At the THE my old friend Ken Hirschkop is writing to dispute the suggestion that anti-Semitism is a significant problem in this country, and more particularly within British universities. He's writing in response to a review by Robert Segal, who had said that:
UK Jews endure far more explicit expressions of anti-Semitism than do American Jews. To cite a painful case I know at first hand, the organisation representing UK academics, the University and College Union, is pathologically obsessed with damning Israel while ignoring hundreds of far worse and far less ambiguous cases of violations of human rights around the world.
This is Ken's response:
I'm sorry, but as an American Jew who studied and worked in the UK for 24 years I have to disagree with Robert Segal's assessment of the situation. First of all, denouncing the actions of the Israeli state is not anti-Semitic. I don't support a general boycott of Israeli universities, but in discussing matters with those who do (including some people central to this cause) I've never found even a trace of anti-Semitism. True, Jews in the US are pathologically averse to criticism of the the Israeli state, but that is their problem. Secondly, there is no equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan in the UK (who, of course, have us in their sights), nor, for all its endemic racism, does the country have the kind of organized far right presence in the media you find in the US. The current leader of the Labour Party is Jewish; in the UK this passes largely without comment. Can you imagine the hatred that would spew from the Right in the States if the leader of the Democratic Party was Jewish? In my political life in America, from the very beginning, anti-Semitism has been a given; in the UK it wasn't even noticeable.
I won't venture an opinion here either about the absolute level of anti-Semitism in daily life in this country, being in no position to do that, or about the comparison with the US; but I don't think Ken's response contains a single serious argument to show that there aren't grounds for concern on this issue. It contains only weak gestures in favour of being complacent about it.
1. The argument that 'denouncing the actions of the Israeli state is not anti-Semitic' is, at this late date, quite feeble. Denouncing the actions of the Israeli state (it has now been said on both sides too many times to be counted) needn't be anti-Semitic. But it also can be. And Ken says not one word in support of the contention that it never is. Whether or not he's aware of the new definition of anti-Semitism offered by the US State Department I don't know, but it is instructive to consider the boycott campaign within UCU against the criteria of demonizing, delegitimizing and double standards (with reference to Israel). Ken passes all that by.
2. He passes it by in favour of the assurance which he proffers that he's never found a trace of anti-Semitism in discussing with boycott supporters. Apart from his unduly personal method here (see 6 below), this is question-begging. It presumes that anti-Semitism, where it exists, must be, can only be, in the words people use; that it could not also reside in some of the policies they favour. A blacklisting of Israeli, and only Israeli, academics, and this irrespective of what they might think or have done, could be an anti-Semitic policy even when argued for in the most politely reasonable and un-Jew-hating terms.
3. Ken alludes to the existence of the Klu Klux Klan in the US, as if the absence of it or its like in this country might suffice to show that there's no cause to worry. But a problem can be worrying even when it's not as worrying as it could be.
4. He reminds us that Ed Miliband is Jewish and leader of the Labour Party. So? Does that bear directly on Segal's concerns, and the concerns of many others amongst us, about the situation within UCU?
5. Ken says that Miliband's being Jewish passes largely without comment. Good if this is so, but see 3 above: and Ken doesn't mention the other Ken, official Labour Party candidate, no less, for London mayor, no less, and whose track record with regard to matters Jewish was far from encouraging.
6. Ken (Hirschkop again, this time) writes that, by contrast with his political life in America, where anti-Semitism was always 'a given', in this country 'it wasn't even noticeable'. To him it wasn't, but this isn't a reliable way of gauging the extent of a problem - to say what you've noticed.
7. Finally, Ken prefaces all that he writes with the identifier 'as an American Jew'. To be fair, in saying this he's taking up the same thing from Robert Segal. All the same, it doesn't strengthen any of his points. I, after all, am writing this post as a British Jew. Neither my Jewishness nor Ken's bears on the question of how serious or otherwise anti-Semitism is in Britain today, or in British universities.