Category Archives: Middle East/North Africa/Turkey

Being Jewish After Balfour: The 1917 Revolution

Date: Thursday 23 November 2017

Time: 7-8pm

Price: Free with Museum entry

Categories: talks

In this talk, Dr James Renton will discuss how the Balfour Declaration transformed what it meant to be a Jew in the world. Rather than a story of Jewish empowerment, he will argue that this revolution was shaped by the interests and power of imperial states and a global political system. At its heart, the talk will grapple with the controversial question of how much control do Jews have over their own identity?

In October 1917, only a minority of Jews believed in Zionism, and many were strongly opposed. Jews who were desperate to be accepted as loyal citizens in the countries that they called home were horrified by the idea of a Jewish nation. Even those who were indifferent to Zionism shared the mainstream assumption that the movement was a utopian dream. This situation changed overnight with the Balfour Declaration- an event that permanently altered the politics of being a Jew.

Dr James Renton is the author of The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918, and co-editor with Ben Gidley of Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story? He is Reader in History at Edge Hill University and Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute.

Advertisements

Aleppo, the Mediterranean: Humanity in dark times

I am thrilled to have had a piece published in the brilliant new online magazine Wildcat Dispatches, entitled “Who is Allowed to be Human? ‘Bare Life’ in Aleppo and on the Mediterranean“. I wrote this very quickly and very angrily. It’s about the stripping of biographical life away from so many people in our world, drawing on Arendt and Agamben. Here’s the first section, which I entitled “The Musselmann” (readers of Primo Levi will know that is the term was used in the concentration camps to refer to the drowned, the walking dead).

In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith describes watching a film of a boat full of refugees being bombed by a helicopter “somewhere in the Mediterranean”. A “middleaged woman who might have been a jewess” sits in the bow with a little boy in her arms, screaming and hiding his face in her chest; she covers him with her body “as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him”. The party members cheer as the boat explodes.

Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Orwell and his readers would have seen, on newsreels in the cinema, the harrowing images of barely alive survivors of liberated camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald; of groups of stateless ‘Displaced Persons‘ drifting across Europe for years after the war ended; of boats full of Jews in the Mediterranean denied ports because of the fear of contagion or that they might be carrying terrorists, or sunk by British forces to prevent them reaching Palestine.

These camps and boats are the images invoked by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his concept of “bare life”: zoological life denuded of humanity through the state’s violence. He drew on Hannah Arendt, who had herself experienced internment as a refugee and had written in 1958 that “The chief characteristic of [the] specifically human life […] is that it is itself always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story, establish a biography […] bios, as distinguished from mere zoé”. Eric Santner names zoé stripped of bios as “creaturely life”, when human life “assumes the cringed posture of the creature”.

In the last few years, we have seen many – far too many – examples of such violently imposed creaturely life. Globally, well over 7,000 migrants– maybe as many as 10,000– have died trying to cross borders in 2016, including nearly 5,000 in the Mediterranean. On the route from Libya to Italy, one migrant dies for every 47 that make it. We have grown used to seeing images of people crammed into boats, or bodies stranded on beaches, but we rarely hear their names.

In Syria, whence many of Europe’s refugees are fleeing, the government has besieged rebel communities for five years, using starvation as a form of warfare; residents have struggled to maintain a liveable, biographical life as barrel bombs fall from helicopters day and night. The UN long since gave up counting the dead – when the toll reached a quarter of a million in 2014. In the latest phase of the war, we have watched – or, more often, turned away from – families in an East Aleppo reduced to rubble, sleeping in the snow before being packed onto buses by their aggressors and transported to unknown destinations.

READ THE REST.

I strongly recommend you spend time with the rest of Wildcat Dispatches, including the Wildcat Statement on Aleppo, Sarah Keenan’s “Another Refugee Dies at the Hands of the Australian Government“, Emma Patchett “On forced evictions and a never-ending winter for the Roma in France“, Gavan Titley’s “Filter Bubble – When Scepticism of the Mainstream Media Becomes Denial of Atrocity” and Mark Boothroyd’s “Aleppo Falls, and Humanity Falls With It“.

wildcat

 


James Renton: Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are Dynamic Phenomena

At Promosaik blog:

by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik e.V. – My interview with Dr James Renton

Dr James Renton is Reader in History at Edge Hill University, UK, and co-editor, with Ben Gidley, of Antisemitism and Islamophobia: A Shared Story?, which is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

Milena Rampoldi: How would you define anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Which are the common aspects, what are the main differences between them?

James Renton: At base, we can use the terms anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as straight forward labels for anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms. But can we offer a fixed definition of these two fields of prejudice? The histories of the terms themselves tell us something of value in this connection. Within these stories, we find helpful insights into the complex relationship between the two: their differences, similarities, and, significantly, connections. It is essential, however, that any such discussion of this subject acknowledges that European ideas about Jews and Muslims, about Judaism and Islam, do not stand still. They are dynamic, like any field of human thought. We must not treat them as fixed prejudices that operate outside of time, or indeed place. Certainly, both racisms possess very powerful continuities, which are hugely important. But the interplay between these underlying structures of thought and the dynamism of cultural, political, social, and economic change must not be ignored.

The word ‘anti-Semitism’ was invoked at the end of the nineteenth century, at a time in which the pseudo-science of race predominated in European political thought. Jews and Judaism were at the forefront of Europe’s imagined political problems in this period— or Questions to use the terminology of the day— that demanded solutions. The process of Jewish emancipation (incomplete as it was) in central and Western Europe became a focus of ire in these zones as societies grappled with profound economic and political crises and transformation: from depression and warfare in Europe (particularly Germany’s defeat of France in 1870) to concomitant escalating conflict between European imperial states over resources and territory in Africa and Asia.

READ THE REST


Miriam Elman: Cancelled Southampton anti-Israel conference was academic fraud

A piece in Legal Insurrection, by Miriam Elman (associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where she is a research director in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration), ends with a quote from me: Continue reading


Thoughts on the forthcoming Southampton Conference

I wrote this piece for Engage – read the original here. Scroll to the bottom for some updates.

In the last decade or more, working in British universities, I have witnessed the growth of a zeitgeist in which antisemitism is not taken seriously by people who, in every other way, would be regarded as exemplary anti-racists. It has become common currency among many anti-racist academics to claim that allegations of antisemitism are made in bad faith, that such allegations are a way of closing down criticism of Israel – a manoeuvre my former colleague David Hirsh has aptly named “the Livingstone formulation”. Continue reading


Fifty days in the summer: Gaza, political protest and antisemitism in the UK

The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism has published a report they commissioned me to write.

This is the opening page:

On 12 June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were abducted in the West Bank, against a backdrop of heightened tension between the Israeli state and Palestinian forces, including a renewal of settlement-building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The abduction was followed by days of escalating violence, including a massive Israeli policing operation in the West Bank, the murder of a Palestinian teenager after the bodies of the kidnapped Israelis were found, and increasing numbers of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. A series of Israeli air strikes on targets in Gaza on the night of 30 June-1 July marked the start of sustained Israel’s military engagement, and Operation Protective Edge was launched on 8 July, comprising initially of airstrikes on targets associated with rocket fire (with around 200 people killed in the strikes), followed by ground engagement a week later. De-escalation began on 3 August, with Israel withdrawing ground troops from Gaza, and an open-ended ceasefire concluded this round of the conflict on 26 August. In total, over 2100 Palestinians were killed (with estimates of civilians ranging between 50% and 76% of the losses), along with 66 Israeli combatants, 5 Israeli civilians and 1 Thai national.

There were demonstrations against Israel’s prosecution of the conflict across the world, including several in the UK, as well as other manifestations of protest, such as public calls for and acts of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. There were some reports of antisemitic content in some of these demonstrations, against a broader context in which antisemitic incidents spiked dramatically. Over 130 antisemitic were recorded by the Community Security Trust (CST) in July, making it the highest monthly total since January 2009 (a previous period of war in Gaza and Israel’s Operation Cast Lead).

This short report examines the 2014 protests, exploring the extent and degree of antisemitism in the anti-Israel protests, as well as the reporting of this antisemitism and its impact on the Jewish community. It focuses in particular on the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge.

The research questions which this report attempts to address are:

  • What were the predominant discourses in the UK protests relating to Operation Protective Edge?

  • Were antisemitic discourses present? If so, how prevalent were they?

  • Are UK protests relating to Operation Protective Edge comparable in scale and in discourse to protests relating to other conflicts?

  • How do these issues relate to mainstream and Jewish media reporting on the conflict and on the demonstrations?

  • How do these issues and their media representation affect Jewish feelings about antisemitism?

My report was one of a series of sub-reports which are also available on the APPGAA’s website. These sub-reports were drawn on in the APPGAA’s own report and recommendations.

For the purposes of shameless self-promotion, here are extracts from the report which cite me: Continue reading


Understanding foreign fighters

This is a short version of my latest COMPAS blog post. Read the whole original here.

This summer, it emerged that a young woman brought up near where I live in Lewisham, South London, had travelled to Syria to join ISIS. I spent some time reading her Twitter interactions with other young British women with ISIS ion Syria and Iraq. Most of the Twitter accounts are now deleted, but on the whole they were little different from any tweets by any South London teenagers: written in the familiar shorthand of social media conversation (“LOL”, “c u l8er”), accounts of shopping trips, mentions of best friends, complaining when the wi-fi was poor, comments on the weather. But the Lewisham woman’s profile picture was of an infant boy, presumably her son, holding an AK-47. Sparsely interspersed among the banal chitchat, were casual references to meeting Yazadi slave women or to beheadings. And, in one of the last posts before the account went offline:

Any links 4 da execution of da journalist plz. Allahu Akbar. UK must b shaking up haha. I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorist

Foreign fighters in ISIS and other jihadi groups are regularly reported in the news media, and our politicians have been increasingly talking tough about them. But what do we really know about them, about their profiles and motivations?

muslim militantsNovember’s COMPAS Breakfast Briefing addressed these questions. Our experts were Rachel Briggs, a Senior Policy Analyst with our Breakfast Briefing partner, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and Peter Neumann, a Professor of Security Studies at Kings College London, and the founding director there of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). The evidence was based on a series of important and innovative research projects at ISD and ICSR (listed at the end of this post), using social media analysis and face-to-face encounters with foreign fighters to build up a rich picture of their actions and their networks.

As is our usual practice, the oral briefings are podcast on the COMPAS site, while the discussion afterwards was under Chatham House rules. In this blogpost, I briefly summarise the key points from the briefings, and then discuss some of the wider issues touched on in the discussion, before finishing with links to information on ICSR’s and ISD’s work in this field. You can listen to the podcast here. Continue reading


A reply to Douglas Carswell: Not actually why the British left hates Israel

DissentWith Douglas Carswell in the news today for winning UKIP its first parliamentary seat after his defection from the Conservative party, I dug out something I wrote about him in 2010 for Dissent. However, I noticed that when Dissent upgraded its site, all the punctuation and formatting on old blogposts went funny, so I’m re-posting it here, in the form in which I submitted it to them with a couple of small copy edits. I also added in a sentence (italicised) in the final paragraph, making it marginally more relevant to the UKIP bandwagon on to which Douglas Carswell has recently jumped. I’ll eventually re-post all my other Dissent posts here too.

I have no doubt that certain respectable forms of antisemitism, disguised as hatred of Israel, are endemic in large sections of the British left. This phenomenon needs exposing, and requires explanation, especially given the left’s earlier history at the forefront of the struggle against antisemitism and, indeed, against all forms of racism.

The explanation given by Tory MP, Daily Telegraph Briton of the Year 2009 and blogger Douglas Carswell, however, is not of much help. He offers his theory In a Jewish Chronicle op ed, “Why the British left hate Israel”. The first part of his answer is the left’s reverence for internationalism or, as he calls it, “supranationalism”, in which anti-national values such as universal jurisdiction and global forms of justice are given precedence over the nation-state. Israel, he says, is hated because it is such a stark example of national self-determination in a globalising world.

At first glance, this argument is compelling. There is a strong streak of internationalism on the left, best exemplified by Rosa Luxemburg, who, despite her Jewish roots, wrote that “there can be no special little corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel myself at home in the wide world, everywhere there are clouds, birds and trees”. However, the mainstream of the left has always supported national self-determination too: Marx was a champion of Polish and Irish nationhood, and national rights were a key plank of Lenin’s worldview.

In fact, it is the section of the left that has furthest extended this pro-nationalist tendency where hatred of Israel burns the brightest: the so-called “anti-imperialist” left, for whom Arab nationalism, Serbian nationalism, Venezuelan nationalism and indeed more or less any nationalism apart from Jewish nationalism are accorded sacred status. For the “anti-imperialists”, national self-determination is an absolute right – just not for the Jews. The anti-Zionism of the “anti-imperialist” left goes against the grain of Luxemburg’s universalism just as much as the ultra-nationalism of the Zionist right does. We need a different explanation for Israel-hatred.

Luckily, therefore, Carswell switches direction at this point. “The contemporary left,” he writes, “appears to meander behind the 18th-century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The founding father of cultural relativism, Rousseau contended that the primitive and pre-industrial were more noble than advanced Western society.” Again, superficially appealing: large sections of the left subscribe to various forms of cultural relativism which forgive all sorts of oppressive practices if those practices are committed in the name of “culture” or “faith”. Israel is hated, Carswell asserts, because it demonstrates the superiority of Western values, and therefore refutes cultural relativism. (He doesn’t explicitly say that Arabs are savage, but the implication is clear.)

However, although it is literally twenty years since I read Rousseau, this whole claim didn’t ring true for me, and not just because in my two decades on the left I have never heard anyone refer to Rousseau in a political conversation. Nor because I don’t see how Rousseau, who lived before the industrial revolution, could have preferred pre-industrial society to his own. Rousseau, in fact, did not use the term “noble savage”, but he did see humanity as innately moral, based on our universal human capacity for sympathy. Although Rousseau’s ideas have not been that influential on the British left, the broader Enlightenment insistence on universal values and natural rights is at the heart of the left’s historical project of social justice and human rights.

The point is not that Carswell is ignorant about Rousseau (knowledge of eighteenth century philosophy has never been among my criteria for judging parliamentarians); nor that he claims a knowledge he evidently does not possess (although intellectual honesty is a significant virtue in an MP).

The point is that the left’s Enlightenment roots once predisposed it towards universal (or, to use Carswell’s term, supranational) values. Nationalism is in fact one of the worst forms of cultural relativism: loyalty to the nation can be inimical to loyalty to the higher value of humanity, and nationalism can justify any crime so long as it is perpetrated for one’s own nation. That is why the “anti-imperialist” left, with its vicarious nationalism, betrays the universal values that are the true heritage of the left. In other words, the “anti-imperialist” left mirrors the retreat to nationalism of the anti-EU, anti-human rights and anti-universalist right. It is by recovering universal values – not by returning to nineteenth century nationalism, nor by seeing Israel’s neighbours as ignoble savages – that we can take a stand against the new forms of intolerance that mar some sections of the left.


Borderline Views: Critical friends of Israel

Article published in Jerusalem Post last year:

By DAVID NEWMAN LAST UPDATED: 08/02/2010 20:5

Extract:

MUCH OF the renewed pro-Israel lobbying in the UK has largely been as a response to the growth of anti-Israel and, in some cases anti-Semitic, sentiments throughout the UK, of which the proposed academic boycotts (largely unsuccessful) is but one indication. This ties in with the sentiments expressed in the recently published book on contemporary Anglo-Jewry by Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley, entitled, Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today. The authors argue that whereas thirty years ago, the Anglo-Jewish community acted out of a position of security, this has changed dramatically and that the present situation is reflected in growing feelings of insecurity. The authors imply that, while incidents of anti-Semitism have definitely been on the increase in recent years, it is nowhere near as bad as some of the Jewish newspapers and headlines suggest. But Peres’s remarks go a long way to expressing how British anti-Semitism is viewed in Israel and has inflamed the debate within Britain and the local Jewish community. This growing feeling of insecurity among some elements partially explain the significant growth in the numbers of young families who are leaving the UK for Israel – in the past almost all aliya has been a result of the positive desire to live in Israel and contribute to the Jewish state, while today much of the present growth in aliya is due – for the first time – to a growing sense of insecurity brought on by the increase in anti-Israel sentiment. The Nefesh B’Nefesh organization, which facilitates aliya from the Western world, has recently increased its full-time staff who deal with olim from the UK to meet the increased demand for their services.