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Antisemitism without Antisemites? Leftists on ‘Zionism’

By Ralph Seliger

This is my reflection on three recent British books about antisemitism and the Left, which I was originally commissioned to review for Jewish Currents.  But I dawdled until the editorial regime suddenly changed at Jewish Currents, and the new editor was not receptive.  The following is drawn from the publishers’ blurbs:

Robert Fine and Philip Spencer’s book ‘Antisemitism and the Left’ worries about and describes the return of the ‘Jewish Question’.  . .  

David Hirsh’s book ‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism’ begins with the Livingstone Formulation, describing how Jews who experience antisemitism are treated with more suspicion than are the people who actually [express] antisemitism itself.  It goes on to look at how antizionism and hostility to Israel, with its antisemitic discourses attached, moved into the mainstream of the Labour party from the extremist fringe … at the rise of Corbyn.  . . .

Dave Rich’s book‘The Left’s Jewish Problem’ traces Jeremy Corbyn’s issues with Israel and antisemitism back to their roots.  . . . 

These were written by British-Jewish academics who identify both with the left and their Jewishness.  British Jews are more likely than American Jews to see Zionism as integral to their Jewish identities, largely because their relative geographic closeness allows them to visit Israel more often, and perhaps as a smaller minority, also feeling less secure in Britain than Jews in America. 

Fine and Spencer’s work is a brief and pithy philosophical analysis of leftist thinking on Jews and antisemitism until today, going back to liberal Enlightenment figures who largely viewed Jewish religious particularism as a problem for humanitarian universalism.  Its authors also address how Karl Marx crudely attacked Judaism as a religion but also opposed antisemitism.  They do not excuse Marx’s use of antisemitic stereotypes, but since he supported the civic emancipation of Jews to full citizenship, they do not view him as antisemitic.  (Marx was converted as a child from Judaism to Lutheranism, but was occasionally subjected to antisemitic insults anyway; he does not seem to have identified as Jewish.)

All three books, but especially the other two, look very critically at Jeremy Corbyn and how Labour party discourse has changed regarding Jews in recent years.  The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is illuminating for the little-known history of anti-Zionist activism in the youth section of the Liberal party (no, I did not mean the Labour party) which was surprisingly enthusiastic for “Third Worldism” and anti-imperialism in the 1960s and ’70s, postures generally associated with more leftwing movements.  This capital L Liberal anti-Zionism was likely triggered by the post-1967 occupation of Palestinian territories. 

Rich’s book also documents Jeremy Corbyn’s long history as an anti-Zionist activist.  His emergence as leader of the Labour party represents a fascinating case for analysis on the left.   

I’m tempted to call this aspect of the Corbyn-left “anti-Israelism” rather than antisemitism.  Corbyn is more of a clueless simpleton in this regard than a fully self-aware hater; he and his supporters believe that they oppose antisemitism.  He’s railed on Twitter and similarly in other forums that “There is no place for antisemitism in the Labour Party.  We must drive it out of our movement for good.”

Yet he’s allied himself with haters, and his indifference to Jewish sensibilities and concerns is clear.  There can be no more generous conclusion about a politician who has infamously characterized members of the overtly antisemitic, violent and socially reactionary Hezbollah and Hamas as “friends.”  Corbyn laughingly fails even when he tries to reach out to the Jewish community, as when he attended a seder last year hosted by the virulently anti-Israel “Jewdas” group (whose official Twitter account called Israel “a steaming pile of sewage which needs to be properly disposed of”). 

These authors ably document the shortcomings of Corbyn and his hardcore leftist supporters, but they miss confronting the elephant in the room: that Israel’s hardline ethno-nationalist policies under Netanyahu — empowering annexationist movements that resist a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority and full equality for Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel — undermine Israel’s case for respect.  These Israeli policies also marginalize Jews abroad who see themselves as progressive and pro-Israel. 

Finally, I disagree with David Hirsh’s conclusion that it is antisemitic to be anti-Zionist, but I understand the context that leads him to this opinion.  (Btw, I know Prof. Hirsh slightly.)  It is qualitatively different to be anti-Zionist after the Holocaust rather than before, because the existence of the Yishuv (the self-governing Zionist community in Palestine) made it possible for half a million Jews to survive; and today, anti-Zionism invites the destruction of an entire nation.  Hirsh is profoundly accurate in describing how even defending Israel’s right to exist may place one beyond the “community of the good.”  

I don’t recall if the following nearly-poetic quote is from Hirsh’s book or another of his writings:

. . . the process we’re worrying about here is how we get constructed, from outside and in a hostile way, as ‘Zionist’.

I was once a sociologist. Then I got constructed as a Zionist sociologist. 

[Howard] Jacobson was once a novelist, now he’s a Zionist novelist. 

That means not a sociologist but a racist. Not a novelist but an agent of a foreign power.

The relevant definition of Zionist here is nazi, pro apartheid, right wing. 

5 Responses to “Antisemitism without Antisemites? Leftists on ‘Zionism’”

  1. Sheldon Ranz
    February 8, 2019 at 12:44 pm #

    1) Jewdas is a working-class group of British Jews – it consists of non-Zionists, anti-Zionists and Zionists. There is nothing laughable about attending its Seder – no anti-Semite would go near it. Its twitter characterization of today’s Israel sounds like something Ha’Aretz columnists Gideon Levy or Larry Derfner would write.

    2) Corbyn also called Uri Avnery a friend when mourning the latter’s passing last year. Avnery himself called high-ranking PLO officials – some with blood on their hands – friends or something synonymous. Corbyn does that because he thinks one has to be nice and respectful to people in order to get them to the peace table. Apparently, he should have learned by now that you do that by haranguing and insulting them!

    3) Corbyn actually has a long, documented history of fighting British anti-Semites and endorsing Holocaust memorials, going back to the 1970s. I’ve posted on my Facebook account that data from ‘toryfibs’, a researcher who debunks anti-Labour propaganda originating from the Tories.

    4) When it comes to dawdling and procrastinating, you’ve got nothing on me. I’m the Prince of Procrastination!

  2. Ralph Seliger
    February 8, 2019 at 1:47 pm #

    Since I make it clear that I’m NOT accusing Corbyn of antisemitism, Sheldon Ranz’s reaction is overblown. But it is good of Sheldon to indicate Corbyn’s history of opposing antisemitism. His history of strident anti-Zionist activism is much better known, and is the reason most British Jews don’t trust him. That Jewdas may include a few members who identify as Zionist and make criticisms that resemble the harshly-worded critiques by Gideon Levy in Haaretz only underline how far Corbyn is from successfully courting the mainstream of British Jewry.

  3. February 15, 2019 at 8:41 am #

    “Hirsh is profoundly accurate in describing how even defending Israel’s right to exist may place one beyond the ‘community of the good.'”

    I’m afraid I don’t know what you (or Hirsh) mean by that. (To be clear, I’m unfamiliar with Hirsh’s writings and much of the literature and political context you talk about.) Is Hirsh saying that defending Israel’s right to exist is bad because it leaves up for debate the notion whether Israel has a right to exist. something that (I presume) Hirsh thinks should be beyond debate? Or is he saying something different? (To be clear, I don’t question Israel’s right to exist. I’m just curious about the point Hirsh is making here.)

  4. Ralph Seliger
    February 15, 2019 at 4:00 pm #

    Hirsh has observed that simply stating that Israel has a right to exist — even if one also supports Palestinian rights within Israel and statehood alongside Israel — may cast such an individual as a “Zionist” and therefore outside of “the community of the good.” I hope this clarifies that statement for you.

  5. Gabriel Conroy
    February 15, 2019 at 8:29 pm #

    It does clarify it. Thanks so much for responding.

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