Opinion: Understanding Left-Wing Anti-Semitism

NCAFC member Ben Towse writes on anti-semitism within the left. If you would like to write a response or give a different perspective to publish on NCAFC’s blog, please get in touch.

A person at the Occupy Wall Street protests holds a placard reading "Google: Zionists control Wall St"Anti-semitic conspiracy theory politics at Occupy Wall Street

In recent weeks, the student movement has been full of expressions of concern about the display of a Nazi swastika banner by a student at the University of the Arts London. I’ve found this conversation bemusing and rather frustrating, because from the perspective of battling antisemitism, this incident was pretty near the bottom of my priority list. It’s an easy thing to condemn. Undeniably it was an inappropriate and unpleasant act of insensitivity. But there’s no indication that it was done out of any actual anti-Semitic sentiment or politics. There’s nothing darker here than a fool who thought that being edgy is a substitute for being clever – and sadly we have many more pressing things to tackle than an offensively tasteless art student.

The primary threat in the West is clearly various breeds of the far-right, from the US “alt-right” rallies that openly display swastikas and assert allegiance to Hitler, to the rise of Hungary’s anti-Semitic fascist Jobbik party, to killings by violent far-right Islamists such as the attack on a Kosher supermarket in Paris and the shootings at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Here in the UK, we’ve seen a record high in anti-Semitic attacks since the Brexit vote stirred up and emboldened all sorts of bigots.

There is much to be said about that threat. But for this article, I want to focus on another insidious problem: left-wing anti-Semitism. There is a particular type of anti-Semitism specific to the left, not just a reflection of anti-Semitism in wider society but a distinct beast. We encounter this anti-Semitism in all sorts of parts of the left. Most of its modern adherents nowdays understand themselves to be anti-racists and hold no personal animosity toward Jews. Nevertheless they adhere to political ideas that, when examined properly, rest on a logic that treats Jews differently, that particularises Jews. And of course, some creep from there into full-on racist hostility.

The “socialism of fools”

The classic form – anti-semitic anti-capitalism, what the 19th century German left dubbed “the socialism of fools” – is ancient. From stereotypes of Jews as all well-off, powerful loan sharks, bankers and capitalists, all the way up to the belief that capitalism is a global Jewish plot, these tendencies continue today. Conspiratorial nonsense about Jewish financiers and the Rothschilds riddled movements like Occupy. In 2012 Ken Livingstone said his election campaign didn’t need to consider Jewish voters, because being wealthy, they wouldn’t vote for him anyway. Hugo Chavez, an idol for too many lefties, once proclaimed that the Jews have been thieving wealth and causing poverty and injustice worldwide ever since killing Jesus. Jackie Walker infamously repeated the lie – originally fabricated by the Nation of Islam movement – that Jews were a leading force in the Atlantic slave trade.

Zionism

But the major form of left anti-Semitism we now encounter relates to Israel and Zionism. Of course, Jews are not identical with Israel and conflation of the two is anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, some common approaches to Israel and Zionism rest on double standards that need to be unpicked.

First we need to pin down what Zionism is. Before 1948, it meant the movement to establish a Jewish state, but given that Israel now exists it is perhaps best understood as a sentiment of nationalism or communal feeling for or identification with Israel. On that basis I am an anti-Zionist. Beyond opposing the colonial, militaristic and racist policies of the current Israeli government, as an internationalist socialist I want to oppose and break down all patriotisms and sentiments of identification with nations.

But socialists also have to think carefully about why people, especially oppressed groups, hold national sentiments, and to examine the nuances. Too many act as if Zionism is homogeneous, as if there is no difference between the bloodthirsty, genocidal Israeli hard right, the Israeli-born liberal or lefty who considers it their home and nation but wants freedom for Palestine too, and the Jewish New Yorker who has never lived in Israel but feels some affinity to it.

The reality is that the big majority of Jews worldwide are now Zionists in some sense. 93% of British Jews consider Israel to form some part of their identity and 90% want it to continue existing. And yet, 71% – i.e. the vast majority of these people who are Zionists – support a free, independent Palestine alongside Israel, and 75% oppose the West Bank settlements. When Zionism is treated as tantamount to fascism, when you hear socialists say things like “I don’t hate Jews, I just think that all Zionists are scum” or casually spit the far-right’s coded epithets like “zio”, the left is damning the majority of Jews as if they were part of a singular political force so bad that it should be treated like the far right.

This is not to say that, based simply on identity, widespread Jewish affinity for Zionism means that leftists should support Zionism. We shouldn’t. It’s a call to approach it with the same nuance we should approach the national sentiment of any historically persecuted group.

For most Zionist Jews around the world, attachment to Israel is a response to a long and continuing history of persecution, marginalisation and pogroms that found its peak in the Holocaust. It arises not from a will to oppress, but from fear, seeking refuge in what was called the “life-raft state”. There is rightly a socialist critique of this as the wrong response to that experience, but it can’t be treated as beyond sympathy or understanding, and the left cannot treat Zionist Jews as untouchable until they make an absolute break with this whole set of sentiments.

This is why the nonsense spouted by the likes of Ken Livingstone and Moshe Machover about collaboration between Nazism and Zionism is so wrong-headed and offensive. In 1933, some Zionist leaders (opposed by others) brokered a deal with the Nazis to let Jews escape Germany for Palestine. To draw similarities between Zionism and Nazism, between some violently oppressed people who became convinced that safety could only lie in leaving that society to build their own, and the oppressors from whom they accepted a chance to escape before things got worse, is senseless and inhumane.

Double standards on Israel

Key double standards are found in how some activists approach present-day Israel. The left must fight the Israeli state’s brutal policies and support liberation for the Palestinians. But problems arise when Israel is portrayed as uniquely evil, and when standards and approaches are applied to it but not similar countries. Sadly, neither Israel’s murderous policies, nor the immensity of suffering they’ve caused, are anywhere near unique in the world. There is nothing wrong with campaigning on particular injustices – nobody can do everything and “whataboutery” helps nothing – but analysis, arguments and tactics need to be consistent and justifiable.

First, if you advocate the democratic right to national self-determination as a principle, you cannot deny it to the Israeli Jewish population who at this point undeniably constitute a national community – many of whom are second, third or fourth generation. To occupying, colonising countries, our demand is “withdraw to your borders, to your home, and let this other nation determine its own future”. There are too many supposed progressives whose aspiration for Israel/Palestine is effectively to reverse the situation – to force on Israeli Jews the choice of either being driven out of their homes and birthplaces or living under a hostile, alien state that does not represent them.

Second, socialists cannot deny or ignore class and other divisions within Israeli society. Every society is divided, with a ruling capitalist class counterposed to a working class and internal oppressed groups. Even where ruling classes win their subjects’ backing for racist wars, we recognise the intrinsic potential of the working class to be a progressive force and appeal to them to turn against their rulers. But some socialists treat Israel as some sort of exception, and Israeli Jews as a singular unit. They sat we cannot work with Jewish Israelis, even if they are fighting for Palestinian freedom, even if they are jailed for refusing to serve in the military, and we cannot reach out to workers struggles and others in Israel until they completely repudiate any trace of Zionism and Israel’s existence.

For instance, left-wingers on NUS NEC rejected proposals for solidarity with WAC-Ma’an, a cross-border Jewish-Arab trade union that organises workers exploited by settlement businesses and explicitly campaigns against the occupation, just because it does not reject the existence of Israel. This position isn’t just logically anti-Semitic in the way it particularises Israel, it also prioritises hostility to Israel’s existence over material support for the Palestinians.

Imperialism and conspiracy

Third, is how many leftists understand the relationship between Israel and its allies among Western imperial powers like the US and UK, in conspiratorial terms that often evoke classic anti-semitic tropes about global Jewish power. Israel is presented as having an absurd level of control over the policies of these global powers, usually via powerful and vastly wealthy “Zionist lobbies”.

We need a sober, materialist understanding of imperialism. Imperialist ruling classes, all ruling classes, serve themselves first, and make alliances not, broadly, because they have somehow covertly been subverted, but because it serves their material strategic interests. No other state is commonly discussed in these terms. UK ruling class support for Turkey as it occupies, represses and murders the Kurds is not blamed primarily on shady Turkish nationalist capitalists controlling the media or manipulating politicians – instead, we understand that this is first and foremost a case of self-interested cooperation between imperialist states.

Periodically, the British left will go into conspiracy theory paroxysms when it emerges that some Israeli diplomat or pro-Israel propagandist has been doing some lobbying or manoeuvring. We saw this in NUS this year when an al-Jazeera documentary “revealed” that a right-wing NUS officer was organising with other right-wingers to prepare an election campaign, that Jewish student groups receive donations from the Israeli embassy, and that an embassy official helped organise pro-Israel campaigning. Any idea that this isn’t standard activity for any country’s embassy needs a dose of anti-capitalist scepticism about how diplomacy between states works today. Lobbying and manoeuvring like this is hardly a rarity, but it is at most a nudge on policy achieved by allying with some particular section of another country’s ruling class  – the overwhelming factor determining the policy of a powerful state like the UK remains self-interest. To believe otherwise is to descend into the rabbit-hole of understanding the world through the lens of conspiracy theory, rather than materialism.

Spill-over

These political double standards are problems in themselves, and they need to be unpicked and resolved. Another effect, though, is that they can spill over, first into an unserious attitude to tackling anti-Semitism.

Far too much of the student movement only pays lip service to opposing anti-Semitism. When concerns are raised, they are often not taken seriously. Leftists who in other cases would argue that judgements about prejudice and oppression must be the sole domain of members of the marginalised group in question (an identitarian, anti-political position that I’d actually disagree with) have a habit of abandoning this principle when Jewish people express concern, discomfort or offence at something. This includes appearing very relaxed or even defensive of open racists – from leftists making excuses for aggressively anti-Semitic parties and governments (such as Hamas and the Iranian government) to applauding bigots (for instance, UCL Friends of Palestine Society recently gave a very warm welcome to Azzam Tamimi, an academic who tells Jews born in Israel that “justice” would mean them being sent “back to Germany”). And of course, it can in some cases shade further, into conscious, racist suspicion or outright hostility to Jewish people.

What do we need to do

To sum up, left-wing anti-semitism isn’t just a matter of out-and-out personal hostility to Jews, nor is it only a matter of personal Jew-haters cleverly masking their racism in a disguise of anti-Zionism – though both of those exist and are real problems. What’s more widespread, and what can only be tackled by the left being more nuanced, thoughtful and self-reflective, is a set of ideas that are often held by sincere anti-racists, but which when taken apart rest on double standards, on logic that treats Jews, and Jewish national sentiments, differently from other ethnic groups. We need to open these issues up, discuss them, and develop a better set of politics on imperialism, capitalism, oppression and liberation.