Dave Rich: The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism

In The Left’s Jewish Problem Dave Rich offers a careful and scholarly (but unfailingly readable) intervention into the highly charged topic of the left’s relationship with antisemitism – a meticulous genealogy of the movements and ideological skirmishes that lie behind the most recent and familiar manifestations of the problem:

As this book will explain, while Corbyn’s rise to the leadership precipitated the Labour Party’s problem with anti-Semitism, the political trends on the left that brought that problem about long predate Corbyn’s leadership, and stretch well beyond the Labour Party. His rise is a symbol of the problem; whether he survives or not, the issue of anti-Semitism on the left of British politics is unlikely to go away.

Rich reminds us that the British left used to view Israel favourably. Zionism was associated with socialism and, through its conflict with a British occupying force, was perceived as anti-colonial in nature. ‘The cause of Israel is the cause of democratic socialism’ asserted a Tribune writer in 1955. What changed? Rich cautions against overstating the role played by active antisemitism, but demonstrates some of the ways in which antisemitic tropes were able to infect the discourse, and the thinking, of people who saw themselves as part of an antiracist struggle.

An important factor in Israel’s perceived shift from socialist underdog to colonial oppressor was the Six Day War. This polarised opinion, exacerbating nascent left wing hostility to Israel, but strengthening an identity with Zionism amongst British and American Jews. Another significant factor was the rise of the New Left, less interested in bread and butter socialist concerns, driven instead by identity politics, single issue pressure groups and anti-American sentiment. Through this lens, Israel began to be seen as a colonial imposition on the Middle East.

Many of today’s familiar anti-Israel tropes began to circulate in the late 1950s and 1960s. The PLO compared Zionism to Nazism and the Algerian National Liberation Front blamed Israel’s creation on the monopoly of finance and media held by ‘magnate Jews’. Rich explains in detail how another trope – the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa – gained so much traction. Surprisingly, the Young Liberals play a major part in this story. The relationship between this group and the wider Liberal Party was bizarrely disjunctive in the 1960s. Their vice-chairman Bernard Greaves, for example, ‘dismiss[ed] Parliament as a hindrance to “the revolutionary transformation of society”’.

Some members flirted with Communism and others engaged in violent direct action as part of their campaign against apartheid. Among the key players was Peter Hellyer, Vice-Chairman of the Young Liberals. Through his campaigning he made connections with Palestinian and other Arab activists and this political environment exposed him to Soviet and Egyptian anti-Zionist – and antisemitic – propaganda. As Rich explains, the Soviet Union was a particularly important vector for anti-Zionist discourse. Examining these 1960s networks, and the way ideas circulated within them (rather like tracing the transmission of a virus) helps explain not just the preoccupations of today’s left but the precise arguments and images they instinctively reach for.

The British Anti-Zionist Organisation (BAZO) was seen as one of the more extreme groups. ‘It argued that Zionists collaborated with Nazis during the Second World War and that they encouraged anti-Semitism to the benefit of Israel.’ If that sounds familiar, so will the names of several of its members – Tony Greenstein, George Galloway, Richard Burden. Another significant grouping was Matzpen – but this Israeli anti-Zionist movement was viewed with disfavour by some, such as Ghada Karmi, because it acknowledged a place for a separate Jewish grouping within the socialist federation they proposed for the region. This particular fault line prompted charges of tribalism against anti-Zionist Jewish activists – accusations since nastily amplified by Gilad Atzmon.

While the anti-Apartheid movement functioned as a gateway to zealous anti-Israel campaigning, the NUS’s No Platform policy, intended to repel fascism and racism, became weaponised against Zionism and (in an ironic twist) had a discriminatory impact on university Jewish societies. These were deemed to be racist unless they renounced any expression of a Zionist identity. The impulse to outlaw abhorrent speakers is understandable. John Randall, a former NUS president, insisted:

There are some boundaries that a civilised society adopts, and there are some behaviours that clearly lie outside those boundaries.

But as Rich dryly comments:

As Jewish students would discover, the flaw in the policy is that those boundaries are movable.

This is just one of many moments in the book where the reader may experience an uncanny sense of déjà vu. In the 1971 words of Kate Hoey, vice-president of the NUS we can read a foreshadowing of the stance taken by current NUS President, Malia Bouattia.

Unquestionably the mass media has given no prominence to the Palestinian case which is understandable because of the Zionist influence among the people who control it.

Although much in this book was unfamiliar to me, all too familiar was the sense of disbelief and frustration that so many on the left, sensitive to other forms of prejudice, have a seemingly limitless capacity for glossing over or blanking out antisemitism except on the right. Here’s one example of this selective obtuseness. Jeremy Corbyn (who refused to campaign alongside David Cameron to Remain) shared a platform with Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Hezbollah supporter who posted Holocaust denial material on his website. When complaints were raised, Corbyn’s response was careless and arrogant.

I refuse to be dragged into this stuff that somehow or other because we’re pro-Palestinian, we’re antisemitic. It’s a nonsense.

This is an example of a manoeuvre I see increasingly often – the invocation of Israel/Palestine to shut down accusations of antisemitism that have nothing to do with that topic.

Although the possibility of a left-wing antisemitism just doesn’t seem to compute for Corbyn and his ilk, the problem’s roots can be traced back to the early years of socialism in the nineteenth century. Jews became strongly identified with capitalism and there grew up the idea of ‘a specifically Jewish network of power and wealth that needed to be broken.’ Capitalism and Jewish power become dangerously interchangeable ideas, both perceived as barriers to a just society. The left needs to face up to its patchy record on this front, rather than brush it under the carpet. Here Rich reminds us of just one blot on our copybook.

The Trades Union Congress in 1900 passed a resolution decrying the war as one ‘to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country.’

I wholeheartedly recommend this illuminating and timely study – there are so many more examples and observations I’m tempted to quote, but I’ll end with some strikingly prescient words from Jeremy Thorpe, speaking in 1968:

Britain suffers little from the disgrace of anti-Semitism. But the amiable weakness for the underdog, which is part of our national character, can all too easily allow us to become sentimental about political problems, while the perverse British characteristic of preferring our foes to our friends often corrupts our judgment.


Colin Shindler: The non-Jewish Jews who became the scholars of an ideological dreamworld.

Colin Shindler author of recently published “Israel and the European Left”, writes in the Jewish Chronicle :

During Jewish Book Week in February 1958, the great Marxist historian, Isaac Deutscher, gave a talk entitled “The Non-Jewish Jew”. It was later published and became required reading for the student revolutionaries of the 1960s. Deutscher tried to explain why some Jews embraced the revolutionary imperative and relegated their Jewishness to a secondary level.

As an ilui (child prodigy) of the yeshiva of Chrzanow in Poland, Deutscher supplanted God with Lenin and Trotsky at an early age. Although he moved beyond the Jewish community, he never renounced his Jewishness. He believed that non-Jewish Jews symbolised “the highest ideals of mankind” and that Jewish revolutionaries carried “the message of universal human emancipation”. He regarded such figures as optimists. And yet his father, the author of a book in Hebrew on Spinoza, disappeared in the hell of Auschwitz.

Deutscher argued that such Jews existed on the borderlines of various civilisations, religions and cultures. And from there on the margins, they were able to clearly analyse societies and events – and guide humanity into more benevolent channels.

His revolutionary heroes included the Talmudic heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya who was the teacher and friend, according to the midrash, of Rabbi Meir Baal Hanas. While his actual misdemeanours were never revealed, Ben Abuya was at pains to warn his close friend, Rabbi Meir not to transgress the Sabbath when he was unwittingly in danger of doing so. Why did Elisha do this if he was the advocate of heresy? Why did Rabbi Meir maintain his friendship with Elisha when the entire Jewish community had boycotted him? Such questions perplexed Deutscher, who identified with Ben Abuya and regarded him as the model for contemporary revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. Yet this story and its mystery did point to the convoluted issues that faced non-Jewish Jews who had travelled outside the community yet culturally remained within. Such issues of national identity and internationalism affected many Jews on the European Left who were often marooned between identities.

Read the full article here.


You can also watch Colin talking about his book

Shalva Weil – contested histories of the Ashkenazi Jews

Despite the common knowledge of the possible Khazar extraction of the Jewish people, Shlomo Sand’s internationally best-selling book ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ has resurfaced as something new. Hebrew University Anthropologist  Shalva Weil attributes this to a will to delegitimise Israel, a movement which supporters from quarters such as The Foundation for the Advancement of Free-Market Thinking, finds helpful to their own projects.

Zizek: “antisemitism alive and kicking in Europe”

Mairav Zonszein:

“On Friday evening, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek gave a lecture in a bookstore in Central Tel Aviv teeming with familiar faces of leftwing activists. It was hosted by Udi Aloni, an Israeli-American artist and BDS activist, who just completed a book entitled What Does a Jew Want, which is edited by Zizek.

Many seem to have come with the expectation to hear Zizek rip into Israel and use his wry wit and charisma in such a bourgeoises Tel Aviv setting to endorse the BDS Movement. Indeed when Udi Aloni introduced Zizek, he identified himself as an activist on behalf of BDS and said he chose the bookstore as a venue in order to not cooperate with any formal Israeli institution.

However, Zizek did not officially endorse or even talk much about BDS – and when he did it was because he was prompted to during Q&A. His two clear statements about BDS were that a) he is not 100% behind it and b)he supports a movement that is initiated jointly by Palestinians and Israeli here in the region.

Rather, Zizek spent almost two hours with the crowd’s undivided attention talking about antisemitism, capitalism and the place of the Jew in the world. He warned that antisemitism is “alive and kicking” in Europe and America and asserted that the State of Israel should worry more about Christian right antisemitism  rather than wasting its energy on self-proclaimed Jewish anti-Zionists. He said that the Christian Zionists in America are inherently antisemitic and that Israel’s willingness to embrace their support is baffling.

After establishing the deep-rooted vitality of antisemitism, he mentioned that he has no patience for those who excuse Arab antisemitism; that even the most oppressed and poor Palestinian should not be tolerated for being antisemitic. He also spoke about his well-known argument regarding Zionist antisemitism, whereby Zionists use antisemitic language towards fellows Jews in accusing them of not being Zionist enough. This was his main critique of Israel – its witch hunt against those Jews it finds not “Zionist enough.”

Read the rest.

Raincoat Optimist comments:

“What to some might appear like Zizek withholding sympathy for Palestinians, is in actual fact highlighting the paternalism and snobbery of some pro-Palestinians, who believe those who are lesser off than them should be pitied, left to their own devices, and if they express antisemitic views, well, who can blame them, ‘eh, after all they don’t know any better do they, they’re poor – and as all people know poor people are stupid and don’t deserve to be told they’re wrong to blame the Jews for their plight.”

HT Shiraz Socialist

Hear Shlomo Sand at the RSA, Thursday 10th February, 12:00pm

Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People was an attempt to undermine the ideology of the religious Zionists of the settler movement by questioning Jewish national identity.

Scholar of nation states Anita Shapira ended her review of the book:

“The assertion that there is no Jewish people is shared by many groups: Jews who would like to appropriate a different national identity or challenge every national framework whatsoever; people looking for reasons of every sort and type to question the links between the different Jewish communities; those who object both to the bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel and to that people’s right to a state of its own. To deny the existence of the Jewish people sometimes stems from a search for universalism, sometimes from considerations of a rival nationalism, sometimes from mere hatred of Jews, and sometimes from intolerance of an entity that does not fit into the neat definitions of nation and religion. Sand would like to promote a new Israeli agenda, striving for harmony between Jews and Arabs, to be based on the remodeling of Jewish identity. However positive the goals he is targeting may be in their own right, there is something warped and objectionable in the assumption that for Jews to integrate into the Middle East, they, and they alone of all the peoples in the region, must shed their national identity and historical memories and reconstruct themselves in a way that may (perhaps) find favor with Israeli-Palestinians.”

Evan Goldstein in the WSJ:

“I recently called Mr. Sand in Paris, where he is on sabbatical, to ask if he is concerned that “The Invention of the Jewish People” will be exploited for pernicious ends. “I don’t care if crazy anti-Semites in the United States use my book,” he said in Israeli-accented English. “Anti-Semitism in the West, for the moment, is not a problem.” Still, he is worried about how the forthcoming Arabic translation might be received in the Muslim world, where, he says, anti-Semitism is growing. I ask if the confident tenor of his book might exacerbate the problem. He falls quiet for a moment. “Maybe my tone was too affirmative on the question of the Khazars,” he reluctantly concedes. “If I were to write it today I would be much more careful.” Such an admission, however, is unlikely to sway the sinister conspiracists who find the Khazar theory a useful invention.”

The book’s particular line of argument found favour with antisemitic interests such as Gilad Atzmon, whose response to it was reproduced without commentary on the book’s official site.

You can see Shlomo Sand speak at the RSA in Charing Cross on Thursday 10th February at 12:00 – the event is free but booking is necessary. A recording will be freely available after the event.

Update: the event is now fully booked, but you can watch it webcast live.

Guardian review of Joel Kotek’s book about antisemitic cartoons



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