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Sociologist David Hirsh Argues for Israel’s Legitimacy

David Hirsh
By Ameinu Office

This is an abridged version of British scholar David Hirsh’s text in a debate with Ilan Pappe and two others at Exeter University.  The full text can be read at the Engage Online website.  There are a few small changes from the original, in punctuation and the setting of paragraph breaks:

. . .  Shlomo Sand says that the Jewish people is invented.  He should read some sociology of nationalism which would explain how all nations are invented along with their claims to authenticity.  Newt Gingrich tells us that Palestine is invented.  If Sand and Gingrich had to teach on nationalism, they would know that the newness of Israel and Palestine are ways into understanding all nations; all nations are new, like Israel and Palestine.  . . .

Some people say Israel is racist – essentially and fatally – because it wants to be both democratic and a state for the Jews.  Others say that antizionism is antisemitic  because it denies self-determination to the Jews which it grants as a democratic right to every other nation.

. . .  Archbishop Desmond Tutu was not the first to moralize that the Jews should know better after the Holocaust, than to oppress another people.  What did the Jews learn at Auschwitz?  Well, we don’t know because most of them were murdered there.  It was not a university.

One can reflect on the universal lessons of the Holocaust and take it as a warning against racism in general.  One can reflect on its particularities: why totalitarian thinking went for Jews in particular?  And one can reflect on the fact that many Jews learnt that next time they should have a state, an army and more powerful friends.  So, Archbishop, sorry, if few find shame in the creation of Israel as a state for the Jews.

No, the Arab Nationalist aim of “driving the Jews into the sea” is not a Zionist myth.  No, the Arab nationalist expulsion of Jews from the great cities of the Middle East is not a Zionist myth either.

Israel requires itself to be a democratic state.   From the declaration of Independence:

“…it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex …”

Does Israel fail to be democratic?  Does it fail to be Jewish?  Of course it fails to be democratic, of course it fails to be Jewish, as all states fall short of the claims they make for themselves.  The interesting part is how it has held together the contradictory requirements, how it has succeeded as well as how it has failed.  Israel is like other states, not unlike them.  . . .

There are two ways of relating to this conflict:

  • We can fight for a politics of peace and a politics of reconciliation between nations

  • Or we can join one nation in its fight for victory over the other

Scholars read narratives of nations with a sceptical eye.  Our job is not to stand aloof and prick the narratives of ordinary people, to show how their consciousness is false; our job is to understand actual consciousness, and to think about how it may develop.

During the peace process Israeli and Palestinian scholars made contact, forged trust, shaped narratives.  We aspire to be communities of scholars; we aspire to the universal; we have democratic ways of relating to each other.  . . . We build spaces where we can reason, where we can persuade, where we can laugh, where we can sit as equals, where we can learn and teach; spaces where violence is not the norm.

During the last five years we have seen what can happen to minorities in the Middle East.

  • We have seen states kill hundreds of thousands of their own people;

  • we have seen the genocide of the Yazidis

  • we have seen the sale of young women for rape

  • the filling of mass graves

  • the crucifiction of people with the wrong religion.

Israelis will not disarm, dismantle their state and rely, once again, on democratic civilization to guarantee their survival.  If you want Israel dissolved, you will have to support those who aim to do it against the wishes of its citizens.  A democratic or a secular state could not emerge from the conquest of Israel.

But we are here, in Exeter [University, UK], not in the Middle East.  We are here to consider the campaign to exclude Israeli scholars from this campus.

In 2012, scholars were waiting for a panel to begin at the South African Sociological Association Conference.  A leading sociologist appeared:

“Which one is the Israeli?” he asked.  The Israeli made himself known.  He was then challenged to denounce Israel as an apartheid state.

When he declined to do so, the other participants in the session left the room and carried on their panel in another place.  The Israeli was left to give his paper to nobody.  This way of weaponizing the apartheid analogy is far removed from the methods of comparative study, of reason, of giving evidence, of relating to the work rather than to the person.

 Steve Cohen explained the specific problem with the McCarthyite political test: “Loyalty tests have a particular significance when forced on Jews. The significance is the assumption of collective responsibility, of collective guilt. Intrinsic to this is the requirement to grovel. Groveling, the humiliation of Jews, is fundamental to all anti-semitism.”

Ilan Pappe supports a boycott of Israelis from Exeter University.  He says: “I think what’s really important is that a growing number of individual academics feel they can no longer tolerate co-operating with their Israeli counterparts, except for those who oppose current government policies.”

Pappe describes it as an issue of ‘feeling’ rather than of politics.  It is part of a ‘not in my name’ ethics of resistance: a retreat from a politics of changing things for the better.   . . .

Ilan wants a political test for Israeli scholars.  He supports the kind of scene we saw in South Africa.

But most of the boycott campaign realises that the Political test is too transparent a violation of the norms of universities.  They dress their exclusion as an ‘institutional boycott’ of Israel.  But without the institutional support of a university, we could not be individual free scholars.

Haifa and Jerusalem [Hebrew] Universities have about twenty per cent Arab students.  They are multicultural spaces.  To require Israeli scholars to disavow their institutions is little different from requiring them to jump through a political hoop.  This is not how we relate to scholars around the world.

Imagine walking into a conference and demanding that Pakistani scholars condemn Islamism and terrorism as a pre-requisite to giving a paper.  Or imagine that they would be asked to disavow their institution on the basis that it has links with the Pakistani military.  This is of course, unimaginable.  But it is imaginable for Jews.

To raise antisemitism in a discussion like this is more and more considered to be vulgar and outrageous.  As Howard Jacboson said, the standard response to the raising of antisemitism is “How very dare you!”

  • The boycott campaign seeks to exclude Israelis and only Israelis.

  • It seeks to characterise Zionists as racists and anyone who opposes antisemitism as Zionist.

  • It seeks to characterize Zionism as the key form of racism in the world.

  • The boycott campaign encourages people to relate to Jews who refuse to disavow Israel as though they were racists.

  • The boycott campaign imports antisemitic ways of thinking into democratic spaces.

Already this year we have seen meetings organised by gay American Jews being broken up by the boycott campaign.  They want to sit and discuss what it means to be gay in Israel, they want to talk about LGBT rights in the Middle East, they want to talk about how gay Israelis can make links with their Palestinians comrades.  The boycott campaign breaks up their meetings.

At King’s [College in London, UK] in January, Ami Ayalon was making a case for Israeli peace with the Palestinians.  His meeting was broken up too; a window was smashed, he wasn’t allowed to speak, people weren’t allowed to listen.

With this assertion that Zionism is racism comes a withdrawal of solidarity from progressive Israelis.

  • Israelis involved in defending gay people against the Orthodox Jews or against Hamas are called racist.

  • Israelis involved in the trade union movement are called a racist.

  • Israelis who campaigns for peace with the Palestinians and an end to the occupation are called a racist.

The antizionists are more and more ridiculing antisemitism and the Jews who raise it as an issue.  Steven Salaita, a US scholar and antizionist tweeted: ‘Zionists:  transforming “antisemitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.’

. . .  Steven Salaita, the man who laughed at being called an antisemite, [also stated]:

“Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power. It lends itself to top-down decision-making, to suppression of anti-neoliberal activism, to restrictions on speech, to colonial governance, to corporatization and counterrevolution—in other words, Zionism behaves in universities precisely as it does in various geopolitical systems.”

We need to pull back from this fantasyland in which Israel stands for, and stands behind, oppressive forces everywhere.

  • We need to support a politics of peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

  • not a politics of inciting hate;

  • not a politics which harks back to European antisemitism;

  • not a politics which jumps to the defence of antisemites;

  • not a politics which scorns and ridicules those who worry about antisemitism;

  • not a politics which hopes to deprive Israelis of the means by which they may need, one day, to defend themselves.

— David Hirsh, Goldsmiths, University of London [for full text, click here] 

2 Responses to “Sociologist David Hirsh Argues for Israel’s Legitimacy”

  1. Eran
    February 2, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

    Very sensible and articulate article. Calling a spade a spade is what is necessary right now !
    Toda Rabba Shlomo !

  2. Em7
    February 10, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

    Serious question: What are your thoughts on the fact that this obsessive singling out of Israel, and really desperately unpleasant bias is being almost totally driven by so-called progressives?
    It seems anti-Zionism ( much of the time really another word for anti-Semitism) is embedded in the progressive movement. Just as it is on the hard-left. Israel/Palestine has become, over the last decades, the cause of choice for the left. It has little to do with actual facts or history, and more to do with what seems, and I say this as a European, with 1) a need to find a cause that everyone can rally around, and 2) a visceral loathing of all things Israel. One only has to look at most of the media, universities, and the intelligentsia to see that. The loathing of Israel – which frequently spills out into good old-fashioned Jew-hate, seems to come from a place that is much.darker than mere politics.
    One example of this can be seen in the fact that Israel is the *only* country in the world, apparently, whose very existence needs to be questioned as to its legitimacy.
    Maybe this is more obvious in Europe and the UK, but the progressive-left in America are driving America in the same direction.
    How do you address that from.within the progressive-left in the States? In the UK and Europe it is an impossible task. A lost cause. Sadly.
    I’d be interested in any response. Thanks.

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