Antisemitism as a “blindspot” for the Left

Why anyone would want to support Jeremy Corbyn or join the Labour Party is beyond me. I don’t live in Great Britain, so at least I’m spared that grim imperative. From what I’m told, spontaneous adulation for “Jez” and “the absolute boy” broke out on the floor of the DSA convention this last year. A strange occurrence, considering that Corbyn has nothing whatsoever to do with the American political system. He was seen as the limey equivalent to Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy in 2016, so I guess it makes some sense.

Still, since the subject keeps coming up, I might as well address the recurring charge of “antisemitism” that’s been leveled at Corbyn’s Labour. Many of his supporters reflexively suspect this is another attempted coup, an effort by the old Blairite wing of the Party to topple its Corbynite adversary and thereby reassert its dominance. Unfortunately, there’s a very good chance that this is indeed the case. This is unfortunate because antisemitism is a real blindspot for many on the Left, one which is only further occluded by cynical allegations.

Let me lay my cards on the table: I don’t think that Corbyn is a hardened antisemite or anything like that. Efforts to portray him as such are in my opinion transparently opportunistic. Yet again, this is a manufactured scandal resuscitated several years after the fact for political gain. Worst of all, this is leading people to dislike Corbyn for the wrong reasons. Jez sucks not because he’s “the absolute goy,” as some have pithily put it, but because he’s a milquetoast reformist leading a bourgeois political party, who wants to put more cops on the street and complains that foreigners are stealing British jobs.

One can make casually antisemitic, racist, or sexist comments, though, without necessarily being an ideologically committed antisemite, racist, or sexist. This is really the crucial takeaway from theories of structural antisemitism, racism, or sexism. In other words, these ideologies don’t rely on self-consciously antisemitic, racist, or sexist agents or individuals in order to be reproduced societally at an unconscious level.

Pseudo-emancipatory character

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Racist ideologies typically employ a double-operation with regard to those they deem parasitic upon the greater social body. In contrast to the broad masses of society (e.g., “ordinary hardworking Americans,” a codeword for the predominantly WASPish working class) there is a lower and an upper stratum of parasites. Whereas the lower stratum includes supposed inferiors — i.e., illegal immigrants, “welfare queens,” and so on, who leech off of the surplus wealth generated by industrious individuals — the upper stratum covers supposed elites — i.e., globalists, Jews, and banksters, who surreptitiously rob honest workers through financial speculation or manipulate them with their control of the media.

Moishe Postone, the late theorist of structural antisemitism, argued that it possesses a peculiar quality compared to other racist ideologies. Impersonal aspects of the capitalist social order are identified with the person of the Jew, who for historically contingent reasons fulfills a logically necessary function of capitalism. A faceless and anonymous form of domination is given both a face and a name. For this reason, Postone maintained that “antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension other forms of racism rarely have… Racism is rarely a danger for the left. While the Left has to be careful not to be racist, it isn’t an ongoing danger because racism doesn’t have the apparent emancipatory dimension of anti-semitism.”

John-Paul Pagano wrote a piece for the Forward in late January about “How Anti-Semitism’s True Origin Makes It Invisible to the Left.” “Antisemitism differs from most forms of racism in that it purports to ‘punch up’ against a secret society of oppressors,” explained Pagano, “which has the side effect of making it easy to disguise as a politics of emancipation. If Jews have all this power, then punching up at Jews is a form of ‘speaking truth to power,’ a form of speech of which the Left is currently enamored. Yet it is precisely because antisemitism pretends to strike at power that the Left cannot see it, and is in many ways doomed to erase or even reproduce its central tropes.”

Even white supremacists have borrowed some of the rhetoric about “privilege” from mainstream left-liberal social justice discourse so as to demonize the Jews. Last year, a flier made the rounds at the University of Illinois which declared that “ending white privilege starts with ending Jewish privilege.” Citing survey data, it claimed that 44 percent of Jewish Americans are in the “one percent,” the top economic percentile in the United States. Innocently, it then asked: “Is the 1% all straight white men? Or is the 1% Jewish?” We should not forget that Father Coughlin’s militantly pro-union and pro-Catholic paper, which was at the same time also anti-communist and antisemitic, was called Social Justice.

Mear One’s 2010 Tower Hamlets mural in England, which has been the subject of so much controversy this last week, illustrates perfectly the “pseudo-emancipatory dimension” of antisemitism. It depicts a group of white men with stereotypically Jewish features sitting around a table playing a game of Monopoly using real money, but on the backs of predominantly black and brown bodies which are hunched over prostrate. Behind them is a huge pyramid with the Eye of Providence emblazoned atop it, a symbol often associated with Freemasonry. Next to it is a sign reading: “The New World Order is the enemy of humanity.”

Apologies and apologia

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How anyone could miss the antisemitic tropes apparent throughout this work is mind-boggling to me. The image features not just businessmen and bankers, but also what appears to be a rabbi (wearing a robe and a long beard). Kalen Ockerman, the “graffiti artist” who designed the mural, was more or less open about the ethnicity of the figures, as well as their “demonic” character, as he admitted to reporters: “Some older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschilds and #Warburgs, etc., as the demons they are.”

Despite this, the Weekly Worker columnist Tony Greenstein — whose outrageous antics have been widely reported in the past by Comrade Andrew Coates — fails to detect anything out of the ordinary in Ockerman’s mural. Greenstein described it in passing as “an absurd mural whose ‘antisemitism’ is highly debatable.” It surprised me that he’d put “antisemitic” in scare quotes, since it seemed obvious that the mural drew upon antisemitic imagery. When I later asked the veteran anti-Zionist why he did so, he responded:

I don’t think [the antisemitism of the graffiti] as clear-cut as you make out. The figures in it are not noticeably Jewish. I am well acquainted with antisemitic caricatures and these were not it. I think it is a conspiracy type of art work but there is nothing noticeably Jewish about it. It’s about bankers, not Jewish bankers. Indeed, the figure on the far right looked like Alf Garnett!

Now I can’t tell if Greenstein is being disingenuous here or if he really can’t see what to my mind is manifest antisemitism. (Incidentally, Warren Mitchell, the actor who played Alf Garnett, was in fact Jewish.) Corbyn, to his credit, expressed regret over his earlier remarks, which at best held the artwork to be innocuous — and at worst compared it to Man at the Crossroads by Diego Rivera, a comparison I regard as no less offensive than its plainly antisemitic content. He acknowledged the mural’s imagery was “deeply disturbing and antisemitic,” adding that he “wholeheartedly supports its removal.” What astounds me is that others would double down on Corbyn’s behalf, insisting the mural was not antisemitic in the least. Even worse, some claim that by apologizing Jez somehow “sold out” to party Zionists.

Personally, I’m not a fan of long, drawn-out handwringing or public self-flagellation. Matthew d’Ancona’s recent Guardian editorial, which holds that “Corbyn’s ‘Regret’ Over an Antisemitic Mural Doesn’t Go Remotely Far Enough,” strikes me as excessive and tendentious. The open letter sent by Jewish leaders to Corbyn several hours ago likewise seemed a bit overwrought, but he was gracious enough to reply: “Zero tolerance for antisemites means what it says, and the party will proceed in that spirit.” What else was he going to say, realistically? And what more do Labourites really want from him?

Incidentally, something along these lines is all one can really ask for when it comes to an analogous controversy across the pond — the troublesome relationship three leaders of the Women’s March have cultivated with infamous Nation of Islam spokesman Louis Farrakhan. Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Tamika Mallory have all refused to condemn Farrakhan’s numerous hateful remarks about the Jews. What makes their refusal even less comprehensible is that, beyond his outspoken antisemitism, he is also an open homophobe and transphobe (both forms of prejudice which are supposed to be antithetical to the contemporary feminism on display at the Women’s March).

One would be hard-pressed to find another racist ideology for which so many excuses are made as antisemitism. Black nationalist antisemitism of the sort peddled by Farrakhan is of course a longstanding phenomenon, and one hears clear echoes of it in Jackie Walker’s claim a couple years ago that Jews were the “chief financiers of the African slave trade” (a calumny first advanced in the 1991 Nation of Islam screed, The Secret Relationship of Blacks and Jews). The converse is also true, to be sure: Jewish nationalist antiblack racism reared its ugly head this last week when Israel’s Chief Sephardic rabbi (an official post) likened African-Americans to monkeys. Yitzhak Yosef has already in the past called Reform Jews “worse than Holocaust deniers,” so this is hardly the first or last godawful thing he’s said.

“Left-wing” antisemitism?

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Don’t get it twisted. As far as I’m concerned, a successful socialist revolution is the only way to ensure that antisemitism is vanquished forever. Other measures, up to and including the formation of a Jewish state (like Israel, Yiddishland, or Birobidzhan), can only provide a reactionary stopgap. Leon Trotsky called Zionism “utopian” because it believes that “the Jewish question can be resolved within the framework of rotting capitalism.” Nevertheless, antisemitism poses a very real and persistent danger for emancipatory movements, even those which aim to overthrow the capitalist order. From Proudhon to Bakunin to Dühring, and resurfacing again with Stalin, antisemitic strains have dogged socialist politics, leading August Bebel to call antisemitism “the socialism of fools.”

This raises the following question: Is there such a thing as “left-wing” antisemitism? Roland Barthes attempted to answer this question in response to a 1958 survey in the pages of the Jewish periodical L’Arche. Barthes, whose Marxism was never tied to any particular party, and whose Trotskyist sympathies put him at odds with the intellectuals of the PCF, concluded that antisemitism could take root within the Left but in the process it would transmogrify into a creature of the Right. He thus wrote:

We have known for a long time that Right and Left are confused notions. They can each be led, for tactical reasons, to exchange their positions (Lacoste has carried out a right-wing policy in Algeria and there is, conversely, a right-wing anticolonialism). Socially, all classes are capable at some time of shifting politically and even of dividing (as is probably the case with the working class, which has just voted partly “yes” and partly “no” at the last referendum). Lastly, to make the confusion complete, in our present-day world — and peculiarly in France — the Communist Party renders the notion of the Left terribly ambiguous at the moment.

There remains the ideological criterion. By ideology is to be understood a general representation of the world, the political determinations of which (in the broad sense of the term) are generally unconscious. Right-wing ideology is defined by a certain number of beliefs which, taken together, form a sensibility: rejection of history; belief in a changeless human nature; more or less explicit recognition of force as a value; anti-intellectualism, etc.

The definition of the Right depends on these elements being brought together, not the other way about. Since antisemitism is one of them — and not the least significant — it follows that it is antisemitism that makes the Right, not the Right that makes antisemitism. Anyone who is antisemitic defines himself as a rightist and thereby defines the Right. We should go further here — someone who announced he was a man of the Left but professed antisemitism would unmask himself by so doing as following a right-wing ideology: antisemites are always right-wingers, right-wingers are not necessarily antisemites.

Hillel Ticktin, the South African Trotskyist, followed a similar line of reasoning in his synopsis of an issue of the journal Critique. “No Marxist can support nationalism,” writes Ticktin, “whether that of the Zionists or of Hezbollah. That does not remove the real oppression of Palestinians, but it does imply that no religious or nationalist solution is possible… At the same time, there can also be no question that antisemitism is rising, particularly in areas where it has been endemic for the past half-century: Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Bebel’s dictum that antisemitism is the socialism of fools is partly correct in that the role of antisemitism is different from that of racism; it provides an alternative populist ideology to the appeal of socialism.”

Rejecting both the widespread calls for Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (or BDS, a strategy he also opposed as misguided vis-à-vis the apartheid regime during the 1980s) as well as opportunistic alliances with groups like Hezbollah, which ostensibly leftist organizations like the SWP in the UK and the ISO in the US condone, Ticktin nevertheless reaffirmed that antisemitism is an irreducibly right-wing phenomenon:

The representative of the Israeli Embassy on the BBC1 10 AM program on Religion 1 May 2016 argued that, although the left had fought antisemitism, there were examples of left-wing antisemites like Proudhon, Bakunin, and Stalin. This is stretching the concept of the Left. If one includes anyone who is critical of the status quo in capitalism to be left-wing then the Israeli representative is correct. There is no doubt that Stalin and Stalinism were not just antisemitic but among the worst perpetrators of acts of antisemitism that the world has seen. This journal has made that clear. Can one call Stalinism left-wing? It was a reaction to the Russian Revolution of 1917 from the right. It introduced and maintained high levels of inequality in all respects. It was brutal in form and totally opposed to the forms of civil liberties accepted by the left. Bakunin attacked Marx in antisemitic terms and Proudhon was no better. They were both anarchists of a kind that would fall outside the left as we understand it today. The people accused of antisemitism do not fall into a Stalinist or anarchist category. There are of course left-wing anarchists but that is another matter. However, it can of course happen that the left sees antisemitism as a form of discrimination employed to divide the population in order to maintain capitalism at the present time, whatever the age of the practice. The left stands for the abolition of all forms of social inequality. Hence it is automatically and inherently opposed to antisemitism, unlike Conservatives and the Labour Right, who accept the market and its forms of subjection and inequality, since they accept the market.

At least intuitively, this feels right. Still, it’s a complicated matter, both historically and conceptually. Marx and Engels wrote of “reactionary” forms of socialism, even in texts as famous as the Manifesto. The various strains of socialism that appeal to antisemitism would seem to fall under this category.

14 thoughts on “Antisemitism as a “blindspot” for the Left

  1. Pingback: The Socialism of Fools: Hanbury Street Revisited – 24/6 Magazine

  2. Decent survey Ross, thanks. One pedantic correction: in Corbyn’s original sin in the whole affair, he didn’t compare this crappy mural to Rivera’s, which you are right would be disgusting. Rather, he compared its removal by local government to the removal of Rivera’s by Rockefeller, a nonjewish billionaire whose name Corbyn misspelled as Rockerfeller.

  3. I have no quarrel with this article, merely add that the crowd who have had an ‘open letter’ to Corbyn published are part of the party political Conservative establishment, and this would appear to be strongly in the nature of a party political jibe in the guise of a call against anti-semites, deliberately confusing anti-zionism, vocal within the Labour Party, with anti-semitism, which has not been.

  4. While your discussion covers some interesting points in the history of the arguments – in my opinion you have set off on the wrong foot – specifically you seem to vastly under-emphasising or even unaware of the extent of the weaponising of the gratuitous allegations of anti-semitism against unequivocal anti-racists who happen to be anti-zionists in the UK this is particularly virulent within the Labour Party at the moment because of Corbyn’s leadership – Corbyn has never been an anti-semite – I was one of the founding memebers of Workers Against Racism in the early eighties when Corbyn sponsored our campaign even before he became a prospective candidate as an MP … [NB – I am not a supporter of Corbyn or the Labour Party – since the Labour Party as an institution (not necessarily all its individual members) falls into the same category as Stalinists as not qualifying as part of the left in any marxist sense … (Labourism vies with Stalinism in how far to the right it can go while still maintaining a vestige of a link with institutions connected to the working class.

    Corbyn is not theoretical and McDonnell (his aid) has recently reaffirmed his committment to a very imperialist British nationalist perspective … but it is Corbyn’s long term history of solidly vocal support for the Palestinians that has caused him to be the ‘aunt sally’ rallying target for the right in the UK – the strong zionist campiaign orchestrated by Labour & Tory ‘friends of Israel’ has been ideologically armed and supplied by many pro-zionist campaigns not least emanating from the Israeli Embassy in London and their American Friends and supporters …

    Perhaps the picture herein the UK is a little different because BDS and more broadly an intelligent understanding of the importance of anti-zionism in opposing anti-semitism, British and US imperialism in the Middle East and Israeli colonialism is more widely understood – and the currently almost entirely false allegations of anti-semitism within the Labour Party are about silencing the most vocal critics of pro-imperialist politics – you have to have critically watched the history of the pantomime of so called ‘left’ versus ‘right’ within the Labour Party to understand the ebb flow it plays in delivering and containing any nascent wc resistance in the UK – the current act is part of that – and should only be commented on – with the headline priviso that Labour in toto remains part of the problem and no vehicle towards a solution (just as I suspect the Democrats have been used in the US) the forlorn hopes of an apparently tame radical like Sanders or Corbyn is what contains and diverts the struggle from other more potentially groundbreaking initiatives …

    Your correct point that any real socialist and all marxists should allow no vestige of real anti-semitism to go unchallenged – just as they should not allow any aspect of zionism to remain unchallenged – even or especially when it wields the false, disengenuous accusation of anti-semitimism – in the UK notably and without apparent irony against the many leading anti-zionist jews – eg Greenstein, Machover, Walker.

    NB: I would like you to check your sources and refer back to what Jackie Walker really said in her own words [I think you are wrong] – I believe you will find that she said that some financers of the Slave Trade were jewish – there has been renewed interest in the detailed history of the Slave Trade and Slave Owners in British History as part of the more detailed unearthing of the origins of primitive capital accumulation and the birth of the industrial revolution in the UK.

  5. Pingback: After the Westminster Demonstration Against Anti-Semitism. | Tendance Coatesy

  6. I knew Moishe very well in the early 70’s, he was a comrade & a mentor; I knew about his family background, & in those days, he wore a yarmulke half the time. So, when I saw a YouTube video of an interview with him a few years ago, I wasn’t totally surprised. I think we have to be careful about throwing around charges of any anti Jewish sentiment, though, certainly, they continue to exist, not particularly among the real Left.

  7. This is Walker’s comment,

    “I hope you feel the same towards the African holocaust? My ancestors were involved in both – on all sides… millions more Africans were killed in the African holocaust and their oppression continues to this day on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews and many Jews, my ancestors too, were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade… so who are the victims and what does it mean . We are victims and perpetrators, to some extent by choice. And having been a victim does not give you a right to be a perpetrator.”

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/tony-greenstein/lynching-of-jackie-walker

    Many people felt at the time, and feel it since, that this was offensive, not just for claiming some kind of ‘ancestral privilege’ in talking about these events (I could, on the same basis, perhaps so on the Irish famine and the persecution of Huguenots in France), but for linking the Shoah, and Jews as the “chief financiers” of the slave trade.

    • I tend to think about poor Jews, from whom I was descended, at least as far back as the late 19th century. There were a lot of us. Capital financed the African Slave Trade, & some rich Jews participated in that finance. Spinoza was excommunicated, because he threatened the rich Jews of his community & their links to the greater capitalist Christian community in Holland.

    • But, and I am almost sorry to say something so elementary but it clearly needs saying, ‘we’ are not ‘them’, and bear no responsibility for the past. Our job is to make the future.

  8. Regarding Tony Greenstein’s comment on the anti-semitic mural, “Indeed, the figure on the far right looked like Alf Garnett!” He may have intended this as a rebuttal of its anti-semitic character, though I find it had to believe he wouldn’t have known that Warren Mitchell, the actor who played Alf Garnett, was in fact Jewish.

  9. I appreciate this post a great deal. I am very troubled by descriptions of individuals as “unequivocal anti-racists” as if that somehow exempts a person from participating in racism or antisemtism. I am an “unequivocal anti-racist” and yet I am aware that my thoughts and actions frequently participate in structural aspects of discrimination that I have not been able to bring to full consciousness or fully articulate to myself. that is a lifetime task that will never end.

    I am a completely secular jew, and find myself to have many antisemitic beliefs and presumptions that I am constantly surprised about. fortunately, i am old and mature enough to reflect on them rather than expressing them.

    one result of my own self-explorations has been a commitment to read much more deeply and widely than I already had been about the history of anti-Jewish racism (a term I prefer to antisemtism at this point) and anti-black racism. I am continually shocked at what I find. many tropes and figures and ideas in our culture contain subtle intimations of racial superiority, inferiority, and hidden power that connect in too many ways to both historical and contemporary racist beliefs. Hannah Arendt’s book on antisemitism, which includes material directly on left-antisemitism, should be required reading for anyone who is committed to fighting racism–among many other books. we have only just begun to understand how deeply our society is built on hate and rejection of racial and ethnic and gendered “others.”

    and one of the places this is most troubling today is in talk about the Middle East. I cannot even count the number of times I have heard people invoke more-or-less well known anti-Jewish tropes when talking about “Zionism” or Israel/Palestine. The excuses that Israel trumps up charges of antisemtism (it does) and uses them to quash political debate (it does) do not gainsay the political effect of engaging in anti-Jewish rhetoric. Hatred of Jews is very clearly on the rise in the world today, and really never went away. We can’t solve any of these problems by adding gasoline to the fire.

    • “I am an ‘unequivocal anti-racist’ and yet I am aware that my thoughts and actions frequently participate in structural aspects of discrimination that I have not been able to bring to full consciousness or fully articulate to myself.”

      Weird. How the notion of Original Sin found a home on the Marxist left is the stuff of dissertations…

  10. Pingback: Jewdas and Yiddish anarchism | The Charnel-House

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