We need to examine the reasons why we equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism

When approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one should stick to ruthless and cold standards, suspending the urge to try to 'understand' the situation

Slavoj Zizek
Sunday 08 April 2018 18:57 BST
To claim that this antisemitism articulates in a displaced mode the resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it
To claim that this antisemitism articulates in a displaced mode the resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it

The ongoing attacks on the Labour Party for the alleged antisemitism of some of its prominent members is not only extremely biased and in the long term, it also obfuscates the true danger of antisemitism today.

Such a danger was perfectly illustrated by a caricature published back in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse: two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sit at a table, and one of them holding in his hands a newspaper and commenting to his friend: “Here you can see again how a totally justified antisemitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!”

This joke turns around the standard argument against critics of the policies of the state of Israel: like every other state, Israel can and should be judged and eventually criticised, but some critics of Israel misuse the justified critique of Israeli policy for antisemitic purposes. When today’s Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli politics reject leftist critiques of Israeli policies, is their implicit line of argument not uncannily close to the caricature from Die Presse?

What this means is that, when approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one should stick to ruthless and cold standards, suspending the urge to try to “understand” the situation: one should unconditionally resist the temptation to “understand” the Arab antisemitism (where we really do encounter it) as a “natural” reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians, or to “understand” the Israeli measures as a “natural” reaction against the background of the memory of the holocaust.

There should be no “understanding” for the fact that, in many, if not most, of the Arab countries, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Hitler is still considered a hero, the fact that, in the primary school textbooks, all the traditional antisemitic myths, from the notoriously antisemitic (and forged) book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the claims that Jews use the blood of Christian (or Arab) children for sacrificial purposes, are attributed to them.

Jeremy Corbyn's campaign team tackle accusations of antisemitism

To claim that this antisemitism articulates in a displaced mode the resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it, and the same goes for the Nazi antisemitism: it also drew its energy from the anti-capitalist resistance. Displacement is not here a secondary operation, but the fundamental gesture of ideological mystification.

So we should not interpret or judge singular acts together, we should excise them from their historical texture: the present actions of the Israeli Defence Forces on the West Bank should not be judged against the background of the holocaust. The fact that many Arabs celebrate Hitler or that synagogues are desecrated in France and elsewhere in Europe should not be judged as an inappropriate, but understandable, reaction to what Israelis are doing in the West Bank.

When any public protest against the Israel Defence Forces activities in the West Bank is flatly denounced as an expression of antisemitism, and – implicitly, at least – put in the same line with the defenders of the Holocaust, that is to say, when the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralise any criticism of Israeli military and political operations, it is not enough to insist on the difference between antisemitism and the critique of particular measures of the State of Israel – one should go a step further and claim that it is the state of Israel which, in this case, is desecrating the memory of the Holocaust victims, ruthlessly manipulating them, instrumentalising them into a means to legitimise present political measures.

What this means is that one should flatly reject the very notion of any logical or political link between the Holocaust and the present Israeli-Palestinian tensions. These are two thoroughly different phenomena: the one part of the European history of rightist resistance to the dynamics of modernisation, the other one of the last chapters in the history of colonisation.

On the other hand, the difficult task for the Palestinians is to accept that their true enemy is not the Jewish people but the Arab regimes themselves which manipulate their plight in order, precisely, to prevent this shift – the political radicalisation in their own midst.

Part of today’s situation in Europe effectively is the growth of antisemitism. In Malmo, Sweden, the aggressive Muslim minority harasses Jews so that they are afraid to walk in the streets in their traditional dress. Such phenomena should be clearly and unambiguously condemned: the struggle against antisemitism and the struggle against Islamophobia should be viewed as two aspects of the same struggle. Far from standing for a utopian position, this necessity of a common struggle is grounded in the very fact of the far-reaching consequences of extreme suffering. In a memorable passage in Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Klüger describes a conversation with “some advanced PhD candidates” in Germany:

“One reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. ‘How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that,’ the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution [...] You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. ‘Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps,’ I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.”

In short, the extreme horror of Auschwitz did not make it into a place which intrinsically purifies every single one of its surviving victims into ethically sensitive subjects who got rid of all petty egotistic interests.

The lesson to be drawn here is a very sad one: we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to clear the mess and open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation. Or, as Arthur Koestler, the great anti-Communist convert, put it concisely: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

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