The left and anti-semitism

Submitted by AWL on 30 April, 2016 - 4:43

Recent controversies in the Labour Party have brought the issue of antisemitism on the left to wider attention.

"Left-wing" antisemitism is not a new phenomenon: from pre-First World War conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers (a critique which German revolutionary August Bebel labelled "the socialism of fools”) to anti-Jewish campaigns in Stalin’s USSR, there is a long history of antisemitism expressing itself on the left.

Is the problem one of a few bad apples, or something deeper? What are the links, if any, between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? How can antisemitism on the left and in the labour movement be confronted: is it enough to simply expel those expressing antisemitic ideas from the Labour Party?

Workers' Liberty supporter Daniel Randall spoke on this issue at a Workers' Liberty meeting at UCL on 26 April (before the Livingstone controversy).

Recording of the speech:

Daniel's speaker notes:

My name's Daniel, I'm a Workers' Liberty supporter and a Labour Party member. I work on the Underground, where I'm a rep in the RMT. If this matters to anyone in the room, I am Jewish, but I don't speak here “as a Jew”, and if I have any authority to speak on this matter, then it is an authority derived from political ideas, rather than from my ethno-cultural background.

The backdrop to tonight's meetings is a series of controversies inside the Labour Party, of which there's been another one today, with John McDonnell's Parliamentary Secretary Naz Shah resigning after the exposure of something she said on Facebook a couple of years ago about Israel. A number of people, mainly on the left of the party, have been expelled or suspended after being accused of making anti-semitic statements. It has been implied that the left, the far left particularly but the wider left in general, has an endemic, perhaps institutional problem, with anti-semitism. I guess for those involved in the student movement there's a parallel in NUS with the election of the new president, although that's something I know less about.

The recent controversies in Labour are just a backdrop, but I don't intend to dwell on them in detail. I certainly don't plan to spend any time at all talking about the appropriate procedural or constitutional mechanism one might advocate for dealing with this type allegations – as in, whether we should advocate expulsions, and so on – as I think this is something of a distraction from discussing the underlying political issues.

It is to the underlying political issues that I want to address myself. Although I normally find speeches that begin with pedantic dictionary definitions of the terms at hand a little bit clunky, it might perhaps be useful to begin by pinning down exactly what we're talking about when we talk about anti-semitism in general, and anti-semitism specifically on the left.

Anti-semitism is an ancient prejudice, with deep roots in the origins of Christian culture, bound up with the particular position in which Jews stood in relation to the development of capitalist modernity. We don't really have time for a history lesson on that, but I would recommend that people read Hal Draper's 1977 essay “Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype”, and, if you′ll indulge the self-promotion, my own essay “Jewish Revolutionaries, Revolutionary Jews”, which is far less significant, and not as good, but which also deals in part with the contradictory dualities of Jewish social experience. Moishe Postone′s interview with Martin Thomas of Workers′ Liberty is also illuminating in this regard.

Anti-semitism is generally understood as racist, or basically-racist, hostility to Jewish people. That's part of what it is. Anti-semitic incidents are increasing, more than doubling from 2013 to 2014, for example, according to one report, reaching over 1,000 recorded hate crimes. The Jewish population of the UK is small, between 250,000 and 300,000, so empirically, anti-semitism is not the cutting edge of racism in this country, and it's been a long time since anti-semitism was the foregrounded and key structuring aspect of right-wing chauvinist and nationalist ideologies in Britain, which now foreground a generic anti-immigrant and often anti-Muslim politics. Nevertheless, anti-semitism is a real racism that is materially experienced by real people, and merits a response on those terms. When, for example, neo-Nazis announce their intention to hold rallies in heavily Jewish areas of London, as they have recently, we should respond accordingly, in at least the spirit, if not the numbers, of Cable Street.

But that simple understanding of anti-semitism as anti-Jewish racism doesn′t give us a complete picture. Hitlerite anti-semitism, based on pseudo-scientific racial hierarchies, is just one strain of historical anti-semitism. ″Racism″ itself can be a difficult term to define and pin down, but various forms of historical Christian-religious anti-semitism, for example, aren′t straightforwardly ″racist″; in the schema of that kind of anti-semitism, Jews could covert and baptise their way out of persecution (as Karl Marx′s father, for example, did).

What′s also peculiar about historical anti-semitism, compared to other forms of racism, bigotry, and chauvinism, is the almost ubiquitous trope of Jewish power and control. Most forms of racism are based on the opposite - anti-black racism, for example, is normally based on the idea that black people are lazy, stupid, and fitted only to perform menial tasks in the service of whites. Anti-semitism, by contrast, invariably contends that the target group, Jews, are all-powerful and all-controlling.

So anti-semitism is, at the very least, an unusual type of racism, and a simple understanding of all anti-semitism as quasi-Hitlerite, anti-Jewish racism doesn't, I would argue, serve us very adequately if we're trying to understand anti-semitism as it manifests on the far left. I think we can talk about a specific “left anti-semitism” - which doesn't mean a variety of anti-semitism that is left-wing, but a specific type of anti-semitism which manifests on the left, within left-wing discourse, which is quite distinct from straightforward racist hostility to Jews, and whose adherents can't really be understood as “racists” and whose ideas are not based on personal animosity towards individual Jews.

It′s an interesting historical curio that the term ″anti-semitism″ was first popularised not by a right-winger but by Wilhelm Marr, an 1848 revolutionary and proto-anarchist of sorts. There is an anti-semitic element to the writing of mid-19th-century leftists like Duhring, Stirner, and Bauer. Some early leftists, Proudhon, for example, were more or less straightforward anti-Jewish racists. There's elements of racial hierarchicalism in some of what Bakunin wrote as well.

All of these people thought of themselves as, and in many cases genuinely were, radicals and progressives, but they saw anti-semitism as a perfectly compatible part of their left-wing worldview - in most cases, precisely because of that trope of Jewish power, of the conflation of Jews with capital: what, in the 1890s, August Bebel, a leader of Germany's revolutionary workers' party, the SDP, was denouncing as “the socialism of fools”. If nothing else, this shows us that there is a substantial historical precedent for the integration of anti-semitic discourse and ideology into a worldview that sees itself as left-wing.

Those tropes about ″Jewish financiers″ and so on, have never really gone away, and have resurfaced somewhat since the economic crisis of 2007/2008. Quasi-movements like Zeitgeist, which isn't really part of the left but which permeate left-wing spaces and some left-wing culture, are perhaps best understood as modern carriers of Bebel's “socialism of fools”.

That kind of older ″left anti-semitism″ is there in the historical background; I′d argue, however, that contemporary left anti-semitism has a different, or at least additional, set of historical roots, which I′ll talk about a little later.

If we can speak of a contemporary “left anti-semitism”, I think we're not talking about straightforward racist hostility to Jews, but rather a political methodology which, carried through to its conclusion, has an almost inescapably anti-semitic logic.

I do want to emphasise the distinction between this, and straightforward anti-Jewish racism, quite strongly, both because it's crucial to understanding what we're talking about, but also to make it clear that I do not consider, for example, members of the Socialist Workers Party, for example, to be anti-Jewish racists, nor do I think we can usefully respond to individuals or organisations whose politics on, say, the Middle East, have anti-semitic implications as if they are conscious, worked-out racists.

What, then, are the aspects of the implied logic I'm referring to? I think we can identify at least four key elements (although this list is not exhaustive). A lot of them are to do with the Middle East, for reasons I'll talk about later:

The first is the argument that Israel as a uniquely reactionary state and Jewish nationalism is a uniquely reactionary nationalism. The Hebrew-speaking Israeli-Jewish nation, however you wish to term it, undeniably constitutes a "national group", in the Marxist understanding of that term, as opposed to a narrow, exploiting settler-caste like the South African Boers. They are the only national group for which the far-left's programme is that their state must be dismantled, rather than changed in some way, however radical. There is no substantial "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions" movement, consciously aimed at isolating a particular state, directed towards any other country.

Secondly, the view that the Jewish presence in historic Palestine is entirely illegitimate, a product only of a colonial land-grab, and only resolvable either by the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population agreeing to be a subsumed as a religious minority in a wider Arab state, or by their forcible conquest.

A third element is the argument that a Jewish, or “Zionist”, lobby exerts an essentially controlling influence on American foreign policy or world affairs in general, or the media, or some aspect of the media.

Finally, the argument, or the implied demand, that Jewish people, uniquely amongst ethno-cultural groups, make a total break from certain aspects of their historically-developed and experience or risk being considered basically akin to racists.

Perhaps the best example of this is the campaign of some on the far left in the 1980s to have Student Unions ban campus Jewish Societies which did not take an explicitly anti-Zionist stance. There's little today which is quite as explicit, although the disruption of a recent meeting at King's College of Yachad, a liberal, pro-two-states Israeli peace group could be seen a similar vein.

I'm stating things at their starkest terms, perhaps hyperbolically. I readily accept that you will rarely find the argument that a Jewish lobby controls world affairs explicitly stated in the pages of, say, Socialist Worker.

My contention is that these arguments exist as the implied logic of far-left “common sense” on the questions of Israel/Palestine and indeed Jewish nationalism identity.

I should apologise for the lack of academic rigour in not providing more concrete examples in this presentation; my preparations were somewhat thrown off course by the death of a close comrade, so this talk is patchier than I had initially hoped it would be. I will say only that I encourage comrades to read for themselves the discourse of the far left, broadly understood, on these issues - I would direct you particularly to websites such as CounterPunch, Mondoweiss, Electronic Intifida, and the literature of groups like Counterfire, the SWP, Respect, and others - and see for yourself. See if you can identify any of those arguments, or versions of those arguments, in their discourse.

As the list I've just given implies, much of what I'm going to say tonight will be about Israel/Palestine. In a way that seems counterintuitive; partially because the reflexive insistence one encounters from many on the left that every discussion about anti-semitism must become at least in part a discussion about Israel/Palestine is in fact part of the problem. But the programmatic “common sense” of the far left towards Israel/Palestine, both historically and today, is at the root of a lot of the issues, and so our discussion must deal with it comprehensively.

Despite the recent attempts of certain individuals to revive it, there is no meaningful “Jewish question” today. That “question”, as it was understood by Marxists prior to the Second World War, was about how to understand and relate to a mass of people - not, in fact, all Jews globally, but the quasi-“nation” of Yiddish-speaking Jews living in central and eastern Europe. There is a substantial pre-Second World War Marxist discourse about this.

That question doesn't exist any more. The Holocaust settled it by largely annihilating and dispersing that population. It was also the rising tide of violent, state-sanctioned anti-semitism, and ultimately the Holocaust, which I would argue was a historically-unique event, that gave material impulse to Jewish nationalism, Zionism, which had previously been a minority movement amongst Jews. I imagine that the argument that assimilation and integration is ultimately impossible, and that only separation and statehood can provide security, looks pretty compelling in the midst of a pogrom or from inside a concentration camp.

I disagree categorically with the argument, that one does sometimes encounter, that any form of anti-Zionism is de facto anti-semitic. The authentic revolutionary socialist movement was always anti-Zionist. But it was an anti-Zionism conditioned by an understanding of the material roots of that nationalist impulse, and an anti-Zionism that acknowledged that Zionism, like all nationalisms, encompassed a spectrum of perspectives and programmes.

There was, for example, a detachment of the Red Army organised by the left-Zionist party Paole Zion which fought for the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. Leon Trotsky, by the end of his life, had significantly tempered his historical opposition to Jewish statehood. As recently as 1967, there was a faction in the International Socialists, the SWP's predecessor organisation, which argued, wrongly I think, for supporting Israel in the '67 war.

But today we have an anti-Zionism based on an ahistorical erasure or minimising of Jewish refugee experience, particularly after the Holocaust. It is an anti-Zionism which sees only the frequently ethno-chauvinist pronouncements of the movement's ideological figureheads, and not the more complicated socio-political impulses that drove masses of working-class Jews to adopt (rightly or wrongly: in my view wrongly, but understandably) its central tenet - the idea that the Jewish nation should constitute itself at the level of an independent state, and later, that that state should exist in Palestine.

The post-1967 anti-Zionism of the far left sees Jewish emigration to Palestine as being only, ever, colonial, erasing the experiences of the "Boat People" of the Second World War and after, Jewish refugees from genocide who had literally nowhere else to go.

To examplify this, here is John Rose writing in the SWP's Socialist Worker, in an article entitled "10 Reasons to Oppose Zionism":

"Zionism’s real roots are in Eastern Europe. At the end of the 19th century, more than half of the world’s Jews lived in the crumbling empire of the Russian tsars. European modernisation challenged these feudal rulers. Revolution threatened to sweep them away and the Jews provided the scapegoat.

"Violent and widespread pogroms against the Jews were deliberately whipped up by the tsars.

"Jews began to migrate, mainly to western Europe and the US. But a tiny minority accepted the growing appeal of the Zionists and went to Palestine.

"These Jews formed the core of the Zionist settlements.

"Zionism was a colonial movement backed by the Western imperial powers."

To proceed from this broadly reasonable analysis of early Zionism to the straightforward, untempered conclusion that "Zionism was a colonial movement backed by the Western imperial powers" writes out of history the material effect not only of Tsarist persecution but, later, of the Holocaust, on mass Jewish consciousness. Were the Boat People of the 1940s merely colonial land-grabbers?

This one-sided, ahistorical analysis of Jewish nationalism has clear roots. Those roots are in Stalinism.

Stan Crooke, in “The Stalinist roots of 'left' anti-semitism”, has convincingly argued that the origins of this discourse lie in Stalinism's anti-semitic conspiracy theories of the early 1950s onwards. Stalinist arguments on Zionism very closely parallel arguments made by some of those at the centre of the recent controversies in Labour.

For example: “The capitalists of England, the USA, France, Germany, and other countries, amongst them millionaires and multi-millionaires of Jewish origin, who had their eyes on the wealth of the Near East, helped the creation of the Zionist idea. From the very outset it was linked with the project of the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish state as a Jewish fortress, a barrier against Asia.”

This is from D. Soifer's The Collapse of Zionist Theories, first published in English in 1980. According to the Soviet-born historian Seymon Reznik, between 1969 and 1985 about 230 books were published in the USSR which exposed the "Zionist-Masonic conspiracy against Russia and the entire world". Also according to Reznik, between 1981 and 1986 alone, nearly 50,000 anti-semitic articles appeared in the official Soviet press. I don't have his figures for the earlier period of what we might call "high Stalinism", but based on those numbers we can take a decent guess.

For Stalinism, this explicitly anti-semitic anti-Zionism had a specifically ideological function. Perhaps ironically, in material geopolitical terms, the role of the USSR was very different: indeed, it armed, through its Czech satellite, the fledgling Israeli state. The left-wing Zionist party Mapam supported the Soviet Union.

Stalinist anti-Zionist and anti-semitic conspiracy theories had less to do with the Stalinist powers' actual geopolitical relationship to Israel, and more to do with finding a scapegoat towards which Stalinist ruling classes could channel and direct potential internal dissent.

But this Stalinist amalgam of Zionism with “imperialism” and “racism”, as if the three things are unambiguously synonymous and interchangeable, continues exerts a profound ideological impact on the whole far left, even the Trotskyist left, much of which was uncritically swept along in the “anti-imperialist” fervour of the struggles of the late 60s onwards, and absorbed a great deal from the Stalinist ideologies which hegemonised much left-wing political space.

Why even the consciously anti-Stalinist left was not better able to confront, rather than adapt to, Stalinist ideology has a lot to do with the whole attitude of post-Trotsky Trotskyism to Stalinism itself: something Workers' Liberty has written extensively about, but is perhaps a discussion for another time.

So a large section of the left absorbs into its political bloodstream a type of anti-Zionism which elbows out the more rational anti-Zionism of a previous generation and elevates Zionism to an almost mystical position as the most purely imperialistic, racist ideology in the world.

If one reads, for example, the writing of, say, Ernest Mandel - a somewhat idiosyncratic but significant theoretical figure in the sphere of broadly "orthodox" Trotskyism - on Zionism and Israel/Palestine, there is none of the venom or vitriol one encounters today. Even the early writing of Tony Cliff, himself a Palestinian Jew, on the subject is markedly different from the latter "Cliffite" discourse. In the 1930s, Tony Cliff is even in favour of partition, of the creation of a separate Jewish state in Palestine.

That might be partially explained by the fact that the Israeli state has become more heavily militarised, its colonial project in Palestine more barbaric, and so on, as time has progressed. But Marxist attitudes to the right of nations to self-determination have not, generally, tended to be determined by the brutality of their governments.

The left, in short, took what began as a Stalinist propaganda trick and elevated it into a key aspect of its worldview.

So what, then, is anti-semitic - or, perhaps better expressed, potentially, or logically, anti-semitic - about the Stalinist anti-Zionism that I have argued forms the basis of contemporary far-left common sense about Israel/Palestine and Zionism itself?

A very large element of it is about the necessary exceptionalisation this implies towards the majority of Jewish people. There is no other people whose historical experience, historically-developed identity, and nationalism, is held in this regard. There is no other people whose nationalism is treated so ahistorically.

To better understand this exceptionalisation, one might usefully compare the way the left relates to Israel with the way it relates to Turkey. Michael Elms, writing in the Workers' Liberty newspaper Solidarity, puts it like this:

"Comparison with Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds indicates the absurdity and implicit racism of these positions. Rightly, left and workers’ movements around the world are united in outrage at the Turkish state’s treatment of the Kurds. There is widespread global support for Kurdish demands for autonomy or independence. But nobody argues the Turkish state should cease to exist. Or that those Turks who support the Kurds and oppose racism in Turkish society (of whom there are many) are racists unless they accept that Turkey should be dissolved. No-one in Oxford University Labour Club, to our knowledge, has started singing jaunty songs about bombs killing civilians in Ankara or Istanbul.

Where UK media outlets or politicians give the Turkish state an easy ride, or overlook its racist war against the Kurds, this is generally not ascribed to shadowy “Turkish control” of the UK media, or to combinations of “Turkish-nationalist millionaires” forming powerful “Turkish lobbies”. A grounded and researched explanation usually suffices to explain UK collaboration with Turkey: self-interested co-operation between imperialist states. There is no global movement to boycott Turkish goods because they are Turkish; there is no global campaign to shut down performances by Turkish artists because they are Turkish; there is no move to disbar academic collaboration with Turkish academics because they are Turkish. Moreover, were such a campaign of blanket hostility to all things Turkish proposed to a left-wing audience, it is hard to imagine it being greeted with anything other than outrage."

I've spoken a couple of times about “historically-developed Jewish identity and experience”, which I should perhaps elaborate on. I mean by that phrase to refer to the complex and often contradictory ways in which culturally-inherited experiences of persecution, oppression, genocide, expulsion, and of being refugees – which are not unique to Jews, but which are certainly aspects of Jewish experience - make up the fabric of contemporary Jewish consciousness.

Some level of identification and affinity with Israel, seen as, in Isaac Deutscher's useful phrase, the "life-raft state" for post-Holocaust Jewish refugees, makes up an aspect of that identity.

This is not, by the way, limited to the predominantly-white "Ashkenazi" Jewish populations of central and eastern European background. Non-white, Arab-background Jews also experienced significant persecution and expulsion from their home states in and around the time of the establishment of the state of Israel, many of them finding refuge in Israel itself. Some form of "Zionism", more or less ideologically-developed, is also widespread amongst non-white Jewish communities.

Research by academics at City University in 2015, which interviewed over 1,000 British Jews, found that 93% of them feel that Israel forms some part of their identity. 90% support its continued existence as a Jewish state: they are, in other, words "Zionists".

But 71% also support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel - that is to say, they are not "Greater Israeli" expansionist chauvinists - and 75% say that the West Bank settlements are a "major obstacle to peace".

An analysis that begins and ends with the contentions that Zionism is racism and that Israel is nothing but a colonial-settler state cannot begin to engage with the complexities of this identity and political views. It necessarily implies hostility - indeed, violent hostility, if one takes a commitment to community self-defence against racism seriously - to 93% of Jews in Britain, and probably a similar proportion of Jews around the world.

I saw an exchange on Facebook recently that I found illuminating on this point. A veteran leftist was defending himself against the allegation, in fact from a fairly conservative Jew, that he was an anti-semite. He said (I'm paraphrasing): "I cannot be accused of anti-semitism. I have worked with my local Jewish community to defend their synagogues against far-right attack. I just believe that Zionists are racist scum." The last sentence is a verbatim quote.

It seems not to have occurred to this comrade that the Jews he worked with against the far-right were themselves, in his thinking, almost certainly "racist scum", and that the synagogues he was defending were filled with congregations made up almost exclusively of "racist scum". He might counter that even "racist scum" deserve defence against other racist scum, but at the very least this attitude requires some ideological unpicking.

This, in short, is why the oft-repeated response of many on the left, when accused of anti-semitism, that they were referring to "Zionists", not "Jews" is not adequate.

Does what I'm arguing here amount to saying, "most Jews are Zionists, therefore to attack Zionism in any way is de facto anti-semitic"? As I said earlier, and as I'll repeat now: categorically, no.

To claim this would be the equivalent of claiming that acknowledging and confronting homophobia within Muslim communities amounts to Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism. But just as a rigorous Marxist analysis of religiously-inspired bigotry in minority ethnic communities must understand the material basis for the grip of religious ideas, even while being forthright in its opposition to them, so any rigorous Marxist analysis of the history of Zionism must understand its historical dynamics within the context of Jewish consciousness, even while straightforwardly opposing nationalism.

To do otherwise is to treat Jewish identity with an exceptional ahistorical insensitivity, which, at the very least, has a tendency to dismiss anti-semitic iterations of anti-Zionism as merely over-enthusiastic or rhetorically wild, and, at worst, sees all Jews who do not make a totalising, confessional break from their own historically-developed identity as essentially fair game.

Do I, do we as socialists, wish all this were otherwise? Very, very deeply, yes. I wish we could draw easy, impermeable lines between "Zionism", understood as the belief that the state of Israel should exist, and some level of cultural affinity with it, and wider Jewish identity.

I wish Jews in Britain - who are not, in any meaningful sense, part of a global Jewish nation encompassing all Jews everywhere - felt no immediate, instinctive affinity with the Israeli state, which I wish was a state for all its citizens rather than a "Jewish" state, and rather felt an instinctive human solidarity with the Palestinians as an oppressed and subjugated people. But history has been cruel to us, and consciousness has not developed as we would have wished.

Consciousness and identity are necessarily contradictory: as the City University study shows, the vast majority of British Jews are both, on some level, "Zionists", and supporters of Palestinian national rights who solidarise with the Palestinians' claim to independence.

Do we want Jews to move beyond an identity conditioned principally by collective ethno-cultural memory and the inherited trauma of an experience of persecution? Yes.

Do we want Jews, and all people, to develop the internationalist, revolutionary humanist identities, based on human solidarity, that must underpin any project of political liberation? Yes, of course.

The essentially tribal impulses frequently inculcated by experiences of oppression and persecution always pose a risk to universalist politics. But we cannot win hegemony for revolutionary-humanist, universalist politics by storming people from above.

The likes of the SWP often point to the strong traditions of anti-nationalism, indeed of universalism, that existed amongst central and eastern European Jewish populations prior to the Second World War, as if those Jews who, today, see themselves as in some sense "Zionist" or whose Jewish identity involves some species of affinity with Israel, are backwards relics, addled by nationalist superstition, resisting the blinding truth of revolutionary universalism. If only it were so! If only it were this simple! Again: history has been cruel to us – and I don't mean “us” as “the Jews”, but “us” as revolutionaries.

(It might be added, tangentially, that the admirable commitment to the assertion of revolutionary universalism partially implied by the SWP's attitude to Jews does not extend to their own wider political praxis.)

Is this a form of ″identity politics″? Well, it depends what′s meant by that. Our critique of ″identity politics″ is essentially a materialist, universalist critique of post-modernism, of the idea that subjective experience and perception must be the beginning and end of political analysis, and that no universal politics is possible. But we are, nevertheless, in favour of a materialist analysis of ″identity″, and its role in forming consciousness. For much of the far-left, that seems to break down when it comes to Jews.

Some brief asides, before I conclude. To say a word on the extent of this phenomenon, which is worth putting on record. I think it's beyond doubt that sections of the right in the Labour Party, and in society more generally, will and have exaggerated the extent of left anti-semitism in order to politically undermine the left.

It's also undoubtedly the case that, in the past, right-wing, communalist elements within the Jewish community and other communities have instrumentalised and exaggerated allegations of bigotry to suit their own political ends.

The Labour right's scurrilous attempt to undermine the party's democratically elected leader, and indeed to purge the far left from the party, needs analysing and resisting on its own terms.

But the exaggeration or cynical instrumentalisation of an issue doesn't mean the issue is not real.

It is perhaps also worth saying here, as another aside, that, just as we have a duty as historical materialists to understand the complex history of Zionism, we also have a duty to understand the material basis of the hatred and anger, often violently expressed, towards Israel and Zionism on the part of many Palestinians - a dispossessed people who have been systematically brutalised by the colonial project of the Israeli state.

To dismiss their "anti-Zionism" merely as anti-semitism would be as much, perhaps more, of a calumny as dismissal of the "Zionism" of most Jews as merely "racist". The point is to proceed from a serious analysis of history, "on all sides", so to speak, and to aspire to a politics based on equality.

What, then, should form the basis of that politics? How to tackle the problem of left anti-semitism?

Richard Angell, a leader of the hard-right, in Labour Party terms, faction Progress, has recently published, in the Daily Mirror, an eight-point "Action Plan" for addressing anti-semitism within the Labour Party.

It is a technical-bureaucratic fix for a political problem, which will inevitably be instrumentalised for factional use. In fact I think it's intended in that way. It recommends, for example, "new capacities for the Compliance Unit", and that "anti-semitism must lead to a lifetime ban". This is an anti-political moralism that elides the potential of political education to have a transformative effect on consciousness. Already, there is a moralising campaign within the party for individuals, CLPs, and so on, to sign up to this programme. I would urge people to think very hard, interrogate, and question if that comes up in your CLP. I think it misidentifies both the problem and the potential solution.

I don't think I can conclude more succinctly than by reading the conclusion from Michael Elms' article in Solidarity, which I think expresses a better remedy this problem:

"Workers’ Liberty rejects a theory of world politics based on “good peoples” and “bad peoples”. We reject conspiratorial explanations for world events. We believe that the answer to all colonial wars and national liberation struggles is to apply the democratic principle of self-determination for nations, to support oppressed nations in their struggle for self-determination and to apply the principle equally to all nations.

"Until the rest of the left takes up an approach to the Israel-Palestine based on democracy, and abandons the formulas which are the inheritance of Stalinism, left-wing anti-semitism will continue to surface and re-surface, and no amount of hand-wringing or expulsions will change that."

The only real solution to this problem, the only real way to tackle the phenomenon of left anti-semitism, a discrete political phenomenon which is not simply equatable with conscious, anti-Jewish racism, is to replace the left's existing common sense on Israel/Palestine, Zionism, and Jewish identity - a political common sense inherited almost wholesale from Stalinism - with a new common sense based on consistent democracy and equality, ideas that were at the very heart of the pre-Stalinist Marxist project, and which must be urgently reintegrated into its political core.


Submitted by John D on Sat, 30/04/2016 - 21:37

To DR:
This presentation is the the clearest, most incisive overview of the topic that I have seen in a long time, anywhere.
I just wanted to express my appreciation for the humanity and decency with which you laid out your analysis. AWL is simply miles ahead.

Thank you.


Submitted by Jason Schulman on Sat, 14/05/2016 - 22:09

Dan -- I'd just like to know. Is there anything in this piece by our mutual friend Barry Finger that you disagree with?…

Submitted by AWL on Sun, 15/05/2016 - 17:23

In reply to by Jason Schulman

No, not really. My difference with him (and, I think, with you) is one of emphasis, as discussed elsewhere.

Out of similar curiosity, do you disagree with anything in my presentation on antisemitism on the left?



Submitted by Jason Schulman on Sun, 15/05/2016 - 19:21

The difference you have with me (and Barry) may simply be a continental difference, so to speak. Among Jews I know, in the U.S., if you call yourself a Zionist, then that means that you're inclined to agree with whatever the Israeli government does. If you don't, then you're non-Zionist or anti-Zionist.

Of course, the most awful Zionists in the U.S. are Christians United For Israel (CUFI) and similar groups. (Jews are wonderful, you see, as long as they're Over There for when Jesus comes back and tells them they must convert or they'll be left behind after The Rapture...)

In any case, like Barry, I don't have a problem talking about the continuing "colonial project at the heart of Zionism" and such. You and others in the AWL seem to want to eschew this. If it's because antisemitism is a bigger problem in the UK than the U.S. then I understand. But I don't see how one can discuss Zionism *as an ideology* without bringing this up.

So while many UK Jews who oppose the colonialism and brutality of the Israeli state many think of themselves as Zionists, they probably really aren't.

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 20/05/2016 - 15:18

To be perfectly honest, my personal wish is that the term "Zionism" be consigned to history. I think it ceased to have much material grip in 1948, when its historical project was accomplished. What has it meant since then? Support for the continued existence of the Israeli state, in any form? Support for its continued existence as a Jewish state? Support for its colonial project in the Palestinian territories? Some combination of all of these things? Something else entirely?

Much of what is spoken about today as "Zionism" (by people who are actually trying to make the word means something, rather than crypto-antisemites simply using it as a code-word for "Jews") would be more accurately termed Israeli-Jewish chauvinism or ultra-nationalism. Those terms are clunkier, perhaps, but they also avoid the flattening out of a complex historical category and the provocative and fruitless affront to the complex, historically-developed identity of (probably) most Jews alive.

Imagine a Jew who is for two states, who opposes the occupation, who wants to end settlement building, who supports civil rights and equality for Israeli Arabs, etc., but for reasons of historical affinity sees themselves, in however loose a sense, as a "Zionist" (as in, they support the existence of the Israeli state and would "defend" that existence against those who oppose it). There are many such Jews in Britain, and I imagine in America too. Theirs is a "Zionism" one hopes would "wither away", as it were, "in struggle". But if the far left they encounter maintains an "absolute anti-Zionism" that insists they immediately jettison this complex aspect of their historically-developed identity, and tells them, "you might think you're a Zionist, but you're not really: Zionism is colonialism, Zionism is racism! Unless you accept that you are not, in fact, a Zionist, you must be a colonialist and a racist!", then I think they are more likely to end up retreating behind the cordons of ethno-cultural identity that growing beyond them.

You're right, I think, that context, both geographical and historical, matters a great deal. In Israel itself I suspect I'd have less of a problem with straightforwardly describing myself as "anti-Zionist". I also have no problem identifying as a "pre-WW2 anti-Zionist". But in the contemporary context in Britain, where something called or understood as "Zionism" both a) forms an integral aspect of the historically-developed identity of most Jews, based on inherited experiences and cultural memories of oppression, persecution, and most crucially, the Holocaust, and b) is perhaps the key term used by antisemites, on both the right and the left, to attack not just the Israeli state or government but all Jews, and who make "anti-Zionism" an exceptionalised point of departure for their politics in a way they don't with the nationalism of any other group; then I prefer "non-Zionist".



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