For several years I’ve been working to try and improve the civility of intra-Jewish debates over Israel. It hasn’t been easy work and I would not claim any clear victories. The issue is complex and so is the solution. I’ve been working on a book on the subject for a year now and it may take another year to finish.
But I think there are some ‘low hanging fruit’ – things that are relatively easy to do that would have a substantial impact. One of these is to desist from what I will call ‘argument outsourcing’. That is, rather than making a case for something yourself, pointing to someone else’s argument and treating it as the last word on the subject.
Argument outsourcing can be found on all points of the political spectrum but I will briefly highlight one particularly striking version of it: the use of the 2005 EUMC (European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) definition of antisemitism. You can download the full definition here.
I take no position here on what the EUMC definition says and how it should be applied. What I am interested in is how the EUMC definition has become the most commonly used one in UK pro-Israel circles. It is particularly relevant to debates on Israel as pro-Israel campaigners who draw on the definition claim that the definition classes anti-Zionism as anti-semitism – which clearly has big implications for how the boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable discourse on Israel are framed.
Using a particular definition of antisemitism is not problematic in and of itself. What is striking though is that the EUMC definition is often treated as the last word on the subject. The definition is seen as an absolute one as if simply pointing to it will end any argument. But I have rarely actually seen campaigners explain exactly why the EUMC definition is correct.
For instance, the pro-Israel CiFWatch blog has a page ‘How we define antisemitism’ that points to the EUMC definition as the correct definition. Although it goes into some detail as to how the EU and other bodies adopted the definition and although it explains what the definition says, nowhere do CiFWatch explain why the definition is correct on its own terms.
Another example: the pro-Israel campaigner Jonathan Hoffman recently published a criticism of Rabbi Danny Rich for, amongst other things, tolerating one-staters – and one-staters are by definition anti-semitic according to the EUMC definition. Again, the argument as to why this is the case is not made – it is outsourced to the EUMC.
I am not necessarily challenging the EUMC definition or how it is used. What I am suggesting is that it is often used in such a way that its validity is automatically assumed, as though that argument doesn’t need to be made. I would like to know why Jonathan Hoffman or CiFWatch believe the definition is correct and not simply with reference to what bodies or countries have adopted the definition. I want to hear it justified with reference to its content. I want to hear what they themselves actually believe.
Argument outsourcing is not just something that pro-Israel campaigners use. You see it among anti-occupation activists, for example, in the mantra-like references to the settlements being illegal. Again,this may or may not be the case – what I want to hear is why the occupation is wrong, not outsourcing to international law. Another example: the justification of BDS as ‘the Palestinians have called for it’. That is not a justification, it is outsourcing.
So what’s wrong with argument outsourcing anyway? The problem is that it prevents dialogue from occuring. When you exclusively use someone else’s definition or opinion to justify your beliefs, you are hiding what you yourself believe. You become a cypher, not a person, and no one can argue with a cypher. Argument outsourcing closes down dialogue before it even begins. It builds impenetrable walls that cannot be breached. It does not convince or seek to convince, it only defends.
The only way to really create a connection with someone – and convince them of your argument – is by owning what you yourself say. Stopping argument outsourcing might not solve conflicts over Israel, but it could certainly lead to a more productive debate.