On Palestine, Antisemitism, & Academic Silence

Below is the recording (with closed captions) and the transcript of a talk I gave on November 10th (2023), at a closed-door graduate student workshop in the Dept. of Philosophy at the University of Vienna (Austria).

To share the recording, please use the YouTube link: https://youtu.be/FS2EstkMjXg

Recording Transcript:

I’m supposed to talk about a problem from my doctoral research, but I’m not going to do that. Luckily we’ve already started talking about what I’m going to talk about. If necessary or if people prefer, I can talk about my doctoral research afterwards, but I’m going to talk about this first at least. I think it’s relevant to the spirit of the workshop, even if it’s not what my doctoral research is on. And I’m going to mostly read because otherwise I will get carried away. And you have to be careful about that.  

To be honest I haven’t been able to focus on my doctoral research for the last few weeks anyway so it would be difficult for me to present on it today. I have been, like most people, watching what many are now calling a genocide take place, day after day, watching it, witnessing, listening, reading articles and watching reports, emailing, organising, messaging, marching, arguing, thinking. And alongside this, at the same time, I have had to spend – or rather, waste – hours and hours trying to understand why I’m not supposed to talk about this, why, in Vienna, I am not supposed to organise, not supposed to march or shout or write or learn about it – why this is one thing where I’m not supposed to say what I see. I’m not supposed to say – this is wrong. And I’m certainly not supposed to say – this looks like a genocide. We all know what hangs over this, we’ve already mentioned it: anyone making any criticism of the actions of the Israeli government will be accused of antisemitism. And that is – rightly – a very serious allegation. We must, especially here – in a place where antisemitic atrocities are not nearly distant enough historically or geographically – we must be extremely vigilant in identifying and preventing antisemitism. The problem, here and now, is getting that right, and right now those stakes are very high. It is difficult to prevent something you can neither define nor recognise and as many, many Jewish scholars and organisations have pointed out, assuming that any and all criticism of Israeli state policies or actions is necessarily an expression of antisemitism is dangerous in at least two ways – first, it immunizes that state’s policies and actions from any criticism, and second, it makes it harder to identify and prevent actual cases antisemitism.  

Again and again in the past month, the University of Vienna has issued the statement that there is no room at this university for antisemitism, racism, etc. It issued the same statement while canceling a scheduled talk called “Palestine from a Feminist Perspective” last week, clearly implying that the talk – or the speaker – was antisemitic. So at this point we have to ask – what does the University of Vienna even mean by antisemitism? Where does the university stand on the Jerusalem Declaration? Or the 2018 open letter by over forty international Jewish organisations explicitly condemning equating antisemitism with criticism of Israeli government policies? Or the voices of countless Jewish scholars, academics, community leaders, and organisations who have been at pains to make this distinction in the past four weeks? Criticism of the Israeli government – or criticism of Israel itself – can be motivated by antisemitism – of course it can – just as criticism of the government of Saudi Arabia can be motivated by Islamophobia. Is it possible to criticise human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia without being Islamophobic? Clearly we can. I think we should be able to make the same distinction when we speak about Israel, and I don’t think this is a radical claim. The following are not radical claims either, although I find they begin to sound really radical where I am lately: Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation under international law – that’s not radical, that’s a quote from the UN Security Council. The 16-year Israeli siege of Gaza is illegal under international humanitarian law. In extensive, long-term reports, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli Jewish humanitarian organisation B’Tselem have all defined the conditions in Israel & occupied Palestine as apartheid – in fact, as Mehdi Hasan has pointed out in 2021, multiple Israeli government ministers have themselves described it as apartheid. Yet, to stand in the University of Vienna and say “Israel is an apartheid state” feels like a very dangerous thing to do. It’s a big word, apartheid, I know this. The question is whether we should be allowed to use it. As Hasan wrote in 2021, 

“You can, of course, agree or disagree, in good faith, with the claim that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. But it’s not antisemetic; apartheid is not an insult or a trope; it is a “crime against humanity” clearly defined under international law… It wasn’t anti-Christian to condemn South Africa for apartheid policies and practices in the 1980s; it isn’t anti-Jewish to condemn Israel for what many believe to be apartheid policies and practices today.” 

So what about genocide? I opened by saying we are watching a genocide. It’s a deeply emotive term – rendered even more so when used in this context because the formalization of its use and the current five-point UN definition of genocide grew out of Nazi extermination programs in World War Two. The primary association with the word genocide, for many people, may well be the unique horror of the Holocaust (or Shoah). Its use in the context of any Jewish community is understandably difficult – but this should again compel us to understand the difference between criticising the Israeli government and criticising or condemning Jewish people. These stakes are high. But, as with apartheid, genocide is a term with specific use in international law – one which is intended to help us identify a particular and especially egregious crime. So in 1946 the UN said:

“Genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups…; such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions represented by these human groups, …Many instances of such crimes of genocide have occurred when racial, religious, political and other groups have been destroyed, entirely or in part.”

The term genocide has since been applied in many different contexts – Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia, Darfur, Cambodia.  It is used by the UN and ICC based on the following five criteria: 

Specifying; “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 

(1) Killing members of the group; 

(2) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 

(3) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 

(4) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 

(5) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

An article titled A Textbook Case of Genocide was published by Jewish Currents on Oct. 13th. In it, Raz Segal, an Israeli genocide and Holocaust scholar, argues that – at that point, in mid-October – the Israeli siege of and bombardment of Gaza fulfilled the first three criteria for genocide – and further, that the intent to destroy was clearly stated by the Israeli government in advance. Thousands more civilians – among them, thousands of babies and children – have been killed since that article was written, and by now Raz Segal is far from the only one using this term: just yesterday, three human rights groups filed a petition with the ICC charging Israel with apartheid and genocide. Now, as with Mehdi Hasan’s comments on apartheid, you can, of course (in some countries), agree or disagree, in good faith, with the claim that Israel is guilty of the crime of genocide. Let’s have that conversation. But it’s not antisemetic to make that argument; genocide might be a highly emotive and contentious term, especially for Jewish communities, but – as with apartheid – it is not an insult or a trope; it is a crime clearly defined under international law

If those speaking on behalf of the University of Vienna cannot tell the difference between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of a government, if they do not endorse or understand the purpose and legitimacy of UN resolutions, if they reject reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and if they cannot understand the basics of international law, one wonders what qualifies them to run a university. They do not speak for me. I know they do not speak for many students, staff, and many colleagues at this institution – yet they have created an environment in which any attempt to object to the current, public, open massacre of thousands of civilians is rendered suspect. They canceled a talk on Palestine – by an academic reporting nothing but documented fact on Palestine – not only with the comment that no antisemitism would be tolerated at the university, and the obvious implication thereof – but that they would investigate how the event came to be planned and make sure it didn’t happen again. They rightly express sympathy for the relatives of those affected by Hamas attacks, but they say nothing about the relatives of the now more than ten thousand Palestinian civilians killed since then. They say nothing about the eleven (out of 14) universities in Gaza which have been bombed to rubble in less than a month – epistemicide, we know, is a part of genocide – no comment about the lives of our colleagues and students at those universities. This University is not at odds with the state of Vienna in any of this – it is on the same page. The ‘Feminist Perspectives on Palestine’ talk went ahead at CEU, and as we’ve already mentioned, the police arrived, warning they were there in case anyone made “incendiary statements”. Every week, our protests, marches and candlelight vigils are banned by the police. When they occur, they are reported in the media as being in support of Hamas – I’ve been there, every weekend, and they are not. In fact they are the only place in Vienna in the last month where I have not felt like I am losing my mind.  

I have spoken to students and academics in the past few weeks trying to understand the relative silence, trying to understand how people can speak and write publicly on other atrocities, other injustices, other forms of racism and colonialism and violence, but not on this. It has not been total silence – I am grateful for the very strong statement signed by staff and students at the Dept of Social & Cultural Anthropology at Uni Wien and their work organising the teach-in, as well as the petition from students at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and particularly the statement by and activism from some staff and students at CEU, especially the Gender Studies Dept, the open letter by south/south movement in support of those at CEU. They have all taken risks in speaking and organising and writing public statements, and those risks are increased without the support of their academic colleagues. Over the last few weeks, I have been told that people will not speak because they don’t want to offend their supervisors, they have a job opportunity they might lose out on, they don’t want to upset their friends – and all this, repeatedly, because: people will not speak because they will be portrayed as antisemitic – not that they believe calling for a ceasefire or objecting to Israeli government’s actions is antisemitic, but that it will be portrayed as antisemitic, and that this will affect their jobs, their relationships, their prospects. I appreciate those conversations and they have helped me understand a social and political climate which is very different to what I’m used to. I have been advised not to say genocide, not to say apartheid – not that the situation is not genocide or is not apartheid – only that I should not say it is. It has been difficult and confusing to hear this reasoning from academics in particular who are otherwise so well able to explain their positions and their reasoning. I don’t understand it – I don’t understand it. I do not want any job, any position, or any relationship which requires my complicity in genocide. Do we see two million people intentionally and explicitly denied food, water, electricity, fuel and medical supplies, and then bombed in hospitals and schools, nurses – families – journalists – bombed in refugee camps and ambulances, bombed while fleeing, bombed at home in their beds, do we see this and say nothing? Do we watch teenage boys in flipflops combing through rubble for the bodies of infants and worry about how our reputations will be affected if we say – this is wrong, this has to stop. Those who speak for the University of Vienna – those who speak for Vienna – have created an environment in which, I accept, many people are afraid to publicly speak or write in defense of Palestinian lives. I know the threat of censure, the threat of reputational attack is high. I accept also that I come from a vastly different historical and political background that no doubt makes it more difficult for me to understand how that threat of censure could be so effective, when this atrocity is right in our faces, when we have the power to do something about it. I admit – I accept that I don’t understand. But I feel we have a responsibility to speak.