Some twenty years ago there was a row within the Jewish Socialists Group (JSG), a small organisation to which I have been affiliated from time to time. The row was over whether it was right for the group to publish a book written by one of its members, Steve Cohen, about anti-Semitism within the left. The ‘debate’ was very badly handled, and people were nasty to each other. In the end the Group did not publish the book, but a specially formed Jewish feminist collective, called Shifra, published it.
I parted company with the Group, partly about the book, partly about the way the debate was handled, and partly out of a general dissatisfaction with the way it was going; inevitably, there were some personal issues too. I didn’t write a stinging letter of resignation, I just stopped paying membership fees. Although I had been a high-profile member for a long time, no one ever sent me a renewal re-minder or asked me why I hadn’t renewed.
Recently there has been a new row going on within the JSG, about Anti-Semitism within the Anti-War movement. Some of the protagonists are the same as in the last one. Now it may be that the new row has been resolved in a more comradely way than the last one. I understand that there’s been a civil exchange of apologies between some of the parties. But the new row has persuaded me to put down a few thoughts of my own about the allegations of anti-Semitism on the left. Some of this has been brewing for some time anyway. I haven’t much enjoyed recent demonstrations by the Stop the War campaign, even when I marched with a Jewish contingent who were treated with the utmost courtesy by the organisers.
What do allegations that the left is anti-Semitic amount to? Most of it comes down to how the left treats the Israel-Palestine conflict and the question of Zionism. For some people, any criticism of Israel is either anti-Semitic in content or is motivated by anti-Semitism. It doesn’t even matter if the critics are Jews – such people are either dupes or ‘self-haters’. This is, of course, politically motivated stupidity, which is not susceptible to any rational argument or discussion.And there can be little doubt that some supporters of Israel use the ‘Anti-Zionism equals Anti-Semitism’ allegation to deflect and de-legitimise criticism of Israel and Zionism.
Nevertheless, there is a more substantial case that some of the left’s hostility to Israel and Zionism is anti-Semitic. This deserves serious consideration and reflection, not just a straightforward rejection. It seems to me that there are six main elements, which deserve a proper discussion.
· The use of anti-Semitic imagery in opposition to Israel. The best recent example of this was the New Statesman cover, which bore the headline ‘A Kosher Conspiracy?’ and showed a golden star of David standing on top of a lying-down British flag. But there are plenty of other examples, in pictures and in language. Discussions about the power of the Jewish or Zionist lobby in either the US or the UK are particularly prone to this. The suggestion that what happens in the world is because of behind-the-scenes manipulation by shadowy Jewish figures is an old one that pre-dates Zionism. These discussions usually ignore the fact that many other groups and countries maintain powerful lobbies themselves, and also seem to suggest that the US government supports Israel despite its own geo-political interests rather than because of them. Of course it isn’t anti-Semitic to draw attention to the activities of the pro-Israel lobby; but principled Socialists ought to be very careful not to appear to suggest that there is anything especially sinister about Jews being involved in lobbying activities.
· Disproportionate attention to Israel compared to other oppressive regimes. This is the suggestion that the left either ignores or doesn’t give comparable attention to other conflicts and oppression in the world (especially in Arab or Muslim countries). This is a somewhat tricky allegation – how to decide what is proportionate? Just the number of deaths, or the number of people been oppressed? And there is sometimes a response that attention to Israel comes from the historical relationship of Britain to the conflict – that Britain created the problem, so it’s incumbent on the British left to help sort it out. This doesn’t appear to count with respect to Cyprus, to Sudan (where it is directly true that the British deliberately created a problem), to or to Kashmir. Left involvement in solidarity with anyone involved in these conflicts has been minimal.
· Stricter standards applied to Israel. This is the claim that the Left is critical about negative aspects of Israel and that it is less bothered about other similar or worse breaches of human rights elsewhere. It’s not too hard to find some evidence of this. Without in any way excusing the behaviour of the Israeli military or the structures of discrimination that characterise the Israeli state, it is at least odd that there isn’t much attention given on the left to the breaches of human rights in Arab countries. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran consider eye gouging to be a legitimate judicial punishment, and courts do sentence people to have their eyes gouged out. I haven’t seen this reported in any mainstream or left paper. The answer that is given to this is usually that Israel should be judged by stricter standards because it purports to be a civilised and democratic country; I don’t get this argument at all – does that mean we should go easy on fascist dictatorships, because they’re not claiming to be democracies?
· Moral sadism in equating Zionists to Nazis. There is a nasty air that hangs around the claim that Israel fails to live up to its claims of moral superiority. The idea that the Jews set high moral standards and then fail to live up to them is a persistent theme in Christian anti-Semitism. This seems to me to be linked to the frequent association of Israeli abuses with Nazism. These parallels are rarely drawn in the context of other conflicts. The Interahamwe in Rwanda aren’t routinely compared to the Nazis, for example, even though the Rwandan genocide is often compared to the Holocaust. If this is intended as a tactical device to try to shame Jews into withdrawing support for Israel, it hasn’t been very successful. Rather, the perceived unfairness of the claim has made Jewish supporters of Israel much less likely to listen to criticism. I think that for some people, comparing the Israelis to Nazis feels like a liberation – a permission to dismiss the implicit (and sometimes explicit) Israeli claim that the Holocaust entitles the Jews to special treatment.
· Uncritical attitudes towards Arab nationalism and more recently Islamic movements. Neither Hamas, Hizbollah, nor the Muslim Brotherhood are progressive movements. They organise charitable work, care for the poor, and so on – so do plenty of reactionary Catholic, Protestant and indeed Jewish organisations. Some Islamic movements profess to be anti-Capitalist too – well, so does the Pope. But they are out and out reactionaries in their attitude towards woman, sexual minorities, Jews, criminal justice, education and just about anything else that matters. It’s worth saying, too, that the strategy and tactics of opposing the war by mass terror against the civilian populations of the warmongers’ capitals is the tactics of fascism. Opposition to Zionism, or to the war in Iraq, should not make them ‘kosher’ in the eyes of the Left.
· Anti-Semitism as an incorrect tactic. When there is an argument within the left as to whether a particular theme, argument or activity has come too close to anti-semitism, it won’t be long before someone reminds participants that appearing to be hostile to Jews (rather than Zionists) is ‘playing into the hands of the Zionists’. It’s hard to know where to start with this, particularly since the argument is often raised by people who have shown at least some sensitivity to the issue of anti-Semitism. But it‘s nevertheless wrong. Anti-Semitism should be treated as wrong in itself.
Many people on the left don’t see any problem in distinguishing between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Zionism is an ideology, and a set of organisations and institutions, whereas the Jews are an ethno-religious group. Of course you can be opposed to the first without being racist towards the second.
In reality the relationship is more complex and deserves a more serious analysis. For a start, most Zionists are Jews and – though we might wish otherwise, most Jews are Zionists. The distinction between opposing an ideology championed by most members of a group, and opposing the group itself, is conceptually possible, but maintaining it in practice requires the utmost clarity. Sadly, that clarity often hasn’t been there.
What’s more, “Zionist” has often been used as a code word for “Jew” by people who are outright anti-Semites. Much Soviet-sponsored anti-Semitism took this form – consider the loyal Jewish Stalinists who were accused of involvement in “Zionist plots” across East Europe and the USSR in the 1950s, or the vile outpourings of Soviet authors in the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, the far Right in Western Europe, in its more respectable publications, uses Zionist as a euphemism for Jew. If you start to follow the links on 9/11 conspiracy websites, often following a link from an apparently un-impeachable anti-imperialist source, you soon end up in the milieu where The Protocols are cited as a historical source. If diaspora Jews have some sort of moral obligation to say ‘Not In My Name’ regarding Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, then surely a similar imperative requires Anti-Zionists to distance themselves from this.
Perhaps more important, Zionism as an ideology contains a story about Jews, about their history, their current situation and status, and the meaning of Jewish identity; this story is only partly about Israel, the Palestinians, and the politics of the Middle East. The story is contestable, but it’s quite close to the story that most Jews believe. For example, most Jews think of their own Jewishness as an ethnic and national identity, not as a form of religious belief. This is true of most anti-Zionist Jews too – after all, how else can they protest about what is done ‘in my name’?
The commonality between the Zionist story and mainstream Jewish thinking isn’t a co-incidence. Of course it owes something to Zionist domination of Jewish organisations and institutions, particularly since the 1960s. Many Diaspora Jews believe that Israeli culture, much of it made up in the twentieth century, is their traditional culture. But it’s also because Zionism genuinely grew out of the experience and place in the world of European Jews. It wasn’t injected into their heads by some external group of manipulators. Zionism has become the dominant ideology among the Jewish communities of the world because it speaks to their concerns – the sense of insecurity, the feeling of not quite belonging, and ‘assimilation’ -- the inability to preserve a cultural legacy that is valued but not lived.
For many Jews, then, anti-Zionism means more than identification with the Palestinian side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it also means a rejection of their story about themselves. This isn’t helped by the way that the Left from time to time engages in a direct polemic against it – arguing that the Jews are not a nation, just a religious group; Stalin’s 1913 definition often surfaces here, quoted by people who would be deeply ashamed to quote Stalin on anything else. Elsewhere there are discussions about whether Jews are really oppressed – or at least how low down on the official hierarchy of oppressions anti-Semitism ought to be placed.
But why does any of this matter? So what if honest, non-racist anti-Zionism is misconstrued as anti-Semitism? Life is complicated, shit happens, it’s not only Jews who have feelings, and it’s more important to be on the side of the oppressed than it is to be absolute correct in our formulations of support.
Well, I think it does matter.
Firstly, it matters to us – Jewish Socialists who want to be active in the Left, and to develop and argue for our own narrative of Jewishness. We need the confidence and security that comes from believing our comrades on the Left really are with us.
Secondly, it ought to matter to the Palestinians and their supporters. Of course it’s not surprising that the victims of Israel and Zionism are not terribly interested in the nuances of Jewish history. But practically and politically, it’s critical for them to be able to break up the monolith of support for Israel – to divide the liberals from the outright reactionaries, not to drive them closer together.
Finally, it ought to matter to the Left. Socialists owe it to themselves to face up to their own history, and to be truthful about it. This was the subject of Steve Cohen’s book, That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic. Before there was ever an issue of Zionism, there was much hostility on the Left and in the Labour Movement towards Jews – just as there was racism, homophobia and support for eugenics. There is much dirty linen that requires a good public washing. The Left is never going to be any good at multi-culturalism and ethic plurality unless it can deal properly with the Jews, the first minority immigrant culture it ever encountered.