Along with the Soviet Union’s accusation that Zionism is racism, the left has inherited the Communist Party’s “politics of position,” as David Hirsh calls it in his new book Contemporary Left Antisemitism. What you are determines whether or not what you say will count. (How many campus arguments have been clinched with the accusation of “white privilege”?) If you are a Zionist, your words are worthless; you can’t possibly have an argument worth listening to.
In left-wing circles these days, Hirsh comments, “the notion of ‘progressiveness’ attache[s] itself to peoples and nations rather than to political movements or to ideas,” and Jews have found themselves on the wrong side of this crude black-and-white binary. Jews are oppressors, not victims. A common tactic of the British anti-Zionist left is to treat any raising of the issue of anti-Semitism as a dirty trick, something that Jews have invented to claim special privileges for themselves.
But why should anyone care? Jews no longer face pogroms, and Israel has plenty of room for improvement. Jews in America and the United Kingdom are mostly well-educated and financially secure. The Jews of France might have more reason to feel endangered, but if they want to leave for Israel, most have the means to buy a plane ticket. And in Israel, at least for the moment, Jews are rarely subject to terrorist violence. Shouldn’t we focus on other kinds of racism that affect more genuinely downtrodden groups?
Well, there is the statistical fact that Jews are targeted by killers and casual bigots alike more often than more fashionable religious victim groups in Western societies. But even putting that reality aside, giving special-victim status only to certain groups while excluding others is bad politics and bad morality. Like Donald Trump’s sham populism, anti-Semitism destroys our political climate, by providing a portal through which widespread distortions of social reality and links to repulsive, anti-American and irrational political ideas may enter.
Surprisingly, contemporary anti-Semitism is mostly an echo of Soviet propaganda. Zionism=racism, the UN resolution passed in 1975 and repealed in 1991 after the Soviet Union collapsed, was a Communist idea that is now resurgent on college campuses and in left-wing political circles. Communism invented the use of anti-Zionism as a cover for anti-Semitism, as well as the notion that Israel is an agent of Western imperialism. The anti-Zionist left were pioneers of fake news, another Leninist innovation, even before Glenn Beck or Breitbart on the right. Often, the point of such fake news is that Israel, or the Jews, are uniquely malevolent, powerful, and cruel; they—we—delight in killing Palestinian children, or at least covering up for those who do. We push America into wars—an interesting thesis, Valerie Plame Wilson seems to think—and we destroy the careers of anyone who “criticizes” Israel.
I put “criticizes” in quotation marks because the anti-Semitic left consistently elides the difference between criticism and vicious racism. To say that Jewish soldiers resemble Nazis, or that Gaza is like Auschwitz, or that Israel is worse than South Africa under apartheid, is not an act of criticism. It is a claim that Israelis, like Nazis, embody evil, and should be cast out of the human community. Moreover, Zionists are coldhearted and conspiratorial. They’re not actually offended by being compared to Nazis, even if the Nazis murdered their relatives. So it must be they’re just pretending to be hurt. Jackie Walker, who was suspended from Labour for anti-Jewish slurs, is currently staging a one-woman show in North London titled The Lynching, which depicts her persecution at the hands of a Zionist lynch mob. Walker has never displayed any trace of recognition that her comments might have wounded people; for her, the real story is the Zionist plot “to smash the most radical political movement in your lifetimes.”
How can Jews be hurt or scared, when they’re the ones who actually have all the power, which they are using, daily, to oppress others, while pursuing their own selfish ends?
Hirsh’s book focuses mostly on Britain, which has seen an upsurge in anti-Jewish racism on the left over the past three years. The comeback of anti-Semitism in British politics is largely the work of Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected head of the Labour Party in 2015. Corbyn’s record is clear. He refuses to recant his statement that Hamas and Hezbollah, two overtly genocidal organizations, are his “friends.” He never criticized Hamas during his numerous visits to Gaza. He moderated programs for Iranian Press TV, a stridently anti-Semitic news channel. He has allied himself in the past with Holocaust deniers, terrorists, purveyors of blood libel, and Sept. 11 revisionists.
Whereas previous Labour leadership made it clear that they are against boycotting Israel, Corbyn maintains a studied silence. The result of all this is that only 13 percent of British Jews are planning to vote Labour in the next election.
The British people aren’t anti-Semites, and the huge majority of Labour MPs aren’t either. But Corbyn has enabled and sometimes encouraged the anti-Semitism that now engulfs his party—and the party faithful, at least some of them, have responded to his message. Speakers at fringe Labour meetings during the party conference about a month ago defended Holocaust denial, called for Jewish groups to be expelled from the party, and equated Israelis with Nazis.
In the wake of this outpouring of hate from his allies, Corbyn has supported a Labour rule change that will, it is promised, come down harder on anti-Semites in the party. But the rule change says nothing about expelling, or even suspending, anti-Semitic members. And it is hard to imagine Ken Livingstone or Ken Loach, both pillars of Labour, ever being forced out of the party, despite their record of anti-Semitic statements, including openness to Holocaust denial and comparing Jews with Nazis. With Theresa May’s Tories wallowing in self-induced chaos, Corbyn looks increasingly likely to be the next British prime minister, and if that happens, we might see the first anti-Semitic ruling party in Western Europe since World War II.
How can this happen? Hirsh cites a 2015 op-ed by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown that appeared in the Independent titled “Fling mud if you must but don’t call Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite.” Alibhai-Brown wrote:
The right, Blairites and hard Zionists have formed the most unholy of alliances….Most depressing of all is the collusion between the powerful right and Zionists. They seem determined to crush all alternatives to neoliberal economics and Western hegemony….as the forces of darkness turn on Corbyn, the leadership contest continues its descent into a passion play.
“Unholy alliances,” “collusion,” “forces of darkness,” and finally a “passion play”—with Corbyn the savior crucified by Jews? I have no idea whether or not Alibhai-Brown is an anti-Semite, but clearly, her unconscious has been wired with anti-Semitic tropes. This is a key part of Hirsh’s argument: writers who repeat the rhetoric of anti-Semitism are often shocked when they’re told that what they’re doing is anti-Semitic. Their indignation is real. They know they don’t hate Jews, and so the anti-Semitism charge can only be a nasty, groundless slur. Often, it’s assumed that anti-Semitism in leftist politics couldn’t be possible because the left is by definition anti-racist.
Yet the boundary between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is usually quite clear. To charge Israel with racism or with ethnic cleansing in 1948 is not anti-Semitic. When India and Pakistan were created and Poland re-established after WWII large-scale ethnic cleansing also occurred. America and Europe are, like Israel, no strangers to racism. But when Brian Reade wrote in the Daily Mirror in 2009 that, in Gaza, “1,314 dead Palestinians temporarily sated Tel Aviv’s blood lust,” that was anti-Semitic.
The EU Working Definition of anti-Semitism lays down the ground rules well: Denying Jewish self-determination by saying that Israel is merely a racist project is anti-Semitic. Applying double standards to Israel is anti-Semitic. So is using the classic images of Christ-killing and blood libel, comparing Israelis to Nazis, saying that Jews control the world, and claiming that Israel is uniquely evil—or uniquely worthy of boycott.
Hirsh devotes one of his best chapters to the Jew who declares herself anti-Zionist, and like the African-American Trump supporter is placed just behind the podium, in full view of the cameras. One example is the late Tony Judt, a powerful academic and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books with a chair at NYU who often portrayed himself as a hapless victim of the Jewish lobby. Judt cheerfully admitted that what he was saying—namely, that there was “nearly” a “de facto conspiracy,” directed by Jewish organizations, to “prevent certain kinds of conversations”—“sounds an awful lot like, you know, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and added “well if it sounds like it it’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it is.” That “nearly” was put in to distinguish Judt’s argument from David Duke’s, but Duke was very happy for the help given him by the eminent Jewish professor, the same way that he was delighted when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son retweeted an anti-Semitic meme targeting George Soros.
Another of the British left’s pet anti-Zionist Jews is the psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose, who thinks that Israeli Jews are “violent oppressors” because they have not put the Holocaust behind them, as, in her view, they should have. Bad manners, that. So the Shoah becomes a moral lesson for the Jews, one they have failed to learn (imagine someone putting forward the thesis that African-Americans are all violent rapists because of their failure to, you know, put slavery behind them). Meanwhile, the European perpetrators of the genocide have, one supposes, emerged unscarred.
Rose typecasts wicked, neurotic Israel against a healthy, serenely multicultural Europe. In reality, as Hirsh remarks, everyone in Europe has been damaged by the Holocaust. When Rose uses the traumatic event to blame Jews, she reveals her own relation to a tragic history that also affected her, in ways that are clearly unhealthy.
It’s no surprise that Corbyn, who has over the years embraced everyone from the Castro brothers and Hugo Chavez to IRA terrorists, as well as a good handful of Jew-hating radicals, would become a magnet for leftist anti-Semites. Despite his ritual condemnation of all racism, including Jew-hatred, anti-Semites in the Labour Party have reason to suspect that he’s really on their side. There is a strong likeness between the left-wing populist Corbyn and the right-wing populist Trump, who denounces neo-Nazis while defending the “good people” who march with them. It is no surprise that Russia Today, the state-sponsored news channel of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, endorsed both Corbyn and Trump, as well as Germany’s hard-right Alternative für Deutschland; it has also given a platform to white racists and Holocaust deniers.
On one view Putin the pragmatist simply promotes whatever politicians will weaken America, Britain, and Germany. But more likely he recognizes they are all birds of a feather, his natural allies in spreading “alternative facts.”
The idea that Jews pull all the strings is the best-known alternative fact on our conspiracy-mad planet. And where anti-Semitism flourishes, other hatreds are sure to sprout.
This article is part of a week-long Tablet series analyzing the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.