- Opportunistic accusations
- Structural antisemitism
- Exculpatory anti-Zionism
- Zionism, nationalism, and socialism
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 and diction, 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 refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy? Now this not to say that Israel is in fact legitimate, 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, signs 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 error, 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. Butler does not make excuses for organizations guilty of or complicit with other forms of oppression, however. Since her refusal to accept the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award, she has been a leading voice in criticizing “homonationalism” and the related phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” Homonationalism is understood here as an ideology which uses a nation’s liberal attitudes toward homosexuality as a means of encouraging racist attitudes toward other nations, on the grounds that they are less enlightened. Or as Butler put it, in what was supposed to be her acceptance speech: “Lesbian, gay, trans, and queer people can be used [by] warmongers involved in cultural wars against immigrants through Islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In this time, through these instruments, we become recruited for nationalism and militarism.”
Clearly implicated in this statement — besides NATO and the US, which partly rationalized the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as ways of liberating women — is Israel. Tel Aviv’s vibrant LGBT scene has been celebrated for its openness and acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender identities, but it serves a propaganda function as well. Juxtaposed against daily life in the Gaza strip, where Hamas is in power and things are difficult due to crippling economic sanctions, Tel Aviv is made out to be a gay oasis surrounded by a desert of Islamist homophobia. Israel uses this contrast to present a tolerant image of itself, and to divert attention away from the bitter realities of occupation. (Forget, for a moment, the string of stabbings last summer by an ultra-orthodox Jew at the Jerusalem Pride festival). Butler is right to point out that holding culturally progressive views does not excuse brutal national oppression, but the inverse should also be true: Hamas’ so-called “resistance” to Israeli chauvinism does not excuse its antisemitism or illiberal stance on rights for women and gays. Joseph Mossad’s postcolonial critique of what he calls “the Gay International” is at times almost akin to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s flip reply to a question asked by students at Columbia, where Mossad continues to teach: “No, we don’t have gays in Iran.” Mossad writes in Desiring Arabs: “The advent of colonialism and Western capital to the Arab world has transformed most aspects of daily living; however, it has failed to impose a European heterosexual regime on all Arab men.” One is reminded of Bouteldja’s passionate denunciations of “gay imperialism.” According to her, “there are no homos in the banlieue.”
Lindsey German, at the time a member of the SWP and Stop the War coalition, notoriously announced that she was willing to compromise on certain issues (like women’s rights and gay rights) but not on others: “Stuart King says some Muslims are anti-gay, and this is perfectly true. But it is not a question we pose to Christians who join the Socialist Alliance, is it? Now I’m personally in favor of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth, created by people who won’t defend George Galloway, and regard the state of Israel as somehow a viable presence, justified in occupying Palestinian territories.” Galloway himself is unwilling to defend women’s reproductive rights, decrying abortion as infanticide and spouting other sexist tripe. Anti-Zionism by itself is enough to overlook a plethora of reactionary stances. Yusuf al-Qaradawi — an Egyptian televangelist cleric who defends female genital mutilation, wife-beating, and recommends corporal punishment (either by lashing or stoning) for those guilty of homosexual acts — was invited to London by Galloway in 2005. None other than our good friend Ken Livingstone lauded al-Qaradawi as “a leading progressive voice in the Muslim world.”