Friday, July 27, 2012

What is left anti-semitism?

Shiraz Socialist, a British socialist blog that is connected to a small left-wing group in Britain, the Alliance for Workers Liberty, just published an excellent article on left anti-semitism that explains some things that have always puzzled me about it. A few excerpts:
No, by “left-wing anti-semitism” we emphatically do not mean political, military, or social criticism of Israel and of the policy of Israeli governments. Certainly, not all left-wing critics of Israel or Zionism are anti-semites, even though these days all anti-semites, including the right-wing, old-fashioned, and racist anti-semites, are paid-up “anti-Zionists”....

The difference here between left-wing anti-semites and honest critics of Israel — a category which includes a very large number of Israeli Jews as well as Israeli Arabs — is a straightforward one of politics, of policy.

The left-wing anti-semites do not only criticise Israel. They condemn it outright and deny its right to exist. They use legitimate criticisms, and utilise our natural sympathy with the Palestinians, not to seek redress, not as arguments against an Israeli government, an Israeli policy, or anything specifically wrong in Israel, but as arguments against the right of Israel to exist at all. Any Israel. Any Jewish state in the area. Any Israel, with any policy, even one in which all the specific causes for justly criticising present-day Israel and for supporting the Palestinians against it have been entirely eliminated.

The root problem, say the left-wing anti-semites, is that Israel exists. The root “crime of Zionism” is that it advocated and brought into existence “the Zionist state of Israel”.

Bitterly, and often justly, criticising specific Israeli policies, actions, and governments, seemingly championing the Palestinians, your left-wing anti-semites seek no specific redress in Israel or from Israel, demanding only that Israel should cease to exist or be put out of existence....

But why is the drive and the commitment to destroy Israel anti-semitism, and not just anti-Zionism?

Because the attitude to the Jewish nation in Israel is unique, different from the left’s attitude to all other nations; and because of the ramifications for attitudes to Jews outside Israel. Apart from a few religious Jews who think the establishment of Israel was a revolt against God, and some Jews who share the views of the leftists whom we are discussing here, those Jews outside Israel instinctively identify with and support Israel, however critically. For the left-wing anti-semite they are therefore “Zionists”, and proper and natural targets of the drive to “smash Zionism”.

The attitude of the “anti-Zionist” left to Israel brings with it a comprehensive hostility to most Jews everywhere – those who identify with Israel and who defend its right to exist. They are not just people with mistaken ideas. They are “Zionists”.

In colleges, for example, where the anti-Zionist left exists side by side with Jewish students, this attitude often means a special antagonism to the “Zionist” Jews. They are identified with Israel. They, especially, are pressured either to denounce Israel, to agree that it is “racist” and “imperialist” and that its existence is a crime against the Arabs — or else be held directly and personally responsible for everything Israel does, has done, or is said to have done.
I have encountered this attitude, and have always found it very strange. I'm a supporter of Israel, but I am certainly not responsible for everything Israel does or has done. In June 1981, when Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak, I was living in Seattle. I was talking about this with a friend (left-wing, not Jewish), and he started asking me why Israel had done this, with the implication that I was in some way responsible for the Israeli attack, merely because I'm Jewish. (I was a supporter of the attack because I saw it as protecting Israel). I simply couldn't understand his attitude - how was I, an American Jew who had never even visited Israel at that point, responsible for what the state of Israel had done? I was merely stating my opinion. For him, somehow, the fact that I am Jewish made my opinions not simply my opinions, but some kind of official statement from the Israeli government.

It's definitely worth reading the whole article, because it touches on many important points, especially how opposition to the existence of Israel has become the "anti-imperialism of the fools," an attitude that I have heard much more recently than 1981.
The anti-semitic left today, which depicts Israel as the hyper-imperialist power — either controlling US policy, or acting as its chief instrument, the story varies — is in the grip of an “anti-imperialism of the fools”. And that in practice leads to a comprehensive hostility to Jews not far from what Bebel called the socialism of fools....

There is an immediate “antidote” to left-wing anti-semitism too, and it is a very important task for Marxist socialists like those who publish Solidarity [ie: the AWL]: relentless exposure and criticism of their politics and antics — without fear of isolation, ridicule, or the venomous hostility of the vocal and self-righteous left-wing anti-semites.


  1. Whilst it is certainly not the worst article ever written on the subject, it is lacking.

    There is little real historical context to Leftwing antisemitism, aside from an obligatory mention of Bebel.

    What is noticeable is the inability to engage with the theoretical and practical discussions of antisemitism in the past 150 years.

    I don't say those things to be mean.

    But unless they seriously try to tackle how Russian antisemitism morphed into Stalinism, its wider influences on the Left and particularly among Trotskyists then they are only covering a very small aspect of antisemitism.

  2. Thank you for the comments. Could you suggest some better articles? I'd be interested in reading them.

  3. Soupyone: The article quoted is only one of many by the AWL, who do indeed, disuss the Stalinist roots of modern "left" antisemitism, including within much of the Trotskyist left; eg, here:

  4. Rebecca,

    I wish I could. It should be a fertile area for academic study.

    I looked at the suggested post, seemed poorly edited, lacked a wider engagement with mainstream historical works on antisemitism, but more importantly did not have any decent footnotes (that page did not work).

  5. Thank you - I'll take a look at the other AWL article.

  6. Here is a nice resource list. From an academic perspective, there's still plenty of work to be done.

    However, I would suggest the biggest problem with the article posted (and I could envision recommending it to some people) is that it is far too clean.

    For example, consider this bit: "To equate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is just crude and hysterical Zionist apologetics." It's in the middle of the part where they describe anti-Zionism as something other than racism. Except that the view of Jews as "hysterical," that is with floating wombs (of course, Jewish women are generally erased, so this claim is made primarily of Jewish men!), is indeed a very racist notion. Sexist, too, but that's another day. It's taken from the medieval view of the diseased Jewish body transformed by the birth of psychiatry into a view of the diseased Jewish mind.

    But I suppose they wouldn't want to alienate people making earnest criticisms of Israel by noting that those criticisms are, in fact, shot through with antisemitism.

  7. Matt, I don't think you're reading the article correctly - that line is intended to represent the views of anti-Zionists attacking Zionists for claiming that criticism of Israel is antisemitic. It's not the view of the author of the article. Or am I misunderstanding the point you're making?

    I'm also puzzled when you say of people "making earnest criticisms of Israel" that their criticisms are "shot through with antisemitism." What exactly are you referring to? I've made "earnest criticisms of Israel" (usually of settlement policy or Israeli leaders) and I don't think my criticisms are "shot through with antisemitism."

    1. I thought about clarifying that, and probably should have. The article is, indeed parroting a line from critics of Israel there. My point is that such a line is racist, whether one aims for the destruction of Israel or not. No, it's not genocidal racism, and no, it doesn't indicate some sort of malicious intent, but it is every bit racist. The article barely makes acknowledgment that there is something between the poles of antisemitism and earnest criticism. And it doesn't acknowledge things like institutionalized antisemitism and how these things color the debate.

    2. I agree that it's racist (and sexist, as you pointed out). I see your point now - that there is earnest criticism that is also shot through with antisemitism, not that all such criticism is antisemitic.

      I took the article as stating part of the truth about the left and antisemitism, not all of it, and thus I didn't expect it to include all of the issues that you've raised.