The Left’s “Antisemitism Problem” And Their Focus On Israel

Is the Left’s alleged critical focus on Israel good grounds for thinking it has an ‘antisemitism problem’?

I have recently been engaged in a very interesting discussion on Facebook about the Left’s supposed antisemitism and Israel problem. It’s widely supposed Labour has a major antisemitism problem that needs to be dealt with. Of course, there is antisemitism everywhere, but is there significantly more among Leftists? That’s the suggestion.

I don’t see that the evidence supports the view that Labour has a major antisemitism problem. Labour has around half a million members. I noted that:

(i) As of last summer, after various accusations were made in the Press and social media examples had been cited, a total of around 20 suspensions of Party members had been made. Out of half a million members.

(ii) Press reports of alleged examples of Leftist antisemitism are anecdotal evidence – notoriously poor evidence. Finding 20, 50, 200, or even 2,000 examples of antisemitism in Labour would not establish that Labour had a particular problem with antisemitism. I would add that many of the alleged examples cited in the press in any case look pretty suspect.

(iii) The Chakrabarti inquiry looked into the accusations of significant antisemitism in Labour and found no significant problem. Chakrabarti is a woman who was very widely respected, though after her report came out many centrists accused her of corruption.

(iv) Channel 4 did an undercover investigation of Momentum, looking for dirt, including antisemitism. They found none.

(v) A recent study into antisemitism by the Jewish Research Policy found that levels of antisemitism were no higher among the left or far left than amongst the general population.

So, I concluded, the evidence for Labour having a major antisemitism problem is just not there.

London protesters march against an Israeli operation in Gaza. Copyright RT.

The Left’s critical focus on Israel

In response to my scepticism regarding ‘Labour’s antisemitism problem’, it was then suggested by several commentators that what justifiably condemns the Left of antisemitism is the way they tend to focus on Israel when it comes to criticising abuses of human rights, etc. What about Cuba, China, and other Leftist states? Why don’t they get criticised to the same extent? And what about Saudi Arabia, which also engages in violent oppression, discriminates against non-Arabs, and so on? These other States are not criticised nearly as much by the Left. This, it’s supposed, establishes, or is at least pretty good evidence, that the Left do have a major antisemitism problem.

Again, I am highly skeptical. True, antisemitism would explain the particular focus on Israel. But there is an obvious alternative explanation that also accounts for the particular focus on Israel. Here is a sketch (more could be added):

  1. Many Westerners believe, I think justifiably, that Western governments operate with a double standard when it comes to Israel. Israel is allowed nuclear weapons, was aided by the West in acquiring them. Israel abducts people from Western countries illegally. Israel occupies territories that do no belong to them, and so on. When other countries do these things, they tend to be severely criticised and even have sanctions imposed. Israel largely gets a free pass.
  2. Western Governments have enormous potential influence over Israel given that some actually fund it (e.g. they don’t merely have business ties with Israel, they pump US tax-payers money into it). Yet those Governments do not exercise much control over Israel at all. They just stand idly by while Israel entrenches its grip on the occupied territories, etc.
  3. Leftists are often biased to the Left. Hence they are likely to be more critical of non-Left regimes than Left regimes due to their pro-Left bias. This would obviously explain their differing attitudes to the oppression carried out by Israel vs. that carried out by Cuba or China, say.
  4. Westerners are far more aware of the actions of Israel re the Palestinians given the extensive Western media reporting of it, than they are the oppression that goes on in Cuba, Saudi, China, etc. over which Western Governments in any case have far less potential control. Again this would obviously explain a Western focus on criticising Israel other than in terms of antisemitism.
  5. Israel has a huge influence over Western governments through lobbying, etc. e.g. For example, no US Congressperson dare criticise Israel because they fear they will be targeted and removed. President Jimmy Carter notes that  ‘It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with International law or to speaking defence of justice or human rights in Palestine.’ No other state has such influence over Western governments. True Saudi has also had considerable influence that has largely gone unnoticed till now, influence that has also corrupted our relations with that country, resulting in oppression and injustice being ignored. But now that Saudi’s injustice is becoming better known, many Westerners, including many Leftists, are criticising Saudi too.

So, put these five points together and they collectively provide a highly plausible explanation for why a Westerner might focus particularly on criticising Israel for human rights abuses, etc. Individuals may feel under an obligation, given their own Governments’ exceptional support of Israel, to themselves take an exceptional stance regarding Israel – to say ‘No, not in my name’.

Israel, antisemitism, Left
The BDS campaign is highly controversial for its purported antisemitism / copyright:


They may also, with some justification, feel they have a better chance, by influencing their own governments, of changing things for the better in Israel than of changing things for the better in Cuba, or Venezuela, or someone else where the West is, in any case, already taking serious action.

Note that it won’t do, in order to undermine the explanation I outlined above, to point out regarding 4. above that it does not explain why Leftists tend to focus more on injustice in Israel than in Saudi. It’s true, 4. does not explain that, for Saudi is not a Leftist regime. But of course such a critic is overlooking the fact that my claim is not that each of these explanations is individually sufficient to account for the difference in attitudes re Israel and other oppressive regimes. My claim is that they are collectively sufficient. Which I think they are.

Where the onus of proof lies

Also note that the onus is on those making the accusation of anti-semitism to establish antisemitism, not on those accused to prove their innocence. The mere fact that someone’s being a bigot would explain their actions (i) does not justify accusing them of being a bigot, and (ii) does not mean the onus is on them to prove their innocence.

To illustrate: I am serving in a shop and someone buys short length of heavy rubber hose. I cry out: “This man is probably a wife beater!” I justify my accusation by pointing out that his being a wife beater would explain why he bought that length of hose (which it would, notice). I insist he must now prove his innocence. OR: I meet a scout leader at a party. On discovering he is a scout leader, I exclaim: “I strongly suspect this man is a paedophile!” After all, his being a paedophile would fully explain why he chose that particular occupation. I insist he must now prove his innocence.

Clearly, in these cases, the person is accused unjustly. The onus is not on them to prove their innocence but on me to establish their guilt, which I have not done.

In fact, in these examples, my accusation likely reveals a great deal about me – that probably either (i) I am ridiculously, obsessively keen to make such accusations, and/or (ii) I have some other personal grudge against the person accused.

Accusations of antisemitism should be taken seriously. There is a problem. I am obviously not denying that. But is there a particularly serious problem when it comes to the Left? I remain unconvinced. The fact that some folks are antisemtic would explain their being particularly critical of Israel is not good grounds for thinking that such people are, then, antisemitic. Just as there are many obvious alternative reasons (other than wife beating and paedophilia) why someone might buy that length of rubber hose or become a scout leader, so there are obvious alternative reasons (other than antisemitism) why folk on the Left might tend to be particularly critical of Israel (assuming they are).

Suppose my explanation fails? What follows?

So, the fact that some Westerners are particularly critical of Israel is entirely reasonable given, and well-explained by, the fact that their own Western governments are particularly in thrall to Israel.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am mistaken about this. Suppose we establish this is not the explanation of why Leftists tend to focus their criticisms particularly on Israel. Would we then be justified in accusing such Leftists of antisemitism?

If I join and campaign for an anti-racist organisation, but don’t take similar action re sexism and able-ism, does that give others grounds for accusing me of bigotry – of being sexist and ableist? No. Maybe my choice is down to some arbitrary factor, like fashion, or convenience. Maybe it’s just more fashionable at that point to join an anti-racist campaign rather than an anti-ableist campaign, say. Or maybe it’s easier for me to join an anti-racist campaign. Or the anti-racist campaign is just much better advertised.

Fashion would not really be a justification for my choice of activism. Still, the fact that I followed fashion in joining the anti-racist campaign rather than another wouldn’t make me a bigot/able-ist/sexist. Ditto then someone who takes a particular interest in campaigning against the abuses committed by one country despite other countries being equally guilty. The mere fact that they’re not justified in taking that line does not suffice to make them bigots.

In short, there remain on the table all sorts of other explanations for the Left’s particular focus on Israel, such as fashion, convenience, publicity, etc. etc. These other explanations must be removed, or shown to be pretty unlikely, before the charge of antisemitism is substantiated. Those leveling the charge of antisemitism against the Left typically make no attempt to do this.

But in any case, as I say, I think the explanation I sketched out above does explains well why Leftists might tend to focus more criticism on Israel.


Israel boycott anti semitism
Protesters in San Francisco call for a boycott of Israel. Copyright Times Of Israel.

The ad hominem fallacy

But suppose we could establish that the Left does have a major antisemitism problem. Would that mean we could safely ignore their criticisms of Israel? Obviously not. Their criticisms of Israel might be sound even if, as a matter of fact, the critics are antisemitic. Yet, in response to criticisms of Israel – of the criticism that Israel is an apartheid state, for example – the actual criticism is rarely if ever discussed. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively switched to the character of the person making the criticism. They are immediately accused or at least suspected of being antisemitic, and thus they are thrown on to the defensive. As a response to such criticisms of Israel, this is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy.

Moral scumbags

One last thought. We have a moral duty not to make false or dodgy (not well-established) accusations of antisemitism. Those who casually make such accusations (i) are crying wolf, thereby actually increasing the risk to Jewish people, (ii) abusing the memory of six million dead people, (iii) unjustly smearing people who are likely innocent. Let me be frank: anyone who makes such accusations knowingly, for partisan political purposes, is a moral scumbag.

By the way, I make exactly the same points re false or dodgy accusations of Islamophobia, able-ism, racism, and so on.

Stephen Law is an English philosopher and Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He also edits the philosophical journal Think, which is published by the Royal Institute of Philosophy and aimed at the general public.

Article Discussion

  • Posted by Jonathan Glass

    7 October, 2017 at 2:32 pm This article says it all really

  • Posted by Joshua

    25 September, 2017 at 12:23 am

    This article applies inverted fallacious argument to obscure an obsessional predisposition to attacking a pluralistic country by denying its right to exist. When the accusation of antisemitism is levelled against the perpetrator, the reflex is to denounce the victim for raising the subject. What this article shows is that the leftist antisemite has adapted defensive smoke screens to deflect the issue at hand. Ironically the writer of this article has put himself in the position of making himself part of the problem and not part of the solution. Dr Law shows a total lack of appreciation of the issues of antisemitism by simply denying that there is a serious problem. As for the "recent discovery" by the left of the human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia as being something that has become better known , as if Amnesty and Human Rights organisations, had only just discovered it, is a preposterous assertion!

  • Stephen's article circunvent around the Zionist-Israel issue, but never address the real issue: Anti-Israel-anti-Zionist activism, which denies Israel legitimacy, Anti-Zionism i.e. Jewish political self expression is denied to Jews, but no to other nations. That in itself would be an anti-jewish stand, When Jews are not alowed what all other nations take for granted, their legitimacy as a political entity, then one is entitle to query the motivation of these activists. I am not refering to critism of Israel, but the denounciation of the legitimacy of Israel. He could argue that Jews are not a "people" and that is an ant-jewish-stand. Stephen should take a hard look at the anti-Zionists activists, most advocate the destruction of Israel. Why?, In view of the history on Antisemitism I do feel entitle to ask the question from the anti-Zionists why is it so easy to hate Israel and Zionists.

  • (from Stephen Law) This might be relevant. Antisemitism Pareidolia.

    • Posted by Joshua

      26 September, 2017 at 11:28 am

      No it is not relevant. Your comment and example trivialises the issue. There's no "might" or "might not" problems in the LP. News is slipping out at what is happening at the LP Conference. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party is alarmed at the discourse being carried on by members of the LP. Stephen, I think you really need to take a closer look at this before writing this sort of stuff. I know you seriously are against anti-Semitism, but it has turned into a much bigger problem and you are closing your eyes to it and defending the perpetrators of it.

  • This seems to me to be a better, less self-complacent and shallow analysis:

  • Posted by Margaret Macdonald

    18 September, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    This is an admirable attempt to rationalise a dangerous and mysterious modern phenomenon - that of accusing a large body of people of a soecific & severe prejudice despite all their protestations to the contrary. And this particular prejudice does seem to have greater levels historically of reported prevalence across the world. But I am still left with the quandary about how this can be stopped or at least defused. As best it threatens to distract and at worst it may lead to fear of all things Jewish for fear of saying the wrong thing and being misunderstood. If there is mischief behind the accusations, designed only to foment discord, then it won't ever be stopped. Sadly, rather than increasing our understanding and interest in all things Jewish, this demonising is more likely to result in people giving Jewish matters a wide berth out of fear of being misunderstood.

  • I learnt anti-racism as a result of the post-war revelations about the holocaust, I was then and continue to be vehemently opposed to anti-semitism, but Israel is a fascist state. The Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians, the violence and injustice are oppressive and unacceptable. So I am anti-Isreal not anti-Jew. I am opposed to the unequal treatment of all whatever their ethnicity, origins or faith!

  • I have only recently become interested in this topic. due to looking to get actively involved in a party - and Labour (LP) is the obvious one - given the sorry state of government in the UK. Sadly I keep on seeing that Stephen fails to really address the issues at hand. I agree with both Robert Jennings and riccooper above. Let me add the following: Stephen has been informed about the Macpherson principle before and has failed to address it then and now (and I was definitely expecting this to be addressed in this post, given prior discussions with Stephen). The issue over double standards was brought up previously when he posted an article (on facebook) which inaccurately represented the guidelines on criticism of Israel and rooting out bigots in the LP - an article that implied that *any* criticism of Israel was antisemitic, which according to the used definition of antisemitism is quite incorrect, it is only when double standards are applied. Now this issue of double standards, and arguably justifying singling out Israel as a compensation for another double standard, is the crux of the matter regarding this article. However listing it quickly in a bullet is failing to give this issue justice that it deserves. Stephen is a much published philosopher but has yet again displayed that, despite the preparation, care and attention he has admirably brought to other topics, he is (in my view) recklessly and woefully under-prepared here. In particular, the last two sections are quite unbalanced (maybe in a number of senses of that term), and, maybe I am naive, but one should expect better of a professional philosopher advocating politics in public.

    • MacPherson? Read my article to which I link at the end.

  • The first paragraph under the heading 'Where the onus of proof lies' drives a coach and horses through the Macpherson principle that the judgment whether an act or statement is bigoted or not is in the gift of the complainant, not any authority and certainly not the perpetrator. The final paragraph (Moral scumbags) is rank bullying. Therefore I must conclude that this entire article is itself an example of antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism.

    • I refer you to my final paragraph.

      • Your article to which you link in your final paragraph makes the valid point that some accusations of antisemitism (and other prejudices) are made in bad faith. That is correct in the case of those accusations - particularly those coming from people in authority - which seek to shut down debate. I have no desire to shut down debate, even if I could. But in that article you yourself admit that members of the 'victim group' are better able to judge the presence or absence of prejudice against them than outsiders.

        • NO I am pointing the finger at you. Personally. As you did me.

  • Posted by Robert Jennings

    17 September, 2017 at 7:54 am

    There are indeed legitimate reasons that the Left focuses on Israel, and you have listed many of them. That said, I think you understate the ease with which sincere anti-Zionist rhetoric can slip--often unintentionally--into antisemitic tropes of Jewish conspiracy-power. Beware the "Livingstone Formulation":

  • Posted by aintnosin

    17 September, 2017 at 5:17 am

    Neither China, Cuba, nor Saudi Arabia position themselves as a western-European style democracy as Israel does. If you make that claim, you can expect to be held to a higher standard than Cuba or China. And I don't think it's accurate to claim that the left doesn't criticize Saudi Arabia. Maybe it's different in the UK, but here in the states, the left (the "Bernie left" anyway) doesn't have anything nice to say about an absolute theocracy that beheads people in public for drug possession.

  • Posted by Bernard Grant

    16 September, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    I couldn't fault this analysis. The only point I would make/add is, I believe the accusation that the Left is antisemitic, is coming from those that support Israel and all it does to Palestine and its people. The accusation that the Labour Party has a real problem with antisemitism was, solely to stop Corbyn from ever becoming Prime Minister, because he is totally against the behaviour of Israel against the Palestinians.

    • Good article. The fact is that the left DO criticise other countries. A good socialist will criticise every country in the world, because none are socialist. In Britain we mainly criticise our own government. Labour has just banned Saudi Arabia from it's conference. Most people on the left criticise Saudi Arabia as much as they criticise Israel. We criticise Trump too. Netanyahu doesn't.

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