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The Left and the Jews: Time for a Rethink


A shorter version of this talk was delivered as a contribution to a panel discussion on ‘The Left and Jews in Britain Today’ held at the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, on 3 November 2015. The other speakers were  Lesley Klaff of Sheffield Hallam University and UK Lawyers for Israel; David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialist Group and Jews for Jeremy, and Nadia Valman of Queen Mary, University of London and Independent Jewish Voices. To listen to the full panel discussion, go to the Podcast at the Pears Institute website.

When we talk about the Jews and the UK left we are talking about a relationship-in-crisis. Our questions tonight: What went wrong? Can it be rescued?

Let me begin with some pre-emptive remarks.

First, I am better placed to talk about the Left than the Jews. Although I probably spend more time with Jews and in Synagogues than many in the room, I am not Jewish. But I am a person of the Left and have been since the late 70s when I was a teenage volunteer in Days of Hope radical bookshop in Newcastle (or Haze of Dope as some called it).

Second, I do not think the left in the UK should be uncritical of Israeli policy. The Left in Israel is not, so why should we be?

Third, despite some recent ‘polls’ and headlines, I don’t think British Jews are about to start hiding in their cellars.

Professionals who deal with antisemitism do not see a wave of popular antisemitism but rather three distinct political antisemitisms; on the dwindling far right; in parts – I stress parts – of the British Muslim community; and in parts – again, I stress parts – of the Left.

It’s this strand of distinctively left-wing hostility to Jews that I want to make some remarks about tonight. It has never been the dominant strand of opinion on the Left, and it is not so today; not by a long chalk. But it has always existed, it is growing today, and it must be part of any account of the breakdown in the relationship between Jews and the Left.

It was called the ‘socialism of fools’ in the 19th century.

It became an ‘anti-imperialism of idiots’ in the 20th century.

And it takes the form of a wild, demented, unhinged form of anti-Zionism – not mere ‘criticism of Israeli policy’ – that demonises Israel in the 21st century.

Part 1: The Socialism of Fools

Let’s begin with a short ‘who said this?’ quiz.

Who said, ‘The whole Jewish world constitutes one exploiting sect, one people of leeches, one single devouring parasite closely and intimately bound together not only across national boundaries but also across all divergences of political opinion.’? That was the 19th century anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin.

Who wrote, ‘Whoever fights against Jewish capital … is already a class-fighter, even if he does not know it … Strike down the Jewish capitalists, hang them from the lamp posts!’? That was the communist Ruth Fischer, a leading figure in the German Communist Party in the early 1920s.

Who said, ‘Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumours of war circulate and men’s minds are distraught with fear of change and calamity, you may be sure that a hooked-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbances.’ Well that was an editorial in The Labour Leader, organ of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1891.

I could go on. Trust me, these quotes are not aberrations. Read Steve Cohen’s seminal work That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic, for the entire sorry story about left-wing antisemitism. (It’s available at the Engage site.)

But that is ancient history, you might say. What about today?

Well, left-wing antisemitism never went away. It became the ‘anti-imperialism of idiots’ in the last third of the 20th century, when vicious, well-funded and long-running anti-Zionist campaigns were conducted by the Stalinist states, in alliance with the authoritarian Arab states and parts of the Western New Left.

Those campaigns laid the ground for the form taken by left-wing antisemitism today — I call it antisemitic anti-Zionism.

Antisemitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism. In short, that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment, and so on.

Antisemitic anti-Zionism has three components: a programme, a discourse, and a movement.

First, antisemitic anti-Zionism has a political programme: not two states for two peoples, but the abolition of the Jewish homeland; not Palestine alongside Israel, but Palestine instead of Israel.

Second, antisemitic anti-Zionism is a demonising intellectual discourse (as I outline in my chapter in Gabe Brahm’s and Cary Nelson’s book, The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel). The Left is imprisoning itself within a distorting system of concepts: ‘Zionism is racism’; Israel is a ‘settler-colonialist state’ which ‘ethnically cleansed’ the ‘indigenous’ people, went on to build an ‘apartheid state’ and is now engaged in an ‘incremental genocide’ against the Palestinians.

And there is the ugly phenomenon of Holocaust Inversion – the deliberate and systematic Nazification of Israel in street placards depicting Netanyahu as Hitler, in posters equating the IDF and the SS, in cartoons portraying Israelis as Nazis, and even in the language of intellectuals.

Third, antisemitic anti-Zionism is a presence within a global social movement (the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS movement) to exclude one state – and only one state – from the economic, cultural and educational life of humanity: the little Jewish one.

And this is the real concern about Jeremy Corbyn. Not that he indulges in antisemitism himself, but that he has a record of indulging the antisemitism of others when it comes wearing an ‘Israel’ badge. And these days, it almost always does.

For example, Corbyn defended the vile antisemitic Palestinian Islamist Raed Saleh. Even though Saleh’s murderous Jew-hatred was a matter of public record (hell, a matter of court records, come to that) Corbyn called Saleh was ‘an honoured citizen who represents his people extremely well’ and invited him to take tea on the terrace of the House of Commons. Mind you, not many on the Left could rouse themselves to object to Saleh. Mehdi Hassan, then the Political Editor of The New Statesman, argued that the criticism of Salah was an example of the media’s ‘lazy and simplistic demonisation of Muslims.’

Today is springtime for left-wing antisemitic anti-Zionism.

We have a left-wing poet, Tom Paulin, who compares the Israeli Defence Forces to the Nazi SS.

We have a left-wing Church of England vicar, Stephen Sizer, who links to an article saying the Jews did 9/11, and then says, anyway, prove that they didn’t.

We have a left-wing comedian, Alexei Sayle, who jokes that Israel is ‘the Jimmy Saville of the nations.’

Jenny Tonge, a left-leaning peer of the realm and would-be Corbynista, demands an enquiry into whether the rescue mission sent by Israel to Haiti had a secret agenda of harvesting organs for Jews in Israel.

We have trade unions breaking links with Israel and only Israel, left-wing protestors shouting down the Israeli theatre troupe at The Globe, and only the Israeli group.

Beinazir Lasharie, a Labour councillor in Kensington and Chelsea shared a video on Facebook claiming that ISIS is run by the Israeli secret service, and another one saying that she had heard ‘compelling evidence’ that Israel is behind ISIS. ‘I’ve nothing against Jews … just sharing it!’ she wrote. Antisemitic anti-Zionism never has anything ‘against the Jews,’ you see. (The Labour Party has since suspended Lasharie, pending an investigation.)

There is relentless left-wing intellectual incitement, too. It has turned some of our universities into madhouses.

Ilan Pappe says US policy in the region is ‘confined to the narrow route effectively delineated … by AIPAC.’

Yitzhak Laor claims that IDF ‘death squads’ are guilty of ‘indiscriminately killing,’ and of acts of ‘sadism,’ including ‘mass starvation.’

Omar Barghouti claims Israel has an ‘insatiable appetite’ for ‘genocide and the intensification of ethnic cleansing.’

Yehuda Shenhav in his book Beyond the Two-State Solution, claims Israel is ‘an aggressive war machine,’ seeking ‘the annihilation of the Palestinian people.’

The introduction to Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe’s book On Palestine – currently prominently displayed in our high street bookstores – spreads the lie that that in 2014 Israel was engaged in the ‘systematic carpet bombing of an entire population’.

What can we say about each of these examples?

Each is self-consciously ‘left-wing’, broadly defined. Each is ‘intellectual’ in the Gramscian sense of being informed by a world-view. And that world view is found in the murky borderlands where a modern anti-Zionism of a particularly excessive and obsessive kind co-mingles easily with classical antisemitic tropes, images and ideas.

How can we explain the breakdown of the relationship?

The occupation is a big part of the crisis in the relationship between the Jews and the Left, of course. Whatever can be said about the self-defensive character of the Six-Day war in 1967, or about the serious security concerns that make Israel unwilling to simply walk out of the West Bank without an agreement, or about the actual reasons for the rejection of the Israeli peace proposals at the Camp David and Annapolis talks, one brute fact remains – and for most people it’s the only fact that matters, I get that – the Palestinians do not have a state or a vote and pretty soon it will be 50 years since 1967.

But that isn’t the whole story by any means.

The Left also needs to think harder about our relationship to a couple of our own values – assimilation and universalism. We need to understand better how we have misused those values in our understanding of Israel and the Jews and, as a result, have misshapen our relationship to Zionism as a project and Israel as a state.

What do I mean?

In the late 19th century, most of the Left felt that assimilation was the only acceptable Jewish response to rising antisemitism. For example, Lenin – setting up the ‘Good Jew / Bad Jew’ dichotomy that has been dear to the Left ever since – wrote that ‘the best Jews have never clamored against assimilation.’ Many on the Left disapproved of the survival of Jewishness – of the Jews as a people with the right to national self-determination as opposed to individuals with civil rights.

The Left hoped to dissolve Jewish peoplehood in the solvent of progressive universalism. The proletariat, understood as the universalist class par excellence, was to make a world revolution that would solve ‘the Jewish question’ once and for all, ‘in passing’.

But this left-wing universalism was always ‘spurious’ as Norman Geras put it, because it singled out the Jews as ‘special amongst other groups in being obliged to settle for forms of political freedom in which their identity may not be asserted collectively.’ ‘Jews,’ Geras noted, ‘must be satisfied, instead, merely with the rights available to them as individuals.’

And yet, in the 19th century and the early 20th century, many European Jews were zealots for both universalism and assimilation; it was the name of their desire too. (Speaking personally, I wish history had gone that way.)

But here’s the thing. World history went another way and Jewish history went with it. However, the Left did not get the memo. That’s the other explanation for the crisis in the relationship of the Left and the Jews today.

This is the way that history went: the failure of the European socialist revolution, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the unprecedented transformation of the assault upon the Jews in the form of the Shoah, an industrial-scale genocide in the heart of Europe, the expulsion of the Jews from the Arab lands, and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism and antisemitism. All this left the appeal of assimilationism and universalism in tatters.

In response, Jews insisted on defining their own mode of participation in modernity and in universal emancipation: support for Zionism and a homeland for the Jews; the creation of Israel, a nation-state in a world of nation-state. Whether they moved to Israel or not, that was the choice of all but a sliver of world Jewry. And that remains the case today.

Crucially, parts of the Left – by no means all – failed to adapt to this great rupture in world history. This is all-important, for it utterly transformed the political meaning of ‘anti-Zionism’. Anti-Zionism meant one thing in the early 20th century: an argument among Jews, mostly, about how best to meet the threat of antisemitism. Anti-Zionism has come to mean something entirely different after the Holocaust and after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948: it has come to mean a programme of comprehensive hostility to all but a sliver of world Jewry, a programme for the eradication of actually existing Jewish self-determination.

Things got even worse. This post-Holocaust, post-Israel left-wing Anti-Zionism has been converging with some forms of Arab nationalism and even political Islamism – which are both now coded as singularly progressive. The Left has its own version of Orientalism which infantalises the Palestinians and Arabs, puts them beyond criticism, and makes them the subject of endless western left-wing delusions. For example, take Jeremy Corbyn’s truly incredible claim that Hamas and Hezbollah are ‘bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.’

This convergence between parts of the Left and Arab nationalism, and later Islamism, was smoothed by two developments on the Left.

In the East, the Communist bloc’s decades-long ‘anti-Zionist’ propaganda campaign injected an ‘anti-imperialism of idiots’ into the global left during the cold war. We are talking about the mass publication and global distribution of antisemitic materials through the Communist Parties and their fellow travellers. Anthony Julius’s book Trials of the Diaspora tells us that 230 books were published in the USSR alone from 1969-1985 about a supposed Zionist-masonic conspiracy against Russia. These books had a combined print run of 9.4 million.

In the West, David Hirsh has observed that whereas anti-imperialism was previously ‘one value amongst a whole set – democracy, equality, sexual and gender liberation, anti-totalitarianism’ included – it was raised to a radically new status in the 1960’s in the West as ‘the central value, prior to and above all others.’ And with this, a new Manicheanism descended on the Left. Israel-Palestine was reframed. No longer were one people involved in a complex unresolved national question with another people. Now Israel became ‘a key site of the imperialist system’ and the Palestinians became ‘the Resistance’ to imperialism.

Left-wing ‘common sense’ shifted accordingly. Now, to support Israel’s enemies – whatever these enemies stood for, however they behaved – was a left-wing ‘anti-imperialist’ duty: in other words, antisemitism went ‘progressive.’ Writing in the New Statesman I called this intellectual malady ‘Campism’. Whatever word is used, we need the concept. How else can we explain why Judith Butler – a leading lesbian, feminist and socialist academic – could claim that ‘Understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.’

When the Left can no longer distinguish the fascistic from the progressive, we really do have a problem.

How can the relationship be put back together?

In brief, not by taking an ‘Israel right or wrong’ approach. Wrong in principle, that approach will only make worse the problem at the heart of the relationship between the Jews and the Left.

And nor should we give up on our duty to support a Palestinian state as an expression of self-determination of the Palestinians people.

But, look, we do need to radically rethink our demented anti-Zionism.

We left-wingers must rethink our refusal of the right to national self-determination of just one people, the Jewish people.

We must rethink our commitment to boycott just one state in the whole wide world, the Jewish one. That singling-out is antisemitic in consequence, I am afraid, whatever the motivations of individual boycotters.

Those left-wing refusals and those left-wing commitments are now, frankly, dangerous. We have to see that this left-wing anti-Zionism co-exists, cheek by jowl, with a family of anti-Zionisms, that some of the family members are vile and vicious and murderous, and that the left has become hopeless at policing its own borders.

Our task is huge: to build an intellectual firewall separating sharp criticism of Israeli policy – which is legitimate, as it is for any nation-state, and which, even when unfair, remains non-lethal – from the spreading demonology of Zionism and Israel which is not legitimate and which can be lethal.

Beyond that we need to hold our nerve, restate some basic truths, and think more creatively about how we can act in the world to make a positive contribution to securing these truths: that peace will only come through engagement and deep mutual recognition between the two peoples, that there is no alternative to negotiations and mutual compromise, that a final status agreement will secure two states for two peoples.

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