It is often assumed that the left has a long and honourable tradition of opposing anti-Semitism wherever it has reared its ugly head. If this was ever consistently the case, it seems sadly no longer to hold true for a significant section of the left which, particularly over the past two or three years, has become increasingly involved in alliances with and support for movements of unquestionably anti-Semitic motivation and inspiration. This is quite an alarming development which poses a serious challenge.
There is, firstly, the legitimation of elements of anti-Semitic discourse. It is now a common occurrence to find arguments, some put forward by activists and commentators of the left, others unchallenged from that quarter, which allude more or less overtly to excessive Jewish influence if not to an actual conspiracy (conducted not only by Israel but also by “neo-conservative” ideologues and policy-makers, always quite vaguely defined) to shape US and even British policy, to muzzle dissent, and to control the policies of international organisations. This discourse has shaped some of the agenda of much of the left liberal media – the Guardian, the Independent, Channel 4, even Radio 4. Coverage of Israel especially is increasingly imbalanced, not only in coverage but also in commentary. (Not that it is always easy to tell the difference – witness the extraordinary space on front pages given over to a figure like Robert Fisk). But it goes further than this. Efforts to raise quite separate issues such as Darfur, where violations of human rights have reached genocidal levels, are blocked on comments pages and routinely rubbished by serial commentators, with charges that these are diversions engineered by Zionist and imperialist lobbies of one (unspecified) kind or another. And, perhaps most seriously, if the question of anti-Semitism itself is directly raised, it is either marginalised, relativised (as of far less significance than say Islamophobia) or decried as self-serving, mischievous and exaggerated.
There is, secondly, collusion with anti-Semitism for purposes of mobilisation. The Socialist Workers Party, whose influence far outweighs its always limited numerical weight, made a key and unprecedented strategic decision to ally with the Muslim Association of Britain (the British branch of the Moslem Brotherhood, an overtly anti-Semitic organisation) in setting up and building the Stop the War Coalition. The original objectives of the latter were to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. That movement broadened out last summer to oppose Israel’s part in the Lebanon war, adopting a position of vocal support for Hezbollah, another overtly anti-Semitic organisation. Thousands of people were then mobilised to march through central London chanting “we are all Hezbollah now”, with no protest voice raised or allowed to challenge this extraordinary sight. The SWP has now gone further, to judge for example by the attendance and pronouncements of its leading spokesman at a recent conference in Cairo of “anti-imperialist forces”, where they expressed fundamental support for Hezbollah and Hamas. These expressions of support were warmly reciprocated, nothwithstanding the belief of the latter that the French revolution, the Russian revolution and indeed Marxism itself are all products of an extensive and ongoing Jewish conspiracy.
There is, finally, the influence all this has on the political socialisation of a new generation. It is fashionable sometimes to mock the egoism and conservatism of many young people today. But many have been mobilised quite successfully in recent years by this section of the left for big events such as the huge march against the Iraq war and for other related smaller scale marches, gatherings and festivals. It is not unreasonable to be alarmed by what may now increasingly be passing as common sense for this new generation, many of whom may now seem to think it self-evident that Israel is the state with the worst human rights record in the world (even genocidal in its treatment of the Palestinians); that it was simply the creation of the West in 1948 in order to control the Middle East; and that the Holocaust has been instrumentalised and exaggerated solely for the purposes of legitimating the “Zionist” project.
These are alarming developments which require some explanation. Some of it has to do with the resilience of anti-Semitism, to the way in which it is able to mutate, to take different forms and shapes over time, to adapt to changing circumstances by integrating new elements (such as a grossly disproportionate anti-Zionism, in which Israel and the Jews who support it, however critically, are singled out for special opprobrium) into an existing stock of “ideas” and rearticulating them in a new combination. Part of the problem here is the denial of many on the left that this is or indeed can be the case. Rather they insist that there is no connection at all between different bouts of anti-Semitism over time, as if each instance appears from nowhere and can only be explained as a product of specific factors at a particular moment.
But there are at least two other reasons, one external, the other internal, although they are closely related, since some of the internal problem is caused by the response to the external development. The external factor is the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the other global superpower. Much of the left still had a residual attachment to the USSR, if only as a counterweight to the United States. However great the crimes of Stalinism, these were always felt by many on the left to be in sense of lesser significance than the greater, longer lasting , more enduring crimes of Western capitalism and imperialism. (As Perry Anderson, the editor of the often influential New Left Review once put it, “there were crimes, but they were socialist crimes”!) Interestingly, this was never the view of the SWP which traditionally adopted a very different view of the Soviet experience, seeing it as the product of a state capitalist counter-revolution, responsible for immense and brutal exploitation and oppression (though how far that could go ever to explain mass murder is another matter). But with the Soviet Union gone, such differences were now deemed irrelevant and the left could unite to focus on one single enemy, the repository and source of all evil on the planet.
The emergence then in the 1990s of opposition to the United States in a number of places, and its combination with other forces always hostile to the West was welcomed with immense enthusiasm, as if it was a uniform global anti-capitalist resistance. It could of course be so defined if the term anti-capitalist was made synonymous with anti-American, as was very soon and easily done. But this came at a huge price. For it meant that the left would have to support movements and forces that previously they would have previously identified as mortal enemies. Swallowing this pill had serious internal consequences for the moral body of the left. Anti-Americanism assumed such importance that it came to substitute for any separate socialist mobilisation or agitation, particularly if that caused difficulties for the new alliances that were being forged.
The motivation for this was probably strategic in the first instance. It was a belief that the reactionary ideas of these forces were of lesser significance than their determined anti-Americanism. The logic of their resistance was said to profoundly anti-imperialist and thus anti-capitalist. It was “objectively” progressive, no matter what its “subjective” appearance. Not making a song or dance about this or that reactionary idea was of no significance in the here and now; indeed it would be counter-productive.
Of course these ideas are not at all trivial or superficial to those who hold them most dear. They are exactly the opposite, quite clearly central, in the case of anti-Semitism, to organisations and movements such as the Moslem Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas. The strategic calculation is likely to rebound in exactly the opposite direction to the one imagined. In refusing to challenge the most reactionary ideas, in working in alliance with overt anti-Semites, the left are likely to act as a recruiting agent for forces which are inherently and profoundly hostile to the core values of the left itself.
It is an open question as to when or if this realisation will hit home. It may do so or it may not. The danger is that in pursuit of this strategy, as criticism is suppressed to the point at which it even ceases to emerge, as has already occurred with the question of anti-Semitism, the original objective will be lost sight of. The alliance will take on a life its own. The means will substitute for the ends. This would not the first time such a thing has is happened in the history of the left of course but it poses a major challenge now.
How can we meet this challenge? The first and most and important response of course is to identify anti-Semitism directly wherever it appears and to raise it as an issue which is not to be swept under the carpet, not to be marginalised, relativised or denied. It may take new forms (though not that new) but it is connected to a long and vicious history. Too many on the left are only prepared to recognise anti-Semitism, if they are willing to do so at all, if it comes dressed in Nazi regalia. Though still present, that particular expression is by no means the only danger we face today.
Secondly, it has to be argued repeatedly that tolerating anti-Semitism, for apparent temporary advantage, is a deeply mistaken tactic and strategy which is bound to rebound in the face of those who advocate it. The left will not recruit new forces to itself in that way but in the end lose them entirely. They will turn out to be, as they have shown all too often in the past, the deadly enemies of the left itself.
And finally, we need to argue that anti-Semitism is wholly unacceptable, that no organisation or movement on the left should tolerate any expression or manifestation of anti-Semitism. It was once (foolishly) said by a great socialist, August Bebel, that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools”. It was not and is not any such thing. It is not any kind of socialism at all, of fools or anyone else. A left that tolerates anti-Semitism, that legitimates it, that colludes with it for purposes of mobilisation, as it socialises a new political generation, is in danger of wrecking itself politically and morally.
Philip J Spencer is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, where he teaches courses on the Holocaust, on the Politics of Mass Murder, and on Human Rights. He is the author (with Howard Wollman) of Nationalism – A Critical Introduction (Sage 2002) and of Nations and Nationalism – A Reader (Edinburgh University Press, 2005). He has also written on Marxism and the Holocaust (in R.Lentin ed., Representing the Shoah for the 21st Century (Berghahn 2004), on civil society, and on migration and asylum. He is currently working on a study of the left, the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.