Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Slippery oppressions

It was over two years ago now, but I remember a story from Peter Staudenmeier at the "Opposing Antisemitism In The Movement" workshop at Bluestockings pretty well. He's an historian and antifas activist, which led him to reading a certain pamphlet published by an obscure Italian group from some time ago. He said he actually found much of it fairly appealing, or at least he could understand the appeal. It was anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist at the same time, with what would seem from reading it to be just a touch of antisemitism. Except the title of the pamphlet was "Why We Are Antisemites."

Antisemitism has a way of disguising itself as something else. I'm not sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with the nature of scapegoating Jews. Extremists who could never get along otherwise are able to ignore their differences by focusing on Jews as the source of the problem. There isn't necessarily an ideological center there. Instead, antisemitism disguises the lack of an ideological center or substitutes for one. So the antisemitic anti-capitalist can get along with the anti-capitalist who isn't so antisemitic just as easily as with the antisemitic anti-communist by shifting focus from antisemitism to anti-capitalism. And anti-capitalists get along swimmingly with anti-communists. Look at the Ron Paul campaign. Or consider how the father of Reaganomics, Paul Craig Roberts, who also writes for the white supremacist website vdare gets repeatedly published on Counterpunch by the Stalinist, Alexander Cockburn. The function of antisemitism in political organizing, and why it functions so well for scapegoating, is to smooth over and disguise these differences.

However it works, it is true that antisemitism has been particularly capable of disguising itself. It's hard (for me, at least) to imagine a pamphlet called "Why We Are Racists" where race seems like a peripheral issue, but it is a common feature of antisemitism that it convincingly seems to be -at least to those who aren't sensitive to it- about something else. It's a big part of the reason antisemitism has historically been built up below the radar before exploding into violence, in a cycle of apparent "Golden Ages" and salient oppressions.

I bring this up to try to deal with a few questions. The Girl Detective has a post on several issues from last night. One is the Free Gaza Movement. Like TGD, I'd also agree (less enthusiastically) with some of their aims. But I think it's right that she refuses to ignore and clearly elaborates her opposition to that antisemitism. That at least makes it more difficult for antisemitism to hide itself.

She also brings up a post from JVoices, which I didn't know what to think of when I first read it. A comment there puts it well, saying:
In essence, the movement to boycott all Israeli institutions is a way of fighting an ideological war against opponents within the peace camp.
(My italics.) I think it has to be emphasized that a lot of the boycott movement, spearheaded by PACBI, is deeply antisemitic and that the boycotts aim to serve as discrimination to disempower Jews. We're not talking here about the boycott of products from West Bank settlers or other boycotts supported by the Palestinian Federation of Trade Unions, but the boycott of Israel itself. The same groups have not only sought to boycott the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, but have even sought to boycott productive peace programs like Seeds of Peace, which teaches conflict resolution to Israeli and Palestinian children. They've boycotted One Voice, and successfully shut down a peace concert in Jericho with threats of violence. It is the same movement fighting, with a great deal of success, to marginalize Jews in British academia that then blames Jews for caring about antisemitism. PACBI might not be the people who threatened Paul McCartney's life before he played in Israel, but they are responsible for that attitude and atmosphere.

It completely misses the point to say something like:
Various boycotts of Israel have sprung up in different places, unfortunately with very little effectiveness (so far) against the terrible policies of the Israeli government. But I just received this message via email from a friend, and this is a boyucott which makes me think twice.
The last case, which was actually the most significant in my thinking this morning about Staudenmeier, regards Islamophobia. I'm reading Denis MacShane's Globalizing Hatred. (I've only just started, so no review just yet. In the meantime, one, though the claim that antisemitism is not institutionalized in Britain is dangerously wrong, and another.) Early on, he writes:
Today, however, it is Saudi Wahhabism that is the most developed form of organised antisemitism
He also wrote of "Islamism" in the preface, noting that different writers prefer different terms. He makes great efforts to distinguish Islamism from Islam and Islamists from other Muslims, but I'm not sure that's enough. Although I don't think what is antisemitic when applied to Jews is necessarily Islamophobic when applied to Muslims -the stereotypes and traditions have their differences, which must be kept in mind- there are at least some similarities. The ways in which some Islamophobes try to distance themselves from hatred of Islam by focusing on Muslim radicals reminds me of how antisemites try to distance themselves from hatred of Jews by focusing on "Zionists." I don't think "Muslim radical" is quite the floating signifier "Zionist" is, but I think there's good reason to believe that Islamophobia might be as slippery as antisemitism, as capable of disguising itself.

So is this scapegoating Muslims for antisemitism? Is it centering Muslims in a narrative where they are peripheral? Or focusing on Islam as an explanation for why Muslims become central in such a narrative? MacShane is no extremist, and his intentions toward Muslims are, I'm confident, quite kind. Further, what he writes about antisemitism is probably quite important. But that doesn't mean we should accept all anti-antisemitism uncritically, any more than we should accept all anti-Islamophobia or Palestinian solidarity uncritically. I do believe that radical anti-antisemitism and radical anti-Islamophobia can coexist, but we're probably a ways from figuring out how to manage that.

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