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February 27, 2012

Antisemitism Real and Imagined: A book review

Yanis Varoufakis

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Antisemitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, edited by Michael Keefer. Waterloo. Ontario, Canada: The Canadian Charger, 2010, $22.00. Pp. 286.

In the interests of full disclosure, the reader must be informed that the undersigned was purged from Australian state radio (SBS-Radio) on a charge of “antisemitic” on-air commentary.

The formal complaint was tabled by an organization called ICJS Research (Issues of Concern for Justice & Society) that was formed, according to its website, in order “to express the concerns of Australian citizens about a broad range of issues such as terrorism, appeasement, tolerance, war and justice in society.”

The specific charge against me was a) my claim that Israel used the blockade of Gaza as part of “a strategy for retaining a large part of the West Bank”; and b) my reference to the "security barrier" as a “concrete monster.”

The fact that my comments were supported by reports in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz was not deemed a sufficient defense against the charge of antisemitism.

Once the decision to terminate my weekly radio broadcast, after 16 years of broadcasting, was reached, this is how the station’s representative explained it in a letter to the plaintiff: “The particular anti-Israeli line of his commentary could be reasonably held to have assisted in the promotion of negative stereotypes about Jews and more particularly, Israeli Jews. And this is how the Australian Jewish News summed up the outcome: “It is the first acknowledgment by SBS that portraying Israel in a bad light is the same as negative stereotyping of blacks or women that it does harm to people.”

So, when this book landed on my desk. I was fascinated to read about experiences similar to mine on the other side of the Pacific. Its account of the efforts of the CPCCA (Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism) to suppress all criticism of Israel impressed me with the erudition, passion, sensitivity and commitment of its contributors.

The book is arranged in three parts. The first, entitled “Engagements” comprises 12 entries by Canadian human rights activists, mostly of Jewish origin, who relate their own stories and views about their own struggles against racism, sexism and assorted forms of discrimination and how their private submissions to the CPCCA were discarded, ignored and generally snubbed.

The second part (“Organizational Responses”) consists of pieces by organizations, including the Canada-Palestine Support Network, Independent Jewish Voices, etc.

Finally, the third section (“Contexts”) concludes powerfully with three papers by Michael Keefer, the editor, on really existing antisemitism in Canada and the newfangled imagined antisemitism whose raison d’être is simply to impede any criticism of Israel and thus to act as the handmaiden of the Israeli state’s well-oiled propaganda machine.

In the book's “Introduction,” Michael Keefer, who also edited the volume, explains how a highly commendable attitude of “zero-tolerance to antisemitism” morphed into an instrument by which to shield Israeli policies in the Middle East from rational and fair scrutiny.

Keefer demonstrates how, in the Canadian context, anti-racism has been usurped in order to outlaw all well-balanced debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also draws comparisons with similar moves in Europe, which raise the question of whether the attempts to brand, and thus, silence all criticism of Israel as racist emerge spontaneously in distant places or are somehow coordinated.

 To put the same question simply, are the obvious similarities in the narratives and practices of the CPCCA in Canada, the ICJS Research in Australia and the British All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism accidental? Keefer does not think so, and I tend to agree.

Regardless of the degree of coordination among such organizations, their activities have an obvious, beneficiary: real antisemitism. For when a worthy cause, like that of “zero-tolerance to antisemites, is appropriated by a regressive campaign whose purpose is, in effect, to terminate any critical engagement with the subjugation, repression and expropriation of another people, the Palestinians, then the worthy cause suffers.

Antisemites rejoice when criticism of Israel’s Wall in Palestine is equated with antisemitism. For they are suddenly included in the wider community of fair-minded people for whom the collective humiliation, mass harassment and disconnection of a whole people from their own backyards, not to mention the rest of the world, constitutes a hideous state of affairs in need of urgent redress. In this sense, the book's greatest strength is its account of how progressive people who have struggled for decades to combat really existing antisemitism were treated with contempt and hostility by an organization whose stated objective is to combat antisemitism.

Book review in Science & Society Volume 75, No. 4, October 2011

Science & Society is published by Guilford Press; information about subscriptions to the journal can be found at (in the category 'Journals & Newsletters').

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