Traditionally, in the western world, it has been the reactionary, racist right, with its espousal of blood and soil politics, that has wielded the deadly weapons of antisemitism and Judeophobia, while the left was seen as antisemitism’s fiercest opponent because of its proud fidelity to the progressive principles of antiracism and equality for minorities.
Recently, however, antisemitism has increasingly become associated with the left. For one thing, much of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the UK’s Labour party was dominated by inquiries into his antisemitism and concerns that his leadership may have turned Labour into an institutionally antisemitic party. In addition, whenever the situation in the Holy Land deteriorates and becomes headline news, members of the Jewish diaspora are subjected to increased levels of antisemitic abuse. Furthermore, many these days suggest that leftists and progressives who express solidarity with the Palestinians, and condemn Israel’s treatment of them, are pouring fuel onto the fire of Jew-hatred.
David Hirsh, Bari Weiss, David Baddiel and other writers have detailed the extent of leftist antisemitism—sometimes called the new antisemitism—and have explored where Israel fits in the left’s worldview today. They argue that much leftist criticism of Israel and Zionism amounts to demonisation: it singles out Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as uniquely evil—which is a myopic double standard given that Israel’s near neighbours include Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the mullahs in Iran, who have butchered over 600,000 Syrians in the past decade. The leftist criticism is often disproportionately vitriolic and laced with antisemitic tropes, such as claims that Jewish power is singularly nefarious, and that the Jews somehow lack any ancestral connection with the Holy Land (an attempt to portray Israel as a colonialist interloper).
Other commentators vehemently deny that the left has become antisemitic, argue that the extent and degree of antisemitism on the left has been grossly exaggerated, or even claim that leftists are being falsely accused of antisemitism in order to discredit them and thus weaken their burgeoning challenge to the status quo. The problem with these quarrels over leftist antisemitism is that the arguments on all sides lack a sense of proportion. For example, some leftists dismiss antisemitism on the left as so marginal as to be not worth talking about—and some claim that accusations of antisemitism are designed to deflect scrutiny away from Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. Meanwhile, some on the right imply that all leftism—and especially any leftist critique of capitalism—is somehow inherently antisemitic.
Thankfully, Daniel Randall’s new book, Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, masterfully counters these extreme narratives on both sides. Randall is a self-described revolutionary socialist and an anti-Stalinist Marxist, whose avowed objective is to help reconstitute socialism to help society overcome the problems that capitalism presents. But his political views and goals don’t prevent him from writing about leftist antisemitism in a meticulously fair and principled way. Indeed, he aims to debunk what he sees as the biases and assumptions of various leftists—from communists to Labourites.
First, he states unequivocally that leftist antisemitism is politically bad for leftists: conjuring demons in the form of evil bankers and elite financiers, he writes, “undermines the left’s ability to fight for equality”—and its ability to teach people about the real structural problems with capitalism as explained by classical Marxist theory. He then argues that, while the claim that antisemitism is intrinsic to leftism is obviously wrong, leftist antisemitism does exist, it has a history and it needs to be combatted in order for socialism to reclaim its goal of being an emancipatory project.
Randall describes three historical influences that have contributed to contemporary leftist antisemitism. The first is the primitive and especially insidious antisemitism of the nineteenth century, which simply conflated Jews with capitalism—this is an occasional theme in the writings of socialists such as Eugen Dühring and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The second is the Stalinist antisemitism of the twentieth century. And finally, the “transcendental anti-Zionism” of the present, which has Israel as the locus of its ire.
Randall, influenced by the writings of Moishe Postone, notes that antisemitism has characteristics that make it distinct from (though not worse than) other forms of racism.
Most racists treat their objects as inferior by denigrating their intelligence, beauty and culture compared with those of other races. Historically, colonialists saw those whom they victimised as savages who needed so-called civilised peoples either to uplift them or to impose order by repressing them. By contrast, antisemitism treats Jews as terrifyingly omnipotent beings: they are rich and cunning; they always have a scheme up their sleeves; and they conspire effectively to pursue the interests of their own tribe while crushing everyone else beneath their feet. As Randall notes, antisemitism sees Jews “as the embodiment of a powerful and socially manipulative force.” Antisemites look resentfully upwards at those whom they believe run the world, while most other racists look downwards with contempt at those whom they believe to be inferior. Thus, antisemitism is distinct from simple anti-Jewish prejudice, though both are reprehensible.
Antisemitism is also a conspiracy theory that appeals to the pseudo-intellectual and the semi-educated, a weltanschauung that attempts to explain how the world “really works” and who is really “pulling the strings.” Antisemitism often appears as a kind of primitive anti-capitalism, aiming its ire at finance capital, speculators and bankers, rather than at productive labour and industry. Because of the historical tendency to associate Jews with money, Jews are viewed as embodying capitalism’s essence. For Randall (as for Postone) antisemitism’s primitive critique of capitalism gives it a “pseudo-emancipatory character” as it attempts to explain and critique the inner workings of capitalist society and build an anti-hegemonic movement, which can seem attractive to those who believe they are opposing the oppressive status quo.
Randall criticises the anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s and early 2000s for focusing on the problems with international trade and globalisation rather than on the problems of capitalism; he also criticises the Occupy movement for its demagogic sloganeering against the “one percent” and for moralistically condemning bankers as “greedy.” He notes that, although these movements were not consciously antisemitic, their limited and populist explanations of our current crisis made them vulnerable to conspiracy theories that suggested that secret cliques and neoliberal cabals deliberately caused the 2008 financial crisis. (These conspiracy theories invariably employ antisemitic innuendo.) In these ways, many on the left have been seduced into abandoning classical Marxism and its structural analysis of capitalism, and replacing it with mere conspiracy-mongering and a slipshod anti-globalist populism.
Another key influence on leftist antisemitism is the legacy of Stalinism and Soviet antisemitism. Stalin and his government were notorious both for persecuting and killing Jews, and for antisemitic propaganda. In his last years, Stalin ordered the jailing and execution of what he called “rootless cosmopolitans,” most of whom were Jews. And much of the Stalinist propaganda against Leon Trotsky included barely disguised antisemitic tropes. After Stalin’s death, the Soviet government continued to churn out antisemitic propaganda: following the 1967 Arab–Israeli Six Day War, the Soviet government, under the pretence of criticising Israeli policy, launched a campaign against so-called international Zionism that made ludicrous claims—equating Zionism with Nazism, accusing Zionists of having collaborated with the Nazis and disseminating vintage antisemitic tropes—such as the idea that Jews are somehow secretly powerful and evil.
And yet, Randall writes, of all Stalin’s antisemitic legacies, “campism is the most poisonous.” Campism is a Manichean worldview that sees all political coalitions as either imperialist and pro-Zionist or anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist. Campists claim that, because anti-imperialist coalitions are opposed to Zionism, they are by definition progressive. This worldview has endured to the present—it can be found within self-described radical groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party, and within groups that carry water for theocratic nihilists such as Hamas and Hezbollah solely because they seek to weaken Israel.
Randall argues that a key pillar of contemporary leftist antisemitism is an “absolute anti-Zionism,” which views any expression of Israeli-Jewish national self-determination as—by definition—racist and colonialist, and which sees Israel as the unique and ultimate expression of racism at the nation-state level.
To understand this form of leftist antisemitism one needs to understand how the contours of both the left and Jewish communities have changed.
After the Second World War, most Jews in western liberal democracies joined the middle classes and—after the Six Day War—embraced Zionism as an important part of their identity. Some emigrated to Israel, which evolved from a poor, agrarian upstart into a prosperous, nuclear-armed regional power and close ally of the United States.
At around this time, the left adopted anti-colonialism as a crucial part of its worldview. It supported anti-colonial liberation struggles from Algeria to Vietnam. As progressive as this was, in some quarters it created a rigid, almost racialist worldview, which sees white Europeans as at the top of an oppressive, imperialist world order, crushing the (non-white) wretched of the Earth.
Because of their “unprecedented upward mobility” in the words of Keith Kahn-Harris, and their embrace of Israel, Jews—in particular, Ashkenazi Jews—were placed at the top of this racial hierarchy, together with white Europeans. In other words, Jews supposedly profited from their white privilege.
This simplistic understanding of race and power, Randall acknowledges, is part of the reason why many leftists can be conveniently blind to antisemitism, and allow it to creep into their circles. After all, Jews aren’t materially deprived because they are Jewish; Jews don’t get harassed by the police because they are Jewish; Jews don’t face institutionalised racism and structural inequality, as other ethnic groups do. So it can be easy to dismiss antisemitism as inconsequential or even a calculated hoax.
This also gets to the root of why some leftists fiercely resent Zionism. Through Zionism, Jews assimilated into the west, where they were once the ultimate outsider. In the words of Barnaby Raine, Zionism turned Jews into “colonists imbued with the colonial ethic.” It removed Jews from “the league of the stateless, the league that loathes the violence of property and empire” and into the league of “men with castles and bayonets to defend them.”
As Randall points out, although leftists frequently see Zionism as a subset of white supremacist colonialism, it actually has a lot of parallels with black nationalism and Pan-Africanism (which is ironic, since many contemporary black nationalists are strongly anti-Zionist). Both Zionism and black nationalism are utopian, romantic, nationalist ideologies that are popular with oppressed, diasporic peoples who have experienced dislocation, alienation and rootlessness, and who long to settle in their ancestors’ homeland and to build a new society where they hope to experience the spiritual freedom of living and belonging in the lands of their birth, unquestioned and untrammelled.
The Zionist movement created the state of Israel on the ruins of Palestinian Arab villages, most of whose residents had been expelled or forced to flee by Zionist militias during the 1948 Arab–Israeli war. Since, throughout history, many nations have been formed by perpetrating injustices against people, and have nevertheless gained legitimacy in the eyes of the world, there is no reason to see the fracturing of the Palestinian homeland (the Nakba) as a uniquely irredeemable original sin that every generation of Israelis should be burdened with for eternity. And yet the effects of the Nakba are still being felt: we are currently seeing the fifth generation of Palestinians who live either in exile or under humiliating occupation and who lack any mechanism for self-determination as a people. So, as Randall observes, the fates of Israeli Jews and Palestinians are intertwined. One group cannot be truly free so long as the other is still subjugated. And it will only be through a politics of solidarity that both peoples will come to share the same homeland as equals.
The solution to this malaise, Randall argues, is to “go back to basics.” The far left’s current political position, which has been developed over decades, and which it sees as commonsensical, must be “dismantled and replaced with a new common sense based on a “reassertion of consistent principles of democracy, internationalism and equal rights.” This new common sense must also include pragmatic solidarity with respect to the Palestine question, whereby national oppression is relieved by the exercise of democracy and the protection of equal rights, rather than by chauvinism or fanaticism. This change can only be achieved through political education and debate. It cannot be achieved by recourse to complaints procedures and disciplinary committees. The bottom line is that there must be a complete political and intellectual renaissance in order for the currently moribund socialist movement to reconstitute itself and become a genuine force for emancipation.