How Antisemitism Poisons the Left

As all good stories begin, a tweet:

Geography might be a weakness of the Corbyn campaign, but it isn’t the worst. What appears to be is how a wide variety of sloppy and false critiques of the Israeli government have led to a glib disregard for the welfare of the Jewish people.

When the left is faced with the charge of antisemitism, its instinct is self-defence: to blame an hysterical media campaign by the right to sabotage anything that threatens it. But we need the integrity to realise that it’s far more than that. It was nice to see Owen Jones try:

There are those who imply that Jewish people are somehow synonymous with the Israeli government (a slur echoed by some uncritical cheerleaders of Israeli state policy). And some use terms like “Jewish lobby”, a classic antisemitic trope suggesting there is an organised Jewish cabal exercising behind-the-scenes influence worldwide. And so on.

But left-wing antisemitism is both broader and subtler than this – mostly because those who espouse it genuinely do not recognise their politics to be racist. However unintentional, the campaign against Israel typically operates on a logic that uniquely discriminates against the Jewish quest for self-determination, whose ‘Zionism’ is routinely vulgarised to the extent that it becomes synonymous only with the most regressive forces of ultra-Orthodox, sectarian expansionism.

This will not promote social justice. There are better ways of critiquing Israel.

Zionism as Jewish Nationalism

When Richard Dawkins is condemned for supposedly racist remarks against Muslims, he argues – rightly – that we should be free to interrogate religious texts free of any suffocating charges of racism. But the retort is that, if one works on the assumption that Islam exists as a single, essentialised body of codes to be critiqued, for example in some non-existent ‘book of sharia’, then the only logical corollary is that comparable generalisations can be made of all Muslims. Unfortunately, moreover, in much of the New Atheist mindset criticism of religion begins with its fanatics, where it is said to be most ‘real’. Through Boko Haram and Islamic State, clerical fascism becomes the body of Islam, and so the soul of Muslims. The result, whatever one’s intentions, amounts to the intellectual legitimacy of racism and bigotry.

While this doesn’t persuade me, for most of the left the concern is very well understood. But the ideology of ‘Zionism’ is rarely treated with comparable subtlety, shall we say. The ease with which poorly-defined critiques of the ‘Zio threat’ can legitimise the far right does not stop the left from borrowing from its vocabulary. Instead, and with beautiful Dawkins-esque logic, the risks of racism are reflexively dismissed as an effort to silence criticism of Israel:

Anyone is welcome to reduce their definition of ‘Zionism’ to – basically – illegal settlements and bombs. But it will amount to a libelous parody, and one for which there is no excuse.

At its most reductive, the spirit of Zionism is the closest that Jews have ever had to a national identity. Late nineteenth-century Europe was poisoned by antisemitic mass politics, recently secularised and made more vicious than ever by the pseudoscience of racial Darwinism. With Jews everywhere under siege, Theodor Herzl formulated a project to rouse his nation from its slumbering diaspora, and elected to do so by way of the ancestral home of Israel. In Herzl’s vision, moreover, Jews and Arabs would live alongside one another, each thriving under universal citizenship and total cultural independence. It was a dream, even if, unfortunately, it gravitated towards utopianism: to enfranchise Jews from the shackles of political racism.

But for Jewish revolutionaries, Zionism was a distraction from the class politics in which Jews had long made their greatest contributions to humanity. Rosa Luxemburg famously claimed that she had no place in her heart for the ‘ghetto’; a new state in Israel might liberate Jews briefly from the worst of European racial suppression, but it would inevitably find itself underpinned by the same social class system against which she battled from her prison cell in Breslau. With retrospect, her idealism carried with it stakes of impossibly high proportions. Her murder by the Weimar government in the early days of 1919 – after a failed revolution – played a significant role in destabilising the German left, the only force that might have had the momentum to stop the Nazis from seizing power.

Still, history has proven Luxemburg’s criticisms of Zionism to have been ominously prescient. Constantly obsessing over security, inequality has spread like a virus through an Israeli state founded upon the principles of collectivism; and with the typical income of an Israeli Arab family half that of the average Jewish family, it is not a coincidence that the will for peace has softened with the quiet humbling of the labour movement. A toxic mixture of racism and paranoia has elevated Israel’s populist right; in Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government sit members of the Shas movement – which opposes any freeze on settlement activity – and a justice minister from Jewish Home, which wants to annex the West Bank. It makes for a disturbing echo of the German Empire of the 1890s, when – as Geoff Eley has written – its leaders ran on fanciful adventures across Africa and Eastern Europe, its people persuaded that security and prosperity came not in social reform but in exploiting the industrial and technological superiority it held over other peoples. The tragic fate of Zionism is that, in its quest for national defence, a powerful current has mutated into the very predatory and chauvinistic forces of the Europe from which it was invented to escape.

But this doesn’t make sectarianism ‘true Zionism’ or ‘central to Zionism’ anymore than we would twin Islamic State with Tower Hamlets. Many Israelis, particularly on the left, simply refuse to abandon their national heritage to the forces currently so visibly triumphant in Jerusalem. Through the World Labor Zionist Movement and the World Union of Meretz, socialists across the world agitate for a Palestinian state and do so on behalf of the two largest left-wing parties in the Knesset. Consistent in calling for the cooperation of Arab and Jewish workers, it can hardly be condemned for refusing to pacify the proto-fascistic, Jew-hating forces ruling Gaza; in 2000, Israeli Labor leader Ehud Barak brought Palestine to within a whisker of peace – had self-appointed Arab spokesman Yasser Arafat been willing to accept it. This is to say nothing of the many academics and journalists scattered across the world campaigning for the liberal Zionism of ethnic and political peace. We have to fight alongside these people, not boycott them.

It takes, moreover, scant regard for human dignity to claim that either the emotional or practical needs for Zionism have passed away. Right-wing antisemitism was steadily rising over the two decades to 2014, since when it has suddenly spiked; 7,000 Jews fled France for Israel last year, and in 2015, with the attack on the kosher supermarket following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the figure is likely to be more than double that. These are not wealthy conspiracists in league with American imperialism but victims of an antisemitism for which the left, their traditional allies, has shown disgracefully little concern. For these Jews, ‘Zionism’ is not some fanciful expansionism; it comes from a brewing vulnerability that only the Israeli state has even offered to secure.

The fact that Zionism has mutated is an argument against regressive nationalist politics – it is not specific either to Zionism or to the Jewish aspiration for self-determination that it embodies. It is a positive step that some Jews, mostly in Europe and mostly secure, feel safe without a Jewish nation to protect them – but that does not give them the right to make pronouncements about Israel’s legitimacy on behalf of those who do not. Like the religious politics Dawkins is keen to satirise, Zionism has within it the potential to emancipate as well as suppress; and, like religion, the best – and, I would suggest, only – way of critiquing it begins with the recognition that there are as many forms of Zionism as there are reasons for the Jewish nation’s existence, as well as its expansion.

Zionism and Colonialism

A typical feature of mainstream ‘anti-Zionism’ comes from Garry Leech of Stop the War Coalition, who has tasked himself with explaining why arguing for the dismantling of the Israeli state is ‘not anti-semitic’. After conceding that the earliest Jewish settlers in Palestine were indeed fleeing a terrible and ubiquitous menace, he writes:

By all rights, Palestine, like its neighbors, should have become an independent nation following World War Two, but the Western-backed Zionist project prevented this from happening. In accordance with the Balfour Declaration, Britain and the United States sought to ensure the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Under British rule, the Jewish population in Palestine had increased from 11 percent in 1922 to 32 percent in 1948, with many having arrived following the end of the war… Jewish groups supported the partition plan but Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states opposed it on the grounds that it violated the principles of national self-determination in the UN charter under which Palestinians should have the right to decide their own destiny. The plan was not implemented. Nevertheless, the Jewish population in Palestine unilaterally announced the creation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948.

For Leech, the self-determination of the Palestinian Arabs requires that Palestinian Jews be denied theirs: there cannot be two states, thriving side-by-side, but a single entity in which the Jewish demography is put firmly into the political minority where it belongs. But this is a justified position because Zionism has always been, he asserts, in essence a brutal form of settler-colonialism sponsored by the West to control the Orient. It cannot exist in any other way; the relationship of Zionism to any Jewish national identity is immaterial.

To make this argument, history has to be rewritten. The British government’s white paper of 1939, limiting Jewish immigration after a revolt by the region’s Arab population, receives no mention; nor does the bitter resentment with which the British Labour government of the 1940s oversaw partition. Most of the Empire’s ruling class in the early 20th century was deeply antisemitic – Winston Churchill, forever distrustful, penned his thoughts on Jewish Bolshevism in his introduction to the racist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But ‘anti-Zionists’ invent the history of Israel in other ways; I have seen fabricated ‘quotes’ from Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who advocated peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, to make him out to be some land-obsessed deviant out to drive Arabs from the Levant. Then there are the infamous maps that purport to show some kind of inevitable and unstoppable colonial ‘advance’:

Hint on the first map, just to get you started: ‘Palestinian’ was purely a geographical definition. It referred to both Arabs and Jews, and as a Mandate also included the East section of the River Jordan which was both almost entirely Arab, and included the majority of the land. The Jews lived in the white section, but a lot of the green section was uninhabitable desert and the entire map was owned by the British imperial government. The purpose of this map is, in other words, to disguise the racist blurring of ethnicity and politics under the guise of ‘anti-Zionism’.

It strikes me that it might be possible to question the founding of the Israeli state from a position not of antisemitism, but of one simply hostile to the free movements of peoples; it might, for example, be possible to raise legitimate criticism of the settling of New England. Though just as it would be more than a little weird to hear the contemporary left inveigh so virulently against the long-dead Pilgrims, the implication of persistently restating the uncertain grounds of the founding of the Jewish state becomes that it should no longer exist. The Jews must be refused an attempt to establish a state as they please.

If there is any way that one could argue for the dismantling of Israel without fabricating the history of Jewish self-determination, I would be very interested to hear it.

Quids in for Corbyn

In the space of a few weeks, the Corbyn campaign has mobilised tens of thousands of activists, many of whose politics has never amounted to more than some vague hatred of an establishment they never expected to influence. These are people who have never needed to scrutinise their own prejudices; when they were marginalised, they could feel content to dismiss all criticisms – even from the left – as an ignoble plot to defame the quest for social justice. This is how the Palestine solidarity campaign has convinced itself that antisemitism is basically a fabrication by mainstream politicians to shut down criticism of Israel, and so also why reactions to Corbyn’s associations with antisemites has meandered so arbitrarily between denying and justifying them.

At a time of rising antisemitism, silence amounts to legitimation. Corbyn is right to speak against an academic boycott but he has to do more: at the outset, anti-semites have to be expelled from the party and he has to shun all associations with Hamas – unless he makes the bizarre decision to invite the Israeli far right to the negotiating table too. Alliances with Jewish – and Zionist – internationalists have to be forged. It is not enough to make abstract condemnations while thousands of his supporters are allowed to isolate Jews from mainstream debate.

This does not need to threaten the left’s revival. But, in all likelihood, Corbyn is about to launch his bid for government – and if we don’t acknowledge our own prejudices, the right will do so on our behalf.


How Yvette Cooper Betrays Women

The best politicians are experts in disguise, it’s often said; but the trouble with Ed Miliband was that, after five years, nobody had the faintest clue what he was hiding under that bizarre and flustered marbling of austerity and babble against rich foreigners. Someone should have advised ‘mother’ Cooper against doing the same.

On Thursday, the short-time hopeful of the Labour leadership contest asked a little too climatically:

“So tell me what you think is more radical… switching control of some power stations from a group of white middle-aged men in an energy company to a group of white middle-aged men in Whitehall, as Jeremy wants? Or extending SureStart, giving mothers the power and confidence to transform their own lives and transform their children’s lives for years to come?”

Cooper’s entire politics is predicated upon austerity policies disproportionately detrimental to the well-being of British women; wherever her convictions lie, such flippant criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s calls for public ownership have become entirely indistinguishable from that cynical noise whose goal is to belittle anyone with the naivety to bother defending their principles.

Those hardest hit by austerity have been – and will continue to be – women. Making up the largest part of the public sector workforce, cuts have pushed more women out of work than in over a quarter of a century – which, of course, is to say nothing of the years of pay cuts and freezes endured by those spared the axe. The Tory mission is only made more obscene by the scale remaining, with George Osborne – a graduate of history like myself, though somehow even more economically illiterate – last month ordering each and every one of his departmental ministries to prepare a further round of 40 percent spending cuts.

Photo: 2015 Getty Images

If she had granted her platitudes the privilege of honesty, Cooper should have been uniquely aggrieved. It was she who, as shadow home secretary, commissioned the research into the budget concluding that it would hit women twice as hard as men. ‘Appalling,’ was how she denounced Tory attacks on child tax credits. Osborne really did have a ‘women problem’.

But then, a fortnight later, Cooper abstained on the welfare bill. She rallied behind Labour’s amendment – as though a class assault against social welfare provision were simply a nuance away from justice – that ‘only’ a cap on welfare with ‘limitations’ on mortgage support should be put into law. Perhaps she expected praise for championing an abstract opposition to lifting child poverty targets; the ‘amendment’ didn’t even mention the tax credits whose maintenance puts food on the table for thousands of families across the country.

Why? Yvette Cooper does not strike me as either particularly Machiavellian or forgetful; she is, however, an echo of the tedious and aloof paternalism that doomed Miliband, and which came troublingly near to consigning his party into the electoral wilderness. The problem is that anyone committed to the fundamentals of austerity – slashing public services, arbitrarily at best and cynically at worst – will have to, at some point, subordinate to it the welfare of those for whom they claim so passionately to stand. All the ‘motherhood’ rhetoric in the world couldn’t bring a single child out of poverty: if this is Cooper’s ‘credible fiscal policy’ then I don’t want it, and neither will anyone else.

For any gender or none, better a white man committed to rejuvenating social democracy than a white woman ambivalent about its survival.


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