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Anti-antisemitic Hitmen and the New Judeophobia

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A high-stakes, scholarly turf war is going on over the meaning of antisemitism. Robert Wistrich (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) and Alvin Rosenfeld (Indiana University) are the two leading voices that have chronicled the intensifying tide of attacks on Israel, launching the heavy artillery in this academic war zone under the label of a rising "new antisemitism."

They are rebuffed by those on the left, such as Norman Finkelstein, who decry this tag as an effort to whitewash the sins of Israel. For them, the new Jew is the Muslim Other.

The "new antisemitism" theorists claim too many on the Left conflate Israel and Zionism and denigrate them as evil twins. Israel is depicted as a uniquely illegitimate state supported by a powerful lobby. Anti-Zionism, they claim, solders together leftist and radical Muslims. Liberals have become bystanders who fail to condemn this "new antisemitism" because it is animated today less by the right than by the left.

"Post-antisemitism theorists" like Finkelstein say that the rise in antisemitism is exaggerated and that it is used to stigmatize whole categories of people (immigrants, Muslims, the Left, Liberals, the European Union) and as a shield against criticism of Israel. This bespeaks an indifference to suffering that is not Jewish and to forms of racism that are not antisemitic, such as Islamophobia. Moreover, the "Holocaust industry," and the instrumentalization of Holocaust memory, they claim, is a political lever used to defend Israel.

"Antisemitism" thus now serves as a proxy for differing positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is a catastrophe for those who seek to understand the causes of Judeophobia historically and to dampen its contemporary effects.

In London in September 2011, the International Consortium for Research on Antisemitism and Racism (ICRAR) gathered together to think about how to revitalize scholarly approaches to the field, since scholarly approaches to antisemitism have become collateral damage in this proxy war.

ICRAR aims to encourage scholars to re-evaluate the tools they bring to the study of antisemitism, to question the predominant theoretical and methodological approaches they use, to innovate and to extend the topics considered a part of the field. ICRAR seeks to uncover the content, meanings, functions and dynamics of antisemitism, past and present, and to explore the connections between antisemitism and other racisms.

As part of this effort, ICRAR has organized a conference to examine boycotts of Israel in the longue durée. At the conference scholars will put the current Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement into a comparative framework by considering analogous movements against British rule in its American colonies, slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas, and apartheid in South Africa. There will be a special focus on how Jews and Jewish interests have featured prominently in the history of boycotts, as well an exploration of the political, ethical and legal debates that have been attached to boycott movements historically.

It turns out that what ICRAR seeks to do is a dangerous undertaking. The Scholars for Peace in the Middle East has brutally attacked ICRAR for its scholarly deliberations. SPME purports to document the "new antisemitism parading as anti-Zionism" supposedly running rampant on U.S. and Canadian college campuses. The group even keeps watch on and blacklists academics whose views on the Arab-Israeli conflict do not comport with what they judge the only legitimate narrative of events.

An SPME article about ICRAR currently flying around the web is a malicious and defamatory effort to bludgeon the organization in its infancy. Titled "Kosher Stamps for Post & anti-Zionism at 'Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism' in London," the goal is to tar anyone who disagrees with their views as "anti-Zionist" and if they are Jewish, to suggest that they must be "self-hating Jews." These have become the favored labels of the anti-antisemitic hitmen.

Scholars cited in the article are condemned for working with or even saying polite things about others whose opinions SPME officials find abhorrent. The misleading rhetoric constitutes an attack on academic freedom: the idea of the university as a location for empirical research and reasoned debate.

In the article, I take the brunt of the bomb throwing. My work is misread. I am the victim of innuendos, ad hominem attacks and sideswipes at all sorts of critical viewpoints that I merely want to raise for discussion. This is all in the nature of polemical discourse, which is governed by the rhetoric of war. Polemics operates by defining enemies.

To set the record straight, what I have been arguing in a series of published works is that both sides in this debate -- both the "new antisemitism" and "post-antisemitism" theorists -- need to be deconstructed. Theirs is a dialogue of the deaf waged as a battle to the death. Both sides are partly right in their claims. But neither side listens to the truths of the other, which gets us nowhere, certainly nowhere closer to dampening down antisemitism.

I do not think that the word antisemitism helps matters. It covers over the differences between stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination and antisemitism per se. Antisemitism was coined in the 1870s to distinguish an ostensibly scientific form of Jew-hatred built on the claim of a racial war between Semites and Aryans from earlier religiously based anti-Judaism. It was a way to brand the political mobilization of Jew-hatred in an era where the identification of Jews with the dark side of modernization helped create new coalitions. When we think of antisemitism, we justifiably invoke images of Dreyfus or more likely Hitler and the Nazis. But what is going on today is quite different.

There is not much empirical evidence that an alliance between leftists and jihadists cemented by anti-Zionism is emerging. Hugo Chávez links vicious anti-Israeli statements with unbridled support for Ahmadinejad in the name of his Bolivarian revolution. There are other examples. But they are exceptions to the rule, which is that mainstream leftists in Europe or liberals in the United States have little ideologically or organizationally in common with the Muhammad Merahs of the world.

Last March, Merah perpetrated a vicious attack on French Army personnel because of France's involvement in the war in Afghanistan and then marched into a Jewish day school in Toulouse and gunned down small children. But it is important to recognize that the al Qaeda inspired murderer shares nothing in common with the Socialist President of France, François Hollande, who clearly and vociferously condemned these attacks as loudly and visibly as did President Obama.

I term such incidents the "new Judeophobia," coined by Pierre-Andre Taguieff, which postulates that these acts have their origins in the Six-Day War in 1967. New antisemitism theorists deny the links to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to the experience of Muslim citizens from former colonies or the Middle East now in Europe. While there is no direct causal correlation between the social facts and social acts of Judeophobes like Muhammed Merah, they cannot be separated. Examining these links is a basic axiom of research on anti-Semitism, the heart of what all scholars of the subject seek to explain.

Institutional discrimination of Muslims in Europe is sometimes mediated through the Arab-Israeli conflict. Merah said as much as justification for his rampage. Scholars also note that there also is a relationship between the history of Western incursions into the Middle East and the rise of antisemitism in the Arab and Islamic world.

To analyze Judeophobic acts, we must take the social conditions that gives rise to them into account and do so within a global optic. The new Judeophobia is not only a product of ideologies, as many new antisemitism theorists claim, but also of social forces and social conditions. Israel is one of these forces. But Israel in isolation from a complex of other factors explains little.

To say that anti-Zionism is antisemitism is too simplistic, just as it is a canard to say that Zionism is racism or that Israel is an apartheid state. Claims and counter-claims form a mainstay of cartoonish representations, and the Internet and social media facilitate them. Scholars have something important to contribute to this debate: to facilitate a more rounded discussion of the new Judeophobia.

Scholars can and should force us to question assumptions, insist upon reliable evidence for claims, use accurate words to name phenomena, and consider context in shaping interpretations. We must counter the anti-antisemitic hitmen, who eschew complexity to advance their cause.

I believe scholars must pay attention to the claims of both sides and contextualize narratives. Perhaps then we can produce understanding that does not simply bang the drums of war. The attempt to kill off ICRAR through labels and false accusations is a symptom of this need, since scholars actually have important tools that are required now more than ever, if peace and not more bloodshed is our goal in such discussions.

Jonathan Judaken is the first Spence L. Wilson Chair in the Humanities at Rhodes College in Memphis.