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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.