Left wing anti-Semitism: what is it, and what is to be done?

Only the left can confront left-wing anti-Semitism, and we will do so through reflection, not when criticism can be dismissed as a factional weapon.

James McAsh
21 April 2016

The Synagogue in Florence, Wikimedia

There is a debate about anti-Semitism in Young Labour and in the student movement but the participants are talking at cross-purposes. Broadly, there are two sides. One is associated with the right-wing of the Labour party or NUS and claims that the other, the left-wing of Labour/NUS, has a problem with anti-Semitism. While some mistakes have been acknowledged, by and large we on the left have denied or downplayed wrongdoing. (This is simplified – there are of course some who fall between the two camps, left-wing Jews being the obvious example).

What are your thoughts on the Labour 'antisemitism' story? Tell us in the comments below.

The issue is a clash between two understandings of anti-Semitism. The Labour right build from the perspective of Jewish members who experience an environment that is hostile to them, that minimises their concerns, and which appears to hold them to different standards to their non-Jewish counterparts. We on the left, on the other hand, feel no hostility to Jewish people, are committed to ideals of equality and anti-racism, and can often feel that our commitment to the rights of Palestinians are misconstrued.

At its heart is a concept that neither side properly acknowledges: left-wing anti-Semitism, or left-wing anti-Zionist anti-Semitism. The Labour right clearly recognise that there is anti-Semitism on the left, but are mostly unable to differentiate between left-wing anti-Semitism and the more 'traditional' variants, which are much rarer on the left. On the left, without the conceptual tool of left-wing anti-Semitism to make this distinction, most of us feel outraged that we are essentially being accused of holding ideas of racial superiority or of pushing tropes about 'Jews with long noses', which of course we totally reject.

So what is left-wing anti-Semitism?

First, 'left-wing' does not mean 'better' in any way for the victims. Left-wing anti-Semitism has specific origins and is packaged with ideas and values which are more normally associated with the left than with fascist or racist movements. Nonetheless, it feels the same for the victims and needs to be taken no less seriously.

Second, it is bound up in the Israel-Palestine conflict and the edges can be blurred. This requires interpretation. However, the basic point is that it is totally legitimate to criticise Israel (including the occupation, its state policies and its constitution) but only if this is done to the same standards that other nation-states face. For instance, one common demand is that Israelis be the only nation on earth to give up their right to self-determination and to govern themselves. The proponents of this position, in all likelihood, do not intend to discriminate against Jews and are instead motivated by the plight of the Palestinians. Nonetheless, they single out only one nation on earth for a different set of standards, and that's the tiny Jewish one. (I should stress, this is different to legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies and laws, the settlements, the occupation etc).

Third, it treats 'Zionism' as a term of abuse, not as a legitimate set of ideas with which we can engage, agree or disagree. This involves the claim that Zionism, either uniquely or in some way more than other forms of nationalism, 'is racism'. It is generally recognised that other nationalisms, Scottish nationalism for instance, is a spectrum including left-leaning and uglier bigoted forms. Zionism is homogenised as solely the latter.

Fourth, it regurgitates traditional anti-Semitic tropes with a modern twist. For instance, the idea that Jews control the banks and media is vanishingly rare on the left, but the concepts of a powerful 'Zionist lobby' or 'Zionist-led media' can sound worryingly familiar.

Fifth, it is commonly and wrongly approached in the same way as the more traditional form of anti-Semitism. This means that those on the left who are accused of advocating a left-wing anti-Semitic position are likely to assume that they are being wrongly accused of believing a whole set of racist myths and conspiracy theories. Consequently, it then becomes easy to conclude that the accuser is simply trying to slur them, and that no self-reflection is necessary.

So how do we move forward? How do we tackle left-wing anti-Semitism in our movement?

First, it needs to be led by us on the left, and include people with a wide range of different positions on Israel. There is an important debate to be had here and the question of anti-Semitism should not silence it: we can hold a wide range of views on Israel without there being a problem with anti-Semitism. It's vital that the voices against left-wing anti-Semitism represent this range. We must include, and accept as legitimate, both Zionist and anti-Zionist voices. Not only is it a disservice to the left for us to leave such an important issue as anti-Semitism to the right, it also risks more left-wing criticisms of Israel being drowned out.

Second, we need to de-weaponise the issue. The majority of high profile cases so far have related to elections. It's obviously legitimate to raise concerns about candidates' beliefs during an election, and to encourage others to vote on the basis of them. But this is a separate goal to that of changing minds. An election is not a productive context for the latter. As noted in point 5 above, accusations of left-wing anti-Semitism are often misunderstood. In the context of an election, which is already polarising and high-stakes, there is even greater chance that the accused will become defensive and unreflective.

Similarly, if we think that anti-Semitism is particularly a problem on the Labour left then it is unhelpful for the counter-campaign to carry the branding of our factional opponents, Progress (however well-meaning it is on Progress' part). This de-escalation will need to come from both sides of the debate. For our part, we on the left need to consistently take seriously Jewish members' criticisms, and not treat them as factional attacks. This applies regardless of the Jews' political alignment but we can start by listening to Jews on the left.

Third, we need to move from criticisms of what individuals have said or done to interrogation of the ideas involved. Denunciations are effective in isolating those who deviate a long way from accepted values and ideas. But left-wing anti-Semitic ideas are widespread so instead of isolating their advocates, denunciations just polarise the debate. A much better approach is to tackle the ideas themselves, respecting the often progressive places from which they derive, while exposing the dangers in their conclusions.

Finally, we need to recognise that many Jews (but, of course, not all), whatever their political perspective, feel an emotional connection to Israel and Zionism. This isn't too complicated: when someone who is like you is attacked you feel it more. Jews feel connected to other Jews; many Jews live in Israel. This can't stop us from criticising Israel, or from calling ourselves anti-Zionists, but it does mean we have to think about our language and behaviour. If the left we create is one which does not tolerate Zionists then we are setting much higher barriers to entry for Jews than we are for anyone else.

These are only some initial suggestions. I hope that they can contribute to a wider and much-needed debate on the Left.

In addition, I found the following links particularly interesting and relevant:

-        Jess Lishak shares her experience as a Jew on the student Left.

-        Ben Goldstein looks at the relationship between Jews and Zionism.

-        Alan Johnson covers the history of left-wing anti-Semitism.

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