Antisemitism and the indefinite article…

JVL Introduction

Ian Saville, socialist magician, tries to conjure up a state founded to advance the aspirations of one religious or cultural group that won’t turn out to be a racist endeavour. Not very successfully.

On the politics of definite and indefinite articles.

Ian Saville,
6 September 2018

Can we imagine the founding of a state? Not any specific state, for that would become “the” state. No, “a” state? John Lennon told us that it was easy to imagine a world without countries and borders, and though I may not agree that such an act of imagination would be simple, I am inclined to think it is easier than the task of imagining the foundation of “a” state, devoid of specificity or history.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism asks us to attempt this feat, and it is possible that on the basis of our ruminations, we may be defined as antisemitic. In the face of this challenge, many will understandably decide that it is better to just ignore the issue, and answer this vague formulation with a shrug of the shoulders and a noncommittal “OK”.

But let me rise to the challenge. Being Jewish, I am inclined to think that my answer will not lead me into the murky waters of antisemitism, but I suppose there is a risk that it will, given that those who use this definition as a touchstone seem to think it carries with it an irrefutable test of racist attitudes.

It would be antisemitic, we are told, to maintain that the foundation of “a State of Israel” would be a racist endeavour. The use of the indefinite, rather than definite article is odd, and is clearly a very deliberate formulation, implying that attitudes to “the” State of Israel carry a very different set of implications. Commmentators such as Jonathan Freedland have made much of the fact that the IHRA example talks of “a state” rather than “the state“, as they maintain that those who are opposed to a Jewish state of any kind, rather than the existing State of Israel, clearly must have antisemitic attitudes. So we must imagine a sort of Platonic Israel, which exists in a world of the imagination, where the hard decisions of the real world, where states arise from power struggles rather than noble aspirations, do not intrude to trouble us.

What would it mean to found this abstract State of Israel, which arises purely from a justifiable aspiration to self determination, rather than any wish to dominate others, acquire land, exploit or oppress?

It is surely possible for people to live in peace and friendship with their neighbours, though human history seems to show that it can be difficult. The founding of a state, though, is a complex enterprise, for which there is no clearly agreed procedure. Most of the states that exist came into being over a long time frame, usually involving the suppression of some aspirations alongside the fulfilment of others. The establishment of “a” state which we are expected to contemplate presumably involves none of these injustices.

But it is not just any state. It is “a state of Israel”. Even if we are imagining life in a different, parallel universe, we are obliged to give our Platonic state the name of the one that undoubtedly exists. What must we infer from the provision of that name?
Presumably the use of a place name derived from the Bible and Hebrew writings means that this state will have something in common with the Israel described in Biblical texts. So it will be a state for Jewish people.

I am inclined to think that there must be a very real possibility, and perhaps a likelihood, that a state founded to advance the aspirations of one religious or cultural group will turn out to be a racist endeavour. The more so if this state does not arise simply from the codifying of the organisations and practices of a set of people living in one area or land, but is undertaken as a single endeavour, aiming at the establishment of a largely exclusive grouping defined by ideas of race or ethnicity. This even apart from any real world considerations of where this state will be situated, and the likelihood that others will have some claim to that land.

But let us be allowed to put a small amount of specificity into this thought experiment.
What if the people wishing to establish a state have been cruelly and repeatedly oppressed themselves, and their desire for their own state arises, at least in part, from the fact that existing states have shunned them and failed to allow them to assimilate in their own societies? Perhaps then, recalling unspeakable cruelties wreaked upon these people, it’s understandable that they wish to set themselves apart and make their own state in which they will be untroubled by the horrors that they had formerly experienced. Entirely understandable.

But in trying to find justification for what I was inclined to think was racist in the world of “a” state, I have strayed into the world of “the” state, giving it a history which makes its establishment understandable. But being understandable does not in itself remove the taint of racism, even if that racism flows from a much more virulent prior racism.
What is more, now that we are contemplating “the” state, rather than “a” state, as we must for any useful discussion in the real world, it behoves us to also take into account real facts in a material world. So we must bear in mind the injustice of Palestinians forced from their homes in order to establish this state, whether it is “the“ or “a”. We must bear in mind the violence which has flowed from dispossession, and the “othering” of a people, by which the ethnoreligious nature of the state must be maintained.

I think I am forced to conclude that the establishment of this state, whether it carries an indefinite or definite article, is a racist endeavour. This may also be true of the establishment of other states in the world, perhaps including the one which holds sway over me and my family. This is not to imply that it is the worst of all racist endeavours, but I am not being asked to consider other states or histories.

It is easier and more pleasant to imagine with John Lennon, rather than thinking about these statist considerations. I would be happy to incorporate some of his vision in my own desire for a secular state in Palestine/Israel which fulfils the desires of all who live there for a peaceful, harmonious land. But if I am forced by the IHRA examples to deliberate on whether a state such as Israel constitutes a racist endeavour, I find myself on the wrong side of a line which seems to make me antisemitic. Can this really be right?


Comments (5)

  • Michael Westcombe says:

    Brilliant article. Thanks. 🙂

  • Rick Hayward says:

    You’d think that the conundrums and inconsistencies thrown up by the essential flabbiness of the IHRA document would be fairly obvious.

    Such is well outlined here.

    My favourite bit of litmus on these contradictions is that the objections to Zionism (as a then minority sport) by the Board of Deputies in 1917 could now be considered ‘antisemitic’.

    … but then that form of Alice Through the Looking Glass ‘antisemitism’ gets more serious when you realize that the major targets of such absurdity – as guaged by actual disciplinary cases – happen to be Jews with rather better records on the anti-racist front than the ranters and ravers.

  • George Wilmers says:

    How fortunate for the fanatics who wish to impose the IHRA examples on the Labour party that English is a language which requires grammatically the use of an article, definite or indefinite, preceding the phrase
    “State of Israel is a racist endeavour” in order to turn it into a sentence! But what if the same statement is expressed in Polish, Russian or Chinese, which have no articles? Oh horror of horrors, how will the newly formed thought police and their expert translators determine whether the statement is antisemitic or kosher?

  • Peter Cooper says:

    Interestingly the German version of the “working definition” on the IHRA site refers to, “z.B. durch die Behauptung, die Existenz des Staates Israel sei ein rassistisches Unterfangen.” i.e the state of Israel, not a state of Israel. The French version is the same.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    There’s only one thing wrong with this excellent article: Ian Saville slightly misquotes the IHRA document. It doesn’t refer to “a state of Israel”, it refers to “a State of Israel” (alll capitalised). In my opinion, the contradiction in the IHRA document in this point is precisely between the disingenuous use of “a” to make the whole issue hypothetical and the choice of capital letters for “State of Israel”, which logically makes the reference quite specific.
    Of course, it would have been difficult to draft this point more rigorously since there are so few Jewish lawyers.

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