This is the text of a short talk given by David Hirsh to Sixth Formers at JFS today. The other panellists were Brendan
O’Neil and Dan Judelson.
What does it mean to be on the left? I think one thing it might mean is an attachment to some kind of universalism. That is the idea that human beings are all, in some profound way, of equal value. Of course we are not equal – some are big some are small; some are weak some are strong; some are good looking some are… less so. But whatever our nation, our wealth, our power, our gender, the left works with the idea that we are all important. The left tries to find ways that we can work together to look after each other because we are all of equal value.
The right is often more concerned with particulars than universals. How can I best educate my child? how can Britain be successful in the world? how can Israel remain safe?
The left sees a world in which poor people are exploited, weak nations are colonised, women are confined to the home and people die in religious conflict. The left sees a lot wrong with the world and it sets out to change that. The right tends to focus more on ways in which we can prosper not in the next world, but in this one.
The left hopes that ordinary people – the majority – can come together in solidarity, looking after each other, respecting each other and defeat those – the small minority – who benefit from injustice.
Interestingly, the ancient Israelites themselves were amongst the pioneers of the idea of universality, the conception of fundamental human equality. They also wrestled with the difficulties of grasping both the universal and the particular at the same time.
Christianity was an important carrier of the concept of universality from the ancient world into modern Europe.
But through the centuries many Christians have seen the Jews as a threat to the Christian brotherhood of man. The Jews have been understood as those who reject the universal – Christ killers. And in doing so, they wreck the utopian universal dream not only for themselves, but also for everybody else.
In the 19th Century, the left sought to turn universality into a scientific and secular movement. It should follow, then, that the left should always oppose antisemitism, because its universality tells it that Jews are of equal worth to everybody else.
And of course, there have always been proud traditions on the left which have opposed antisemitism.
Yet. Antisemitism has its temptations. It is tempting for radical people who want radical change. Why? Because for centuries, antisemitism has functioned as a way of explaining why the simple plan of all getting together to make the world better keeps on failing.
This left is for the universal. But it is tempted to see the Jews as anti-universal and a threat to the universal.
The Nazis are usually thought of as right wing. But in some ways, they were also similar to the left. They were radical, they wanted profound change. They didn’t like nationalism, they had a global programme for changing the whole world. They were hostile to British and American imperialism and democracy. They put their big political ambitions before the ‘pursuit of happiness’. Hitler claimed to be the universalist and he said it was the Jews who wrecked society for everybody by following only their own selfish interests.
But by and large, the left opposed Hitler and his antisemitism.
In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, radical Jews were split as to how they should oppose the antisemitism.
Some wanted to dissolve all religious and national characteristics into a universalistic socialism where the distinction between Jew and non-Jew would eventually be forgotten.
Others wanted Jews to organise themselves into culturally and politically Jewish Bunds which would defend them from antisemitism and which would construct Jewish identity in new, egalitarian and empowering ways.
A third current thought that national self-determination was the key to guaranteeing people’s individual rights, and they wanted Jews from all different places to forge themselves into a sovereign nation.
In the 1940s the overwhelming majority of the Jewish Socialists, Bundists and Zionists were murdered, alongside the other Jews of Europe.
There were a few survivors here and there in Europe, but most of them felt it unbearable to continue to live amongst those who had killed everybody they knew, and amongst those who had failed to prevent the killing, and amongst those who still had their children and their friends and relatives.
When Israel was first established, it was supported by most people on the left. They liked the socialist experiment of the kibbutzim and the Labour Party which ran Israel in its first decades. They admired Israel as an anti-imperialist movement which defeated the British. They supported Israel as the underdogs, the survivors of the Holocaust.
Later, for good reasons of universality, the left developed more and more sympathy for the Palestinians, who had lost out in the conflict with Israel and who were also exploited by the predominately Arab states which claimed to speak on their behalf.
But the problem is this: some on the left are still tempted by the image of the Jews, now Israel, as being the fly in the ointment of universal peace and love. The particularists, nationalists, racists, anti-universalists, who wreck the world for everybody else.
The problem is not that people take the rights of Palestinians seriously. I believe that they’re right to do that. The problem comes when they start to think of Israel as being central to a whole global system of domination.
When they care more about every injustice perpetrated by Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians than they do about any other injustice.
When they put all their energy into boycotting Israel, but they wouldn’t dream of boycotting any other nation.
When they close their ears to claims of antisemitism, saying that the Jews invent such claims as a nasty trick to stop people from criticizing Israel.
When they say that Israel is apartheid or Nazi or racist – when they find forms of words which make Israel seem like the nastiest place on the planet.
See also by David Hirsh: