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Having arrived back in Canada last week, I was really looking forward to writing about something, anything, besides Israel. Because, well, what’s the point of me protesting that Judaism should be more than Israel if I let this blog turn into Israel central, with a side order of critiques of anti-Semitism? So starting next time I write (hopefully next week, but we’ve still got lots to do to get settled in here, and I have several hefty writing commitments that I need to attend to, so blogging may be sparse for a bit) I will start returning the focus to positive constructions of Judaism and interfaith issues.

But while I was travelling, there was a bit of a to-do in Scotland, and reading about it put me in mind of a piece I’d started writing back in December, right after the WCC meeting in Bethlehem. I shelved it because it was too much of an immediate reaction to the circumstances and discourse of that particular meeting; it felt more like a rant than a constructive contribution to dialogue, and there are entirely too many rants about Israel on the internet these days. But the current exchange of barbs between the University and College Union (UCU) and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities has inspired me to dig it back out, refine it with specific examples, and finish it up.

Full disclosure: I have had tenuous, though cordial, professional relations with both bodies in the past, and would hope to resume the same should I return to Scotland in the future. I will state up-front that, while I share SCJC’s concern over the Union’s position on (and seeming preoccupation with) Israel issues in general and antisemitism in particular, I doubt that concern would be sufficient to prevent me paying Union dues, especially in the current climate of academic cuts.

The basic situation is this: the UCU passed the following motion at their annual meeting in May:

Congress notes with concern that the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’, while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status, is being used by bodies such as the NUS and local student unions in relation to activities on campus.

Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.

Congress resolves:

1) that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints)
2) that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved
3) that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.

The “working definition” under discussion may be found as a .pdf here; the relevant portion is as follows:

Examples of the ways in which antisemitsm 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 antisemitism (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 antisemitic.

It is not entirely clear to me precisely what in that definition UCU reasonably sees as confusing “criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism”, or having the potential to be “used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus”; to the contrary, the EUMC definition specifically notes that criticism of Israeli government policy is not necessarily antisemitic.

The most charitable interpretation I can put on UCU’s position is that the majority of its voting members are operating in a post-national mindset, in which ethnically-based nationalism is always to be regarded with suspicion, as dangerously equivalent to racism, in which case the overt ethnocentrism of Israeli politics is treated with no more and no less disdain than that of the British National Party. This is a mindset with which I myself am more than passingly familiar, and considerably more than slightly sympathetic to, and it is certainly a mindset I can readily observe in many, though not all, of my UK colleagues. However, the voting members of UCU must be considered, on the whole, to have entirely too much education and experience between them to mistake their personal political views for the way the world actually works. My own discomfort with ethnocentric nationalism is heightened in regards to Israel because I am, as an ethnic Jew, implicated in the nationalist vision of a country that I am not, and have no desire to be, a citizen of. The majority of UCU’s members are not in that position, and therefore do not have similarly reasonable grounds for elevating their discomfort with Israeli nationalism above their discomfort with Serbian, Quebecois, Scottish, American, Greek, or any other nationalist politics–none of which are the subject of regular debate or condemnation in the same way that Israeli nationalism is.

Of course, one might protest (especially if one is a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party), other forms of nationalism do not create the same human rights issues that the Israeli occupation of Palestine has. This is true,1 but it is also beside the point when the issue is antisemitism. Just as accusations of antisemitism should not be used to derail legitimate critique of human rights violations in Israel/Palestine, accusations of human rights violations in Israel/Palestine should not be used to derail legitimate critique of antisemitism–even when the targets of the alleged antisemitism are in Israel, and especially when they are not.

This is the crux of the issue: a separation must be made between critique of Israel and antisemitism. I believe the EUMC working definition provides an adequate basis for making such a separation–and I am deeply concerned about UCU’s refusal to refer to the definition in an educational context–but there are particular issues which arise in the context of interfaith dialogue or academic Theology and Religious Studies that merit a bit more attention. I offer my list here; additions and emendations are welcome.

How to Talk About Israel Without Being Antisemitic

  1. Don’t make antisemitic statements. This should be simple, and the EUMC working definition of antisemitism (the full version, not just the excerpt which deals specifically with Israel, quoted above) provides a nice, handy reference; print it out and keep it in your wallet if you often find yourself in the position of wondering whether something about to come out of your mouth (or keyboard) qualifies as antisemitic or not. It gets slightly more complicated when religion enters the picture, and the invented distinction between antisemitism and anti-Judaism is introduced.
    I have argued previously that such a distinction does more harm, in obscuring the underlying commonalities between theological and racial discrimination, than any good that might be accomplished by attending to the differences between the two modes of discrimination. The extreme instance of this is theologies which characterize Jews as suffering from corporate guilt for the murder of Jesus of Nazareth; a less extreme instance, of which many examples can still be found in contemporary preaching and exegesis, would be theologies which characterize Jews as suffering from both corporate and individual guilt for having failed, and continuing to fail, to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah. This theological trope often manifests in references to the spiritual blindness of Jews, to Judaism’s inability to provide a complete picture of God and/or salvation, or to Judaism as a religion of harsh law, untempered by the grace and love which Christ and Christianity alone can provide. Statements about Israel which treat human rights abuses as the inevitable result of Jewish religious values, or suggest that a specifically Christian intervention is necessary, are anti-Jewish, and should be avoided.
  2. Be especially cautious when making scriptural references. This goes for everyone, although since I’m focusing on antisemitism here, I’m not going to detail the problems with Jewish uses of scripture in Israel issues–maybe I’ll come back to that in another post. I know it’s difficult for professional religionists, who tend to find the best and most honest response to the world in the core texts of our traditions, to try to confront difficult issues without that grounding, but the longer I listen to people attempt to talk through the Israel/Palestine conflict as a point of inter-religious dialogue, the more convinced I become that we should all put down our Bibles and step slowly away.
    Christians wishing to use a Biblical frame to discuss contemporary Israel have the unenviable choice between referring to the New Testament, the very name of which carries implications of the new covenant over-writing the old, or to the jumble of Jewish texts that have been removed from their context, re-ordered, and re-interpreted to fit the Christian metanarrative (the Old Testament). The latter is problematic in its suggestion that Christians know Jewish scripture better than Jews do, and are better equipped to interpret it; it implies an indifference to the self-definition of any Jewish dialogue partner. The former has a better chance of being perceived as a sincere expression of the speaker’s own religious viewpoint, but it also risks coming across as a tone-deaf assumption of Christian universalism (if specific claims about the authority of Jesus of Nazareth are presented as basic points upon which everyone ought to be able to agree) or Christian superiority (if Christ is positioned as the sole source of grace and mercy, to the exclusion of other faiths). When grounding discussions of justice, mercy, inclusiveness, etc., in scripture, it is best to be very clear that the scriptural reference is language particular to one faith which describes a concept that is shared (albeit with some variation and nuance) among many faiths.
  3. Differentiate between Zionism–Israeli nationalism, or, in historical context, Jewish ethnic nationalism–and Christian Zionism, which is a dangerous mix of bad theology, racism, and right-wing political ideology. The latter is deeply problematic, and open to critique from many angles, but it is also not the same thing as the former. If you want to argue against uncritical support of Israel within your own church, then make that clear. If you really want to argue against Jewish Zionism, then you should probably think long and hard about your attitude towards nationalism in general.
    Likewise, attempt to differentiate between various religious attitudes towards Israel within the Jewish community (ie, don’t perpetuate the myth of Jews as a monolithic collective). Some feel an attachment to the land described in scripture, but not the government; some feel a responsibility for the wellbeing of the Jewish people as a whole, and to any one place with a significant population thereof; some see the existence of a Jewish nation-state as a certain sign of God’s continued presence in the world; some consider Israel to have no religious relevance at all. Avoid blaming “the Jewish lobby” for promoting policies which can be more accurately described as favoring Israel.
  4. Finally, do not make the mistake of thinking yourself somehow freed from the burden of history. If a theological gambit has been used in the past to deny religious legitimacy to Judaism, then that argument retains, at the very least, an after-echo of antisemitism. Ignorance is not an excuse–but nor is it a condemnation; everyone has a stupid, foot-in-mouth moment now and again. The appropriate response to someone pointing out problematic language is “I’m sorry, let me rephrase that.” If you start to feel like you can’t say anything without someone suggesting you rethink your language, then it might be time to reflect on your underlying assumptions. Or find someone else to talk to.

1 Although if you think that other nationalisms are not grounded in racial identity, or that the nationalism of former colonial nations such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Britain, etc., is not built on the oppression of indigenous people, then you aren’t paying very much attention.