Book review: The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and Liberal Opinion – Philip Mendes – Engage Journal Issue 5 – September 2007

The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and Liberal Opinion By Bernard Harrison, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, 2006, pp.219

Much has been written about the so-called “new anti-semitism” associated with the second Palestinian intifada and growing left-wing hostility towards Israel. Attacks on individual Jews and Jewish institutions and broader anti-Zionist and anti-Israel zealotry seems to have significantly increased. This book by a veteran non-Jewish and ex-leftist philosopher carefully interrogates this phenomenon by inquiring whether and in what circumstances criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism.

Harrison argues that a negative climate of opinion has developed towards Jews based on a narrow moral indignation concerning the suffering of the Palestinians. This viewpoint arguably mirrors the claims and motifs of traditional anti-Semitism in a number of ways. The Israel-Palestine conflict is defined as the key international issue today; Israel is held solely responsible for the conflict and the Palestinians and Arab States are constructed as completely innocent victims: Israel is an inherently racist and apartheid state; Israeli actions are worse than those of Nazism; all Jews provide unqualified support for Israeli policies; and Israel is planning a mass genocide of the Palestinians. In short, Jews and Israel are portrayed as a unified malicious force similar to that depicted in traditional far Right anti-Semitism.

Harrison emphasizes that he is no right-wing propagandist engaged in a polemic against the Left. In fact, he expresses qualified support for an Israeli return of the West Bank and dismantling of Jewish settlements in exchange for peace. He also criticizes instances of Israeli discrimination against its Arab citizens. But, he is concerned that contemporary anti-Zionism may result in an overtly anti-Semitic movement that will damage non-Jews as well as Jews, and urges Left anti-Zionists to modify their views and language to conform to traditional anti-racist perspectives.

In support of his key argument, Harrison utilizes a number of case studies from the contemporary British debate including the New Statesman’s January 2002 publication of an anti-Semitic image titled “A Kosher Conspiracy” on its front cover; two articles by Dennis Sewell and John Pilger in the same issue of that magazine; an August 2002 BBC broadcast explicitly comparing Israeli actions to those of the Nazis; a 2004 statement by Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge saying that she would consider becoming a suicide bomber if forced to live like the Palestinians; the anti-Israel rantings of senior Labour parliamentarian Peter Hain; and the boycott by British Muslims of the Holocaust Day commemoration. He also exposes the genocidal agenda behind calls for a so-called “one-state” solution, analyses the political and religious machinations behind suicide bombings, and condemns the one-sided anti-Israeli reporting of many British media outlets .

Harrison provides some useful insights into much Left anti-Zionist thinking. He notes that many ideologues look for simple answers to complex problems, and argues that many on the Left have substituted Islamists and other fanatical anti-American groups for the traditional vanguard role played by the proletariat. He also brutally dissects the Mersheimer-Walt et al thesis that Jewish lobby groups control the foreign policy decisions of the USA and other Western powers, and compares it to traditional anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

There are some obvious weaknesses and historical errors in this book. For example, Harrison consistently argues that Jews are significantly divided on Israeli policies, which tends to exaggerate the significance of a few loud Jewish dissenters and under-state the passionate identification of most Jews with Israel. He argues wrongly that only a very small minority of Israelis favour permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. He claims that most Palestinian refugees left Israel because they were urged to do so by Arab broadcasts rather than due to direct Israeli expulsions, but ignores the contrary view expressed by prominent contemporary Israeli historians such as Benny Morris. In addition, he fails to cite documented evidence of Israeli massacres during the 1948 war, argues wrongly that Left anti-Zionism only became significant after the fall of Communism, and denies the reality that many Jews do interpret any criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic. Finally, he gets the year wrong for the 2000 Camp David negotiations, and relies too heavily on the non-specialist writings of US lawyer Alan Dershowitz.

More broadly, Harrison is also too willing to essentialise the Left, and to ignore counter-arguments. There is no mention of those Left groups such as Engage which have campaigned energetically against an academic boycott of Israel. Nor does he applaud the British Labour Government for initiating a Commission of Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. These reservations aside, Harrison provides a useful critique of the failure of many on the Left to distinguish between political criticisms of specific Israeli policies and governments, and a collective stereotyping of the entire Israeli people.

Dr Philip Mendes is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004.

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