Seminar: The UCU, Antisemitism and the Boycott Campaigns Against Israel – Papers by Eric Lee and Doerte Letzmann

Two of the papers given at the IIBSA and Wiener Library seminar on 11 July 2013.



Beyond the legal strategy: Taking the fight against BDS into the unions — and how to win

Eric Lee

We should begin by facing up honestly to the disaster of this Employment Tribunal decision. I won’t go into the question of whether it was right to have gone down this route in the first place. Nor will I attempt to deal with whether the case could have been handled differently.

The reality is that we had many months to prepare, we had outstanding witnesses, we had the best lawyers in the country, and we lost the case – and we lost badly.

The Employment Tribunal found nothing of merit in our case, and denounced us for having wasted their time.

It doesn’t get worse than this.

Our opponents in groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign celebrated – rightly – our defeat. I was not convinced before and am not convinced now that this route – going through the courts – is the best way to take on proponents of BDS. I think we can safely say that this case actually hurt our cause and was a huge setback and we need to re-think how we continue with our fight.

I’m not saying that there is never a time to use legal measures; I know that many times – such as the court fight between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt – this can be very useful. Though it’s important to remember that Lipstadt and her publisher didn’t bring that case to court – it was the Holocaust-denying Irving who did so.

But just as a carpenter sees any problem as a nail and reaches for his hammer, so lawyers may tend to see every problem as a legal one – but I don’t.

The fight against BDS in the UCU and other unions is first of all a political fight. Some people have given up on the unions. We know that a significant number of academics resigned from the UCU when it was no longer possible for them to stomach the rampant anti-semitism in their union. I respect their decision, but it would be dishonest to say that it was the right decision. It was not.

For Jews in the labour movement, it is completely unacceptable to be told by anyone that we have no right to be there, that people like us should not feel at home in our unions. Jews, and that includes Zionists like myself, have every right to be union members, activists and leaders. We must stand our ground and defend our right to be members of a movement that Jewish people played such an important role in founding. While some have quit unions such as the UCU, others have stood their ground.

Every day of the year, Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI), Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP), Engage and others continue to make the case for a two-state solution, against BDS and against demonisation of Israel. It is a difficult fight – but in some countries, our side is winning. The obvious examples are Germany, the USA and Australia.

Some would say that it’s obviously going to be easier in those countries. After all, Germany feels all this guilt about the Holocaust. Of course trade unionists there are not going to be particularly anti-Israel. And the USA, well we all know the power of the Israel lobby. (This is not me speaking – this is what people will say.) But Australia? Why are some of the most vocal and effective advocates of Israel’s right to exist to be found in places like Melbourne and Sydney? The answer is that those people have fought a political fight which they have won, convincing others of the correctness of our cause.

It’s important to remember that even in the British trade union movement, those who openly support Hamas and Hizbollah represent a fringe. Among trade union leaders, moderate voices still prevail. Many of you will not be aware of this, but when the International Trade Union Confederation held its most recent congress in Vancouver, it was Brendan Barber of the British TUC who played a key role in preventing a viciously anti-Israel resolution proposed by the South Africans (COSATU) from reaching the floor. The TUC in general has been far better on this issue than the leadership of UCU.

And at international level, the International Trade Union Confederation and the global union federations including the Education International – to which the UCU belongs – continue to welcome Israeli members, have elevated Israelis to top positions, and advocate for a two-state solution and generally against BDS. It is premature at least to say that the fight is unwinnable.

Before I continue with how we can win, I want to say a word about our opponents, the people who support BDS. To say that someone supports BDS actually tells us very little about them. There are at the very least soft supporters as opposed to hard supporters. There are people who speak of Israel with unveiled disgust and hatred and others who merely want to label West Bank settlement goods as such.

Anyone who has spent any time in British unions trying to argue the case against BDS will soon discover that our main enemy is not so much hatred of Israel, but ignorance. Some years ago, the Jewish Chronicle reported on its front page that Unison had decided not to make a donation to the website I founded, LabourStart, because I was a “Zionist”, which I am. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Months later, I met a member of the Unison national executive who asked me if I was from that organisation, LabourStart, which they’d decided not to fund.

I am, I said.

He admitted that he didn’t much remember the debate they had, but then was reminded of something and he said, “Wasn’t it something like – you were accused of being anti-Semitic?”

Anti-semitic, Zionist, whatever.

One imagines that these are issues and terms that are of little interest to the average trade union member in Britain and our opponents take advantage of this ignorance to spread lies and half-truths about Israel every day. Our job is to counter that with the truth.

Can anti-semitism be defeated politically and if so, how?

I think it can and I want to conclude by talking about how we can do this. We should focus on our strengths and the most important thing to remember in this fight is that we are right.

We are right in two senses: First, the facts are on our side. For example, Israel is not an apartheid state – this is one of those things that is incredibly easy to disprove. Hamas and Hizbollah are fascist movements, as is the Muslim Brotherhood, and by exposing them we make it harder for people in the labour movement and on the left to identify with them.

And second, we are morally right – and this carries some weight. We are morally right because we continue a very noble tradition on the left that rejects all forms of prejudice, bigotry, racism and anti-semitism. We, and not our pro-BDS opponents, are the genuine heirs of the great internationalist tradition of the left and labour movements.

We must always remember that our opponents are not mindless proto-Nazis scheming to create the next Holocaust. Many of them are ordinary trade union members who have only heard one side of an argument. There are some among them who don’t grasp the difference between being a Zionist and being an anti-semite. And why should they know this? No one is teaching them, no one is explaining anything.

There are course anti-semites among them, particularly in the hard core around the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, but they are a minority. They should be exposed, isolated and defeated politically. We have many allies, not only in the Jewish community, and working together with them we have nothing to fear.

We can win this fight.


Understanding the Antisemitism of the Boycott Movement: Why Framing it as Racism is Not Enough

Doerte Letzmann

I would like to use this space to talk about what antisemitism is or rather, why antisemitism is not understood, and why it is so difficult to grasp and explain the antisemitism of those who want to boycott Israel. Or at least, why it is difficult to explain it to others, as it is quite obvious to me.

If one looks at the judgement of the Fraser vs. UCU case, it becomes apparent that, apart from perhaps some of the purely legal arguments, which I am not in a position to assess, the judges were influenced by a certain kind of antisemitic discourse. In this discourse, concerns from Jews with regard to anti-Zionism are understood as a purely political matter and are not regarded as something worthy of protection, or even, as the judges made clear, worthy of the attempt to try and seek legal protection. This made it easy for them to dismiss the claim in a polemical, almost cynical manner.

This, of course, is my personal opinion, and that the judges in fact were influenced by an antisemitic discourse is about as difficult to prove as the cumulative effect of hostility towards Jews in the UCU. In Britain, hardly anyone believes that someone can be influenced by a subtle mentality of antisemitism without actually being a solid antisemite.

In contrast, I would argue that a subtle antisemitic mentality may very well amount to antisemitism. In fact, nearly every discourse theory would support the argument. It is accepted that there can be a mentality of sexism and anti-Black racism, which at times amounts to actual experiences of discrimination. Antisemitism, however, seems to be exempt from these rules of discourse. There is apparently neither the possibility of an antisemitic mentality, nor is there any form of progress that can be made towards a better understanding of antisemitism. Now, in order to convince BDS campaigners that they are crossing the line into antisemitism, one could point out to them that they seem to have a double standard. Again and again.

In this paper, however, I want to treat this problem from another angle. I want to argue that it is counter-productive to treat the analysis of antisemitism as a derivative of racism theories instead of analysing antisemitism as a phenomenon in its own right. As long as antisemitism is understood within the categories that were established by racism studies and anti-racism as a political movement, it is very difficult to understand the antisemitism of for example the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, who situates itself in the very centre of an anti-racist movement.

One could argue that the boycotters are in fact not really anti-racist, have betrayed the original anti-racist proclamation, are somehow blinded by their racist ideology and really just right-wingers who hide this fact about themselves. But I would argue that this would mean to fight this fight on their terms and to accept and operate within categories in which antisemitism was never more than just a footnote.

In Britain, there has never really been a stand-alone analysis of antisemitism, but antisemitism has been analysed within a framework of racism studies and anti-racism. As part of my dissertation research I trace a genealogy of how antisemitism is understood in this country. From an outside perspective, it is most striking that there are basically two ways of understanding it: antisemitism is either seen as non-existent or it is seen as a form of racism. Most people in this room will think that firstly, antisemitism is racism and secondly, it is certainly better to categorise it as racism than to deny or belittle its existence.

On the one hand, this is arguably progress. On the basis of an analysis of the history of antisemitism studies in the UK, it is evident that one understanding has in fact been developed as a reaction and opposition to the other. Until the late 1970s, historians framed Jewish history in Britain as a more or less smooth process of integration with only minor instances of hostility.

This changed with the advent of racism studies: when the immigration and settlement of labourers from former colonies in the 1950s and 1960s and the reaction towards them from British society came under academic scrutiny, Anglo-Jewish history was re-evaluated as well. This reevaluation exactly reflected the methods and ideas used in the analysis of racism. Early on, for example, racist discrimination was considered to be a result of the interaction between British society and the immigrants, and this was classified as ‘race relations’. Similarly, studies that analysed Jewish settlement in East London at the end of the nineteenth century used this interactionist approach as well, and explained anti-Jewish hostility at the time with the concentrated presence of Jews in the East End.

Later approaches to anti-immigrant hostility criticised the way ‘race’ had been understood as a result of interaction, which was a way of blaming the immigrants, and established theories of racist discourse and racist ideology. Not long after, antisemitism studies reflected this development and analysed antisemitic discourse and nationalist ideology in British history rather than the interaction between Jews and non-Jews. This development is actually reflected in politics in the sense that the fight against antisemitism in this country grew out of an anti-racist movement.

But this development seems odd if you think about the fact that many of the racism theories that were used as a basis to analyse antisemitism actually belittle it. Contemporary approaches to racism usually understand it in relation to colonialism, in which hostility towards Jews does not have a natural place. So if the analysis of antisemitism is always based on an analysis that either openly or indirectly excludes antisemitism, it becomes necessary to repeatedly point out that antisemitism is also racism. This operation then strikes me as an attempt to join a club that by all means does not want you as a member.

What is also striking about this that while racism studies usually dealt with contemporary issues, antisemitism studies always dealt with the past. The methods developed to analyse contemporary phenomena in the case of racism were used to analyse past events in the case of antisemitism, which had both the effect of confining antisemitism to this past as well as constructing a kind of history that frames antisemitism as a precursor of more recent anti-immigrant sentiment. Today, this way of thinking often leads to a merger of analyses of antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiments, which on the one hand is supposed to function as a way of bringing Jewish and Muslim communities closer together, but on the other hand often functions as a way of saying that antisemitism does not exist anymore as it has been replaced by anti-Muslim sentiments. The attempt to integrate the study of antisemitism into the study of racism then had the opposite effect of defining antisemitism away.

A different way of understanding antisemitism

Understanding antisemitism as racism may seem natural. However, it is actually not the only way to understand antisemitism. Separating the analysis of antisemitism and racism could have its benefits. One way of understanding antisemitism, for example, is based on the critical theory of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, whose approach to antisemitism was part of a more general social critique in a framework of Marxist and psycho-analytical ideas. In this theory, antisemitism is understood as an irrational ideology that is not only about hating Jews, but about how someone sees the world and reacts to it. Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s theory and research put a focus on the ‘perpetrator’ and their irrational beliefs in order to understand how fascism was possible.

Similarly and more recently, Moishe Postone analysed antisemitism by looking at the way capitalism is understood. He argues that if capitalism is not adequately understood, this may lead to a form of personalised critique of capitalism that is quite susceptible to antisemitism, as it identifies Jews or rather what is perceived as Jewish character traits as the main driver of capitalism. Antisemitism is an equation of Jews with the abstract side of capitalism, i.e. the big companies, the finance industry,  that is perceived as the source of all problems and needs to be eliminated, as opposed to the concrete side of capitalism, i.e. small local shops, that are perceived as positive.

How is the BDS movement antisemitic?

These theories can in fact be useful when analysing the antisemitism of the BDS movement. As I argued before, is very difficult to understand how the boycott movement is antisemitic within the framework of racism theories. Especially because the boycott movement portrays itself as the defender of victims of racist discrimination. The strategy so far has been to point out that the boycotters are racist themselves, based on the understanding that antisemitism is racism.

 The antisemitism of the boycotters, however, goes deeper than that. I want to exemplify this by analysing how the boycott movement understands itself.

Three weeks ago I attended a conference on the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism on boycotts and what I want to do here is to offer a possible understanding of antisemitism by analysing one of the papers given there.

One of the pro-BDS papers at the conference stressed that the boycott movement cannot possibly be antisemitic. John Chalcraft, who is reader of history and politics at LSE, portrayed the BDS movement as similar to the Occupy movement. He said that it is implicitly horizontal, and a rhizomic, diverse multitude of people, including Jews, who insist on the elimination of social hierarchies. According to Chalcraft, the BDS movement in particular insists on international law and human rights, and considers religious and ethnic exlusivist principles as its main enemy. From this perspective, BDS is not against Israel or Jews, but against Zionism as racism. Chalcraft also pointed out that BDS is an emancipatory movement, but different to previous leftists movements in so far as it is non-ideological: belonging to the ‘multitude’ does not require instruction in socialism, hence the enemy is not class or capitalism, but racism.

If one understands antisemitism as racism, the first thing that one notices is that at first glance, he does not say anything that is overtly antisemitic. Opponents of his point of view would point out that Zionism is not racism, but that, in fact, antisemitism is racism, and Zionism a form of protection from antisemitism. However, from outside this looks like merely a question of differing political opinion.

I, on the other hand, would argue that Chalcraft’s point of view is inherently antisemitic. If one analyses how the boycotters understand society as a whole, rather than individual phrases, this becomes somewhat clearer.

Apart from a naive understanding of tolerance, there are profound problems with the worldview of this ‘diverse multitude’. As the movement does not seem to have any form of intellectual underpinning how does it actually establish what emancipation is? One of the main aims seems to be the elimination of social hierarchies.  This alone is not emancipation, so the question is, from what or whom does the multitude want to be emancipated? For the Occupy movement, emancipation seems to be capitalism without hierarchies. For the BDS movement, emancipation seems to be constituted of the elimination of not all social hierarchies, but most of all a construct of social hierarchy that sees Zionism at the very top.

Now as a reminder of what antisemitism is: Within a classic antisemitic worldview, for example the one held by National Socialists, Jews are usually seen not as bottom feeders, but as the top of the food chain. They are in control of whatever is considered the ‘system’ and oppressing everyone and everything that is beneath them. They are hungry for power and will go to great lengths to stay in control of this power.

It is important to understand that this understanding of Jews is not about a minority-majority relationship that can be politically debated, but it is a form of all encompassing way of understanding society. This worldview is not the result of a detailed analysis of how society functions, but is an irrational and ideological belief not based on facts, but based on a feeling of victimhood and injustice. Victimhood and injustice are believed to go away when the top of the hierarchy is eliminated. In contrast to a more general form of social critique that takes into account the world’s complexities, this worldview is not progressive, but deeply reactionary. It is, however, very much trendy, and you can for example find it within various contemporary forms of anti-capitalism: buying local and from small shops, for example, purports the view that what is needed is an emancipation from greedy capitalists to change society for the better.

The BDS movement can claim that their individual members are not Jew-haters, however, they will have to face the fact that their worldview is antisemitic. Singling out Zionism as the main enemy is then not merely a political opinion, but part of an antisemitic worldview. Understanding antisemitism as a phenomenon that goes beyond racist stereotyping and discrimination and is part of a flawed worldview of power and oppression opens up the possibility of exposing someone as antisemitic, even if they are not racist.

To conclude: The point that I wanted to make in this paper is that an analysis of antisemitism is needed that takes its entire scope into account. The current understanding of antisemitism seems to be not radical enough and should go much further. So when I say antisemitism is not racism I do not intend to throw the analysis of antisemitism back by 50 years and claim that there is not really an issue. I want to go beyond that and would suggest that it might be helpful to analyse antisemitism as a phenomenon in its own right.

This also translates into a political strategy: the fight against antisemitism is not won by criticising how the boycotters see Israel – or at least not only that – but should start much earlier by criticising how they understand the world.