Keith Kahn-Harris: ‘Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity’

Keith Kahn-Harris is in the somewhat unusual position of straddling both the Zionist and anti-Zionist camps; he remains on friendly terms with people whose views on this heated topic are strongly opposed.  As a natural fence sitter I was expecting to find this book congenial, and I certainly found it interesting and absorbing.

Group Identities

It opens with some reflections on ‘Humans, Politics and Identities’.  Kahn-Harris sees the tendency for people to latch on to group identities as a potentially destructive drive, but one that – given how deeply embedded they seem to be – we need to try to live with. A particular difficulty, he argues, is the way in which political ideologies are so bound up with our identities.

And however much we might wish to get along with bearers of diverse identities, it surely asks too much that we abjure any kind of criticism of the politics that they bring with them. (Preface)

For the purposes of this book the key political link is of course that which ties (many) Jews to Zionism.

Selective anti-racism

One of Kahn-Harris’s contentions is that people are prone to be selectively anti-racist – which in this context means that non-Jews choose the Jews they like and shun their intra-communal opponents.  I’ll return to this point – as a non-Jew myself – at the end of this review.

We sought out the minorities within minorities, the parts of these communities that we were politically comfortable with. We selected.’ (Introduction)

Kahn-Harris invites people to broaden their sympathies and try to understand segments of the community whose views they find more challenging.

The grey zone

Before reading this book I had wondered whether a helpful approach might be to accept that there are grey areas around antisemitism’s relationship with Zionism and Israel – or at least distinguish very carefully between someone who is minded to support BDS but passionately and actively opposes antisemitism, and someone who subscribes to conspiratorial views about Jews. In between these two points on the spectrum are those who do manage to avoid conspiracy theories but treat concerns about antisemitism with a chilly or even sneering indifference.

So I found Kahn-Harris’s own focus on trying to ‘open up this liminal zone’ (Chapter One) engaging, and his distinction between ‘consensus antisemitism’ (those about whose antisemitism there can be no debate) and ‘selective anti/semitism’ helpful.  The latter group – but not the former – seek out alliances with Jews and very actively oppose the label of antisemitism.  Kahn-Harris is keen not to demonise such people – themselves a varied group – because he thinks them capable of change.  However at the same time he acknowledges that they present a significant danger in their own right, and may embolden – or become – unambiguous antisemites.  (Chapter One)

The Holocaust – and Israel

In Chapter Two Kahn-Harris navigates the complexities of the Holocaust’s place in modern antisemitism – as something, for example, which simultaneously inhibits expressions of antisemitism and makes ‘today’s incarnations of antisemitism [more] difficult to spot in comparison.’ The third chapter explores the relationship between Israel and antisemitism, wryly noting that, as victims, ‘for a significant section of the left, Jews have been a terrible disappointment’.

They rejected the gift of absolute victimhood they were given. They learned the wrong lessons … Jews – of all people! – have proved to have been unworthy of the blessings of the Holocaust. And then they have the temerity to still insist that it is still possible for them to be victims, to suffer, today. (Chapter Three).

It is clear at this point that Kahn-Harris is trying to explain why a support for Zionism was, and is, utterly understandable, ‘whether or not it was desirable’.  Although many Harry’s Place might blench at that point (and one or two others), it’s an important aspect of his overall argument – and project. If we can understand another point of view, even if we don’t agree with it, we are more likely to discover points of commonality rather than doubling down on our own positions.  But although Kahn-Harris cautions against picking and choosing amongst Jews there seems some implicit if not explicit criticism of those on the extreme right and left of the spectrum, both of whom sometimes enable antisemitism in different ways.  I got the impression he simply wanted to encourage everyone to expand their idea of where the acceptable middle ground lies.

‘Whom Should We Listen to Now?

In Chapter Five, ‘Whom Should We Listen To Now?’, Kahn-Harris explores the feelings of hurt experienced both by Zionist Jews whose fears are recast as a dishonest attempt to silence criticism of Israel, and by anti-Zionists who are sure that the accusations of antisemitism they face are made in a cynically dishonest spirit.  He concludes that we should assume good faith except where the counter-evidence is overwhelming.  Here, as elsewhere, he tries to unpick some knotty questions.  For example, while he acknowledges that you never hear anyone say that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, it can sometimes seem that some are rather too quick to accuse Israel’s critics of being obsessive or selective, even of enabling antisemitism.  Yet he also suggests that, in such cases, we shouldn’t rush to accusations of bad faith. He encourages empathy by precise analysis of exactly why this is such a sensitive issue:

The spectre of a world turned on its head is one of the reasons why even the most liberal Zionists mistrust demands by pro-Palestinian activists for a one-state solution and an end to the Jewish right of return. However much those who argue for this (particularly those who are not Palestinian) might talk of replacing Israel with a secular, binational state where there will be no etho-religious privelge … Zionist Jews often hear this as a demand for (counter-) ethnic cleansing or genocide, as a direct physical threat.

‘Sullen Solidarity’

Although there was much about Kahn-Harris’s approach that I liked, I did find the closing section a challenge. Addressing the implied anti-Zionist reader, he seems to suggest that only the most extraordinary feat of what he terms ‘sullen solidarity’ will enable them to understand their opponents.

One way of containing conflict would be to reconceptualise anti-racist politics as the struggle for the right of minorities to be hateful.

I really struggled with this idea. I can’t find anything ‘hateful’ about liberal Zionism. Kahn-Harris had already explained so clearly why many Jews feel uneasy about expressions of anti-Zionism even if they are themselves vocal critics of Netanyahu. So I wasn’t sure why he felt the need to invite such a very grudging tolerance – to acknowledge that some readers might find Zionists not just hateful but even ‘the most loathsome’.

I much prefer the formula of ‘minimal civility’ which Kahn-Harris also uses. This reminded me of a moment from Marlon Solomon’s great show ‘A Lizard’s Tale’ in which he draws attention to the impasse whereby some anti-Zionists and Zionists are implacably convinced the other group is unambiguously racist. If people could just dial that back a bit – reframe in terms of an unintended racist impact, or some racist strands – that would seem a start.  Kahn-Harris also appeals to pragmatism and self-interest too much for my taste – I’d favour an invitation to understand the perspective of the other ‘side’ because there is genuine complexity to this debate, not (primarily) for instrumentalist reasons. However I did like the point that the anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists were harming their own cause in a similar way to those who go on about ‘creeping shariah’.

To conclude (nearly), Strange Hate is perceptive, witty and genuinely challenging. Although Kahn-Harris is an academic this is very much written for the general reader and is also a highly personal book. I really recommend it – and now also want to read his earlier Uncivil War.

Further reflections

That was the end of the review proper, but here are a few further thoughts on what perhaps seemed missing. It would have been useful to hear more about exactly who – to invoke the title of Chapter Five – we should listen to.  Presumably Kahn-Harris isn’t suggesting we should listen to Atzmon or the JDL.  But who exactly within, say, the JVL/JVP bit of the spectrum should we attend to – or dismiss? On several occasions he makes explicit or implicit links with people’s attitude to Muslims. Here too he is isn’t fully explicit about how far our tolerance should stretch. He briefly indicates a disapproval of the far-right tendency to lionise figures such as Raheem Kassam; that’s an easy target –  but should we listen to Quilliam – or MEND – or both?

For me the book encouraged further reflections on these (imperfect) parallels between dissident voices within the Muslim community, including ex-Muslims of course, and non- or anti-Zionist Jews.  Thus when Keith Kahn-Harris goes on to describe as racists those who identify ‘minorities, or minorities within minorities, who could not be redeemed’, I paused.  Given that I think anyone who wants to deport people because of their skin colour, or not allow Muslims to hold public office, is beyond the pale – I see no problem in thinking that those who want entire groups of people (apostates, homosexuals) put to death are still worse – ditto anyone who admires Baruch Goldstein.

It seems to me to be impossible and morally untenable to defend absolutely everyone on the spectrum of ex/Muslim  opinion or anti/Zionist opinion, although you could certainly oppose bigoted and racist discourse, even when targeted at individuals you strongly disagree with, as that discourse is wrong full stop.  (For example, even if one is anti-anti-Zionist one should certainly defend Jewish anti-Zionists from the antisemitic attacks of Gilad Atzmon and Oren Ben-Dor.)  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty in Keith Kahn-Harris’s argument I can agree with  – for example, his assertion that some on the right only defend Jews against racism, while some on the left ‘attack Jews and no other minority’.  (Introduction) or with his criticism of those on the right who profess to love Israel but easily slip into antisemitic tropes.

Returning to the idea that people are selectively anti-racist in choosing ‘sides’ within the Jewish – or Muslim – community.  It seems impossible to avoid doing this, to some degree.  I could easily plot exactly where my own views/allegiances fall on both the Jewish and ex/Muslim spectrum of opinion and where my tolerance thresholds on either side start to falter.  I imagine pretty much everyone can.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t condemn racist discourse or attacks against those whose views we can’t stand.

Finally – you might enjoy reading this.