The following is an excerpt from ‘Antisemitism in the Guise of Anti-Nazism: Holocaust Inversion in the United Kingdom during Operation Protective Edge’, a chapter that will appear in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Delegitimization, ed. Alvin H. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press, forthcoming). The editor and publisher have kindly agreed to the advance publication of this excerpt in light of its topicality. The UK Labour Party is debating whether to incorporate the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, including all its accompanying examples, into its own statutes. This part of my chapter sets out why the use of the Nazi analogy to attack Jews, Israelis and ‘Zionists’ should be considered antisemitic, not least because, understanding more deeply the way racism actually works, the best anti-racist scholarship and practice has long abandoned the notion that for racism to be present, a racist subjectivity and motivation, provable to boot, must be co-present. As well as being cut by two-thirds, the chapter has been edited in a couple of places to help the reader. Thanks to Alvin Rosenfeld for making this possible. (Alan Johnson)
The Nazi analogy and Holocaust inversion, which involves ‘the portrayal of Israel, Israelis and Jews as modern-day Nazis, and Palestinians as the new Holocaust-era Jews’, is a moral disease.[i] The meaning of the analogy and the inversion —specifically, whether it is antisemitic—is contested. A locus of the dispute was the contrasting submissions of two academics, David Feldman and Ben Gidley, to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism’s inquiry into antisemitism in the United Kingdom during the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014.[ii] The final report of the inquiry noted delicately that ‘there was some debate between those from whom we took expert testimony regarding the nuances of the definition of antisemitism when it comes to Nazi comparison.’[iii] In short, Gidley defined examples of Holocaust inversion as antisemitic discourse, but Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck University, did not, arguing that ‘the fact that they are wrong and hurtful does not render them anti-Semitic.’[iv]
Feldman advanced two reasons to deny that Holocaust inversion is antisemitic discourse. First, the inversion is banal (my word, not his)—that is, it is a ‘much used rhetorical device,’ a common rhetorical trope used in many arguments about many subjects, often light-mindedly, lacking any specifically antisemitic content. Feldman cited attacks on the UK Independence Party as Nazis as one example of banality and Israel’s leaders calling its enemies Nazis as another. Second, Feldman pointed out that the inversion is not motivated by an anti-Jewish subjectivity. The target, he points out, was Israel, not Jews; therefore, the inversion cannot be antisemitic. Only when discourse ‘endorse[s] Nazi persecution of Jews’ (e.g., brandishing a ‘Hitler Was Right!’ placard on the high street, as at least one protestor did in 2014) did Feldman consider it antisemitic.[v]
However, both of Feldman’s arguments—(the presence of) banality and (the absence of) individual subjectivity—risk putting beyond our understanding much that is constitutive of contemporary antisemitism. His argument of banality—that is, that because everyone plays the Nazi card about everything, it is not antisemitic when used about Israel or Jews—is innocent regarding three contexts that ensure that inversion discourse works in antisemitic ways and may have antisemitic consequences: the Jewish context, the political context, and the discursive context.
The Jewish Context
First, the language Feldman uses to describe the act of treating Israeli Jews as Nazis (‘grossly misleading,’ ‘hurtful’) radically mischaracterises its object. The inversion is obscene; it verges on the demonic in its cruelty as it implicitly demands, as a matter of ethical obligation no less—and this after the rupture in world history that was the Shoah—the destruction of the Jewish homeland as a unique evil in the world no better than the perpetrators of the Shoah. Logically, as Elhanan Yakira puts it, the discourse is ‘annihilationist.’ Ben Gidley, using a more understated English style, notes, ‘To single out Hitler and the Holocaust as the frame for understanding the actions of the Jewish state is not neutral.’[vi] Iganski, McGlashan, and Sweiry point out that ‘deep wounds are scratched when the Nazi-card is played . . . in discourse against Jews.’ The inversion is ‘not simply abusive,’ they add, but ‘invokes painful collective memories for Jews and for many others’ such that ‘by using those memories against Jews it inflicts profound hurts’ and can lead to violence.[vii] In a similar vein, Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust has argued that Holocaust inversion in the United Kingdom in 2014 played on Jewish sensibilities ‘in order to provoke a reaction,’ adding, ‘another word for that is Jew-baiting.’[viii] For the Community Security Trust, ‘incidents equating Israel to Nazi Germany would normally be recorded as antisemitic,’ because the inversion has a ‘visceral capacity to offend Jews on the basis of their Jewishness’ and ‘carries a particular meaning for Jews because of the Holocaust.’[ix] Yakira is particularly unimpressed by the banality argument because it evades the ‘more immoral, more significant . . . more effective . . . more widespread’ character of the inversion when applied to Jews and the Jewish state.[x] Moreover, he points out, when it is applied to Jews, the inversion actively seeks to ‘suppress memory’ and so ‘can only mean eliminating identity.’[xi]
The Political Context
Feldman treats each example of Holocaust inversion in isolation, missing or ignoring the important fact that the inversion is an essential part of the political practice of a global social movement dedicated to the destruction of only one state in the world—the Jewish one. To equate this knowing, relentless, state-sponsored, well-funded political project that has spanned several decades and several continents and that has often been promoted by eliminationist antisemitic forces, with the semiserious, rhetorical use of the Nazi charge in other contexts, such as the criticism of UK Independence Party, is to miss the political point quite spectacularly.
Feldman’s approach brackets the brute fact that the inversion is embedded within a worldwide anti-Israel campaign; beyond the subjectivity of any individual user of the inversion, there is, as Yakira observes, ‘an entire eco-system,’ a veritable ‘international community’’ with a shared code, language, jargon, credo and sensibility.[xii] This is surely why Robert Wistrich came to believe that the inversion was ‘in practice . . . the most potent form of contemporary anti-Semitism.’[xiii] A person who uses the discourse of Holocaust inversion, whatever his or her intentions, ‘exploit[s] the reality that Nazism in the post-war world has become the defining metaphor of absolute evil’ and, by associating Zionism with Nazism and Israel with the Third Reich, promotes nothing less than ‘a moral obligation to wage war against Israel’ as a uniquely malign force in the world.[xiv] To deny this the status of antisemitism is a definitional trick.
The Discursive Context
The inversion renews the core motif of antisemitism, which is that the Jews are not just ‘Other’ but also malign.[xv] The supposed content of this Jewish malignity changes with the times and—as David Nirenberg has described in exhaustive detail in his seminal book Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking—with the needs of the antisemites: the malign Jew as God-killer; later as rootless cosmopolitan dissolving every nation; then as the world-controlling capitalist-Bolshevik conspirator; and finally as the Untermenschen, the biological pollutant of all races.[xvi] Except it was not the final form for Jews to be marked out for death. Holocaust inversion and antisemitic anti-Zionism as a whole updates this core motif of malignity in the era of the Jewish state: the Jew as Zio-Nazi. As the 2006 inquiry by the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism put it, ‘a discourse has developed that is in effect antisemitic because it views Zionism itself as a global force of unlimited power and malevolence throughout history.’ When Zionism is redefined in this way, ‘traditional antisemitic notions . . . are transferred from Jews (a racial and religious group) on to Zionism (a political movement).’[xvii]
Holocaust inversion discourse has a real-world impact because of the effectiveness and reach of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe call the ‘articulatory practice’ (i.e. political activism) that takes it into the institutions of civil society.[xviii] The term means ‘any practice establishing a relation among elements [of a discourse] such that their identity is modified as a result.’[xix] It is articulatory because ‘elements’ from old discourses are put together creatively in new ways—as ‘moments’ of a new discourse (e.g., Zionism = Nazism). It is called a practice because this articulation is never a purely academic exercise. It happens, if it happens at all, in ‘the multifarious institutions’ of the real world, as Laclau and Mouffe put it—for example, in universities, publishing houses, institutions of popular culture, churches, trades unions, and political parties.
Articulatory practice takes elements from old discourses and rearticulates them as moments within a new discourse. The elements—Zionism, Holocaust, Israel, Nazi, Jenin, Gaza, Israel Defense Forces, SS, ghetto, concentration camp—are reborn in this process of rearticulation, their very meaning now secured not by their original material referent but by their place in the structure of the new discursive field that has been created.
The meaning of the Holocaust is rearticulated by antisemitic anti-Zionism so that it no longer comes into focus as a descriptor of the Nazi murder of six million people. Instead, it is rearticulated as a moment within the new anti-Zionist discourse. It becomes variously a lesson, unheeded, for the Jews; what the Zionists are doing now to the Palestinians; a card played by Zionists to prevent their incremental genocide of the Palestinians being criticised.[xx]
The effectiveness of the political-articulatory practice decides whether the description of Israel’s operations to stop rockets from Gaza as a vernichtungskreig (war of extermination) becomes accepted, or whether representations of Israel as a Taetervolk (a nation of criminals) bleed from the fringe to the mainstream. As the late Stuart Hall put it, in the battle to construct meaning, you lose because you lose because you lose. So when the far-left writer Tariq Ali says Israelis treat Palestinians as Untermenschen, he is talking nonsense.[xxi] But he knows he is not making a truth claim. He knows he is constructing what Elhanan Yakira calls a ‘transhipment mechanism’— an awkward but helpful term that means a ‘vehicle for transferring blame and negation . . . absolute evil, limitless guilt, and suffering’ from the Holocaust to Israel and Zionism.[xxii]
[i] Manfred Gerstenfeld, Holocaust Inversion: The Portraying of Israel and Jews as Nazis (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2007). See also Lesley Klaff, ‘Holocaust Inversion and Contemporary Antisemitism,’ Fathom, Winter 2014, https://fathomjournal.org/holocaust-inversion-and-contemporary-antisemitism/; see also Lesley Klaff, ‘Political and Legal Judgment: Misuses of the Holocaust in the UK,’ Journal for the Study of Antisemitism 5, no. 1 (2013): 45–58; Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 506–16; Gerstenfeld, Holocaust Inversion; Manfred Gerstenfeld, ‘The Multiple Distortions of Holocaust Memory,’ Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, December 11, 2007, http://spme.org/spme-research/analysis/manfred-gerstenfeld-the-multiple-distortions-of-holocaust-memory/4298/; Manfred Gerstenfeld, The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2009), http://jcpa.org/text/holocaustabuse.pdf.
[ii] David Feldman, Sub-report for the All Party Parliamentary Committee against Antisemitism (subreport, London: All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, 2015). Ben Gidley, 50 Days in the Summer: Gaza, Political Protest and Antisemitism in the UK, (subreport, All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, 2014), https://files.graph.cool/cj3e6rg8y906h0104uh8bojao/cj4muda2r0015014568kz1fv5, 6-11.
[iii] All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, Report, 104.
[iv] Feldman, Sub-report, 7.
[v] Feldman, Sub-report, 7–8.
[vi] Gidley, 50 Days, 8.
[vii] Paul Iganski, Mark McGlashan, and Abe Sweiry, ‘The Spectre of Nazism Haunts Social Media,’ LancsLaw, February 12, 2015, https://lancslaw.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/the-spectre-of-nazism-haunts-social-media/.
[viii] In Gidley, 50 Days, 8.
[ix] Gidley, 50 Days, 32.
[x] Elhanan Yakira, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting and the Delegitimisation of Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 121, emphasis added.
[xi] Yakira, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, 121–22.
[xii] Yakira, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, 61.
[xiii] Robert Wistrich, ‘Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism,’ Jewish Political Studies Review 16, no. 3–4 (2004), http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-wistrich-f04.htm.
[xiv] Wistrich, ‘Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.’
[xv] Manfred Gerstenfeld, Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism: Common Characteristics and Motifs (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2007), http://jcpa.org/article/anti-israelism-and-anti-semitism-common-characteristics-and-motifs/.
[xvi] David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking (London: Head of Zeus, 2013).
[xvii] All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (London: September 2006), http://archive.jpr.org.uk/download?id=1274, 17.
[xviii] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 1985), 109.
[xix] Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 105.
[xx] See Yakira, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, 328–29.
[xxi] Cited in Julius, Trials, 512.
[xxii] Yakira, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, 66.