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The Left and the Jews: A Tale of Three Countries

First in a series on the American left: Will left-wing anti-Zionists and anti-Semites in America succeed in hollowing out the traditional liberal left in the United States, as they have in Britain and France?

Paul Berman
November 12, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

This is the first part of an extended commentary on the American left. Read parts two and three.


In the early spring of this year, an angry dispute broke out in the United Kingdom between the mainstream Jewish communal organizations and the leader of the radical left, currently head of the Labour Party, who is Jeremy Corbyn; and a couple of days later, a roughly similar dispute broke out in France between the equivalent French Jewish organization and Corbyn’s counterpart on the French left, who is Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and the double outbreak suggested a trend, which raises a question. It is about America and the Democratic Party. To wit: When the delegates to the Democratic National Convention assemble less than two years from now, will the showdown between centrists and progressives that everyone expects actually occur? Will a few zealots of anti-Zionism take their place among the progressives? Will they push their way to the microphone, and will they send mad orations beaming outward to the American public, calling for the elimination of an entire country? And will the mad orations lead to grisly chants and an occasional outbreak of medieval superstition, hither and yon? In short, will the same miserable battle that has torn apart large portions of the European left spread to America, not just on a miniature scale (which has already happened), but full blast, with national consequences? This is not a silly question.

The crisis of the democratic left all over Europe is typically presented as a product of modern economics, arising from excessive fluidities of labor and capital, and from social democracy’s inability to keep afloat amid the turbulence. But the crisis has had its cultural dimension, too, arising from still other pressures, one of which, larger perhaps than is sometimes recognized, emerges from a tide of political Islam, or Islamism, across several swaths of the world. This is the pressure on the Western left to accommodate, in the name of anti-racism and Third World solidarity, as many Islamist principles as possible, in regard to blasphemy, gender roles, and the iniquity of the Jews—a pressure on the left, that is, to temper or creatively adapt various of its own historic fundamentals. The British and French incidents of a few months ago showed how powerful the pressure has become, in certain quarters of the European left. And a few incidents of that sort in America would rip a big wound in the Democratic Party.

You will perhaps remember the initial incident in the U.K., back in the spring. The argument over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had been going on for a few years by then, such that, by 2016, there had already been an official intraparty inquiry, led by Shami Chakrabarti. Alan Johnson, the editor of Fathom magazine, submitted his own presentation to the inquiry and usefully described the problem as a matter of political ideology, with its root in a peculiar and distended anti-Zionism: “a modern anti-Zionism of a particularly excessive, obsessive, and demonizing kind, which has co-mingled with an older set of classical anti-Semitic tropes, images and assumptions to create anti-Semitic anti-Zionism.” The Chakrabarti report concluded that, here and there in the Labour Party, a “toxic atmosphere” did seem to have emerged. And the report proposed ways to control the toxin. Labour Party members were instructed not to call people “Zios,” nor “Pakis.”

But the report cleared the party as a whole. By extension, it cleared the party’s leader. And, in this way, the Chakrabarti report, instead of resolving the problem, deepened it. The exonerated leader, who was Corbyn, displayed his gratitude by appointing his exonerator, Shami Chakrabarti, to the House of Lords, which did not look good. A story about Corbyn and a Nazi-style wall mural in London (depicting hook-nosed Jewish bankers under a Masonic seal playing Monopoly on the backs of the dark-skinned oppressed of the world) was particularly unfortunate, with Corbyn likening the mural to something by Diego Rivera, then backing away with the explanation that he had not looked closely enough at it. But there were many incidents and anecdotes, and not all of them involved famous personalities and national events.

And, in March 2018, the mainstream Jewish organizations in the U.K.—the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council—finally arrived at the view that, within the Labour Party, a culture of classic anti-Semitism had taken root. The two organizations drew up a formal complaint under the testy heading, “Enough Is Enough.” They went after Corbyn: “We conclude that he cannot seriously contemplate anti-Semitism, because he is so ideologically fixed within a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities.” A demonstration at Parliament Square echoed the complaint, and a delegation of a dozen Labour MPs at the demonstration echoed the echo by showing that disgruntlement with Corbyn was not a Tory plot.

Corbyn responded by taking his seat among the hipster leftists at an anti-Zionist seder, which, as with his reward to Chakrabarti, was his way of putting his thumb in his critics’ eyes. Some of the Labour MPs who figured among the critics found themselves receiving a bit of abuse and calls for their expulsion. And, in that fashion, the dimensions of the crisis began to emerge.

The social-democratic parties of Europe arose in the late 19th century as a project to construct a newly enlightened and tolerant society on a social foundation of people who, in the past, had always been excluded from the world of respectability and power. The British Labour Party was a classic and noble example, which meant that, from the start, it became, in Margaret Hodge’s phrase (offered as part of her own parliamentary rebuke of Corbyn, nominally her leader), “the natural home for Jews.” Labour was the enemy of antique bigotries and of modernized bigotries. Labour was the anti-fascist party. Sometimes the Labour Party looked with comradely eyes on the Labor Zionist project in the faraway Middle East. The party’s sympathy for that particular project was never especially reliable, but, even so, it was a principled sympathy, and was generous and persistent, and it does antedate the Balfour Declaration, which makes it venerable.

And the venerable history has gone into extreme agony, such that, by April, the Labour Party’s fraternal counterpart in Israel deemed it appropriate to announce a rupture in its own relations with Corbyn. In July, still another round of denunciations of Corbyn got underway from within his own party, not just from Labourites who happen to be Jewish; and the Jewish newspapers in the U.K. had their unusually united say—until, by August, old photographs were turning up in the press of Corbyn posing for the camera with sundry prominent terrorists of the Palestinian cause (though he claimed not to have known who was who), and malicious remarks of his were turning up about the British Zionists or perhaps the British Jews that were guaranteed and perhaps designed to arouse a furious response (though he claimed to have been misunderstood). And here was a video of Corbyn thanking his Hamas hosts for a dinner in Gaza and praising them for running a democracy, of all things. And here was the distressing passive-aggressive best he could do in a major BBC interview to rebut his critics—until, by September, the party’s executive committee felt obliged to take up the matter of anti-Semitism one more time and discuss it formally and issue an official statement, which Corbyn tried to water down, and failed; and the failed effort succeeded in deepening the problem yet again. And nothing has indicated an end to these very angry and unprecedented quarrels anytime soon.


The French incident took place two days after the early spring “Enough Is Enough” demonstration, and it revealed an anger at a different level entirely, as you might expect, given that, in France, a great mass of Jews have lately undergone experiences that are unimaginable in the U.K. Some 50,000 French Jews, or 10 percent of the entire Jewish population, are said to have decamped from one place to another within central France (or have emigrated to Israel) during the last few years, in order to escape quotidian persecutions from neighbors who have come to accept the Islamist doctrine. The intermittent massacres and murders of Jews in France and in Belgium have added up to a low-level protracted terror. And the most recent of those dreadful events, the murder in Paris last March of the elderly Mireille Knoll, became the occasion for the political incident.

The representative council of the mainstream Jews in France, the CRIF, organized a silent march of commemoration and protest. The CRIF was founded as France’s Jewish federation in 1943 under the German occupation, which means that, apart from representing the mainstream Jews, the CRIF represents a distinct historical memory. For obvious reasons, the CRIF requested that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, be good enough to stay away from the commemorative march—not because Marine Le Pen is personally an old-school anti-Semite, but because her National Front is the old school itself. She attended anyway. Her appearance broke up the solemnity of the event by causing a lot of angry shouting, until the ruckus drove her away—as observed by Tablet magazine’s correspondent in Paris, Vladislav Davidzon.

And the CRIF requested that Jean-Luc Mélenchon stay away, as well. Mélenchon is Corbyn’s counterpart because he is the leader of the Unsubmissive France party—which, at least for the moment, has replaced the left wing of the Socialist Party and the old Communist Party as the main political organization of the French left. And Mélenchon’s relations with the mainstream Jews have likewise resembled Corbyn’s, with variations. Corbyn has spent most of his career cultivating a Third Worldist romance of the heroic Palestinian struggle against Israel, which leads him to shudder in horror at Zionism and its crimes and to bristle at the Jewish organizations and at Jews in general. But Mélenchon has cultivated a romance of exotic Latin American Marxists, of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez and the “Bolivarian” revolution in Venezuela—which leads him to do his own shuddering chiefly at the United States. Mélenchon is a more sophisticated man than Corbyn, more experienced, better educated, a better orator—a more attractive figure, all in all. Nobody takes him to be a man of hidden bigotries.

Still, the us-versus-them radicalism of Mélenchon’s domestic politics, combined with the fantastical nature of his beliefs about world affairs, leaves his critics feeling a bit uneasy. There is a fear that, like Marine Le Pen and her National Front, Mélenchon and his Unsubmissives may be quietly undermining the republican political culture in France. Nothing in this fear ought to be seen as especially Jewish. And yet, the Jews understand that a republican culture of tolerance is ultimately their best defender, and they do have their worries. Mélenchon’s followers debate how friendly their party should be to the Islamists (in the name of multiculturalism), or how condemnatory (in the name of secularism and the separation of church and state). But, either way, Unsubmissive France has ended up as anti-Zionism’s principal home on the French left. Mélenchon himself has ended up as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ leading champion in France.

Anti-Zionist street protests got underway in the summer of 2014, at the time of the most recent of the full-scale Israel-versus-Hamas wars in Gaza, proclaiming solidarity with Hamas. At a demonstration in Paris—called by one of the smaller Trotskyist parties, not under Mélenchon’s leadership, but drawing on the public that is his—a street full of marchers broke into a cry of “Death to the Jews!” And “Jew: Shut up, France is not yours!,” together with “Allahu Akbar!,” and “Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!,” which are not normally Trotskyist slogans. Such has been the cultural degeneration in nether regions of the extreme left. Mobs set out to attack synagogues in Paris and in the suburban town of Sarcelles, which is largely North African, Muslim and Jewish alike. The mob in Sarcelles attacked Jewish stores. And, just as Corbyn has systematically failed to notice the nature and meaning of anti-Zionism on the British left, Mélenchon managed not to notice what was going on among a significant portion of his own social base. Instead of rebuking the rioters, he congratulated them. It was the CRIF that issued an angry denunciation. Mélenchon responded by inveighing against the “aggressive communities that lecture the rest of the country,” by which he meant the CRIF, and not the people who were staging pogroms. And Mélenchon ended up with the sort of reputation that can be imagined.

These were the memories—an angry recollection of 2014 and of a history of smaller offenses or irritations—that led the CRIF, in 2018, to request that, like Marine Le Pen, Mélenchon be good enough to stay away from the silent march for the murdered Mireille Knoll. He attended anyway. He, too, was booed. There was some jostling, owing to the insistently thuggish and right-wing Jewish Defense League, which in France is the heir to the old Revisionist Betar. And the political significance of these French events is hard to miss, if you stop to consider that, in the first round of the 2017 presidential election in France, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon attracted, between them, some 40 percent of the vote—which becomes still more striking when you recall that Corbyn’s odds of becoming prime minister someday soon are pretty good.


And in the United States? No one will have failed to notice the accumulation of anti-Zionist energies, toying with the idea of calling for Israel’s exit from the scroll of nations, viz., the many BDS campaigns among university students; and the American Studies Association, whose professors have elevated anti-Zionism into an American Studies priority; and the National Women’s Studies Association; and the philosopher Judith Butler and her adepts; and the Presbyterian BDSers; and the Democratic Socialists of America, who, in becoming popular lately, have been taken over by a younger generation of anti-Zionists (“From the river to the sea/Palestine will be free!” chanted some of the delegates at last year’s DSA convention) and, even so, have begun to attract election-winning young politicians, here and there; and the victorious congressional candidate from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib, a new-style DSAer, who turns out to be a one-state proponent of Israel’s demise; and Angela Davis; and the Dyke March leaders in Chicago; and Leslie Cockburn, the defeated congressional candidate in Virginia with a distinguished career in the anti-Zionist book-writing field; and Keith Ellison, the newly elected attorney general of Minnesota, who has never been able to clarify his relation to Louis Farrakhan. And onward to Farrakhan himself, and to Farrakhan’s followers in the leadership of the Women’s March and among the California Democrats. And thus to the noble immigrants at Times Square several months ago, whose own chant, in Arabic, “Khaybar, Khaybar, ya yahud, jaish Muhammad saya’ud,” pretty much amounts to “From the river to the sea!” except with the military implications openly proclaimed (because Khaybar was the seventh-century battle in which Muhammad’s army definitively crushed the Jews of Arabia, with the rest of the chant going: “O Jews, the army of Muhammad is coming”).

But the question has always been about trans-Atlantic equivalences. Do the many American campaigners, student councils, minor and major politicians, immigrant activists, distinguished intellectuals and vigorous chants add up to the kind of political force that anti-Zionists have amassed within the radical left in Britain and France (and elsewhere in Western Europe)? Is there a possibility that, having assembled a great many supporters, the newly cheerful left-wing anti-Zionists in America will succeed in hollowing out whole portions of the culture of the traditional liberal left in the United States, on the European model? Or is anti-Zionism in our own country mostly an annoyance, perhaps larger and friskier than a university fad, but not vastly so, and easily brushed off? Is America, in short, different?

I do not have an automatic answer to this question. I wonder. A proper answer would require a systematic comparison of political cultures, European and American. Systematic comparisons are difficult to make, however. It would be necessary to come up with a solid and reliable understanding of the American left, its nature, proclivities, and traditions, with special attention to whatever is distinctively American. But does anyone have a solid and reliable understanding of the American left? An insight into the American left-wing heart of hearts, as it beats ever more ardently in 2018? I will return to this question.


This is the first part of an extended commentary on the American left.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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