Academic freedom and causing offence – a talk by Justin Schlosberg

JVL Introduction

On 4th March a webinar took place on the theme “Defend academic freedom, defend David Miller”.

In his contribution the first speaker, Justin Schlosberg, offered his full support to Miller, arguing that what was happening to him was symptomatic of a dangerous wave of repression aimed at silencing and delegitimising radical left politics and undermining the struggle for Palestinian justice.

At the same time he recognised that others had taken offence at things Miller had said and offered a convincing analysis as to why anti-Zionist rhetoric can so easily – and often so wrongly – be interpreted as anti-Jewish rhetoric.

We repost the text of his talk below.

You will find an official JVL statement on David Miller and academic freedom here.

Justin Schlosberg

There is no doubt that what is happening to David is symptomatic of a dangerous wave of repression aimed at silencing and delegitimising radical left politics and undermining the struggle for Palestinian justice. And I have little doubt there are journalists in the audience tonight who are here with the sole purpose of trying to twist the words of anyone who speaks into something that can be made to sound offensive. So for their benefit, let me make one thing clear at the outset – I don’t believe, actually, that concerns raised about some of David’s comments can or should be dismissed as part and parcel of the McCarthyite campaign against the left. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t such a campaign which is exploiting those legitimate concerns in a particularly vicious and dangerous variant of McCarthyism.

That is why I think this meeting is so important and why I’m so glad to be speaking here today to offer my support and solidarity to David in the same spirit in which I have defended Chris Williamson and others who have faced the full front of that wave of repression. However, and I’m afraid it’s a fairly big and maybe uncomfortable however. As with Chris and Jackie and Ken, I not only disagree with some of David’s views, but I also think it’s important to understand why they have caused offense.

Lets start with a basic truism. Some Zionists are racist and some expressions of Zionist thought are racist. There is no question that there has long existed a far right nationalist form of Zionism that is hell bent on the establishment of a greater Israel at the expense of any notion of Palestinian rights or justice. Sadly, this particular form of Zionism has gained an ascendancy within successive Israeli governments and is arguably embedded in the Israeli state as it has been constituted for the last 70 odd years. To that extent, it is a completely understandable position to be critical of Zionism as a political ideology.

But there is another truism which is this: not all Zionists are racist and the existence of Israel – as a nation state imbued with the cultural symbolism, values and identity of a Jewish nation – is not contingent on privileging the rights of Jews as an ethnic group any more than the existence of an independent Scotland would necessarily privilege the rights of people of Scottish heritage and culture.

I don’t want to reduce this to a debate about the rights or wrongs of Zionism or the historical context of the establishment of Israel. But I do think it’s important to highlight one point. In 1947, a year before the establishment of Israel, the vast majorities of Jews living in Palestine were not settler colonialists. They were refugees; refugees who, over a period of hundreds of years, had fled horrific persecution in Europe not least during and following the Holocaust. And contrary to much of the narrative of anti-Zionism, by 1947 Jewish people living in Palestine were the victims not the vanguards of imperialism, at least as much as their Arab neighbours.

So whilst it may be an understandable position to be critical of Zionism as an ideology, and certainly the kind of Zionism that is ascendant in Israel today, I believe it is based on a somewhat flawed, over-simplistic and ahistorical analysis.

But there is another truism. Just like some Zionists are racist, it is also true that some anti-Zionists are racists. On the right, you only have to look at the output of any neo-Nazi publishing platform to become aware of and sensitive to this reality. And on the left, you only have to look at some of the examples of utter hatred expressed by a small number of individuals on Facebook groups like Palestine Live.  Ideas about Zionists controlling the US or UK governments, or indeed the world, are I’m afraid to say, a staple of antisemitic propaganda wherever in the political spectrum it stems from.

Now of course that doesn’t, in and of itself, mean that no one can or should be critical of Zionism. But it does surely mean that we can be a bit more nuanced, a bit more qualified and a bit more sensitive in the way that we talk about Zionism. More importantly, we can do so without compromising on our analysis, and without tempering our expressions of outrage over the policies and actions of successive Israeli governments – carried out in the name of Zionism.

I know David very well. Both his academic and advocacy work going back decades on ideology, on the conflict in Ireland, and political lobbying has made a huge contribution to the various fields in which it intersects. It has provided an invaluable resource for activists and been a major influence on my own work. In 2019 I was privileged to co-author a book with him, Greg Philo, Mike Berry and Tony Lerman on the coverage of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

David is not in the least an anti-semite. And I completely understand and empathise with the sense of anger and outrage that he must feel over the shameful and hateful campaign being waged against him and embroiling even significant sections of the left.

But there is a conceptual trap that we all too often fall victim to. In our indignation in the face of repressive and personal attacks, we are often driven to double down on our rhetoric. We want to say loud and clear: “I will not be silenced. I will not be intimidated into silence.”

But in doing so we can easily find ourselves caught in a vicious cycle of outrage and counter outrage. This ultimately achieves nothing other than deepening the intolerance and fuelling the repression that has become such a stain on our fledgling democracy.

And we are also liable to making a fundamental strategic error. Rather than appealing to the moral mainstream of the public, rather than trying to assuage the fears of the majority of British Jews – who by the way are overwhelmingly opposed to the greater Israel project – rather than engaging in political education and deliberation, we engage exclusively – and thereby legitimise the relatively small number of antagonists and extremists that are trying to silence us.

It does not matter whether or not that relatively small number of people claim to represent the mainstream Jewish community or whether they are right wing agitators in the Labour Party, or whether they work on behalf of the Israeli government or whether they own newspapers or run TV stations. The people that we should be trying to talk to are not the producers of propaganda and disinformation, but the people who are exposed to it.

And when we make that distinction, we are compelled to shift the tone of our rhetoric. We are compelled to try to understand why the establishment of Israel is, for the majority of Jewish people from all backgrounds, intimately bound up with the collective trauma of the Holocaust. We are compelled to consider why anti-Zionist rhetoric can so easily – and often so wrongly – be interpreted as anti-Jewish rhetoric.

So as well as confronting and rejecting that vicious and repressive campaign with every fibre of our being, I believe it is equally important that we reflect critically on why it is that some people have found some of the comments that David has made so offensive.

As progressives, as democratic socialists, it is surely our duty to try to arrest that vicious cycle of outrage and counter outrage. If we don’t who else will? The right aren’t going to. They don’t need to. Because the right are in power. They are in power here, in Israel, and, believe it or not, in Gaza. I’m afraid you don’t have to look deeply into the policies of Hamas to determine just what a reactionary, nationalist and repressive regime it is.

The way we expose the iniquities and injustices of ascendant right-wing ideologies is not by mimicking their intolerance of dissenting views but by doing the very opposite. What are we for if not for a politics based on justice, compassion and inclusivity?

Isn’t it precisely in that spirit that barely four years ago this country came within a hair’s breadth of having its first ever democratic socialist government? And I have no doubt that it is only in that spirit that there can be any hope of a just and democratic future – in Britain, in Israel and in Palestine.

You can find a recording of the entire webinar below. Justin’s contibution runs from 4’44” to 14’33”:

Comments (6)

  • Moshé Machover says:

    Justin Schlosberg is being disingenuous. The question is not whether individual Zionists, or even individual Jewish settlers in Palestine (and later in Israel) were or are racist. The issue is the nature of the Zionist project. It was from the beginning a project of colonising a land inhabited by other people – irrespective of the wishes or consent of the latter. It was always a project of excluding the indigenous people, who were not even seen as useful source of labour power. They are surplus to Zionist requirement. Such a project has an objective racist logic. The evolution of Israeli politics towards more overt and aggressive Jewish supremacy is no accident.

  • Paul Kelemen says:

    Moshé Machover’s point above is an important corrective. The motivation and political attitude of Jewish settlers in Palestine are not significant factors in defining their structural position in relation to the Palestinians. That was determined by the Zionist institutions into which they were integrated, principally the kibbutzim and the Histadrut. These were set up to dispossess the Palestinians of land and labour in order to establish an economy for the Jewish immigrants. Whether Jews seeking to settle in Palestine were refugees from persecution or not, as settlers in Palestine they became the agents of the Zionist settlement process, in other words of settler colonialism.

  • Mark Elf says:

    Moshe Machover beat me to it. Justin Schlosberg is indeed being disingenuous and not for the first time. Ethnic nationalism like Zionism is not and cannot be like civic nationalism like Scottish nationalism unless Justin wants to factor in what Scottish means if not pertaining to Scotland or all of the people of Scotland regardless of ethnicity or faith background.

    And if doubling down means not apologising when you’ve done nothing wrong I’m all for it. It was the pandering to Zionists that caused the disaster at the beginning and the supreme irony was that so unappreciative was the EHRC they even threw the book at Corbyn for hastening the departure of Ken Livingstone et al.

    Sending Zionists into a feed frenzy is never a good idea.

  • Les Hartop says:

    The reason some Jewish people may feel alarmed is not the fault of the manner of David Miller, or Ken Loach, or Jeremy Corbyn, it’s because they have recently been fed a flood of lieing propaganda telling them that left wing people are dangerous antisemites.

    Instead of sympathising with people who have been whipped up into this hysteria, and themselves now spread the panic and false alarm, a more effective thing that Justin Schlosberg could do instead of spending X,000 words looking for ‘nuances’, would be to reassure these people that they don’t need to worry about the very people who are their staunchest allies, and the only people who have spent their lives putting their personal safety at risk by standing up and confronting real life right wing booted fascists in this country.

  • Stephen Williams says:

    I agree with Moshe Machover.

  • Dave says:

    I agree with Moshé. Left wing and even some centrist thinking has overtaken this accommodation of a Jewish state (see for example Peter Beinart). A single state solution may well have a distinctly Jewish character but the time has more than come to call for full equality and secularism. Zionism cannot be appeased even for non-racist supporters, who must, I agree, be constructively engaged with, but opposed none the less.

Comments are now closed.