Labour Herald, a newspaper produced by the WRP and Labour left figures including Ken Livingstone and Ted Knight, published this antisemitic cartoon of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1982
Left antisemitism is a phenomenon that has, in my view, two principal historic strands, which now overlap and intertwine.
One, the primitive form, is the so-called “socialism of fools”, originating in the 19th century, that railed against Jewish bankers and conflated Jews with capital and finance. The second, more contemporary, strand developed over the second half of the 20th century, manifested in policies and perspectives which argue that Israel is an almost uniquely reactionary and illegitimate state, and that Jewish nationalism, Zionism, is an almost uniquely reactionary and illegitimate form of nationalism.
Antisemitism seeks to develop an explanatory worldview, based on the notion that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of powerful Jews. The late Moishe Postone described it as a “reactionary critique of capitalist modernity”, with a “pseudo-emancipatory dimension”. It is therefore particularly dangerous for any movement seeking to develop a genuinely radical critique of capitalism and oppression.
There was an antisemitic element to the writing of several prominent mid-19th-century left wingers. These people thought of themselves as, and in many cases, genuinely were, in the context of their time, radicals and progressives, but they saw antisemitism as a compatible part of their left-wing worldview — precisely because of that trope of Jewish power, of the conflation of Jews with capital.
Since the 2008 financial crash, the resurgence of conspiracy-theorist narratives, fuelled by social media and prevalent in movements such as Occupy, has given new life to these ideas in broadly left-wing spaces. It’s vital that the left draws a distinction between this conspiracy-theorist thinking and the class-based and rational opposition to capitalism the left should promote.
Contemporary left antisemitism, however, has a different, or at least additional, set of ideological roots, in a particular attitude towards Israel and Zionism which sees Israel as the quintessential expression of imperialism; Zionism as wholly synonymous with racism and even fascism; and exerting an inflated, perhaps even controlling, influence on world affairs; and the conflict in the Middle East as resolvable only by the state of Israel being somehow done away with, rather than reformed in some way, however radical.
The Israeli state’s treatment of the Palestinians must be opposed. Opposition to national oppression should be fundamental for the left, which necessarily implies full-throated support for the Palestinian people’s right to self determination.
But Israel is not in a special category in terms of being an oppressive power; sadly, many states oppress other national groups. It is only for Israel that much of the far left routinely implies that the solution is to dismantle not merely Israel’s policies or system of government, or even its constitutional basis, but its very existence.
The way the far left sometimes talks and writes about Israel expresses this exceptionalisation. The Israeli state is sometimes referred to as “the Zionist state” and the Israeli Jewish national people as a whole are sometimes collectively referred to as “the Zionists”, fusing of a national people with a nationalist ideology. The left does not refer to Turkey as “the Kemalist state”, or Turkish people as “the Kemalists.” Israel is a “Zionist state” in the same sense that Britain is a “British nationalist state”. We rightly critique British nationalism, but if we’re talking about the British nation, we just say “Britain”.
It is not antisemitic to imagine a future in which there is a unitary, binational settlement encompassing the whole territory of historic Palestine, or beyond. Fundamentally that is a debate to be settled by democratic accommodation amongst the people of the region. Personally I think democratic confederation and a unitary state are inconceivable without a transitional settlement based on two independent states. It’s not antisemitic to discuss that; it’s being discussed by Israeli and Palestinian leftists very vigorously all the time. But what is logically antisemitic is the claim that the Israeli-Jewish national community — undeniably a nation by any operable definition of the concept — should have no national rights at all. This applies a discriminatory double-standard to the world’s only majority-Jewish national group, whose origins as a distinct national community are inextricably bound up with, and are largely a product of, historic anti-Jewish oppression and attempted genocide. To give you a flavour of how these politics have manifested on the far left, we can look to episodes such as the one in 1983, in which the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, then a prominent group on the far left, claimed to expose a “Zionist connection” running through 10 Downing Street, the Whitehouse, the BBC, and Socialist Organiser, another socialist group which had criticised the WRP as uncritical of and apparently funded by Libya, Iraq, etc., and which was the predecessor organisation of Workers’ Liberty.
Although these arguments are often presented less explicitly and sometimes less shrilly today, these conspiracy-theorist attitudes to Zionism and Israel, which deny the legitimacy not merely of Israeli policy or constitution, but of the entire Israeli-Jewish national group, are still evident across sections of the far left.
These arguments are an inheritance from Stalinism, even though many of their contemporary adherents would see themselves as anti-Stalinists. Stalinism made a sharp anti-Zionist turn shortly after the foundation of Israel. In the Doctors’ Plot of 1951, a group of mainly Jewish doctors were publicly accused of being involved in a “Zionist” plot to assassinate Stalin. The following year saw the Slansky trial, in which a prominent Jewish leader of the Czech Communist Party was accused of “Zionism”, and subsequently tried and executed.
This marked the beginning of a decades-long period of industrial-scale production of antisemitic propaganda in the Stalinist states, usually taking the form of invective against “Zionism”, via literally tens of thousands of newspaper articles, books, and cartoons.
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 a book called The Collapse of Zionist Theories, first published in English in 1980. We see some common motifs; Zionism as purely a project of capitalist colonial expansion, and the creation of Israel as a racist project driven by “millionaires”. This narrative falls back on many of the same conspiracy-theorist ideas we saw in primitive left antisemitism.
The experiences of persecution and genocide which turned Zionism from a minority current into a mass movement are harsh realities which continue to resonate in Jewish identity. And Jewish identity, like any ethnic, cultural, or national identity, is complex and sometimes contradictory. Some level of identification and affinity, however critical, with Israel, seen as, in Isaac Deutscher’s useful phrase, the “lifeboat” and “raft” for post-Holocaust Jewish refugees, makes up an aspect of that identity for many, probably most, Jews.
The Stalinist form of conspiracy-theorist anti-Zionism cannot begin to engage with these complexities. It necessarily implies hostility to 93% of Jews in Britain, according to studies, and probably a similar proportion of Jews around the world, and not merely to their political views, but to the very fabric of what, for them, comprises their Jewish identity. All of this is why statements like “it’s not antisemitic to oppose Zionism” or “it’s not antisemitic to criticise Israel” often obscure more than they clarify. Of course it’s not antisemitic to oppose Zionism or to criticise Israel; but some criticisms of Israel and Zionism can be antisemitic.
In debate around this issue in the Labour Party, many of the proposed solutions — tighter disciplinary measures, more expulsions, and so on — seek technical-bureaucratic fixes for political problems. A culture of knee-jerk expulsion will make the problem worse, not better. We need a political-educational campaign to confront these ideas.
The ultimate aim should be to replace the political common sense that the left inherits from Stalinism with a different one — based on consistent democracy, an assertion of the equal rights of all peoples and national groups, and rational analyses of history and contemporary society that reject conspiracy theories.
• This is an edited transcript from a Workers’ Liberty meeting,13 September 2020. Full talk here
• More from Workers’ Liberty on left antisemitism here
• More on Moishe Postone here.