The Jewish Chronicle asked us to write a piece about the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. We sent them a piece, but it was then edited quite significantly by the JC. Their email with the edit didn’t reach us and a version of the piece was published that we hadn’t written. This miscommunication did not have such serious consequences as the one in Romeo and Juliet, nevertheless, we are publishing here the version that we wrote. They also left David Seymour’s name off it, it was written by both of us. This is the directors’ cut:
In the early 2000s we saw that the antisemitism inherent in the movement to boycott Israeli universities had significant immunity to our society’s ordinary defences against racism. This was an antisemitism that could be embraced by ‘good’ people who thought of themselves as opponents of antisemitism. It spread from the academics and left wing activists into the heart of the Labour Party and so into British public life.
Our way of being academics does not require the maintenance of safe, scholarly detachment. We understood this movement, not only through our research and scholarship, but also because we were the ones who were leading the resistance to it.
We have been putting together a formidable challenge to the intellectual underpinnings of antisemitism in public life for decades. We built the frameworks of understanding that helped the Jewish community and its allies to see the threat of the Corbyn movement clearly.
In the wake of the defeat of Corbynism at the hands of the electorate, our political allies have been quite successful in driving antisemitism, and antisemites, out of the Labour Party. But the underlying ways of thinking that allowed Corbyn to be elected leader in the first place are still largely respectable in left, liberal and intellectual circles. Indeed the antisemitic movement, which had originally come from the campuses, has largely gone back to them for safety and to regroup. Many hundreds of people ‘learned’ from the experience of the Corbyn movement that between ‘us’ and ‘progress’ stands a formidable ‘Zionist’ obstacle.
There is a hostile environment in our universities to Jews, to scholars and students of antisemitism, and to anyone challenging antisemitic scholarship.
Today, many academic disciplines embrace and teach radical critiques of liberal democracy. Instead of thinking about what is wrong in the world and how to make things better, today’s one-sided ‘critical’ scholarship treats existing society as being unambiguously corrupt, and controlled by dishonest ‘elites’ who secretly order everything only in their own interests.
The Enlightenment values of knowledge, science and rigour, upon which universities are founded are often treated as though they themselves were at the very heart of the modern, global structure of domination and injustice.
The twentieth century totalitarian movements made antisemitic ideas and images of Jews into representations of the ‘enemies of the people’. Conspiracy fantasy tempts us with simple explanations and easy scapegoats. It is also driven by an unacknowledged appetite for the kind of conspiratorial power that it imagines is in the hands of others. Today, emotionally virulent fragments of older antisemitisms are available to those who are willing to pick them up and mould them into contemporary worldviews. In our time, those worldviews have the potential to gain significant traction.
Antisemitism is presented as liberational, while Jews and their Zionism are associated with oppression. This is how antisemitism came to be less suspect in academia than opposition to antisemitism. Although it is strongly denied, antisemitic ways of thinking are embraced by some at the highest scholarly and administrative levels in universities and they are licensed and tolerated across academia more widely.
Scholars of antisemitism are isolated and the cracks within which they operate are closing. There is no new generation coming through. Even Jewish Studies, Israel Studies, Holocaust Studies, Antisemitism Studies and Genocide Studies are in crisis. The material and moral pressures to accommodate to the antisemitic culture in academia are strong. Hannah Arendt observed that Jewish assimilation in a time of antisemitism means assimilating to antisemitism.
The wider fight against antisemitism is undermined if the universities are lost. Antisemitic worldviews are being taught as common sense to future generations of opinion formers. Some of the very people we would normally expect to rely on in the future to guard against antisemitism are, in the present, being corrupted by it.
The challenge of changing the intellectual weather is formidable. Our aim is nothing less than turning back the tide of a self-confident and sophisticated antisemitism, which is not afraid, which is convinced of its own virtue and which does not feel vulnerable.
The London Centre engages with scholars and students but it also offers to people who are not academic specialists the knowledge and arguments that they need to defend themselves against antisemitism.
The core business of the Centre is running research projects that bring together networks of academics and researchers from the UK and around the world. The purpose of the projects is to produce high quality work that changes how people think about antisemitism and that heals the areas of scholarship that are corrupted by antisemitism.
The battle against antisemitism is still there to be won in the arena of ideas. The importance of winning there cannot be overstated. If it is not won there, history tells us, we may yet have to fight antisemitism, again, on more conventional battlefields.
David Hirsh, Director
David Seymour, co-Director