Raised and educated in the UK, Prof. Ian Almond teaches World Literature at Georgetown University in Qatar. So, when I heard he took to the Qatari-based Al-Jazeera to write about antisemitism, I was hopeful. I thought he was going to write about the high incidence of antisemitism (including Holocaust-denial) in the Arab world. But no: Prof. Almond chose to warn us all of ‘The danger of conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism’.
Still, I remained hopeful while reading the first few sentences. Says Prof. Almond:
I still remember the shock I felt when, at the age of 12, my teacher told me the word ‘joo’ I had just spoken, which I had thought to mean to lie or cheat, was actually ‘Jew’ and was anti-Semitic. Throughout my British childhood, I had used that word casually and frequently, without ever knowing what it really meant.
Almond goes on to analyse the reasons for his childish mistake:
I start with this example to make a simple point: anti-Semitism is so entrenched in our society, so depressingly persistent, that to trivialise it is to trivialise the blueprint of prejudice itself. It is a barometer of moral cowardice: when someone doesn’t want to take responsibility for their own faults or problems, they blame the Jews.
Almond is right to use the present tense in the sentence above: this is not ‘historic antisemitism’, but contemporaneous one; the future Professor was 12 at the time – so that’s a mere 37 years ago. We may wish to believe that one man’s character – say Brett Kavanaugh’s! – can change in that stretch of time; but deeply entrenched prejudice does not just disappear from an entire society in less than a generation.
Of course, things did change. We are much more ‘politically-correct’ these days. School children are less likely to refer to cheating as ‘jewing someone’; if they do, they will be told that they should not use the word in that sense. But it’s not about a childish word – it’s about the societal prejudice it reveals. The word may rarely be used in that sense these days; but the prejudice is still there. If you want proof, just surf Twitter. Or listen to the many Labour Party supporters who seem to say that, when African Caribbeans, Muslims or Asians complain about racism they have a point; but when Jews complain about antisemitism, there must be some dishonest motive behind it.
Prof. Almond’s childhood story is interesting – and his subsequent conclusion is correct. Too bad that it is used to excuse, rather than inform, the rest of his learned article.
After declaring that “anti-Semitism is so entrenched in our society, so depressingly persistent, that to trivialise it is to trivialise the blueprint of prejudice itself”, Prof. Almond proceeds to do exactly that – trivialise it:
There are definitely some voices who claim to support the Labour Party, and who allow their anti-Zionism to spill over mindlessly into anti-Semitism.
“There are […] some voices who claim…”??? Don’t “some voices” include the very Leader of the Party, who rose to the defence of blood-libellers, conspiracy theorists and ‘artists’ who depict hooked-nosed ‘oppressors’? Don’t “some voices” include ’illustrious’ members of the Party top brass, who implied that Jews conspired with their own genocidal persecutors? Don’t they include a well-attended recent meeting at the Party Conference, where people chanted ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’ – a call to pogrom on 6.5 million Israeli Jews? Are these really “some voices who claim to support the Labour Party”???
But that’s not the only place where Prof. Almond’s argument lacks internal logic – not to mention moral clarity. We are, in fact, lucky that the good Professor teaches literature, rather than medical science; because – bluntly put – his diagnosis suffers from terminal idiocy, in view of the symptoms that he himself described in the previous paragraphs.
Indeed, Prof. Almond’s judgement of “some voices” is that “their anti-Zionism […] spill[s] over mindlessly into anti-Semitism”. So anti-Zionism comes first and “some voices” are guilty just of taking it a bit too far. But, since (as he himself explained) “anti-Semitism is so entrenched in our society, so depressingly persistent”, isn’t it much more likely that anti-Zionism is the result of that deeply entrenched prejudice? Indeed, that it is just a new symptom of that entrenched disease? If – God forbid – I suffer from “entrenched” and “depressingly persistent” lung cancer and develop a nasty cough – chances are it’s because of the cancer – not because I sang too loudly in church!
Isn’t that “entrenched [… and] depressingly persistent” antisemitism a much more likely explanation for the visceral animus, unique in its nature and intensity, that “some voices” exhibit towards the Jewish state – and only towards the Jewish state? Isn’t this why the oppression of Palestinians was so often and emotionally cited at the Labour Conference, while none of the ‘progressive’ leaders cared to mention the plight of Saudi women – those 51% of the country’s population that had to wait until 2018 (2018!) to be allowed to drive (by law, though still not in practice)?
Prof. Almond views as outrageous that
The IHRA code considers any description of the Israeli State as a ‘racist’ institution to be anti-Semitic.
But – leaving aside the fact that his interpretation of “The IHRA code” is tendentious – which other state is called “a ‘racist’ institution”? The Labour Party claims that Hungary’s current government is antisemitic and Islamophobic – yet it does not call Hungary “a ‘racist’ institution”. It politely frowned at Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya; yet it does not call the former British colony of Burma ‘a racist endeavour’ as a result.
But Prof. Almond appears convinced that Israel should be called a racist institution. He explains why:
[I]n 1948, three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs were forcibly evicted, with British backing, off their own land. To recognise this as racist, in the words of the IHRA code, would be ‘anti-semitic’.
That the “Palestinian Arabs were forcibly evicted, with British backing” would be shocking news to the 1948 British Mandate officials, as well as to the Jewish inhabitants of Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz, bombed by British artillery, apparently in order to ‘assist’ the Arab town of Acre. But that’s by-the-by.
However, you know what? Let’s be generous with Prof. Almond: let’s adopt his version of history – however specious. Let’s assume that indeed the “Palestinian Arabs were forcibly evicted” – though the reality was considerably more complex than that; let’s ignore that that ‘eviction’ started in the midst of a civil war that soon morphed into a war of survival against attack by all neighbouring states; let’s even forget that the Arab side did their own ‘evictions’ – more thorough ‘evictions’ since no living Jew remained in the territory they even temporarily controlled.
But what I fail to understand, even after all those assumptions, is why and how is that ‘Jewish misbehaviour’ more terrible than dozens of other cases of ‘forced eviction’ that occurred elsewhere, both before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. ‘Evictions’ that are very rarely – if ever – described as ‘racist’.
Immediately after the defeat of Nazi Germany, borders were re-drawn and accounts settled. The ethnic German population of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (people that had lived there for centuries) was driven out. So was the population of territories that had been part of Germany, but were now ‘given’ to the USSR and Poland. In total, 14 million ethnic Germans were driven out of their homes and lands, with the agreement and connivance of the victorious powers. Circa 1 million died in the process: some at the hands of the local soldiers, policemen and civilian vigilantes; others due to exposure and the strenuous marches; many died of starvation either before or after reaching war-ravaged Germany (or, rather, territories of the former German Reich, now occupied and governed by the Allies). The 13 million survivors – and their descendants, who account these days for almost a quarter of Germany’s population – were never allowed to return and were never granted any compensation.
Ethnic Germans were not the only population ‘evicted’ at the time: so were ethnic Poles living in Ukraine – many of whom were Soviet citizens. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians and Lemkos were forcibly expelled from Poland into the Soviet Union; and when the latter closed its border, the remaining Ukrainian and Lemkos villagers were forced to ‘resettle’ in the west of the country, in the former German provinces ‘given’ to Poland. Conditions were harsh and human life was cheap – so many died or were killed on the way; molested women and girls had nobody to complain to: they typically picked up the small children or younger siblings and continued their journey – that is, whenever they and their families escaped being murdered out of sheer sadism and gratuitous brutality. Those Ukrainians and Lemkos who survived this ‘resettlement’ ordeal were forcibly dispersed, with no regard to family and community ties; the Polish authorities denied them any expression of native language and culture, in a deliberate attempt to assimilate them into the prevalent Polish ethnicity. (For those wishing to learn more of the terrible history of Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II, I recommend Keith Lowe’s excellent book ‘Savage Continent’.)
All of the above (and much, much more) happened in what was by then peacetime. The allied armies ruled in Berlin and over a subdued Europe. Those evicted did not pose any security risk to the remaining population. In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, they did not even endanger the demographic supremacy of the majority population. It can be argued, on the other hand, that this was the making of the new Poland: historically, Poland had been a geographic and demographic patchwork whose existence as an independent nation between the German and Russian ‘spheres of influence’ had been intermittent; the post-war bout of ruthless viciousness gave birth to a completely different country — a Poland with utterly changed borders and a demographic eerily homogeneous from an ethnic perspective.
Europe isn’t the only ‘savage continent’. In 1947, even while the newly-formed United Nations was debating the fate of the Mandate of Palestine, an additional former British territory was being partitioned: the former Jewel of the Crown – the British Raj. Like most former colonies, this was not a country – but an artificial contraption made up of numerous faiths and ethnicities, held together (but often also set against each other) by colonial interests. There was, however, one major fault line, dividing the Hindu population from the Muslim one. Both groaned under the British colonial yoke, but also resented and feared each other. To ‘pacify’ the place long enough to wash its hands of it, the British government implemented a territorial partition into two states. It was hardly a fair deal: the Hindu-majority state – India – incorporated the vast majority of industrial assets and agricultural land; it also ‘inherited’ most of the former colony’s financial reserves. The Muslim-majority state – Pakistan – initially comprised just one fifth of the former colony (the Muslim population accounted in 1947 for circa 30%). Even that consisted of two non-contiguous pieces of territory – West Pakistan and East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh) – separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory.
Borders don’t create nations. Despite the partition, inter-communal violence continued and intensified. When all is said and done, circa 1 million people are estimated to have lost their life. 15 million were forced to leave their ancestral homes and lands and go into exile – never to return.
Not even that was enough to defuse the tensions: India and Pakistan have since fought several wars and continue to face each other with relentless suspicion and barely contained hostility. Since both are armed to the teeth – including nuclear arsenals – this remains a potential source of catastrophic conflagration.
Pakistan officially calls itself an Islamic Republic (Article 1 of the Constitution) – and is recognised under that name by the United Kingdom. Article 2 proclaims:
Islam shall be the State religion of Pakistan.
Yet I have yet to hear protests from Prof. Almond or from other Corbynites. Why aren’t they worried about the impact of such constitutional arrangements upon the status of Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities (Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, etc.)? And by the way, the official languages of Pakistan are Urdu and English, despite the fact that Punjabi is the native tongue for more than 40% of the population.
As for India, the Muslim minority in the predominantly Hindu country has long complained of discrimination – and independent reports tend to support those claims. If anything, complaints of oppression and marginalisation have intensified under Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
I would assume that Prof. Almond is familiar with the birth of India and Pakistan – after all he claims Post-Colonial Studies as one of his specialisms. Unless the good Professor is one of those ‘progressives’ for whom the study of post-colonialism always boils down to one small country in the Middle East…
Despite Prof. Almond’s protestations, the Labour Party did adopt the IHRA Definition – after numerous subterfuges and under huge public pressure. But Jeremy Corbyn attempted to ‘supplement it’ (read: subvert it) with a proviso ‘protecting’ those who regard
the circumstances around [Israel’s] foundation as racist.
But why? How were those “circumstances” different from those that led to the formation of Pakistan? Or of India? Or of modern-day Poland? Or of Croatia – the latest addition to the European Union – the “circumstances” of whose “foundation” included the ethnic cleansing of circa 400,000 Serbs? Why is it that Corbyn and his supporters never call those countries ‘racist endeavours’?
The list of unpleasant “circumstances”, of course, are not limited to the countries mentioned above. In fact, such “circumstances” are the rule, not the exception: more often than not, countries are born in conflict and strife; frequently, that strife includes death, injuries, displacement and suffering of innocents. That’s very unfortunate – but unusual it ain’t. What is unusual – unique actually! – is the attempt to deny a country its legitimacy in the present and its existence in the future, because of “circumstances” in its past. What is uncommon – extraordinary actually! – is calling an entire country ‘a racist institution’. It so ‘happens’ that it is the Jewish state – and only the Jewish state – that is subjected to this type of unique and extraordinary assault.
No, Prof. Almond: I am not worried about “conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism”: they are one and the same. As a child, you ‘used the wrong word’; now you think that that it’s ‘anti-Zionism’ rather than antisemitism, as long as you use the correct words. Dear Professor of World Literature, when will you understand that antisemitism is not an error of vocabulary? It’s not the words you choose – it’s the prejudice you harbour. You see, the “IHRA code” is more than just a definition. It’s a test – and you failed.