Introducing the “Clinton Chasm” to Help Explain Why Most Exchanges About Antisemitism are Entirely Pointless

Paul Klee, Accent in Chaos, 1932, pen on paper with glue spots on cardboard, 30.9 x 48.7 cm

Team A and Team B

Broadly speaking (like all taxonomies, this one too is imperfect and hardly covers all possible cases; yet, like many others, it is nevertheless helpful in allowing us to make sense of the issue in hand), people and institutions dealing with antisemitism in a way they themselves consider critical can be divided into two camps. I will call them Team A and Team B. They are fairly easy to distinguish if one focuses on the following points of comparison:

  • When the members of Team A sound the alarm about Israel-related antisemitism, the members of Team B will almost certainly point out that what Team A calls Israel-related antisemitism is in fact nothing other than legitimate criticism of Israel. Not least, but not only, as a result of disregarding what Team A describes as Israel-related antisemitism, Team B tends to argue that the members of Team A are alarmist and wildly exaggerating the virulence of antisemitism (some will even try to convince you that it has been waning for many years now).
  • While the members of Team A will insist that the specificity of antisemitism can only really be understood by treating it as a distinct phenomenon, the members of Team B tend to argue that antisemitism is best understood as a subcategory of racism or religiously motivated hatred or some admixture of both or something else altogether.
  • While the members of Team A tend to insist on the singularity of the Shoah as an extraordinary caesura in the history of civilization whose legacy presents us with extraordinary challenges, the members of Team B tend to stress the extent to which, much like antisemitism itself, the Shoah should primarily be understood as one crime among others in the canon of racist/colonial/imperial/any sort of intersectional violence.
  • The members of Team A tend to take a more intentionalist approach to antisemitism, i.e., they generally place greater emphasis on personal choices and personal responsibility for those personal choices. The members of Team B tend to take a more structuralist approach, i.e., they generally place a higher priority on structural factors that (supposedly) steer individuals in certain directions (more or less) regardless of their intentions.
  • The members of both teams tend to agree that antisemitism, if by that one means antisemitic perceptions and attitudes, cannot ultimately be eradicated because it is too deeply ingrained in society. The members of Team A tend to conclude from this that one needs to hit antisemitism on the head wherever it rears that ugly head. The members of Team B tend to conclude from this that one needs to pick one’s fights; that pouncing on each and every expression of antisemitism ultimately affords it too much attention and alienates potential allies; and that, given one has to put up with antisemitism anyway, denying oneself certain political options simply because they are marred to varying degrees by inherent antisemitism would merely add insult to injury. As a result, the members of Team A feel compelled to speak out every time they notice something problematic and incline towards demands of zero tolerance. Their counterparts on Team B tend to be much more laid back and mildly or not so mildly embarrassed whenever they do engage in activities that might suggest they are yet again riding their hobby horse and going on about antisemitism when it does not present an immediate threat to life and limb.

In the academy, Team B has largely crowded out Team A, and important flagship institutions such as the London-based Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and the Center for Research on Antisemitism in Berlin are firmly (one might even say, militantly) committed to its agenda.

The issue of Israel-related antisemitism apart, none of these contrasts are as neat as they may seem. Nobody on Team A would deny that antisemitism shares certain generic features with other forms of othering. For both teams, the categorization of the Shoah as a singular or generic phenomenon is a two-edged sword. If one insists that the Shoah was absolutely distinct from anything else that has ever occurred or might ever occur, what Adorno described as the new categorical imperative foisted upon humanity by Auschwitz would make no sense since it would never apply. If, on the other hand, one conceptualizes the Shoah as one of any number of crimes, it loses its value as a symbol and the claim to heightened legitimacy that comes with it. Put differently, the more phenomena one throws into the same pot as Auschwitz, the less one gains by equating those phenomena (to whatever degree) with Auschwitz. Postcolonial theory in particular tends to be characterized by this contradiction between the notion that everything is just as bad as Auschwitz and the partly intentional, partly unintended consequence that Auschwitz was supposedly no worse than any number of other crimes in the first place. In Hegelian terms one might say that the Shoah presents us with a complex dialectic of identity and non-identity with our own reality. Nor, finally, would any member of Team A claim that individuals make personal choices and exercise personal responsibility independently of a host of structural factors. As with most issues, the pertinent question in all these cases tends to be one not of either/or, but of “to what extent is it more one than the other”. There is no denying that there are people on both teams, though many more on Team B, who like to take their respective positions to absurd lengths. That said, even when this is the case, Team A still has the advantage of actually still being concerned with antisemitism, while the more radical members of Team B have shown a startling ability to make it disappear altogether while still occasionally invoking its name.

Israel-Related Antisemitism

The case of Israel-related antisemitism, however, which is my principal focus in this text, is altogether less complicated. In this respect, the much maligned IHRA definition of antisemitism (which always means the definition and the examples provided with it) has worked wonders. Firstly, it identifies specific sorts of statements about Israel that are antisemitic and thus establishes a basic stock of clear-cut criteria, a check list of sorts. Secondly, what, prima facie, seems like an unedifying apologetic statement, namely, the explicit clarification that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country” does not constitute antisemitism, turns out, on closer inspection, to be an absolute stroke of genius. It reveals the constantly heard claim that the IHRA definition curtails free speech on Israel to be inherently antisemitic, since it makes no sense whatsoever unless one assumes that Israel should indeed be criticized more severely than other comparable countries. Only if one wants to apply different standards to Israel than to any other comparable country can one run foul of the IHRA definition.

My central claim in this discussion is that, as a result of the sharp disagreement on Israel-related antisemitism, of all current discussions concerning antisemitism upward of 80 per cent are a total waste of everyone’s time, simply because the members of Teams A and B are constantly speaking past each other.

The Clinton Chasm

To illustrate what is at stake here I refer to this problem, in reference to Bill Clinton’s mind-boggling claim that, in terms of the definition his accusers had provided, he was not having sex with Monica Lewinsky while she was having sex with him, as the Clinton chasm. I resort to this analogy because, apart from being catchy, it illustrates a number of the problems we are dealing with in our context.

  • Firstly, there cannot be many well documented and well known claims as patently and comically absurd as Clinton’s.
  • Secondly, while it is entirely plausible that Clinton was genuinely convinced that his sexual interaction with Lewinsky had not constituted “proper” sex because he had not penetrated her vagina with his penis, he knew full well that he was intentionally misconstruing what he had been asked.
  • Thirdly, there is the combination of outrage and smugness with which Clinton maintained his patently absurd claim.

Anyone who has been seriously involved in controversies concerning antisemitism will be only too familiar with these three dimensions. I have to admit, of course, that the evidential value of this analogy is marred by the fact that, while I think that Clinton’s conduct offers a fairly perfect analogy to the way in which the members of Team B tend to operate, they, in turn, are likely to say the same about me and other members of Team A. The usefulness of the formal analogy obviously ends where the issue of who is right comes into play. As a gay man who has not gone anywhere near a vagina since his birth, I may not be an expert on “proper” heterosexual sex, but I can confidently say that nobody will ever convince me that Clinton was being reasonable when he argued that he was not having sex with Lewinsky while she was having sex with him. Either way, however, the analogy definitely does help to illustrate that there really is no point in trying to reach agreement between the two teams when it comes to the issue of Israel-related antisemitism.

Let’s play this through for a moment. I, as a member of Team A, think that a certain statement or activity is an expression of Israel-related antisemitism. As a general rule, those responsible for the statement or activity in question will by no means deny having said or done what I have taken issue with. Indeed, in many cases they will show great pride in the statement or activity in question.

Short digression: in this respect, the Mbembe controversy has been rather unusual. Not only did Mbembe repeatedly lie about what he had and had not said, written and done. His supporters have tended to operate like the thief who explains to the judge that he never took the item, and if he did, then it was his anyway, and if this claim was not borne out by the letter of the law, it certainly was by the spirit of the law, or, failing that, the law violated natural justice, and if that was nonsense, what about the mitigating circumstances or, given that there were none, should the judge not take into consideration the hardship any punishment would mean for his family or rather, given that he does not have a family, how difficult it would be for him to start a family, though, actually, he has no intention of doing so, but by now the judge would surely want to let him off as a reward for the effort and ingenuity he had invested in developing his line of argument. Mbembe did not say, write or do those things, we were told. Well, ok, so he did, but they have been misinterpreted. Well, ok, so they have not been misinterpreted but they are really rather marginal to his work as a whole. Well, ok, so they are in fact integral to his work but that is ok because he comes from Africa and anyone who disputes his purity of intention is a racist. In fact, all the people who have criticized him are Neonazis anyway, so whatever they say is by definition invalid, however true it may be. And even if the accusation is true in Mbembe’s case, does saying so in public not create a climate in which other people might all too easily be wrongly accused? Surely, if you cannot even say out loud that all the evil on earth results from the ancient Jewish religion and nothing embodies it like Israel without immediately being called an antisemite, free speech has died before our eyes. And on and on it goes. Here endeth the digression.

However, as I say, ordinarily those accused of Israel-related antisemitism do not deny having said, written or done what has been attributed to them, what they do deny is that their statement or activity has anything to do with antisemitism. If I now say that the members of Team B, in agreeing with this assessment, are engaged in antisemitism relativization, minimization or denial, they will flatly deny this and, from their point of view, they will be entirely right because my statement is ultimately nonsensical. After all, as they see it, there was never any antisemitism in evidence for anyone to relativize, minimize or deny. One might as well lock a mixed group of gay and straight men in a room and tell them they will not be let out again until they have agreed on whether men or women are sexually more attractive. Although the gay men will come to a different conclusion than the straight men, both are, from their point of view, right, and trying to get them to agree is entirely pointless. (I hasten to add that this too is, of course, a formal argument and not intended to suggest a straightforward equivalence. While I have, over time, come around to the idea that straight male desire may be a legitimate option too, in the matter of Israel-related antisemitism, Team A is right and Team B is wrong, it is as simple as that.)

The Clinton chasm also helps explain why most of the (often heated) discussions about Labour antisemitism have been so pointless. It is important to grasp that the conduct of the many antisemites in and around the Labour Party in fact unites two seemingly contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to engage in the breaking of taboos, of consciously, intentionally and ostentatiously engaging in activities that others classify as antisemitic, is integral to the thrill of engaging in these activities. Yet at the same time, from their point of view, they are also being entirely genuine when they deny that their conduct is in any way antisemitic. They are indeed behaving just like Bill Clinton: they know full well that they are willfully missing the point and yet genuinely believe in the validity of their claim.

Why Team B has not Developed an Alternative to the IHRA Definition

Of course, if, instead of simply denying that their conduct is antisemitic, they were required to demonstrate that it is not antisemitic according to the standards of the IHRA definition, they would not have a leg to stand on. This helps explain the extraordinary ire the IHRA definition has drawn. It does exactly what it sets out to do: it establishes clear standards in a controversial field. I happen to think that the IHRA definition does what it says on the tin pretty well, but that is not really my point here. Pointing out that a particular form of conduct is illegal but should not be rarely causes people palpitations or convulsions or leads to the demand that the entire statute book should instantly be repealed. Analogously, there is really no reason why members of Team B should not be able to admit in a dispassionate manner that something is indeed antisemitic according to the IHRA definition even if, to their mind, it should not be. That way all parties involved would at least know that they are talking about the same thing, even if they interpret it differently.

It is telling that various members of Team B have undertaken considerable efforts to criticize and denounce the IHRA definition, but no broadly-based initiative has emerged to this day to develop and campaign in earnest for an alternative definition. Put simply, Team B thrives on muddying the waters and on insinuation. In this respect, simply by codifying a definitive set of standards, a clear-cut alternative to the IHRA definition taking into account the misgivings about the IHRA definition that various members of Team B have articulated would, from their point of view, be just as a harmful as the IHRA definition itself. Moreover, any attempt not just to accuse Team A and the IHRA definition of constantly drawing the line that divides perfectly innocent, legitimate criticism of Israel from Israel-related antisemitism in the wrong place, but to explain where they think that line should in fact be drawn, would likely be extremely illuminating for all parties. It would almost certainly throw into sharp relief what is palpable even now: that all too many on Team B think that denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in secure borders she is genuinely capable of defending, indeed, that even the demand that Israel should be “dismantled” altogether, has nothing to do with antisemitism. As long as it does not seem opportune to say this explicitly, chipping away at the IHRA definition, not of much in terms of what it actually prohibits but of what it might, despite expressly stating the exact opposite, conceivably be seen to prohibit, is the next best thing.

Consequences

Now, hand on heart: when did you last read or hear a contribution published in connection with a relevant controversy in which what was written or said genuinely added value to what you would already have known if you had been told no more than that the contributor in question belongs to Team A or Team B? I appreciate that I am threatening an important income stream for numerous experts and public intellectuals here, but imagine the time, effort and funds we could all save and invest in something more productive if everyone tempted to write or say something about a particular case of antisemitism would go beyond merely confirming that they are closer to Team A than Team B or vice versa only when they really have something to tell us that is not already encapsulated in that declaration; if we promised each other henceforth only to comment in detail if and when, say, a case is murky even by the standards of the IHRA definition (i.e., when there is something genuinely specific to the particular case that would otherwise go unsaid). In most cases, if I were on Team B, I could simply point out that a particular statement or activity certainly is antisemitic according to the IHRA definition but that, as is well known, I disagree with that definition. Only if and when I am convinced that the criteria of the IHRA definition are not being applied correctly would I need to go on to explain my concerns in detail. Conversely, the members of Team A can try to convince the members of Team B of the error of their ways until the cows come home. These efforts are not only entirely futile, they also risk lending unnecessary credibility to the stance taken by Team B. Of course, once again, on the formal level, the same holds true, from their point of view, in the opposite direction—again with the crucial distinction that Team A is right and Team B wrong.

If all you really want to do is to keep hanging the general comments on antisemitism that you already reiterated on the last seven thousand suitable and unsuitable occasions on any given hook that might present itself, why not post your comments once in an easily accessible location. That way, all you need to do when a new controversy erupts is remind the public that your comments are still available in said location. You don’t need to waste your time on pretending your comments have never been more pertinent than in this particular case. Those who agree with you don’t need to waste their time trying to find out whether you have suddenly said something new after all. Those who disagree with you don’t need to waste their time trying to find out whether you have suddenly changed your mind. None of us need to waste our time pretending we think we might change each other’s minds by interminably going round and round in circles. I can just about see how members of Team B might be comfortable with the current state of affairs. Those on Team A, however, assuming they take themselves seriously, must surely be far too worried about the very real threat of antisemitism to waste their time in this way.

Why, then, I hear you ask, don’t you yourself shut up? For once I have a truly simple answer: because I am in the process of establishing this blog as my one easily accessible location to which I will be able to point you in the next seven thousand instances in which there is nothing genuinely new to say.

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