As a young boy growing up in the affluent North London suburb of Highgate, the writer and academic David Hirsh was always dimly aware that something was different. An uneasy family history lay behind his pleasant existence. Behind the joy there was trauma. He could sense it. Now, over forty years later, he worries that for young Jewish children, the type of idyllic childhood he enjoyed may one day be impossible.
Hirsh is one of the UK’s leading Jewish intellectuals and he is speaking out on the growing problem of anti-Semitism in this country. Above all, he fighting a strain of Western history’s oldest hatred coming from the unlikeliest of sources. Britain’s Labour Party, once the political home of much of the country’s Jewish population, is now led by the far-left, anti-Semite Jeremy Corbyn, and an inner circle dominated by extremists.
And, Hirsh, a true and lifelong a man of the left, is very, very worried.
* * *
The Genesis of Hirsh’s story, as for so many of today’s Diaspora Jews, lies in 1930s Europe. For him it’s Germany. He was always aware that his mother was different. The voice, the gestures: they were just slightly out of sync, a deviation from the norm. In time he learned that she was that perennial figure of Jewish history, a refugee.
His father, too, though born in Britain, was also out of place. A poor boy from Clapton in the east end of London, he was academically gifted and got a scholarship to Bancroft, an English public school. He found it difficult being a poor East End Jewish boy amidst affluent WASPS but if school taught him one thing it was how to pass as an English gentleman.
It was his mum not dad, 1930s Germany not Britain’s capital, that really formed Hirsh. Not long ago he took a trip that passed through the village of Eichstätt in Bavaria, the birthplace of his mother. Looking through the records he found that in 1930 the town had a population of 8000 people with 27 Jews. One of whom was his great grandfather, who owned the department store there. It sold everything—cloths, tablecloths, curtains, “all the schmutter” as Hirsh describes it to me. “And in the records,” he continues, “it shows that in 1933 orders came in to boycott Jews in the town. Party members started photographing people breaking the boycott, which, crucially to my mind, shows that it was initially unsuccessful.”
Hirsh found all this out just months ago, and it resonated with him given the BDS boycott campaign against Israel now going on across the West. “It just made me think,” says Hirsh almost dolefully. “Boycotting Jews has such a long history. You think of the Holocaust as this huge thing, with millions herded around, but in the beginning it was very intimate: small towns, a few families, a few boycotts of local businesses. And it just all spiralled.”
The same could be said for Hirsh’s intellectual development. His mother’s family built a successful cloth wholesaling business after arriving in the UK, which meant that combined with his father’s salary as a doctor, the young David grew up wanting for nothing in an environment that felt safe and normal and middle class. “It was strange given how close I was to refugees,” he says. But it was clear that the goal was to bring me up with the idea everything was fine.”
Hirsh attended the private Highgate School but the roots of left-wing thought had already begun to take hold. At 15, he convinced his parents to let him leave Highgate and enroll at the state Woodhouse School where he fell into leftist politics. He joined the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyist group. He then got a place at Sheffield University to study Physics but dropped out. He was hooked on left wing activism and spent the next half a decade as a political activist.
“I was a good Trot,” he laughs. “The AWL was not stupid and crucially not anti-Semitic, which was quite unusual.” During this time he worked a variety of jobs: everything from moving safes and telecoms equipment around London to driving a truck. He was even a taxi driver and thought about doing “The Knowledge,” the name given to the three-year course that London black cab drivers once had to undergo to learn almost every street in London (now rendered obsolete by GPS and Google Maps).
But, he reasoned, The Knowledge took the same time to complete as a degree so he went to City University in London to study sociology and “rid myself of the Marxist religion.” He eventually ended up doing a PhD with the great sociologist Robert Fine. In time, he, too, became an academic.
And began to witness first-hand the return of the very thing that had driven his mother from her homeland.
Hirsh has long been active in combating anti-Semitism. He is a founder of Engage, a campaign against the academic boycott of Israel, and coined the term the “Livingstone Formulation” after the (former) mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (a Hitler-obsessed former Labour politician and—naturally—a close friend of Jeremy Corbyn). The term describes the widespread tactic made famous by Livingstone whereby an individual faced with allegations of anti-Semitism, rather than seek to refute the charge, reverses it and accuses his accuser of “playing the anti-Semitic card” to stifle debate—usually, it is hinted, in the service of Israel.
In the end, Hirsh was driven to write a book about the return of anti-Semitism to public life, especially within the arena he knows best: the left. His 2017 book Contemporary Left Antisemitism set out, in forensic detail, the gradual mainstreaming of anti-Semitism from the 1980s to the present day.
“As a student in the 80s you saw Anti-Semitism, the whole ‘Zionist as racists’ thing but it was marginal,” says Hirsh. “Disputes among Trots. Then during the peace process in the 1990s it went away.”
“A convergence of events brought it back—at almost the same time and in a big way,” he continues. “The end of the peace process and beginning of the second intifada, the World conference Against Racism 2001, held in Durban, [South Africa, under UN auspices] which infamously equated Zionism with racism, and 9/11.”
Hirsh and his fellow leftists all now had families and children; they had gotten older. But all this and the Iraq War brought them back to activism. And this time getting your message out didn’t mean standing on a street corner selling papers. They had blogs. And so they began it all again: this time as leftists fighting the new Anti-Semitism.
Even then, they never suspected quite how bad it would get.
* * *
“I think Corbyn is a deeply uninteresting man,” says Hirsh, mulling the situation today. It’s been a tough month for the Labour leader as footage has emerged of him at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, accusing British Jews of failing to understand irony, despite having “lived here all their lives” and sharing (yet another) platform with a holocaust denier. “He is not demonic, he is not a leader; he is a follower. He finds where the median of far left orthodoxy is and sits there. Questioning nothing.”
But what might a Labour victory mean for the Jews?
“I don’t know specifically,” he replies. “There are various practical issues that might come up: there could be a fight around Jewish schools, a fight around foreign policy with Israel, a revival of the boycott movement, criminalization of having been in the IDF.”
He continues: “But that doesn’t really frighten me; what really frightens me is that a generation of left-wing activists are being taught that the enemy is the Jews. Added to which it’s now possible that Brexit could be a proper crisis.”
And with crises comes the need for scapegoats and with the need for scapegoats always, always comes the Jews.
Hirsh is now applying for a German passport because he thinks there is a possibility of a major political and economic crisis in Britain. “People are asking me as an expert in Anti-Semitism whether they should leave Britain. The question itself scandalizes me.”
He rightly points out that almost anything can happen in a Britain hurtling toward Brexit without a plan. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May’s rival for power, Boris Johnson has seemingly decided to go “full Trump” just as Labour is led by an anti-Semitic inadequate. Jews—in a classical pincer movement—could be threatened from both left and right.
“May is going to hit the buffers,” says Hirsh. “She cannot deliver her non-Brexit Brexit or pretend Brexit [compromise deals she is trying] so that will come apart and we are going to have two quite virulent populist movements. One that is right-wing, based on a narrative of the betrayal of the white working class by the elites, cosmopolitans etc, – terms that have always had the potential to metastasize into anti-Semitism, while on the left we have Corbyn.”
“All these movements, right or left, Le Pen or Trump or Corbyn all have quite a lot in common,” Hirsh continues. “Utter contempt for what exists, holding responsible the elites, establishments, or globalists or Clintonites, Obamaites. And of course [the Jew George] Soros is held to be absolute worst.”
For Hirsh our age has echoes of Communism’s “third period” idea, when both the USSR and the Nazis looked at the Weimar Republic and believed capitalism was in its third—and final—period. Today, many on both right and left also talk of the demise of capitalism. Back then both the communists and Nazis accordingly thought their real enemy was not the other but social democracy, which they considered to be the greatest threat to revolution.
The contemporary left and right’s mutual loathing for Liberalism and centrist politics can be seen as the 21st century version of this phenomenon. Reason is under attack; hysteria and extremity reigns.
“We on the intellectual left have been responsible for a lot of this,” Hirsh continues. “Sociology was originally taught as a critique of law and the democratic state. Now we teach the critique of liberalism before liberalism and we teach the critique of the state before we teach the state. Foucault was not an idiot but some people read him and get the idea that there is no such thing as truth, and that knowledge is just a function of power.”
He concludes: “Trump talks about fake news to dupe the people but in academia we were saying the Bourgeoisie uses the Bourgeoisie media to sow false consciousness: this is the root of idea of fake news—we were doing this years ago. And look where it has lead.”