David Hirsh exposes the “as a Jew” logic

Many are no doubt aware of the recent decision by the University of Johannesburg to sever relations with Ben Gurion University, even though it will be a case of “cutting off their nose to spite their face”. 

To help push back against this decision, a debate/seminar was recently held in Johannesburg between 2 pro and 2 anti-academic boycotts.

The discussion and arguments at the time, and subsequently, make interesting reading.  Predictably, one on the pro-boycott side, Ran Greenstein, won the quinella – both Jewish and Israeli. 

A lot of the to and fro is reported on the Engage website, and worth reading. But I was particularly impressed at how David Hirsh responded to the “as a Jew” logic used for putting Israel front and centre for criticism.

David Hirsh‘s argument goes like this:

“I want to make one point in response to Ran Greenstein’s argument for boycotting Israeli academia. Robert Fine challenged him “Why single Israel out? ….. As I see it, the first question is whether Israel is a major human rights abuser in relation to the inhabitants either of its own territory or of surrounding territories. The comparisons you raise are indeed pertinent:  Iran, Iraq (under Saddam), Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.”

Ran Greenstein answered the point “I agree that if we wished to construct a universal scale of human rights violations, that would indeed be the case. That may be a worthwhile project, but not one I have any interest in. As an Israeli citizen my concern with what ‘my’ government is doing. As a Jew, my concern is with what the state that claims to represent me is doing in my name.”

Hirsh continues “If this is one of the reasons that Ran thinks it is right to single out Israel for exclusion from the global academic, artistic, sporting, economic community, or for particularly harsh criticism (apartheid, nazism, fascism) then it is not a good reason.  He himself is free to consider Israel, and its crimes, to be particularly important to his own worldview “as a Jew”.  If this discussion is about him, and what is done in Ran’s name, then he is free to single out Israel.”

“But there is a dangerous slippage when Jewish antizionists, for whom Israel is centrally important in the world, take that attitude out into non-Jewish civil society.  The University of Johannesburg is not a Jewish organisation and so ought to relate to human rights abuses round the world consistently. The fact that Ran Greenstein thinks “as a Jew” is neither here nor there.  The University and College Union in the UK is not a Jewish organisation and so ought to do solidarity around the world in a consistant way. The fact that some leading activists who want to put Israel at the very forefront of its worldview do so “as a Jew” should not alter the policy of the union.”

“What is required for our institutions is precisely what Ran says he has no interest in: the construction of  “a universal scale of human rights violations”.  The values of solidarity, human rights and the university require a universal and consistent approach.  Antisemitism has always constructed Jews as being central to all that is bad in the world. Some people, “as a Jew” and “not in my name” put the human rights abuses of Israel at the very forefront of their own political consciousness. I can understand this, even if it does not reflect my own way of thinking.  It seems to me to skew one’s own thinking towards the parochial rather than the cosmopolitan.  I want to be concerned with what is important in the world, not to centre my worldview around myself.”

“But when institutions like unions and universities allow the Jewish antizionist focus on Israeli human rights abuses to become their own focus too, then this poses a clear danger.  The danger is that unions and universities begin to teach their young people that Israel, and the Jews who live there, are a central evil on the planet.  It is easy to see how this kind of Jewish exceptionalism mirrors older antisemitic forms and how this kind of Jewish exceptionalism is likely to foster antisemitic ways of thinking.”

…..  The discussion that ensues, including a reply by Greenstein, is very interesting.  The topic also blends into issues of Jewcentricity as explored by Adam Garfinkle.  

For those in Tibet, Sudan or elsewhere whose plight is largely ignored,  it brings to mind Elie Wiesel’s aphorism “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference”

It also brings to mind the decision a while back by Sydney University to reject calls by local anti-Israel advocates for an academic boycott of Israel.   The decision provided the reassurance that there is a higher deliberative body at the University with a broader view than can put partisan “Jewcentric” attacks into perspective ..  with the connotation that adults, not children, are in charge, and that “the inmates aren’t running the asylum”.

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