The Microaggressions War

Gaza and Antisemitism

George Orwell once wrote, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.

Must mean something else. Via Nizza, Torino.

The Gaza war and its impact on European and American politics bear stark witness to this point.

Orwell thought it was possible to reverse the processes by which language becomes less accurate to improve political effect. This remains to be seen.

Protests against Israel’s campaign in Gaza have been shaped by two developments.

The first was the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism by a majority of EU governments and the US Department of State.

The Working Definition contained much that was unexceptional.

So for instance, it is defined as Antisemitism, “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).”

These are as close to incontrovertible as historical facts ever get.

The evidence, both first-hand and documentary, of the scope, methods, and intentional nature of the Holocaust has been attested to by mountains of evidence.

Much of the rest of the definition was similar: matters about which there is no serious controversy beyond the lunatic fringe.

However, two elements of the definition aroused concern at the time.

First, “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.”

Second, “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

A letter in response to the definition signed by numerous human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, Israel’s B’Tselem, and others, pointed out:

The wording of the first example above on “racist endeavour” opens the door to labeling as antisemitic criticisms that Israeli government policies and practices violate the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the findings of major Israeli, Palestinian and global human rights organizations that Israeli authorities are committing the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians. This example could also be used to label as antisemitic documentation showing that Israel’s founding involved dispossessing many Palestinians; or arguments, also made by some Members of the Israeli Knesset, to transform Israel from a Jewish state into a multiethnic state that equally belongs to all of its citizens – that is, a state based on civic identity, rather than ethnic identity.’

Concerning the second example, the letter noted that the example on “applying double standards” opens the door to labelling as Antisemitic anyone who focuses on Israeli abuses as long as worse abuses are deemed to be occurring elsewhere.

Both examples are highly problematic.

The first makes criticism of Israel’s government’s actions beyond legitimate criticism to the extent that it is couched in terms of existential threats to Israel’s existence.

This is so regardless of whether the threat in question is, practically speaking, existential. It also makes any criticism of Zionism Antisemitic.

This would apply irrespective of whether the basis for one’s opposition was disliking Jews (which is illegitimate) or opposing ethnonationalism as an organising principle tout court (for which there are rather better grounds).

The second example suggests that although the government of Israel (or settlers in the West Bank) may have done things worthy of censure, they may not, in practice, be censured unless there are no worse examples available.

This might all seem trivial were it not for the fact that just these sorts of considerations have been voiced by the American and European governments as rationales for suppressing protests and other expressions of support for the Palestinians.

Actions taken against student protests illustrate a second issue that has come to the fore during the Gaza war: accusations of implicit bias that are too broad.

That’s not to say that microaggressions aren’t real. They are.

The concept is clear, and the work of scholars such as Derald Wing Sue and Christina Capodilupo has shown how they can lead to trauma.

What the research on microaggressions has not done sufficiently is to make clear the distinction between discomfort and injury.

This would be less of a problem were it not for the fact that the right has spent much of the last three decades expropriating and repurposing arguments originating on the left.

The result is a highly disingenuous victim narrative, which aims to appropriate the symbolic power progressives have sought to mobilise for the powerless.

The upset from being subject to political statements with which one strongly disagrees can be profound, even harmful.

But just because someone strongly disagrees with a value judgment doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

The Israeli government’s attempt to destroy Hamas since 7 October presents a particularly acute case of the synergy between the overly expansive definition of Antisemitism and the under-theorisation of microaggression.

To take one example, frequent criticisms of the pro-Palestinian encampments on university campuses have been based on the discomfort that they cause to Jewish students.

In part, this is disingenuous since a significant proportion of the protestors are themselves Jews. But the claim is also not entirely empty, either.

In certain instances, using slogans like “From the river to the sea” is a bad choice. One can argue it isn’t Antisemitic, that it means something else.

The problem is that it has been successfully framed as racist and has become a target for criticism in mainstream news media, for its implicit meaning.

It doesn’t say anything about ethnically cleansing Jews from Israel. But by promoting the return of Palestinians to their ethnic homeland, the slogan gets hyped as such.

Still, the discourse of preventing discomfort all too easily elides the distinction between saying something discriminatory and something disagreeable.

This elision is made even more acute by the institutional promotion of the idea that every criticism of Israel is, practically speaking, an instance of Antisemitism.

To be clear, this is not meant to critique the work on microaggressions per se. It isn’t the researchers’ fault that their efforts have been turned to a political purpose alien to their original intent.

By the same token, the struggle against Antisemitism, in particular, and racism, in general, is a worthy and necessary one.

Particularly in an era of growing populism, in which discrimination against Jews and Muslims is increasingly tolerated.

But erasing the distinction between criticising the Israeli government and Judeophobia results in an expansion of the meaning of Antisemitism drained of its meaning and critical power.

In times like these, one learns who is opposed to killing and who is willing to justify it. Precise language is important for distinguishing between the two.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.