Echoes of shattering glass

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November 17, 2013 by IJV

On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Oxford Philosopher and IJV signatory Brian Klug delivered the opening lecture at the conference Antisemitism in Europe Today: the Phenomena, the Conflicts held at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

The museum faced strong and vocal opposition to their choice of keynote speaker, as described here, yet despite the controversy,  the event was characterised as an “obsolete debate” by Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The following paragraphs are excerpts from the lecture delivered by Dr. Brian Klug on 8 November, entitled “What do we mean when we say antisemitism”. The full lecture is available here.

What do we mean when we say ‘antisemitism’? Do we know what we mean? Does it matter? The word matters because the thing matters. It matters because unless we use the same word in the same way we will be talking at cross purposes….

…the word matters because it is heavy with history, echoing with the sound of shattering glass. As a result, it is not only a difficult word but a dangerous one, for it is a word that can do harm if it is misused. Yes, it is a label that we need, a name for something that needs naming and denouncing. But a label can turn into a libel when it is pinned on the wrong lapel. Antisemitism has rightly been called a ‘monster’. But false accusations of antisemitism are monstrous too. For all these reasons and more, the word matters a great deal.“

Dr. Klug went on to describe a series of hypothetical cases of presumed antisemitism and arrived at a definition from a philosophical perspective: “Antisemitism is a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.” Towards the end of the lecture he tackled the question of “antisemitism in disguise.”

 “In raising this issue, the voice in the room mentions the elephant in the room: anti-Zionism. I have no wish to dwell on this subject. But in Europe today, it is impossible to avoid altogether, and at least one panel tomorrow is devoted to it. The difficulty with this subject is that it is so politicized. In the public debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a familiar, depressing pattern in which opponents appear to be locked in an embrace from which they cannot escape. Critics of Israel, crossing a line in the sand, find themselves accused of antisemitism. They react by accusing their accusers, alleging that the charge against them is nothing more than the machinations of ‘the Israel lobby’. At once, this is seized upon as an antisemitic slur, which in turn is denounced as a Zionist smear. Round and round they go, down and down they go, in an acrimonious circle that gets ever more vicious….

[as a student] representing my college union, I proposed a resolution condemning the so-called anti-Zionist purges carried out at the time by the government of Poland. The resolution (which was passed) said that these purges should be condemned for what they really were: antisemitism in disguise. So, I know full well that antisemitism can be hidden behind the mask of anti-Zionism, as the voice in the room puts it. But think what, as a matter of logic, this means. If it can function as a mask, this implies that anti-Zionism, as such, is not antisemitic: a mask that is identical with what it masks is no mask. (That would be like a wolf in wolf’s clothing.) And if it does function as a mask, then once we strip the mask away the thing behind it is laid bare – as if the mask had never been there.

In other words, antisemitism is antisemitism, whether disguised as anti-Zionism – or as anything else – or not.

Then what is it? What do we mean when we say, in a particular case, that anti-Zionism is antisemitic?

The decisive issue would be this: Does the group in question project the figure of the ‘Jew’ (directly or indirectly, openly or otherwise) onto Israel? Do they, so to speak, pin a yellow star on the place, like the badge that was pinned to Kertész’s breast? Do they, in short, turn the Jewish state into the ‘Jewish’ state? ”

The full lecture is available to read here.

IJV would like to thank Dr. Klug for his contribution to a debate that we consider to be very much alive and indeed at the heart of our struggle for a just peace and our defence of the freedom to speak out against injustice.


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