I remember being present a few years ago at an introductory meeting for first-year university students. The rep from the students’ union had his five minutes to explain what they do.
“We run political campaigns,” he said. “Currently we’re running three: one against fascism, one against fees and one against the occupation.” And then he moved on to talk about sports clubs.
I looked around the room. How does everybody know which occupation? How does everybody understand why this occupation?
These students were being socialised during their first week on campus to understand that the Israel/Palestine conflict was going to be one of the key symbolic markers of who they were becoming politically.
Anti-Zionism, and the boycott campaigns that come with it, leave Jews with three options and none of them are easy. First, they can remain silent and concern themselves with other issues. This strategy can work but it can become humiliating. Sometimes the issue will find you anyway, no matter how much you keep your head down.
One students’ union decided to sew a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions patch onto its rugby shirt, together with a Palestinian flag. If you wanted to play rugby, remaining silent would now come with a cost.
In political milieus where the word “Zionism” is used interchangeably with racism, Nazism and apartheid, there tends to be an unspoken presumption of guilt with regard to Jews. This presumption just lurks, like a dark cloud, if one remains silent.
The second possible strategy is to speak out and to argue one’s politics in a rational and informed way. The drawback is that if one raises concerns about standard anti-Zionist ways of thinking, one tends to be put into the dock to answer for Israel’s crimes, both real and imagined.
To go with this strategy, you need to be able to handle yourself in a political scrap and you need to learn how to bring people with you. You need to know quite a lot about Israel, about Palestine and about antisemitism; but you also need to know about the narratives which pass as commonsense on campuses.
If you try to argue for Palestinian rights while defending Israel and opposing antisemitism, it can consume your time and energy. It is a strategy which, no matter how critical you are of Israeli human rights abuses, will tend to leave you politically homeless. It is a strategy which has trouble preventing the hostile culture from allowing you to be just a person; it relentlessly drags you back to being always and only a Jew.
The third strategy is to go along with it all, and even to put yourself at the very head of it. An antisemitism which is not explicit, which is difficult to see, which is ridiculed by the cool and the good people, but feared by Tories, Blairites, school and mummy and daddy; well, it can’t really be so bad, can it?
And lurking under the apparently cocky confidence of the Jews who shill for antisemitism is a half-recognised fear — that there really is a threat that they themselves may be cast out. The most frightening thing would be to have to recognise that Jews are to an extent the powerless victims of antisemitism.
The Jewish community is tempted to respond with a “festivals, flags and falafel” Jewish identity for our children. We tell them that the hostility is based on lies and that actually we’re really great. We combine that with a large dose of strategy one — keep our heads down, our kids get into Oxford, they become doctors or programmers and they live ordinary lives.
But some of our kids who are assured that Israel is a light unto nations will get angry when they discover that things are more complicated. They tend then to turn on their parents’ generation with a ferocity reserved only for those who feel betrayed. An uncritical Zionism can result in an uncritical anti-Zionism.
We need to be able to talk about Israel separately from talking about antisemitism, and how Israel gets treated as a symbolic parable to be appropriated in everybody else’s identity construction.
Often our kids are brought up to identify as “Zionist”. This is constructed as a central element of their political identity in Jewish schools and youth movements. This makes it difficult for them then to process rationally what is wrong and right about Israel — precisely because it is so important to their senses of self.
We need to teach our kids to think critically about the Israel/Palestine conflict; it is important to us but it doesn’t have to be at the very centre of who we are. The absolute centrality can sometimes mirror and reinforce what is wrong with the intellectual and political culture around us. When we export our own Jewish obsessions about Israel into civil society, we may inadvertently be adding to the problem. Antisemitism has always positioned Jews at the very centre of the world.
David Hirsh is a sociology lecturer and author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism