Now also split into four parts, for readability:
- Opportunistic accusations
- Structural antisemitism
- Exculpatory anti-Zionism
- Zionism, nationalism, and socialism
The furore currently unfolding in Britain over allegations of left antisemitism cannot pass without some comment on my part. Not because I’m Jewish, though I am. And not because I’m an astute observer of British politics, which I’m not. Rather, it’s because the issue arises with such frequency and remains so contentious within the Anglo-American Left, as well as its continental European counterpart. Here I would like to examine the phenomenon more broadly.
Some helpful literature, too, for anyone interested:
- Ber Borochev, Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation (1908)
- Nobert Elias, “On the Sociology of German Anti-Semitism” (1929)
- Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe” (1939)
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (1946)
- Ernst Simmel, ed., Antisemitism: A Social Disease (1948)
- Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1981)
- Moishe Postone, “Notes on the German Reaction to the Holocaust” (1983)
- Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz (1998)
- Mario Kessler, On Anti-Semitism and Socialism: Selected Essays (2005)
- Marcel Stoetzler, ed., Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology (2014)
First, a few words about the situation in the UK. Over the past couple weeks, a number of prominent Labour Party officials and student activist leaders have come under scrutiny for making antisemitic remarks. Three main figures have been at the center of the controversy so far:
- Malia Bouattia
- Bouattia, who was recently voted president of the National Union of Students (NUS), took aim at the “Zionist-led media” in 2014 for its sympathetic coverage of Israel during the bombardment and invasion of Gaza earlier that year. Unfortunately, this occurred at an event organized by the Tricontinental Anti-Imperialist Platform to celebrate the Palestinian resistance. A promotional banner with the figure of Hassan Nasrallah emblazoned across it could be seen in the background as she addressed the audience. Nasrallah, general secretary of the Shi’ite paramilitary group Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a notorious antisemite.
- Perhaps even more outrageously, Bouattia was almost solely responsible for blocking an NUS motion to condemn ISIS a few weeks later. Such a measure, she contended, was potentially “Islamophobic.” Though an amended version of the motion was eventually passed, this was only after news outlets had got a hold of the story and mocked her mealymouthed prevarications to a fare-thee-well. Roza Salih, the coordinating officer who initiated the proposal, was baffled by Bouattia’s objections. In an interview with Workers Liberty, she voiced her consternation: “I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated…What was Islamophobic about it? I myself come from a Muslim family, and would never propose a motion that was Islamophobic. Either way, it is not Islamophobic to condemn ISIS and its backers!”
- Confronted on these issues, Bouattia has proved for the most part evasive. At any rate, she has done little to assuage concerns. “Zio-media” is an epithet that shows up in texts by David Duke and his ilk, and comes much too close to age-old refrains about the Judenpresse for comfort.
- Naz Shah
- Shah, who unseated the far more objectionable fuckwit George Galloway in the district of Bradford West not twelve months ago, was then discovered to have approvingly shared an offensive image on social media a few months prior to her run for office. Beneath a map of Israel juxtaposed onto a map of the United States, a series of bullet points suggesting that conflict in the Middle East might be resolved by deporting Israeli Jews to the US en masse. (Galloway’s claim that “the Zionist movement from Tel Aviv to New York” would rejoice at her election appears all the more absurd in retrospect).
- Around the same time, Shah also urged her friends to get out to the polls since “the Jews are rallying.” Many have noted how similar this statement is to Netanyahu’s bit about how “the Arabs are voting in droves,” spurring Jewish voters to turn out.
- To her credit, Shah has apologized unreservedly for her 2014 posts. I’m not too big on the whole culture of heartfelt apologies followed by public self-criticism, but she’s at least remained tactful and reserved throughout the media shitstorm of the past couple weeks. Which is more than can be said for some who have come to her defense. Enter now the former mayor of London.
- Ken Livingstone
- Livingstone is low-hanging fruit by anyone’s estimation. Back in 2005 he compared Oliver Finegold, a journalist for the Evening Sun, to a Nazi concentration camp guard after learning he was Jewish. “You are just like a concentration camp guard,” declared Livingstone. “Only doing it because you’re paid to, right?” The Evening Sun may be a right-wing rag, but that’s really not the point. Directing such a remark at a Jewish news reporter is insensitive no matter who that person works for.
- Fast-forward to 2016: Livingstone takes it upon himself to come to Shah’s rescue, despite the fact she was handling the matter quite well on her own. Almost immediately he makes everything worse: “When Hitler won the election in 1932, his policy was that Jews should be moved to Israel. Hitler supported Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Never mind the fact that in 1932, Israel did not yet exist. Palestine didn’t even exist, in the sense of a free and autonomous state. There was only the Palestinian mandate, which was under British rule at the time. Generally speaking, as Sam Kriss has pointed out, something like Godwin’s Law should apply in contemporary discussions about Israel. Yes, the temptation the establish a “cruel historical irony” in terms of Zionism’s relationship to Nazism may seem irresistible at times, rhetorically speaking, but it’s still fucking stupid.
- In the days that have passed since committing this gaffe, Livingstone has somehow managed to dig himself deeper. Corbyn wisely decided to suspend Livingstone, as that kind of liability was the last thing he or Labour needed right now. Questioned about his suspension, Livingstone likened accusations of antisemitism made against him to false accusations of rape. He then went on to grant a radio interview where he apologized for his poor timing, and the disruption it caused. But he would not apologize for what he actually said, since it was supposedly a statement of fact. Livingstone even appealed to the authority of the American Trotskyist Lenni Brenner, discussed later, to bolster his claims. (Incidentally, as Bob from Brockley points out, Livingstone takes liberties with Brenner’s arguments).
Obviously it is no coincidence that these charges are being leveled at the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party with local elections on May 5 around the corner. Especially in the case of Naz Shah, whose term in office has been fairly uneventful up to now. Last year Shah even came out in support of Yvette Cooper, a staunchly pro-Israel candidate, something which at least ought to complicate the picture of her currently being drawn. Right-wing opportunism is nothing new, however, both on the part of the Tories and butthurt Blairites within the Labour Party, whose neoliberal legacy seems threatened by the sudden rise of Corbyn. A great deal of the outrage expressed so far has been cynical, all the more so when one recalls the antisemitic imagery The Sun deployed last year against Ed Miliband’s doomed campaign.
It is therefore important to recognize the politically-motivated character of these attacks, and stand with Bouattia and Shah against slurs, lies, and innuendo from the Right, even as we continue to criticize them from the Left. Bouattia in particular ought not be made immune to criticism, as the residual Stalinism of her positions has already been noted by Daniel Cooper. Shah cannot really be considered a leftist at all, more a liberal than anything else. Livingstone is someone I could more or less do without. He is an embarrassment. The one and only good thing that could come of this debacle, as Alan Johnson writes in Ha’aretz, is the prospect of his replacement by Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race. (Hat-tip goes out to Michael Gaul and Elena Louisa Lange for sharing this article).
Corbyn does not impress me all that much. He is mostly significant as a symptom of the broader leftward shift in electoral politics taking place across the Atlantic, analogous in some respects to Bernie Sanders’ primary run in the US. Regardless of my personal assessment of his radical credentials, Corbyn is clearly perceived as a threat to establishment politics in the UK. The Jewish Socialists Group (JSG), though forced to state the obvious, nevertheless perform a valuable service in their issuing their statement: “Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same. Zionism is a political ideology which has always been contested within Jewish life since it emerged in 1897, and it is entirely legitimate for non-Jews as well as Jews to express opinions about it, whether positive or negative. Not all Jews are Zionists; not all Zionists are Jews.”
Tony Greenstein misses the point somewhat in his polemic with Jon Lansman of the JSG, especially in his insistence on a narrow definition of racism. “Racism is not words or imagery disconnected from reality,” he contends. “It is the economic exploitation of a section of the working class, such as the Irish, which is particularly oppressed, or physical attacks by racist hoodlums and scapegoating of a particular group as an exploiter. Jews in Britain suffer none of this… as they are not oppressed.” Elsewhere, Greenstein has employed a more expansive definition, for instance in his polemics against Israel Shamir and Gilad Atzmon (who will be discussed below). Against Mary Rizzo, he maintained “there is no such thing as ‘free speech’ when it comes to fascism and racism.” Holocaust denial is a purely verbal affair, most of the time, but is an abhorrent act of antisemitism all the same.
Statistics on hate crime gathered over the past several years contradict Greenstein’s assertion, however. While “hate crime” is an imprecise and ultimately liberal classification, data collected from across Europe show a sharp increase in both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish attacks. Brendan O’Neill’s column “Why does the Left care more about Islamophobia than antisemitism?” is predictably droll, in a finger-wagging sort of way, but he has a point. London reported a 70% uptick in Islamophobic incidents in 2015, while antisemitic incidents shot up 93%. In France, meanwhile, a similar trend has been shown, though there the number of crimes specifically targeting Muslims has ballooned at an even more alarming rate. David Chazan broke these figures down in an article for The Telegraph:
Hate crimes against Muslims in France have tripled since the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in January, according to official figures. Antisemitic offenses also doubled in the first five months of 2015. More than 400 incidents of an “Islamophobic” nature, including assaults, harassment, and criminal damage, were reported to the authorities in 2015, up from 133 in the previous year. From January to May, 508 antisemitic crimes were recorded, a rise of 84 per cent compared to the same months in 2014.
And this was before the November bloodbath in Paris. One imagines public antipathy toward Muslims, including refugees fleeing Assad and ISIS in Syria and Iraq, has gotten worse since then. The takeaway here is that antisemitism is hardly a thing of the past. Claims to the contrary by left-wing intellectuals are ridiculous.
Karen Armstrong’s suggestion that “the supermarket attack in Paris was about Palestine, about ISIS,” for example is laughable. She only makes things worse for herself by trying to expand: “It had nothing to do with antisemitism; many of them [were] Semites themselves.” Joy Karega of Oberlin College in the US went further than Armstrong, insinuating that the Paris attackers could not have been antisemitic because they were Jews themselves. Members of Mossad, no less, who Karega alleged were behind 9/11 and ISIS as well. Perhaps most bafflingly, she blamed Jewish financiers for the downing of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine: “With this false flag, the Rothschild-led banksters — exposed, hated, and out of economic options to stave off the coming global deflationary depression — are implementing the World War III option.”
Yet Greenstein trivializes such sentiments, which have sadly become commonplace on the Anglo-American Left. Just yesterday, when Tony shared an Electronic Intifada article in a public Facebook group, nonsense almost immediately ensued. Not a day had gone by before someone in the group commented: “Labour is dependent on and controlled by Jewish money. Ridding Labour of this problem will only happen when its donor stream changes.” (The linked article, which purports to explain “How the Israel Lobby Manufactured the UK Labour Party’s Antisemitism Crisis,” is terrible, as it happens). Greenstein is a beleaguered figure, however, so I do not want to be too hard on him. He has had to endure vicious slander from nearly every quarter. Paul Bogdanor, a right-wing shitbag, tarred him by association with “Nazi apologists.” Atzmon, meanwhile, suspects Greenstein was secretly a Zionist all along.
Supporters of the new Corbyn consensus in the Labour Party on the Left have done his leadership no favors in this mess, however. From the start they handled matters poorly, above all in the excuses they have made for unambiguously antisemitic sentiments. At this point, we will step back from the particular details of this latest kerfuffle in order to get a better sense of the overall picture of where antisemitism fits on the Left.
Whether or not the aforementioned remarks were unintentional is of no consequence here. I have no interest in calling out individuals as virulent antisemites, even if a strong case could be made in certain instances. Here larger forces are at work, which operate according to a dynamic the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has called “structural antisemitism.” Distinguishing it from other forms of racism, Postone provided a fairly succinct definition in an interview with Martin Thomas for the German publication Krisis:
It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.
Postone goes on to explain that “antisemitism represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews.” Marx of course was careful, for all his fulminations against the bourgeoisie, to assign precedence to the impersonal logic of capital over and above its personification in individual capitalists. Capitalists are merely the “character masks” of capital, and are as much subject to its control as the workers they employ (despite enjoying a greater share of the wealth generated by it).
Building on Postone’s argument, as well as the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Werner Bonefeld writes: “Modern antisemitism is ‘the rumor about the Jews’ as the incarnation of hated forms of capitalism, which implies that antisemitism expresses resistance to capitalism.” This thesis is not without its problems, of course. For all its faults, however, especially in turning an historical accident of capitalism’s development into a logical necessity, the structural antisemitism argument is generally sound. Just as I would say there structural anti-black racism exists because of the role played by transatlantic slave trade in the colonization of the New World, not to mention its lingering legacy in postbellum labor relations. In other words, there is a logical role each can conveniently play (for historic reasons) in the systemic structure of capitalism.
“Elements of Antisemitism,” the second-to-last section of Adorno and Horkheimer’s jointly written 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment, still represents a high-water mark of materialist investigations of the subject. What Adorno and Horkheimer get at is the sociohistoric dimension of antisemitic ideology, its material foundation in the fetishism of commodities. For example, the contingent fact of Jews’ prevalence in the the sphere of exchange is enough to implicate them in the operation of the total social process. Not only during acute crises of capitalism, when things are especially turbulent, but even during stretches of smooth development, in the ordinary havoc wreaked by its normal functioning. Jews, though certainly not the only ones involved in buying and selling, are nevertheless identified with the figure of the merchant, “bailiff for the whole system.” Adorno and Horkheimer perspicaciously remark the mistaken belief “that the circulation sphere is responsible for exploitation is a socially necessary illusion.”
Yesterday I published a translation of Il Lato Cattivo’s “Letter on Antisemitism,” from 2014, which covers much of this same ground. Along with this text, I included a few excerpts by the Duponts taken from the Insipidities blog. One line in particular captures the dynamic discussed here. “Within the arrangement of leftist awareness there exists a preconscious responsiveness to the subjective agency of Jews, which corresponds to the tendency to anthropomorphize institutional power as the outcome of the conspiracy of the powerful,” one states. “That is to say, even though individuals on the Left are personally opposed to antisemitism, their argumentation — the procedures, propositions, inferences, deductions — is structured to find archetypal personifications at the heart of what it opposes. One of these figures, perhaps the most discernible and significant, is the Jew.” Precisely this propensity to anthropomorphize a misanthropic system leads to outcries against “banksters” or “Wall Street shysters,” the Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) or New World Order (NWO).
Leftists often have this delusion where they think anyone who doesn’t simply parrot cable news anchors or political pundits is just an inch away from a comprehensive Systemkritik. Seeing the Illuminati behind everything is supposedly the first step on some inevitable road to a critique of the capitalist totality. Hence the isomorphy between the average “critical” narrative (including most leftist ones) and the antisemitic narrative. Both boil down to a critique of who makes up the management of a social structure — or at best, a critique of the mode of management — rather than a critique of the fundamental social relations themselves. It is easier to stick with the idea that it’s a question of weeding out “bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of all that surrounds you.
A glance at the history of European socialism reveals the extent to which this is true, even at a very basic level. Many of the early socialists held deeply antsemitic beliefs. This was in no way unrelated to their anticapitalism. For Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jews were the embodiment of capitalism par excellence. “Jews poison everything by sticking their noses into everything without ever mixing with any other people,” he recorded in his notebook in 1846. “The Jew is the enemy of humankind, and must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. By steel or by fire or by expulsion the Jew must disappear.” Pierre Leroux, a rogue Saint-Simonian, authored an article that same year entitled “Jews, Kings of the Epoch,” in which he espoused his antisemitic creed. “It is quite evident,” he wrote, “that when we speak of Jews we mean the Jewish spirit, the spirit of profit, of lucre, gain, the spirit of commerce, speculation — in a word, the banker spirit.” Leroux deplored the “frenzied attachment to earthly goods in the Jew, an attachment which has made his name a synonym for greed and avarice.” He then resurrected the perennial charge of deicide, holding all Jews past and present collectively responsible for the murder of Christ. Eugen Dühring, the titular object of Engels’ ire in Anti-Dühring, was another famous socialist who was an avowed antisemite.
Mikhail Bakunin, Marx’s main rival within the First Workingmen’s International, reserved some choice words for the Jews in an letter sent to its Bolognese representatives in 1871. Bakunin even speculated the Jews might be behind both Rothschildian capitalism and Marxian communism, something which would later become an antisemitic article of faith.
Well now this whole Jewish world which constitutes a single exploiting sect, a sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organized in itself, not only across the frontiers of states but even across all shades of political opinion. This world is presently, at least in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and of the Rothschilds on the other. I know that the Rothschilds, reactionaries as they are and should be, highly appreciate the merits of the communist Marx; and that in his turn the communist Marx feels irresistibly drawn, by instinctive attraction and respectful admiration, to the financial genius of Rothschild. Jewish solidarity, that powerful solidarity that has maintained itself through all history, united them.
Horkheimer and Adorno noted that the omnipotence ascribed to Jews by antisemites betrays the latter’s impotence: “The fantasy of the conspiracy of lascivious Jewish bankers who finance Bolshevism is a sign of innate powerlessness.” Pulled hither and thither by contradictory shearing forces that dwarf individual and collective human agency, this image of the Jew as all-powerful bestows a sense of order upon the apparent disorder of the world. Jews appear as a shadowy presence working behind the scenes, playing both sides against each other. Adorno already hinted at the historic reasons Jews were associated with money capital. Others, such as Trotsky, addressed the issue of their disproportionate representation in the international Marxist parties: “Antisemitism means not only hatred of the Jews but also cowardice in relation to them. Cowardice has big eyes, and it endows its enemy with extraordinary qualities which are not at all inherent in him. The socio-legal conditions of Jewish life are quite sufficient to account for Jews’ role in the revolutionary movement.”
Nevertheless, the idea that Jews were somehow preternaturally disposed to socialism, and that in turn socialism has always and everywhere has always stood against antisemitism is historically inaccurate. Hadas Thier expressed this somewhat naïve (if understandable) view in a 2004 essay on “Zionism and Antisemitism” for the International Socialist Review. “The socialist movement has a proud tradition of fighting antisemitism and racism within the broader fight against oppression and exploitation,” Thier justifiably maintains. “Jews were disproportionately represented in the socialist parties of Russia and Europe at the height of those movements because socialists always put the fight against oppression as the central component to a revolutionary struggle against capitalism.” But it was not always thus. European socialism’s commitment to combating antisemitism — both within its ranks and society at large — was hard-won, as the minutes of the 1891 Brussels Congress attest. Regnard and Argyriades, two of the French delegates, singled out Jewish bankers as “great oppressors of labor” in their speech, prompting the Belgian socialist newspaper Justice to report “a strong feeling against the Jews in the Congress.” When, then, was it decided that Marxists ought to oppose antisemitic ideas?
Some background is useful here. Friedrich Engels first learned of antisemitism in 1886, when Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue lent him a copy of La France Juive by the Frenchman Édouard Drumont, which had just come out that year. “What a tiresome book!” Engels wrote Lafargue upon returning it. Later Engels conceded that “Drumont’s writings are wittier by far than those of the German antisemites.” Of course, antisemitism had only begun to be espoused as a formal ideology starting in the late 1870s, when Wilhelm Marr proposed Antisemitismus as a more sophisticated (indeed, “scientific”) alternative to the low-sounding term Judenhass. Though Bernstein authored a series of polemics against Drumont in the 1880s, little was done to critique antisemitism from a Marxist perspective until Engels lambasted it in a circular letter dated 1890. Engels immediately recognized the socialistic phraseology employed by the antisemites: “Antisemitism is merely the reaction of declining medieval social strata against a modern society consisting essentially of capitalists and wage-laborers, so that all it serves are reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak.”
It is therefore unsurprising that the eminent Marxist August Bebel would quip, in the 1880s, that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools” [der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle].
Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, a thoughtful reader of Benjamin, Adorno, and Sohn-Rethel, posted a brief reflection a couple months back on the phenomenon of left antisemitism: “A Note on Left-Wing Antisemitism from an Anti-Zionist Jew.” He reposted it couple days ago, in light of all that’s been going on:
It would really help if people wouldn’t keep insisting that [left antisemitism] doesn’t exist. It does. And unfortunately you do find it more often in those parts of the left engaged in pro-Palestinian activism. It may be true that Zionists will always accuse anti-Zionists of antisemitism, regardless of whether it is true or not. But it is in the interests of the anti-Zionist struggle not only to be free of antisemitism, but also to recognize that at times there is antisemitism in pro-Palestinian movements. Only then can we try to do something about it instead of just denying it. More broadly part of the problem is that a section of the left seems to think that all opposition to the current state of things, or to capitalism, is equally radical: this thought puts critical theories of society and conspiracy theories of society on equal footing. It is up to the left to recognize that the most racist Jewish conspiracy theories were also nominally anti-capitalist (even if they tended towards a critique of circulation rather than of capitalist production, or suggested that profit was founded on a swindle as opposed to on brutal exploitation, or if they theorized an enlarged image of the state to set themselves up against instead of the real enormity of private property, or if they saw the problem as a malignancy of who runs the world as opposed to the malignancy of how it is run.) For this reason we cannot gather all “anticapitalists” under our banner, but have to reject those whose theories tend to end in racism and conspiracy theory; we need to criticize ourselves to root out these tendencies in our own thinking.
On top of this, here are a couple of things that I really don’t want to hear again: “I can’t be anti-Semitic because Arabs are Semites too!” — the word “antisemitic” refers as little to the oppression of non-Jewish Arabs as the word “television” refers to looking into the distance. This argument is akin to saying “I didn’t act in a racist way because I don’t believe in a theory of races.” This is not just to say that those interested in etymology ought also to care about philology (they would quickly discover that since the first uses of the term antisemitism, a translation of the German Antisemitismus, from the 1870s or there about, has always referred to an anti-Jewish sentiment); but also that anti-racism is an important weapon in the opposition of Zionism, and this isn’t something to be frivolous about. And nor, when it is pointed out to you that you are being racist, is it an invitation for you to try to use your linguistic cunning to get out of it. I also don’t really want to see more images of octopuses and vampire squids, I don’t want to see cartoons of guys with long noses and clawed hands. And I think people ought to be more careful about what they imply about the relationships between Zionism, financial capital, and the media. In particular I think the word “lobby” needs to be used rather more judiciously than it is at present. This is not to say that there isn’t an enormous Zionist effort to present the case for Israel strongly in the Western media, nor is it to deny that this presentation rests on the eclipse not only of real present Palestinian suffering but also historic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. But it is to say that given the history of antisemitism and the specificity of forms it has taken, care needs to be taken about how you say these things.
There is one minor quibble I have with Jacob’s post. Or rather, the comment he appended to the post: “[I]f you’re not a Jewish person and you want to comment on what’s going on in the UK at the moment, how about speaking to some of us instead of treating our oppression as a cause célèbre with which to score political points.” No one should feel obliged to seek out “the Jewish perspective” before forming an opinion on recent events. As a rule, I reject the kind of standpoint theory that says one has to defer to individuals belonging to a particular group on a given issue. Politics must not devolve into some insipid game of “Ask a Jew!”, or any other identity group.
Overt antisemitism on the Left is rare. When antisemitic rhetoric does occur, it is seldom obvious. It tends to be masked in more or less subtle ways. Matters are not made easier by Israel’s claim to represent and act on behalf of Jews throughout the world, of course. Yet antisemitism and anti-Zionism are clearly not identical. Some criticisms of Israel may be driven by antipathy toward the Jews, a false projection of alienated social power, but by no means all. How, then, can one distinguish antisemitic from non-antisemitic opposition to a nominally Jewish state? A fairly reliable acid test is to check whether a given statement about Zionism or Israel incorporates ideological elements from classical antisemitism. Just minus the whole bit about “the Jews,” usually, as these days such talk is seen as bad form. The old ideologemes and tropes are readily repackaged, however, given new anti-Zionist wrapping — the same content in a different form. By slightly modifying their terminology, antisemites hope that no one will take notice.
CounterPunch is a particularly egregious case of an online platform where antisemitic rot is often passed off as anti-Zionist critique. Nominally leftist, the publication still claims a wide readership. Authors like Ian Donovan, Israel Shamir, Gilad Atzmon, and Alison Weir all have articles up over at CounterPunch’s website. Donovan is known for his “Draft Theses on the Jews and Modern Imperialism,” which contains such gems as the following: “Jews are not a nation, but there is a pan-national bourgeoisie with national aspirations… which wants a territorial asset [Israel].” Like Donovan, Atzmon believes Jews have infiltrated the governments of major world powers in order to advance Israel’s agenda. He thus refers to Corbyn’s party as “Zionist occupied territory,” and counterintuitively accepts the premise that Labour has a “Jewish problem.” Only it’s not the one everyone thinks it is, as Atzmon affirms “Yes, Indeed, Labour has a Jewish Problem: It is Dominated by Zionist Oligarchs.” Shamir goes a bit further than either Donovan or Atzmon on this score, however. Israel is just the beginning, says Shamir, part of a larger plan to achieve global domination. When he’s not penning paeans to Pol-Pot, then, Shamir therefore maintains: “Palestine is not the ultimate goal of the Jews; the world is.” Numerous antisemitic motifs can be identified in these passages, paranoid delusions about Zionist-Occupied Governments (ZOG) and an elaborate international, multi-generational plot to ensure Jewish hegemony.
Alison Weir is (in)famous for her groundless conjectures about “Israeli Organ Harvesting,” based on the widely discredited journalism of Daniel Boström for the Swedish periodical Aftonbladet. Of course, Aftonbladet is hardly a reputable source of information. The journal supported the Nazi occupation during World War II, and degenerated into tabloid reporting several decades later. Netanyahu nevertheless decided to take Boström’s article, buried in the back pages of an obscure paper, and turn it into a diplomatic incident. Demanding the government of Sweden confiscate all physical copies of the paper, delete it from the web, and issue a formal apology, Bibi thrust a wild story based on rumor and hearsay in front of the media spotlight (while also haplessly making it an issue of free speech). Undeterred by the dubious authenticity of the original piece, Weir confidently reported: “Testimony and circumstantial evidence indicate that Israeli doctors have been harvesting internal organs from Palestinian prisoners without consent for years… Some of the information suggests that in several instances Palestinians may have been captured with this macabre purpose in mind.”
Just three days later, CounterPunch ran a follow-up piece by Bouthaina Shaaban, media advisor to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Here the grisly charge of “body-snatching” was again repeated, this time as a fact. “Israeli occupation forces [are] killing Palestinians with the objective of stealing their organs,” she asserted. Even Boström, who broke the story back in 2009, himself confessed to having no proof of the claims covered therein. Personally, he seemed to doubt their veracity. “Whether it’s true or not — I have no idea, no clue.” Boström’s visit to the country that December, attending a conference in Jerusalem, led him to have second thoughts about his decision to publish unsubstantiated gossip: “[My] visit to Israel, and the fact that I was part of a fair dialogue, made me rethink the whole issue.” Regardless, much of the outrage over the article can be explained by the parallels between accusations that Israeli doctors stole organs to save the lives of patients back home and the blood libel, according to which Jews stole the blood of Gentile children in order to revitalize themselves. George Galloway then helpfully chimed in that “Israel is playing mini-Mengele.”
Yet another jaw-dropping instance of throwback antisemitism appeared on CounterPunch as recently as last week. It was disguised — though just barely — as anti-Zionism. Anyone familiar with the history of antisemitic symbolism could easily pick up on them, however. Greg Felton, an investigative journalist and author specializing in international affairs and the Middle East, explained American foreign policy in a since-deleted article: “In my book The Host and The Parasite: How Israel’s Fifth Column Consumed America, I demonstrated that the US government has been fascist or proto-fascist for more than 30 years. This fascism has been predominantly Jewish. From Harry Truman to George W. Bush, the US has gone through six stages of increasing fascism called Zionization.” Fifth column? Jewish fascism? Parasitism on an otherwise healthy host? One of the most incendiary accusations leveled against the Jews in interwar Germany was that they somehow constituted a “fifth column” undermining the war effort. Despite the many medals for bravery and courage awarded to Jewish soldiers who served in the German army, the Jews were collectively blamed for the country’s defeat. Never mind imagery depicting the Jew as a “parasite,” the embodiment of finance capital, profiting off of the productive labor of others while producing nothing themselves. Honestly, I am not sure why Felton’s article disappeared. Looking at some of the other material that’s up on CounterPunch, this kind of drivel is fairly standard.
More than outright or even disguised antisemitism on the part of any of its members, the problem the Left faces in approaching the Judenfrage today is a phenomenon I would like to call “exculpatory anti-Zionism.” It consists in the idea that one’s overriding opposition to Zionism is enough to forgive any number of lesser sins: antisemitism, homophobia, the oppression of women, etc. Such sins are minor compared with the evil embodied by “the Zionist entity,” after all. Besides, these issues can always be dealt with once the state of Israel (er, IsraHell) is out of the way. (One more thing, before proceeding: Don’t you love it how even some Marxists will refer to Israel as “the Zionist entity,” adopting the language of Arab nationalists who refuse to recognize Israel’s legitimacy? Now this not to say that Israel has a “right to exist” and defend itself or anything of the sort. Rather, the question this ought to raise for Marxists is what legitimacy means for a nation under conditions of capitalism. As if any state is legitimate).
Getting back to the business at hand, the concept of exculpatory anti-Zionism could stand to benefit from further clarification. Unlike the cases of Atzmon, Felton, Weir, and Shamir described earlier, what is described here has nothing to do with dressing antisemitism up as anti-Zionism. Exculpatory anti-Zionism involves excusing incidental antisemitism (or homophobia, or religious patriarchy, etc.) so long as opposition to Israel is upheld. It is typically extended to marginalized groups either living in, or descended from inhabitants of, impoverished regions of the world. Comparatively privileged groups and individuals are seldom granted this same allowance. Richard Seymour, for instance, was more than happy to condemn Atzmon in September 2011. He deserves some measure of praise for this, as it happens; the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, of which Seymour was a member for years, repeatedly hosted Atzmon at its annual conventions during the 2000s. Socialist Worker went so far as to plug his shitty album in 2005: “[Atzmon’s] new album, Refuge, is a tour de force — a work of beauty, subtlety, and depth.” But Seymour has been more than willing to exculpate Malia Bouattia after she blocked the motion to censure ISIS, as well as Houria Bouteldja after her 2014 defense of Dieudonné’s antisemitic standup routine. Years ago, Seymour even told critics to “lay off MPAC” after it was revealed the organization’s founder, Asghar Bukhari, donated money to the negationist David Irving. Supposedly it was all just a big misunderstanding, despite Bukhari enclosing a note thanking the disgraced historian for “trying to expose certain falsehoods perpetrated by the Jews.” Last year, however, Bukhari recorded a bizarre fifteen-minute rant about how Mossad agents broke into his house and stole one of his loafers. Wait, what?
This brings us to the most common form of exculpatory anti-Zionism in leftist politics today, usually justified in the name of anti-imperialism. Forming blocs with open reactionaries used to be a rare occurrence, even in the good old days of the Stalinist popular front. Now it has become almost a matter of course, as soft-Trot groups like the International Socialist Organization proclaim their “critical but unconditional support for Hamas in its struggle against Israel.” Israeli airstrikes are responsible for thousands of civilian casualties and fatalities every couple of years, not to mention the damage done to crucial infrastructure in already impoverished zones. Still, this fact does nothing to erase the extremist ideology of a group like Hamas, whose charter regurgitates all the usual antisemitic charges about how the Jews were responsible for the French and Russian Revolutions. Hezbollah, though a Shiite organization on the opposite end of the Israeli border, is no less committed to militant antisemitism than its Sunni counterpart, Hamas. At antiwar demonstrations in England back in the mid-2000s, however, placards declaring WE ARE ALL HEZBOLLAH would regularly appear alongside copies of Socialist Worker. Don’t split hairs over the fact that one ethnic group was left off a list of groups victimized during the Nazi holocaust on an SWP flier; it was just a clerical oversight, I’m sure.
By no means is exculpatory anti-Zionism the exclusive domain of crusty Marxoid sects, either. Many left-wing academics and mainstream politicians succumb to the practice as well. Judith Butler’s long 2003 essay from the London Review of Books on the non-identity of antisemitism and anti-Zionism is making the rounds again today. It raises a number of salient points, and Butler is correct to distinguish between the two. Sadly, however, her credibility is undermined by the fact she considers brazenly antisemitic groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to be “progressive.” At a 2006 antiwar teach-in, watchable above, Butler explained:
Yes, understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, on the Left, part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence. So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an essential component of any resistance movement.
When these remarks were brought up again in 2012, Butler revised her claims somewhat: “These political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist. Anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left. On that basis one could describe them as part of the global left.” Even with this qualification, describing Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive or leftist organizations based solely on their resistance to Israeli militarism is laughable.
Zionism and the perils of “national self-determination”
Anti-imperialism, like anti-Zionism, is hardly sufficient cause to categorize a group or individual as “progressive.” Vladimir Lenin, whose pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1915) remains by far the most influential work on the topic to date, specifically warned against lending material or ideological aid to regressive political groups. In his “Draft Theses on Colonial and National Questions” (1920), he wrote:
With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:
- first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;
- second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;
- third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.
Lenin here was building on something he laid out in an earlier work, from 1915. Rebutting Kievsky, he wrote:
Imperialism is as much our “mortal” enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.
Consequently, once the author [Kievsky] admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (“actively resisting” suppression means supporting the uprising), he also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.
Here we arrive at the crux of the matter: the tricky, historically fraught relationship between nationalism and internationalism in socialist movements. What relationship is there, if any, between national liberation and global revolution? In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a dispute over demands for national autonomy reverberated throughout the Second International. Oppressed nationalities living in multinational empires (e.g., the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires) and in the overseas colonies of European empires (e.g., the German, French, and British Empires) agitated for secession and self-government on a linguistic, geographic, or ethnic basis. These disparate movements rallied around the banner of a “right to national self-determination.”
Essentially, there were three different sides to this debate. First, there was Lenin, who argued that national liberation struggles could be supported within a frame of imminent world revolution, in the context of inter-imperialist war and widespread rebellion in the colonies. Second, there was Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected even Lenin’s highly qualified defense of national self-determination out of fear that this might lead to the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities within the states thus founded. Third, there were the Austromarxists, who upheld the principle of “national-cultural autonomy” with separate schools for each nationality to celebrate its unique language and culture. Lenin and Luxemburg both thought this amounted to chauvinism, and opposed it resolutely.
By 1959, the council communist Paul Mattick already noticed that shifting conditions had rendered the arguments of both Lenin and Luxemburg moot. “[The postwar] ‘renaissance’ of nationalism contradicts both Rosa Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s positions on the ‘national question’,” Mattick observed. “Apparently, the time for national emancipation has not come to an end. However, the rising tide of anti-imperialism does not serve world-revolutionary socialist ends.” While Lenin may have had the cooler head in the debate, and though his positions perhaps made sense given impending inter-imperialist war, Luxemburg’s unwavering opposition to nationalism — even national self-determination — seems more correct in retrospect. Loren Goldner, editor of the left communist online publication Insurgent Notes, made a similar point in 2011. “We consider nationalism in the current epoch to be reactionary,” Goldner explained. “Nationalism in the period from the French Revolution until approximately World War I could play an historically progressive, even revolutionary, role (i.e., in the era of bourgeois revolutions) when the formation of viable nation states out of the old dynastic order (e.g., Germany, Italy) was still possible. Even then, the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ was never part of the revolutionary tradition as an abstract principle, separate from a strategic geopolitical orientation to unite the working class (which is always international).”
Zionism was from the very outset a right-wing deviation from mainstream European socialism. As a form of Jewish nationalism, Zionism abandoned a commitment to international working-class emancipation in favor of a mythic homeland. Until the end of World War II, it never could claim the adherence of a majority of Jews. Bundists, the Zionists’ main rival recruiting Jewish nationalists in the Pale of Settlement, viewed the idea of a “return” to the Holy Land — a place none of them had ever been — as an unattainable pipe-dream. Why travel to a foreign country when Jews have a territory ready-made in the shtetl? Few could be arsed to learn Hebrew. Besides, the thought of building communes in the desert (kibbutzim) did not hold wide appeal. Not by accident was it so widely seen as utopian by Marxists who came in contact with it, such as Trotsky. At the same time, Russian Marxists never supported Bundism either: “Marxists resolutely oppose nationalism in all its forms, from the crude reactionary nationalism of our ruling circles and the Right Octobrist parties down to the more or less refined and disguised nationalism of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties” (Lenin). Paul D’Amato is therefore mistaken to suggest that the reason the RSDLP did not endorse Zionism was because it represented “a form of reactionary rather than progressive nationalism.” If this were so, the RSDLP might have supported Bundism, but alas it did not. “Progressive nationalism” was, and remains, a contradictio in adjecto.
Labor Zionism successfully consolidated a mass proletarian membership in the early decades of the twentieth century. Ber Borochov, founder of Poale Tsion, unsuccessfully tried to reconcile Marxism and Zionism. He produced some lulzy screeds against Jabotinsky’s chauvinist “Hebraism,” by which Jews were supposed to abandon the debased Germanisms of Yiddish in favor of the sacred tongue, but Borochov was otherwise rather confused about the Marxist stance toward the nationalities question. During the Russian Civil War, special units composed primarily of Labor Zionists fought in the Red Army. This is hardly surprising, though, given that the pogromist Black Hundreds were fighting for the White Army. In the 1920s, after the end of NEP, Stalin decided the Jews deserved a homeland after all. So he created Birobidzhan, a Jewish autonomous oblast’ located in a barely habitable region of eastern Siberia, just a few clicks north of Manchuria (where the Japanese imperial army was massacring tens of thousands). Kibbutz east of Irkutsk! Following the revelations of the Nazi genocide, and the virtual annihilation of East European Jewry, Zionism finally won over a majority of Jews. Even Stalin reckoned this would be a good outcome, and so the Soviets began arming the fanatical Zionist Haganah with weapons shipped from Czechoslovakia. Using Soviet military surplus, the Haganah carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Arab population in the region — the atrocity that became known as the Nakbah.
When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, the USSR was among the first countries to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. It was the first to legitimize Israel de jure, and the second to do so de facto (the United States was the first). Stalin had nothing but good things to say about the Jewish state, and his portrait hung in households across Israel. A Stalinist version of the Passover Haggadah was printed as late as 1953. Just a year or so after its foundation, as Israel moved to strengthen diplomatic ties with France in 1949, Stalin zigzagged his way to a complete 180. Now Israel was a “fascist” country. Vintage Stalin. Since that time Zionism has only grown more reactionary, shedding the socialist and secular elements that once were central to its ideology. Today it has pushed the Arab populace it dispossessed in 1948 and 1967 into a smaller and smaller space, which it monitors and regulates with a massive military presence along its border. Gaza is walled off by a hypersecure zone of exclusion. Paradoxically enough, Israel is simultaneously a garrison state with expansionist ambitions. “Settler-colonialism” may sound like a Maoist mating call, and it is, but it is also descriptively accurate within certain limits. Jewish settlers living in the Occupied Territories tend to be fanatics. Every couple of years, following pesky rocket fire or acts of individual terrorism (isolated or coordinated), the IDF slaughters a few thousand Palestinian civilians. To be sure, Israel is not exceptional compared to other US regional allies in this respect; Saudi Arabia has been waging a continuous proxy war in Yemen for more than a year, while the Turkish government oppresses ethnic Kurds and crushes all political dissent.
In conclusion, a few outstanding points. There is a small kernel of truth in what Livingstone said regarding the collusion of some Zionist groups with the Nazis. Anachronisms about the timeline of Israel’s existence aside, the ZVfD did indeed offer to comply with Hitler’s program of transferring the Jewish population of Germany to Palestine. Lenni Brenner’s 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis leaves much to be desired as a work of historical scholarship, but the veracity of the Ha’avara Agreement is beyond doubt. German Zionists feared what might happen to the Jews if they stuck around, so it must in part be understood as a desperate bid for a compromise (albeit one which served their longstanding aspirations to nationhood). Brenner is a bit of a showman, an amateur who makes up for his lack of formal training with bluster and ballyhoo. He does have a realistic sense of the antisemitism which underlies Islamist ideology; Brenner freely admits “it is strong in Hamas.” Most would consider him a moderate today, as he favors a two-state solution achieved by a “secular bi-national movement.”
Regardless, the fact that certain Zionists were willing to work with the Nazis does no more to discredit Zionism than the fact the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem met with Hitler discredits the Sunni faith. Netanyahu made a right ass of himself last October when he sought to implicate the religious beliefs of Palestinian Arabs in the Nazi genocide, claiming the Final Solution was really Haj Amin al-Husseini’s idea. Nazi Germany did try to court Muslims in pursuing its aims, as David Motadel has shows in Islam and Germany’s War, though it was rather less successful than its leaders would have liked.
Nationalism sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. Ad hoc cooperation between different nationalist movements, even those which regard each other as mortal enemies, is more a result of the fact that their goals do not necessarily conflict. Separatist aims are complementary up to a point. Zionists wanted a Jewish homeland where Jews dominated all other groups; Nazis wanted a German homeland where Germans dominated all other groups. Moshé Machover, a founding member of the socialist organization Matzpen, who has spent more than half his life upbraiding Israeli nationalism, illustrated this symmetry neatly in an interview of “Zionism and Antisemitism”:
Between Zionism and old-style antisemitism (excluding its most extreme variant that wished to exterminate the Jews) there was a large degree of mutual understanding. They both shared a basic view. Let me put it this way. Suppose you met a man in a bar, and over a drink or three he told you that in his opinion Jews should not be living among non-Jews, but go and live among their own kind. On your way home you might ask yourself, was he an antisemite or a Zionist? Could be either.
Indeed, conflict between two nationalist groups would only erupt if the territorial claims of each group overlapped. Recall, for example, the revanchist ideology of Boulange and Maurras: both felt Alsace-Lorraine rightfully belonged to France. Here we begin to understand not just those several instances in which Zionists cut deals with Nazis, but also the flirtation between the American Nazi Party and the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. Both had separatist aims. This does not mean that Hitler was a Zionist, or that the Zionists were Nazis. Just as it did not mean Elijah Muhammad was a white supremacist, or that George Lincoln Rockwell was a black nationalist.