With a new right and hard-right coalition government starting up in Israel, you might think that now would not be the best time to stifle criticism of the country.
For decades, one of Israel’s safeguards against completely collapsing into a thug state has been the Supreme Court and separation of powers. Now Israel Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s new partners in government — one-time followers of the Zionist terrorist Meir Kahane — have insisted the new administration push through limits on the court’s purview, at the same time as the hard-right take the police ministry.
This is a recipe for killing and oppression in the occupied territories on a whole new scale. Arguably it represents a totalitarian impulse within Zionism, something former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir expressed openly and explicitly when he led the violent LEHI movement in the 1940s. Shamir became prime minister in the 1980s, and oversaw the government’s sponsorship of the West Bank settlement program. So you could say that current policies, and the onslaught to come, are the continuation of that belief.
But now you might not be able to say it at Melbourne University without getting into trouble — even if you say it, or ask it as a question, in a lecture or tutorial. The university has officially adopted the new International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism as policy, the first Australian university to do so.
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The core part of the IHRA’s definition is general enough:
Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
But the elaboration immediately gets on to the nitty-gritty:
To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:
- Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.
Yes, one rather thought such manifestations “might”. The IHRA’s definition has been pushed at Australian universities by the Australian Zionist lobby for the past couple of years, and it’s got its first commitment. Others will follow.
The right to free inquiry?
Now, a university administration has no business adopting official definitions of anything. The university is where the fundamental character of entities is to be debated. But if the university as an entity has a series of prefabricated definitions, what hope for the insistence on the right to free inquiry anywhere else?
But the IHRA definition, as expressed in its examples, goes a lot further, including:
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust)
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations
- Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
(NB: numbering is mine. I’ve left out IHRA points that clearly and uncomplicatedly identify anti-Semitism, since they’re not in dispute.)
These points are either reasonably arguable or represent a ridiculous ban on thought. The intentionality of the Holocaust? For decades, it has been debated as to whether the Holocaust as an event was the long-term explicit intent of Hitler and co, or a mix of that and various amoral bureaucratic procedures and attitudes of a total war society. The IHRA note suggests that the latter argument is anti-Semitic.
Israel as a state exaggerating the Holocaust? My God. “There’s no business like Shoah business” is an Israeli political saying that characterises politicians who start resorting to it when they’ve mucked up the economy or something else mundane. Israel’s leaders are not above using the uniqueness of the Holocaust (which is unique in some aspects, but not all) for political gain. Trouble is, they have no word for chutzpah.
Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel? Well, that would be a perfectly rational course of action by Zionist Jews (and Zionist gentiles for that matter). Mossad has used allies like Australia and New Zealand by forging our passports and using them for its assassination squads, thus endangering innocent Australian. Zionist Australian politicians have defended that. Is scrutinising such strategic choices now anti-Semitism?
Number five is a doozy. This is where the IHRA sounds like George Costanza’s father (played by the great Jerry Stiller) in Seinfeld: “Why is it always me! What did I do now? I am not the master of my own house…” Criticism of Israel from within Australia, a country whose progressives have been shellacking it as nothing other than a colonialist genocidal enterprise for a good decade now, hardly seems like holding it to an unfair standard. Maybe 20 years ago. Now it’s the Zionists who seem very much engaged in special pleading.
Comparing Israel with the Nazis? Since Ben Gurion called Jabotinsky “the Jewish Hitler”, there has been no end of such comparisons from within and without Zionism. Hasidic and other Orthodox Jewish groups have long been anti-Zionist, arguing that the political movement of Zionism utterly undermines Judaism’s essence of attending on the arrival of the Messiah, and once that’s gone, Satan, the adversary, takes over — as proof of which they now point to the West Bank.
The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz secularised this and coined the term “Judeo-Nazis”. Can he be taught at Melbourne University now?
We have to be free to ask the question as to the complex relationship of two late 19th-century national socialist movements, Nazism and Zionism. The West Bank’s arrangement of ever-more powerful and prosperous Zionist settlements fortified from Palestinians ruled by an army, subject to random killings, and kept “far from the roads”, looks a lot like Hitler’s imaginings of how a Nazi-colonised Russia would look like.
A rockier road ahead
Politically, the real target of the IHRA definition, or its elaboration and application, is the anti-Israel “boycott, divestment, sanctions” (BDS) movement, whose growth, especially at financially powerful universities and their student unions, really does keep Israel’s leaders up at night.
The new post-colonial nations of the world are not particularly anti-Zionist these days, as the new nationalism takes over. On the other hand, you don’t have to teach India and China what colonialism is like from the other end. Israel faces a rockier road in an era of post-US hegemony, than hitherto.
It’s not surprising that Melbourne University, “The Shop”, would be the first to sign up to the definition, given the city is the centre of the Australian Zionist lobby and that Melbourne Uni wants to beat Monash in everything. Nor that vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell might not have the greatest understanding of the humanities’ need for unlimited free inquiry, given that his field is salmonella (world expert apparently). The place’s nickname — “The Shop” was for degrees and professionalisation — indicates its deep integration into the Melbourne establishment, reflected in the composition of its board.
But there’s a twist to all this, arising from the university’s lack of interest in protecting free inquiry, in its pursuit of appeasing powers-that-be. It has said that it will also be developing “anti-Islamophobia” guidelines, to match the IHRA “anti-Semitism” guidelines. Great. So then an academic, Zionist or non-Zionist, would not be able to argue or ask whether sections of the Arab world’s anti-Zionism is not simply a displaced politics of ressentiment, arising from the failures within Arab modernisation movements?
Could someone, Marxist or conservative, ask whether Islam, as a fused religious-political movement, represents a totalitarian form of monotheism that made development impossible, and caused them to be subject to and overwhelmed by European powers? Could feminists describe the religion as, on balance, misogynist? And so on.
Do university managements propose to work their way through the liberal pieties and create anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, and then do the conservative ones with, say, anti-Christianophobe guidelines, until nothing can be said in a lecture or tutorial without the fear of it being reported, and someone having to submit to an automatically generated inquiry process? That is the end of the university, absolutely.
Of course, farce following, or preceding, tragedy Melbourne University’s path to this has been smoothed by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which last year voted up policies officially opposing Zionism and “gender-critical philosophy”, the latter being the argument that embodied sex is realer than psychological or affirmed gender.
These and other resolutions issued from the union’s Smolny leave an increasing number of members asking whether the union would be able to represent them in a dispute over their teaching content properly. Since Melbourne University again has also gestured towards free-speech limits on gender debate on the basis of “harm”, how could a gender-critical academic have any faith whatsoever in their own union? Such situations will multiply. The NTEU has given Melbourne University the prelude it needed for the main act.
There is no instrument in the university’s physics department to measure the unwise decisions of left-wing academics who facilitate such speech and thought bans. Quite aside from the principle itself, do they not understand that the ultimate ban will be on teaching and discussing the politics and legitimacy of organised and violent resistance? If the university is going to take an official position on being mean to Israel or the question of what a woman is, what do you think they will do about arguments about Marxism, guerrilla movements and political terror, civil disobedience, revolutionary war, hacking, etc, etc?
Some of these people think it’s 1973, and the left still runs these joints. If academics want the protection of free thought and inquiry as a right from their employer, they need to uphold it through their union as a principle and example.
Well, give the Zionists their win, for the moment, and greater protection for whatever depredations the IDF and police will perform, unrestrained, on the West Bank. And before the whole process collapses into absurdity.
Will we eventually see a pro-Zionist academic hauled over the coals for criticising BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, on the grounds that its argument is “Islamophobic”?
Now that would be chutzpah. If only (*George W Bush voice*) Jewish culture had a word for that.