If antisemitism is restricted to a minority on the left, it’s necessary to address it as a specific problem and one defined by its context on the left.
As someone who has long voiced concerns about left-wing antisemitism, I found philosopher Stephen Law’s recent article for Conatus News interesting to reflect on. Of Law’s two main contentions, I found one, that even selective criticism of Israel is not good evidence for antisemitism, to be correct. The second, that there is not a significant or widespread “antisemitism problem” on the left, I found less convincing. I believe that Law’s argument concerning Israel is successful on its own terms, but does not do enough to assuage concerns about the failure of too many on the left to adequately address antisemitism.
Israel, selective criticism, and antisemitism
Criticising Israel is obviously not inherently antisemitic. Even for Zionists, policies of the Israeli government should be open to criticism and, in many cases, are deserving of it. Going further, I think that Law is right to argue that even criticising Israel whilst failing to criticise equally bad or worse human rights abusers is not on its own good evidence of antisemitism. It is also true that some supporters of Israel are too quick to use accusations of antisemitism as a way of shutting down or dismissing legitimate criticism.
“Even for Zionists, policies of the Israeli government should be open to criticism and, in many cases, are deserving of it”
Many of the other factors that can explain an incongruous focus on Israel are evidence of ignorance or moral failure. Avoiding criticism of left-wing regimes because they’re left-wing is obviously perverse and perhaps dishonest. Likewise, selecting causes based on fashion is poor conduct for any activist. Nevertheless, I agree that, whatever the failings inherent in such motives, they are not evidence of antisemitism.
Selective criticism of Israel is often, however, not an isolated single factor behind an accusation. For instance, repeatedly asserting a distorted historical account of Hitler being a Zionist, or alleging that the slave trade was primarily the responsibility of “the Jews”, is, I believe, unambiguous evidence of antisemitism. In fairness, these examples prove a point about specific individuals rather than good evidence for establishing that there is a “problem” on the left. I do, however, believe that these extreme cases reflect that certain tropes within left-wing thought can provide fertile ground for antisemitism.
Identity, privilege, and the Jews
The obvious example is identity politics and, particularly, a one-dimensional structuralist understanding of racism. Whilst recognising the particular manifestations of racism that are defined and enabled through structural and institutional power is important, exclusively defining racism in these terms leaves a dangerous blind spot regarding antisemitism.
Antisemitism differs from other forms of racism. Rather than necessarily being oppressed or economically/socially disadvantaged, Jews are typically at risk in virtue of being the prototypical outsider or ‘other’ in almost all societies. Indeed, antisemitism is often at its worst when it is, effectively, “punching up” and fuelled by resentment. Whether in the form of conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media, or the smearing of Jews as grasping corrupt financiers, antisemitism usually works by simultaneously emphasising the alien nature of the Jew and his sinister privilege/power.
Whilst a sufficiently sophisticated intersectionality could take account of this, simplistic identity politics is unequipped to understand it, let alone address it. In many cases, the identitarian left has gone further into outright antisemitism. Discussing whether or not Jews are “white” in order to determine whether or not you can be racist towards them, or discussing “Jewish privilege”, should be seen as obvious racism.
In some cases, this has to inform how we understand certain critics of Israel. When Malia Bouattia described Birmingham University as an “outpost of Zionism” and expressed concerns about a “Zionist led media”, for instance, her words must be seen in the historical context of pernicious antisemitic tropes of the ‘infiltrating Jew’ and the ‘media controlling Jew’. Likewise, crackpot opinions about the Jewishness of the slave trade draw on and reinforce the Mein Kampf image of Jews as the real power behind, and the ultimate source of, all social evils.
Such regressivism must not be taken to represent the left in general. It is fortunately questionable whether such views have any serious currency on the left outside of (very obviously antisemitic) student circles and the seemingly intentionally absurdist pages of The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’. Certainly, it would be unjustified to jump from this to saying that the left as a whole has an antisemitism problem. Still, I think it is fair to say that a specific kind of antisemitism stems from a (a sub-genre of) left-wing thought, and which should be recognised as distinct from antisemitism per se.
Underdogs, enablers, and Labour
This may, though, reflect indirectly on the wider left in a couple of ways. Firstly, the structuralist narrative stems from a flaw that a lot of left-wing thought is vulnerable to, which I like to call “underdog fetishism”. Given that the raison d’etre of the left is arguably to promote the interests of the disadvantaged, it is susceptible to viewing all situations through a lens that only recognises power imbalances and no other considerations. Concerning Israel, the fact that it is the stronger party can lead to (either express or unconscious) dismissal or justification of atrocities committed by Hamas (although, it should be noted that supporters of Israel can be just as guilty of citing Palestinian terrorism to legitimise or distract from Israeli wrongs).
“Given that the raison d’etre of the left is arguably to promote the interests of the disadvantaged, it is susceptible to viewing all situations through a lens that only recognises power imbalances and no other considerations”
The connection with antisemitism is that, in addition to violence, regressive opinions can be left unaddressed or excused if they come from a weaker party. In a UK context, this is particularly apparent regarding some elements within Muslim communities. To the extent that the Labour Party specifically has an “antisemitism problem”, it is mostly if, and to the extent that, Muslim antisemites believe that the party is a safe environment for them. Beyond Labour, the worrying status characters like Linda Sarsour have within some left-wing circles is testament to the problem of embracing those who stand for some of the dispossessed but entertain repugnant views of their own.
This need not be widespread (and it is fair to highlight that this concerns a small minority of Labour members) for it to reflect an insufficient effort from the leadership to make it clear that regressive attitudes of any kind are incompatible with Labour’s values. It is for this reason that Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence on condemning “all racism” rather than antisemitism specifically is a problem. Merely restating progressive values is insufficient for sending the signal that a specific form of regressivism is unwelcome.
It is only fair to add that Corbyn’s recent commitment to mechanisms for tougher internal discipline does go some way towards addressing this. Nevertheless, the flirtations with Holocaust denial that have happened at Labour’s 2017 Conference suggests that there is still evidence of too much tolerance among Labour members of a fringe of outright racists. Whilst selective criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-semitic, making offensive comments about Jews obviously is.
A word on conspiracies
Underdog fetishism is also what lies behind the unadulterated antisemitism that has existed among elements of the far-left since at least the 19th century. Where anti-capitalism has focused on international finance, this has often dovetailed with the classical antisemitism of the Shylock figure. Certainly this is apparent in the work of anarchist philosophers Mikhail Bakunin and Pierre Joseph Proudhon.
Contemporarily, this manifests in conspiracy theories. It should be uncontroversial that thinking that Mossad was behind 9/11, or that the Rothschilds control central banking, is antisemitic even if the person who believes it is not an antisemite. This is in no way a specifically left-wing phenomenon (with most contemporary conspiracy theories originating on the US far-right). It is, however, a fringe phenomenon and is necessarily endemic on the far-left much as it is on the far-right. The connecting thread is a rejection of Western media and the embracing of online alternative news sources and the likes of Russia Today.
This fortunately remains an inherently non-mainstream perspective, albeit one inherently endemic on the far-left as much as on the far-right. Further, the truly insidious consequence of wider conspiratorial thinking is the possibility of subtle bleed through into respectable discourse. The fact that the vast majority of left-wingers would not dream of countenancing these ridiculous antisemitic fantasies does not mean that it is not dangerous for these views to be festering in the margins of left-wing movements.
All of the above is subject to the proviso that it does not concern the majority of leftists. But just how large is the minority? It is fair to say that the number of explicit antisemites on the left is small, significantly smaller than the number on the far-right, and roughly the same as in society generally. And it is worth noting that it was not left-wing activists who recently marched through Charlottesville chanting, “the Jews will not replace us”.
This does not mean the issue can be treated as a marginal one. Left-wing antisemitism, unlike the far-right or Islamist manifestations, is very rarely explicit. But thinking “I hate Jews” is not the only way to be antisemitic. As noted, believing that the Rothschilds control the Bilderberg Group is an inherently antisemitic perspective. Likewise, regardless of intent, perpetuating blood libel myths about Israel intentionally murdering children draws on the oldest antisemitic lies. Even legitimate points, such as discussing the influence of the US Israel lobby, can have an antisemitic dimension and it is not unreasonable to maintain an awareness of an undercurrent of classic Protocols of the Elders of Zion rhetoric when dealing with such narratives. Views of this kind are more prevalent on the far-left than they are across society.
To reiterate, this is not intended to refute Law’s arguments. I agree that it is easy to exaggerate the extent of left-wing antisemitism and that this narrative can be used to smear legitimate critics of Israel. Even so, and even if antisemitism really is restricted to a minority on the left, it is necessary to address it as a specific problem and one that is indeed defined by its context on the left.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh