to be baseless in order to try to silence criticism of Israel. This is a charge of conspiracy to mobilize Jewish victim-power against those who criticize Israel. And this charge of conspiracy resonates.
This is why it is difficult to have a rational discussion about contemporary antisemitism. The person who says they detect antisemitism is not told that they have made a mistake or that they have assessed the evidence incorrectly; they are told that they know full well that they are wrong and that they don’t care. The relentless charge of bad faith against those who raise the issue of antisemitism is the standard form of bullying which drives Jews out of progressive politics and movements.
Homelessness is deep within the Jewish unconscious and being made politically homeless is therefore profound and traumatic. Jews respond to it a number of ways, one of which is denial. If it is denied that there is any antisemitism then we are able to maintain our feeling of being at home, of being an acceptable part of our political or intellectual community. Alternatively, if it is no longer possible to deny, then it can be claimed that antisemitism is caused by the bad behaviour of Jews. Of course, it is the ABC of the understanding of racism that bad things people do can only feed into racism via a racist mystification of what actually happens. The antisemite transforms Jewish bad behaviour, real or imagined, into antisemitic tropes. Some Jewish victims of antisemitism prefer to believe that those responsible for the threat of homelessness are other Jews than to believe that Jews are in fact powerless in the face of the irrationality of antisemitism. This is why it is tempting for antizionist Jews to blame their fellow Jews, rather than to blame antisemitism. And the power of a few marginal Jews bearing witness against the consensus in the Jewish community as a whole is significant and damaging. It encourages and licenses those non-Jewish publics who are tempted by the pleasures of antisemitism to discount the warnings, the knowledge and the perception of the overwhelming majority of Jews.
In order to understand movements to boycott Israel and in order to understand the power and irrationality of antizionist politics it is necessary to see the connections between these movements and earlier antisemitic movements. But it is often judged counterproductive to raise the issue of antisemitism explicitly in public debates about academic boycotts, divestments and singling out Israel for particular and symbolic denunciation. People don’t like to be told that they are being seduced by antisemitic discourse. They often respond with angry denial and counter-accusations.
So this is the bind: to understand the situation we are in, it is necessary to understand its relationship to antisemitism; but saying that hostility to Israel and boycott relates to antisemitism makes it more difficult to get a hearing.