Thursday, March 4th | 20 Adar 5781

December 9, 2019 6:51 am

A UK Paper and ‘The Trouble With Jews Today’

avatar by Simon Plosker


Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s chief rabbi, arrives to attend the National Service of Remembrance, on Remembrance Sunday, at The Cenotaph in Westminster, London, Nov. 10, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Simon Dawson.

In the run-up to the British general election, the UK media has, for the most part, been relatively sympathetic towards the Jewish community in the face of the Labour Party antisemitism issue.

There is one mainstream media outlet, however, that seemingly has no problem giving a platform to cranks and Jew-haters: The Independent.

An opinion piece in that paper by Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek was an appalling attack, not only on the British Jewish community, but on Jews in general:

“The trouble with Jews today.”

Yes, you read that correctly.

Not to mention, of course, that Jews have inhabited and have had historical roots in today’s Israel going back thousands of years themselves.

This is from a writer who engages in the rhetorical equivalent of stating “some of my best friends are Jews” before attacking them. Zizek makes sure to give himself immunity from accusations of antisemitism by claiming that he “of course, indisputably reject[s] antisemitism in all its forms.”

Except that he clearly doesn’t. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism includes: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.” Yet for him, Israel is “the trouble with Jews today.”

But Zizek is not working from a recognized definition of antisemitism, but his own warped view of what is antisemitic or not. According to him:

we should supplement the standard Israeli point that the (permissible) critique of Israeli policy can serve as a cover for the (unacceptable) antisemitism with its no less pertinent reversal: the accusation of antisemitism is often invoked to discredit a totally justified critique of Israeli politics. Where, exactly, does legitimate critique of Israeli policy become antisemitism? More and more, mere sympathy for the Palestinian resistance is condemned as antisemitic. Take the two-state solution: while decades ago it was the standard international position, it is more and more proclaimed a threat to Israel’s existence and thus antisemitic. [emphasis added]

The charge that accusations of antisemitism are made in bad faith to smear opponents of Israel and shut down legitimate debate over Israeli policies is a well-worn method of dismissing antisemitism and portraying those who attack Jews and Israel as the real victims.

As David Hirsh, an expert on left-wing antisemitism, points out:

This is a formulation which often appears in response to an accusation of antisemitism, which I have called The Livingstone Formulation (Hirsh 2007; 2010). It is a rhetorical device which enables the user to refuse to engage with the charge made.  It is a mirror which bounces back an accusation of antisemitism against anybody who makes it. It contains a counter-charge of dishonest Jewish (or “Zionist”) conspiracy.

As for Zizek’s accusation that Jews are proclaiming support for a two-state solution to be antisemitic, the mind simply boggles. The very real antisemitism is that which comes from those who support the end of Israel as a Jewish state in its entirety, like the antisemitism from some supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Attacking Britain’s Chief Rabbi

Zizek also calls into question the morality of UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, whose op-ed drew widespread attention:

Without mentioning Corbyn by name, the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis recently wrote in an article for the Times that “a new poison — sanctioned from the top — has taken root in the Labour Party.” He conceded: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote,” though went on to add: “When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.” I find this presentation of a political choice as a purely moral one ethically disgusting — it reminds me of how, decades ago, the Catholic Church in Italy did not explicitly order citizens to vote for Christian Democracy, but just said that they should vote for a party which is Christian and democratic. [emphasis added]

Chief Rabbi Mirvis called on all people of good moral standing to consider the issue of antisemitism in how they vote. Zizek’s criticism is similar to the belief of many Corbyn supporters that the antisemitism issue is merely a bad faith smear used by political enemies to damage the Labour Party.

Having claimed that antisemitism is deployed in bad faith, Zizek goes even further by claiming the same principle concerning the Holocaust:

When protests against the Israel Defense Forces’ activities in the West Bank are denounced as an expression of antisemitism, and (implicitly, at least) put in the same line as Holocaust deniers — that is to say, when the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralize any criticism of Israeli military and political operations — it is not enough to insist on the difference between antisemitism and the critique of particular measures of the State of Israel. One should go a step further and claim that it is the State of Israel that, in this case, is desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims, ruthlessly using them as an instrument to legitimize present political measures. [emphasis added]

This is an appalling insult.

Zizek may wish to consider that Holocaust denial has been one of the examples of antisemitism found among some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on social media. But it is not Israel or Jews who are abusing the memory of the Holocaust to justify Israeli policies. The real abuse is from those on the Corbynite left who consistently breach the IHRA working definition of antisemitism that refers to “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This is the real desecration of the memory of Holocaust victims: when Palestinians are falsely compared to victims of the Nazis.

Zizek concludes:

As Mirvis wrote, the soul of our nation is indeed at stake here — but also, the soul of the Jewish nation. Will Jews follow Finkielkraut and “take roots,” using their sacred history as an ideological excuse, or will they remember that ultimately we are all strangers in a strange land? Will Jews allow Israel to turn into another fundamentalist nation-state, or remain faithful to the legacy that made them a key factor in the rise of modern civil society? (Remember that there is no Enlightenment without the Jews.) For me, to fully support Israeli politics in the West Bank is a betrayal not just of some abstract global ethics, but of the most precious part of Jewish ethical tradition itself. [emphasis added]

Zizek is simply “othering” British Jews, questioning their soul and making them and Jews in general responsible for Israel — a state whose Jewish history is but an “ideological excuse.” It is Jews who may “allow Israel to turn into another fundamentalist nation-state” and it is the “Jewish ethical tradition” that is betrayed by Israeli policies.

Zizek may be able to dress up his bigotry in complicated philosophical language, but it is ultimately clear that, despite his own claims to the contrary, his piece contains clear examples of antisemitism.

A shocking discovery

That such antisemitism escaped the notice of The Independent’s editors becomes less surprising in light of HonestReporting’s discovery that Slavoj Zizek’s appalling opinion piece was likely edited or approved by Rivkah Brown, who according to her Twitter feed, started as The Independent’s new Senior Commissioning Editor only one day prior to the publication of the Zizek piece.

Judging by the tweet below, where she references editing Zizek’s content in the past, it appears that she is also responsible for his latest piece.

Fitting that the first thing I edited for @IndyVoices was Slavoj Zizek on antisemitism, and why the fight against it isn’t incompatible with the fight against Israeli occupation. Read it:

— Rivkah Brown (@RivkahBrown) December 3, 2019

According to her Twitter profile, Brown is also an activist for the radical Na’amod: British Jews Against the Occupation, an organization that, in May 2018, was responsible for a few dozen young Jews reciting Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, for fatalities in Gaza — whom a Hamas official had said mostly belonged to the terrorist organization.

Na’amod has also disrupted a StandWithUs UK pro-Israel conference, and organized protests outside the Board of Deputies’ headquarters, and at airports before flights to Israel for Birthright tours.

The Independent ‘Corrects’

Twenty-four hours later, as a result of the public exposure of Zizek’s piece by HonestReporting and others, The Independent amended the opinion piece, replacing the phrase “the trouble with Jews today” with “the trouble with the settlement project today.”

While The Independent’s usual modus operandi is to quietly amend articles without acknowledging the error, in this case, Zizek’s post now includes the following:

This article was amended on 5 December 2019. We acknowledge that an earlier version of this piece did not meet our own editorial standards.

While an acknowledgement that The Independent has been held to account and responded to the pressure is a positive, this still does not excuse the wider problems in the Zizek piece. This one offensive line has been sanitized, but it is still crystal clear what the original intention of Zizek’s piece was and still is.

Shame on The Independent for even publishing a piece of this nature.

Simon Plosker is Managing Editor of HonestReporting, the world’s largest grassroots organization monitoring anti-Israel media bias.

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