Boycotts of Israel in US Academe: David Hirsh and Claire Potter

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a “boycott of Israeli academic institutions”.

Last year, while a similar debate raged within the American Studies Association, there was this exchange between David Hirsh and Claire Potter:

from David Hirsh:  “I am a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.  I read that you were an opponent of the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions and I read that you decided, nevertheless, to support the BDS motion in the recent ASA debate.  I would like to respond…”

from Claire Potter:  “Thank you for your civil and knowledgeable open letter of December 17, and the links you have shared. I hope you like the stamp I chose for my response: Harvey is one of my heroes, both for his belief that democracy can come to all of us and for his belief in moral persuasion.   You are right: I am new to the global debates over the BDS boycott, having been engaged in reading and conversation for only a year. And yet people have to make decisions at political moments, and for a variety of reasons I was faced with one this fall when I chose to come out against the ASA boycott resolution and then came to believe I needed to re-think and change my position….”

from David Hirsh:   Thank you for your reply to my email.  In this short correspondence we have already touched upon a number of key issues.  We have discussed the centrality of academic freedom, and how that is sometimes underwritten, but sometimes also threatened by academic institutions; we have touched on the need for a civility in our discussions which enables us to focus on what is said and done rather than on who is recognised as being positioned in the camp of the ‘horrible people’ or the good, radical people…


for more from Engage about the boycott movement and antisemitism:

The Myth of Institutional Boycotts – David Hirsh

Opposing the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global academic community – David Hirsh

Alan Johnson: The case against Boycott of Israel.  VIDEO. (2014)

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.  (2007)

Stephen HawkingDavid Hirsh on the antisemitism which comes with the boycott campaign. Experiences from UCU  (2013)

Cure worse than the disease: academic boycott of Israel in the light of the academic boycott of South Africa – Mira Vogel (2007)

Mira Vogel on PACBI (2008)

Engage response to BRICUP [PDF] (2007)

Ben Gidley on the antisemitism which comes in the wake of the boycott campaign:  The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union (2011)

Robert Fine responds to Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of Israel in the South African Mail & Guardian  (2010)

Robert Fine in debate about boycotting Israel, “the apartheid state”. (2008)

Antisemitism, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech – Robert Fine (2007)

Hirsh, David. 2012. Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community. Engage, [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2011. No such thing as victimless boycott. Mail and Guardian, South Africa, p. 14. [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2007. Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections. Working Paper. Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Occasional Papers, New Haven, CT

Resignations from UCU over the issue of the academic boycott of Israel.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor (2013)

Norman Finkelstein’s Attack on the BDS Movement

Boycott Israel? Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack.  here.  (Oct 2010)

The University of Johannesburg Boycott, here.  (May 2011)

Eric Lee argues a boycott is no way to help the Palestinians here. (June 07)

Israeli Universities, Israel-Palestinian Peace and Real Solidarity – Paul Frosh, Hebrew University, Jerusalem Added by David Hirsh – 3 November 2006 (Nov 06)

A detailed critique of PACBI‘s (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) call for “BDS” – “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”. Here. (Sep 06, David Hirsh)

Hirsh’s speech and reports from his debate with Ilan Pappe, pro-boycott professor at Haifa University, on the issue of the boycott. At Birmingham AUT. Here.  (Nov 05)

Why I am against the boycott, by John Strawson – 18 May 2005

Another version of who we are. 


Discussions about BDS and how to oppose it – David Hirsh

This is copied from discussions on facebook:

DH:  Is the US Anthropological Association aware that the Bataclan and the Eagles of Death Metal had both been targeted by the BDS movement? The US Anthropological Association currently constitutes the most influential part of the BDS movement.

XX:  The arguments you’ve been making for the last day or two make complete sense to me. What’s unfortunate is that the floodgates will eventually open if Israel continues to follow a policy of “manage the occupation”. First in academia, and perhaps next in arts and entertainment.

A two-pronged approach is needed. Fighting BDS is only one part. There also needs to be an alternative to BDS for supporters of the Jewish democracy and opponents of what’s happening over the green line. Luckily the European Commission has given us some idea about what this would look like…

DH:  1. I’m worried about the argument that if only the Jews in the Middle East behaved better, then antisemitism would subside. Antisemitism is a huge and malign mystification of the actual conflict in the Middle East, not a straightforward response to it.

DH:  2. I’m worried about the notion that it is in Israel’s power to end the occupation whenever it chooses. There has to be a political solution to the conflict and there is no reason to believe that the Palestinians are sufficiently committed or politically organised to hold up their end of a peace agreement. What happens if months after a peace agreement a Palestinian state fails – in the way that the Iraqi state failed – and then Israel ha ISIS ten miles from Tel Aviv? The idea that Israel is so powerful that it is only embroiled in the occupation because that is what it chooses – is wrong.

DH: 3. I’m worried about the argument that the good anthropologists only need to be offered a move coherent and less antisemitic way to be anti-Israel and then that would undercut the BDS movement. This relentless focus on Israel is ever more eccentric; the Middle east is falling apart, hundreds of thousands of people are being murdered. US anthropologists need to lift their eyes from the evil Zionists.

DH:  4. The conflict is not about the occupation. There is a huge Sunni/Shia war brewing up. There is a war between democratic forces and totalitarian forces in the Middle East. All minorities are in danger of eradication – the Jews have a particular duty to stand up for the minorities of the Middle East because they are the only ones with state power. Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, B’hai… other minorities which people haven’t even heard of are in serious danger.

DH:  I agree Israel should do better. I think Israel should do more to position itself as the the pro-peace party, the pro-democracy, pro-human rights party. I agree. But for most Israelis, doing a dance to please US anthropologists is not their top priority.

XX:  1) Anti-Semitism plays a role in BDS, but it’s not enough to explain the spread of the phenomenon. Surely the supermajority of members of the AAA are not anti-Semites. Denouncing supporters of BDS as anti-Semites has gotten us nowhere. It’s continuing to spread.

2) No, but it is in Israel’s power to begin relinquishing control over the lives of Palestinians. While Israel doesn’t actively choose to continue the occupation every day out of choice, it has unfortunately made a number of choices over a few decades that certainly makes the occupation look more like a preference than a need. The settlements being the most obvious example.

3) It’s not a “less anti-Semitic way to be anti-Israel.” It’s neither anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Didn’t you say that you declined to visit the Ariel University?

4) Again, a good argument, but where has it gotten us so far? It only has a chance at working if liberal and progressive supporters of Israel are also fighting for a liberal and progressive Israel. Supporting the rights of settlements to mislead European consumers on the origin of their products is supporting the illiberal and undemocratic extension of Israel, not the democratic Jewish state.

DH:  1. Antisemitism is the only way to understand the way BDS has taken over the AAA. There is no politically or morally relevant reason to single out Israel for punishment while embracing the academic institutions and the scholars of every other state as our colleagues. True, denouncing supporters of BDS as antisemites has gotten us nowhere. That is the twist isn’t it? You can’t understand the phenomenon without understanding it as antisemitism, yet you’re not allowed to call it antisemitism because of the Livingstone Formulation. Contemporary antisemitism has within it a mechanism to push those who criticize it outside of the community of the oppressed.

DH:  2. Yes, Israel should offer a state to the Palestinians every morning at a press conference. Yes, Israel should withdraw the settlers. But antisemitism is not a function of the bad behaviour of Jews.

DH:   3. the psychological driver behind the boycott of Israel is to punish the Jews. Offering people difficult, complex and time-consuming ways to actually help, would not answer that psychological drive. The boycott is a way of screaming at the Jews without having to do anything else, without having to sacrifice anything without having to understand anything. It is a “not in my name” politics. It is identity politics.

DH:  4. I, like many many Israelis support a liberal and progressive Israel. It doesn’t make any difference to the supporters of BDS because the indicator for being in the community of the good, rather than outside it, is antisemitism. Anybody who is concerned about antisemitism is bundled out of the room.

XX: 1) There is an explanation, no one likes to hear it, but here it is: Academia is particularly supportive of anti-colonial movements and sentiments, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Israel is, as far as I know, the last country supporting a massive colonial project (the settlements) in the face of strong opposition from native inhabitants.

2) I certainly never suggested it was. But I don’t think Israel is helping itself at all.

3) I disagree. I think most of the soft support for BDS, which is the only kind of support we have any hope of pealing off, is being psychologically driven by the desire to be part of a contemporary anti-colonial struggle.

4) No one can convince the hardcore of BDS. But to stop its spread supporters of Israel can’t defend or water down everything Israel does. The response to the labeling proposal has been disheartening. A missed opportunity to support a clear distinction between democratic Israel and a deeply undemocratic aspect of its occupation of the West Bank.

DH:  Academia is not supportive of anti-colonial movements. It doesn’t support the Ukrainian fight against Russian colonialism; it doesn’t support the Tibetan fight against Chinese colonialism; it doesn’t support the Kurdish fight against Turkish colonialism; it doesn’t support the Moroccan fight against Spanish colonialism… etc etc etc etc. Academia supports anti-colonial movements when the “colonists” are Jews who are descended from the remnants of the undead of the Holocaust.

DH:  You say that being open about the antisemitic aspect of BDS is not effective. But our experience is that offering ways of doing genuine solidarity with Palestinians experiencing occupation isn’t effective either. That too, is written off as Zionist propaganda.

DH:  The boycott campaign does not make a distinction between the settlements and Israel, between Tel Aviv University and Ariel College. I wish it did. If it did, it would be a profoundly different movement from the one it is. When the BDS movement targets the West Bank, it is a dishonest tactical move. It believes Haifa and Jerusalem to be occupied territory too.

XX:  Indeed. I should have said Western colonialism, to which there is a record of academic opposition, and Israel is considered part of the West politically.

But that’s where you’re making a mistake! The boycott movement didn’t initiate the labeling proposal. Nor the cultural boycott of Ariel (which was started by leftist Israelis). There’s no “smart BDS” operating tactically alongside BDS. European leaders are Israel’s friends and allies. So are progressive Jews overseas and in Israel who try their best to isolate the settlements. It’s long past time a group dedicated to that cause was formed.

DH:  oh now you’re being silly XX. the European decision was a result of smart BDS lobbying. You know how politics works.

XX:  It’s a policy that was many years in the making, and BDS has only begun (unfortunately) to build respectability.

If you’re right, then there is no hope. I’d rather not believe this. The conclusion I’ve come to is that we have to convince centrist andliberal Israelis that the status quo is incompatible with Israel being a part of the liberal world. I’m not an alarmist who says Israel is on the verge of disappearing, but it is slipping into the revisionist bloc of states and away from the liberal one (*supproters* of Israel now say things like, “Why don’t you treat Russia and China the same way?”)

Perhaps then Bibi will finally lose.

DH:  It is true that I’m immensely angry about this AAA decisoin and yes, it is also true that I am arguably burnt out as an effective anti-BDS activist. We have been making all the smart arguments you advocate for ten years. And people should continue to make all the arguments: norms of academic freedom; solidarity not boycott; antisemitism; effectiveness. But I’m sick of it. People who make these smart arguments are responded to in straightforwardly antisemitic ways. They are accused of being agents of a foreign power, racists, imperialists, etc etc.

DH: It is also true that the only way to understand the power and the dynamics of the BDS movement is to understand its similarities to other antisemitic movements. If you refuse to understand this, you’ll lose your way.

DH:  But yes, make all the arguments. You’ll still lose. I suspect.

DH:  Bataclan. Eagles of Death Metal. targets of BDS.

DH:  I profoundly disagree with the strategy of trying ” to convince centrist and liberal Israelis that the status quo is incompatible with Israel being a part of the liberal world.” This is to support the boycott movement. It is to try to harness it as a force for peace. It is entirely the wrong strategy.  You cannot harness an antisemitic movement for progressive purposes.

XX:  I think we disagree about what the boycott movement is. I don’t think the European Commission is part of the boycott movement. Phillip Hammond, Laurent Fabius and John Kerry are not part of the boycott movement.

XX:  I have to get to bed as it’s almost morning here, but I’ll add one thing (and I hate to exploit my relative youth to make a point): It’s not just academics that are turning away from the possibility of a democratic Israel. Progressive secular Jews in my age group (18-24) are increasingly giving up on Israel. I feel like a right-winger these days when making arguments that would land me in Meretz in Israel. Without an active element in the equation, without a way for people who might be sympathetic to Israel to also actively oppose Israel in some areas, Israel will soon become a cause exclusive to the Right.

My suggestion is that liberal intellectuals, academics, businesspeople and celebrities who support Israel, but oppose the settlements, should sign an open letter supporting a boycott of the settlements and the recent labeling proposal. Send it to The Guardian or the New York or London Review of Books, or wherever else might be appropriate. But leaving no activist alternative to BDS is a huge mistake.

DH:  Goodnight XX. You need to start taking antisemitism seriously. Stop thinking like a person in a little bubble, an American liberal academic bubble or an Israeli North Tel Aviv bubble. Raise your eyes. Understand why US anthropologists can’t resist kicking the Jews. Think about the Jews as a minority in the Middle East. We have seen in the last 3 years precisely what kind of danger minorities in the Middle East face.

DH:  And it is hard. It is hard to understand that our friends and colleagues are influenced by antisemitic discourse. If we recognise this then we are faced squarely with our own scary and isolated position. How much nicer it would be if we could deal with antisemitism by being better people. Then it wouldn’t be so scary. If only there was a rational core to it that we could address rationally.

DH: And Bataclan. And Eagles of Death Metal.

XX:   That BDS is in large or in some part motivated by anti-Semitism is not in question. What my concern is whether its rise, particularly in academia, is a result of anti-Semitism or a result of BDS’s success at portraying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between Western colonialists and indigenous peoples. I think it is the latter, and by not acknowledging off the bat and in our own words that the settlements are indeed such a colonial project, we may ourselves be strengthening BDS. Tel Aviv University is already being treated the way Ariel College should be treated.

I strongly believe if there was an alternative—and I would not support this alternative simply to be part of an alternative to BDS, but because it’s right—BDS would soon be seen as unhelpful and extreme by liberal and moderate academics. You certainly won’t see such a lopsided vote if there were three options: no boycott, boycott Israel, or boycott the settlements.

See also:  

The Myth of Institutional Boycotts – David Hirsh

Opposing the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global academic community – David Hirsh

Alan Johnson: The case against Boycott of Israel.  VIDEO. (2014)

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.  (2007)

Stephen HawkingDavid Hirsh on the antisemitism which comes with the boycott campaign. Experiences from UCU  (2013)

Cure worse than the disease: academic boycott of Israel in the light of the academic boycott of South Africa – Mira Vogel (2007)

Mira Vogel on PACBI (2008)

Engage response to BRICUP [PDF] (2007)

Ben Gidley on the antisemitism which comes in the wake of the boycott campaign:  The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union (2011)

Robert Fine responds to Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of Israel in the South African Mail & Guardian  (2010)

Robert Fine in debate about boycotting Israel, “the apartheid state”. (2008)

Antisemitism, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech – Robert Fine (2007)

Hirsh, David. 2012. Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community. Engage, [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2011. No such thing as victimless boycott. Mail and Guardian, South Africa, p. 14. [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2007. Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections. Working Paper. Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Occasional Papers, New Haven, CT

Resignations from UCU over the issue of the academic boycott of Israel.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor (2013)

Norman Finkelstein’s Attack on the BDS Movement

Boycott Israel? Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack.  here.  (Oct 2010)

The University of Johannesburg Boycott, here.  (May 2011)

Eric Lee argues a boycott is no way to help the Palestinians here. (June 07)

Israeli Universities, Israel-Palestinian Peace and Real Solidarity – Paul Frosh, Hebrew University, Jerusalem Added by David Hirsh – 3 November 2006 (Nov 06)

A detailed critique of PACBI‘s (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) call for “BDS” – “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”. Here. (Sep 06, David Hirsh)

Hirsh’s speech and reports from his debate with Ilan Pappe, pro-boycott professor at Haifa University, on the issue of the boycott. At Birmingham AUT. Here.  (Nov 05)

Why I am against the boycott, by John Strawson – 18 May 2005

Another version of who we are. 


Freedom of speech, Charlie Hebdo and the academic boycott of Israel – Robert Fine

Written version of a talk given at colloquium on freedom of speech by Robert Fine, University of Warwick 17

Robert Fine

Robert Fine

November 2015

Under the register of Je suis Charlie, a demonstration of an estimated million and a half people was held in Paris and another million and a half people took to the streets elsewhere in France. They were among the largest public demonstrations in French history, held in protest against the murder of ten editors and cartoonists of a left wing magazine for having published cartoons representing the prophet Mohammed, one security officer and one (Muslim) police officer for having been in the way, and four shoppers in a Kosher supermarket for being Jewish.

The murders had an explicit antisemitic dimension: the four Jews killed in the kosher supermarket were killed because they were Jews; the one woman in the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo who was murdered seems to have been murdered because she was Jewish. This was Elsa Cayat, a Jewish atheist psychoanalyst famous for beginning her therapy sessions with words ‘so, now, tell me’ and for her advice to her sister ‘you ought to read a book a day’. At her funeral the rabbi told a lovely story about rabbis telling God to mind his own business in their debates and God chuckling: ‘My children have beaten me’.

The murder of these Jews in Paris followed the murders of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels and before that of a teacher and three students in a Jewish school in Toulouse.[1] It was followed by the murder of a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue in Copenhagen. The murderers themselves were supporters of a jihadi Islamist movement, Al Qaeda in Yemen, which wore its antisemitism openly on its sleeve. The mass demonstrations against the killings expressed popular support for freedom of expression, religious tolerance and opposition to religious fundamentalism. As one commentator put it, they represented resistance to ‘the assassin’s veto on critical discourse’.

At the same time a sceptical discourse arose among many left and liberal intellectuals. In the Left-liberal press there was no shortage of derogatory comments about the public display of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, Jews and security people.[2] To take one example, Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman wrote that Je suis Charlie was the symbol of the prejudices of the ‘enlightened liberal West against backward barbaric Muslims’. He maintained that the demo was premised on an illusion, that of untrammelled freedom

"They have weapons.  Fuck them, we have champagne"

“They have weapons. Fuck them, we have champagne”

of speech, that it was based on double standards since it refused cartoons mocking the Holocaust and sacked one cartoonist (Maurice Sinet) in 2008 for allegedly making antisemitic cartoons, that it defended a right to offend Muslims that had no corresponding notion of responsibility, and assumed Muslims should have thicker skins, that it supported a magazine that used ‘brazenly racist imagery’ and attacked member of a powerless minority religion, that it vilified Islam across the European continent. For good measure he was also critical of hypocrisy of Western leaders like Obama and Merkel supporting freedom of speech when, he claimed, Obama was demanding Yemen jail an anti-drone journalist and when Merkel supported laws against Holocaust denial. Hasan wrote that it ‘sickened’ him to see Netanyahu at the demonstration.

One thing that strikes me about this discourse, which was strong on the left and had lots of resonance in liberal circles, is how little of value is left for freedom of expression and indeed how little concern it shows about manifest instances of antisemitism.

There was to be sure a problem of double standards among some of the elite of national leaders who attended the demonstration but this is all the more reason to defend this freedom consistently and protest wherever we find it violated. If one opposes, for example, bans on the headscarf and burqa in public institutions, as I think I do, then one should also defend Charlie Hebdo and one should object to the 14 out of 20 countries in the Middle east which criminalise ‘blasphemy’ and the 12 out of 20 which criminalise ‘apostasy’. It is not clear to me why paying some lip service to freedom of expression by the elite is worse than their paying no lip service at all. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop commented on their new-found friends with rather typical Charlie Hebdo vigour: ‘we vomit on all these people’. The hypocrisy of elites does not make the principle of freedom of speech any less valuable. [3]

There was to be sure a danger of Islamophobic appropriation of the protest by the French Front National and movements opposed to the ‘Islamicisation of Europe’. However, the assembly of the people who gathered together in Place de la République almost to a person expressed democratic rather than Islamophobic sentiments, there were many Muslim people who attended, and the organisers of the demonstration explicitly excluded the Front national.

There are examples of Islamophobic violence and stupidity. A right of centre French Mayor of Villiers Sur Marne banned a film called Timbuktu (by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako) on the grounds that it was ‘an apology for terror’. The film actually showed that the first victims of Jihadism are Muslims and how Jihadi forces spread terror in delightful Mali villages through Sharia Law. The villages in question, by the way, were retaken by Mali troops with French support. The President of  Mali, Ibrahim Keita, walked at the head of the unity march arm in arm with Netanyahu. And you might recall that French citizenship was granted to a 24 year old Malian shop worker, Lassana Bathily, who hid and saved Jewish shoppers in the kosher supermarket.

The representation of Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic, homophobic, xenophobic – but not Judaeophobic – is mobilized as grounds for withdrawing solidarity from the victims of the violence. First, there is the obvious difference between defending someone’s right to say something, including something highly controversial and shocking, and endorsing the content of what it said. Second, there is a real problem about the reading of the cartoons. Luiz’s wonderful cartoon of Muhammad shedding a tear under the words ‘Tout est pardonné’ and carrying a placard saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ has a brilliantly ambiguous meaning but surely contains the sense of pardoning the innocent Muhammad for being invoked by nihilistic madmen. It is like another earlier cartoon of Muhammad in tears saying ‘c’est dur d’etre aimé par des cons’, or like one on Muhammad beheaded by a black masked fanatic under the words ‘If Muhammad returned’, or one on one of the cartoonists in a gay embrace with a bearded Mulla under the words ‘Love is stronger than hatred’ (which actually became a slogan on the demonstrations after the killings). This particular cartoon was published shortly after the Charlie Hebdo offices were fire-bombed.

This is not to say that everything Charlie Hebdo did was right and good, but it has attacked many religious targets of different denominations in a Rabelaisian anti-clerical tradition that goes back to the French Revolution and it has attacked Israeli policies toward Palestine. There was one cartoon of priests (I think) declaring ‘every sperm is sacred’ and another of an Israeli settler killing a Palestinian farmer and saying ‘Take that, Goliath’.

Charlie Hebdo was originally a creature of the post-68 New Left, and remained firmly on the left in recent times. It was strongly supported by SOS Racisme and they worked together to campaign against anti-immigrant policies. The editor Charb was in the Front de Gauche, campaigned against neo-liberal changes to the European constitution, and illustrated Marx: A User’s Guide. Bernard Maris, one of the co-editors, was a member of an anti-globalisation movement called Attack and a critic of austerity, corporate corruption, tax havens, the arms industry and Sarkozy.  Now being on the left does not mean that one is not racist but its attacks on ‘blasphemy’ are an act of non-racial solidarity with secularists in countries that criminalise blasphemy. Among other things, Charlie Hebdo does not let its readers forget that the first victims of Jihadism are always Muslims. It expresses its solidarity, for example, with bloggers and cartoonists assassinated by religious fundamentalist forces (like the Syrian Raed Fares by ISIS) or brutally punished (like the blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia).

The attack on Charlie Hebdo within left and liberal circles reminds me of the response of people like John Berger to the 1989 Fatwa against Salman Rushdie. How quickly it was said then that Rushdie provoked the reaction by his blasphemy and that his writings weren’t any good anyway!

The antisemitic dimensions of the violence have normally been either neglected by people critical of the freedom of speech demos or somehow understood as a reaction to the killing of Palestinians by the Israelis. Even if the grocery shoppers were innocent, still we hear it is a reminder that Jews 1000 miles away are guilty of terrible crimes against Islam – or some such racist nonsense. Rather than see Islamophobia and antisemitism as connected forms of racism, there is a tendency to set up a zero-sum competition of victimhood in which concern for one supplants concern for the other. It is what Kenan Malik calls an ‘auction of victimhood’ where in the name of offended groups a struggle goes on within elites to get taboo images banned from the press.

We find a homogenised picture being drawn of Arab-Muslim powerlessness, persecution and poverty. This image touches on the experience of discrimination felt by doubtless many Muslims in France, especially in the banlieues, but pays little heed to the dynamics of society – that is, that Arabs and Muslims in France are socially differentiated and politically diverse. The depiction of Muslims as uniformly and unreflectively ‘offended’ by cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, often drawn by secular Muslim intellectuals, colludes uncomfortably with an Islamophobia that declares that blind rage is in the culture if not the genes of Muslims. It is not true anyway that all pious Muslims are opposed to the representation of the Prophet and there are plenty of secular Muslims that are not pious anyway. While few proponents of this sceptical discourse defend the attacks, the role they are tempted to assume is to translate them into a political language they can defend.

In this Alice in Wonderland world everything is upside down. What is Right is treated as Left (Jihadism with its dream of a Caliphate, its conspiracy thinking about Jews undermining Islam, its attacks on anyone who disagrees) and what is Left is treated as Right (Charlie Hebdo with its antiracist, anti-homophobic and anti-establishment views). Important distinctions are not made – between speech designed to incite violence and hatred which is not protected in law) and speech that is anti-religious and may appear blasphemous from the point of view of the pious (like Malcolm Muggeridge and Life of Brian) which is protected. Hate speech has led to prosecutions of the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for saying in public ‘Je suis Charlie Coulibaly) for inciting hatred of Jews but also against Brigitte Bardot and the journalist Eric Zemmour for inciting anti-Muslim hatred. These are important distinctions. Laws against hate speech protect people from violence. Laws against blasphemy protect the state and state religions from the people.

The tendency to devalue freedom of expression also seems to me transparent in the current campaign in our academic union UCU to impose an academic boycott on Israeli academic and cultural institutions. No right to freedom of expression for Israeli academics. It has never been clear why Israeli academics and academic institutions are singled out when a host of other countries have equally or more repressive regimes and usually far more restrictive academic institutions. Nor is it clear why Israeli academic institutions and their members are being blamed for the alleged crimes committed by the state, when the whole point of freedom of expression is to support civil society against states seen rightly or wrongly as repressive. It seems to me like blatant discrimination on grounds of nationality or worse ethnicity (if Palestinian Israelis are excluded from the boycott), blatant collective punishment of civil society actors (many of whom are on the left) for what their state is alleged to have done, and blatant disregard for the important of listening to points of view with which one disagrees or thinks one will disagree. It’s like the blasphemy argument all over again.

The failure to answer these questions leads to ever-wilder claims about the nature of Israel to justify a selective boycott: that it is like or worse than apartheid, that it always has genocidal intent vis-à-vis Palestinians, that it is akin to Nazism, that it turns Jews from victims to victimisers, etc. The practices of the boycott campaign certainly have their own ideational dynamic.

Normal procedures of solidarity with fellow trade unionists and fellow academics in this case alone are not followed. Key principles to which universities are committed – academic freedom, freedom of speech, exchange of ideas, rational argumentation – are in this case suspended. It is considered perfectly ok for the union to restrict access to the voices of Israeli or Jewish Israeli academics. It is not even considered important to take steps to ensure that the campaign does not attract antisemites or generate antisemitic consequences. The union does not follow its own ‘MacPherson’ principle, namely that if some members feel rightly or wrongly a whiff of they antisemitism; this is sufficient ground not for exploring whether or not it is true. [4]

The union shows no sign of responsibility to explain why its policy of excluding Israeli and only academic institutions from the world academic community should not be considered discriminatory on the basis of nationality (Israeli) or religion (Jewish), and no sign of responsibility to prevent slippage from political criticism of Israeli state policy to the vilification of a whole people.

The early history of the campaign to boycott Israeli academe within the main academic unions in the UK goes back to the 1980s when some Left groupings which labelled Israel ‘the illegitimate State’, called for the ‘no-platforming’ of Zionist organisations on university campuses. These included Jewish Societies with which the Left groupings had previously cooperated in the Anti-Nazi League.

Instead we find a almost obsessive insistence that what it is doing is not antisemitic. In the early 2000s the Association of University Teachers (AUT) passed a motion deploring the ‘witch-hunting’ of colleagues participating in the academic boycott of Israel, demanding recognition that ‘anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism’, and resolving to give support to members ‘unjustly accused of anti-Semitism because of their political opposition to Israeli government policy’.

The AUT successor union, UCU, passed successive resolutions calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions all of which were prefaced by statements to the effect that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. In 2006 it was resolved that ‘criticism of the Israeli government is not in itself anti-Semitic’ and claimed that ‘defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate and in the context of Higher Education to restrict academic freedom’. At the 2007 congress, it resolved that ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic’ and at the 2008 congress it resolved that ‘criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-Semitic’. In 2011 the union resolved to dissociate itself from the ‘working definition of antisemitism’ of the then European Union Monitoring Commission (EUMC), since it attempted inter alia to draw a line between legitimate political criticism and antisemitic stigmatisation of Israel.

The lady does protest too much, methinks, as Hamlet’s mum put it.  Once we embrace censorship there is always the question of who will be next. How can we stand up to the Prevent agenda if we stop people speaking on the basis of nationality, religion or ethnicity?  Freedom of speech is not a liberal bauble but a freedom on which all other freedoms depend. It is the freedom crucial to civil rights, gay liberation and women’s movements. This is not to say that I agree with American Supreme Court judgments on the First Amendment, which offer far too narrow definitions in my view of what constitutes incitement to hatred and violence. I don’t like its reliance on counter-speech of the victims – it needs to protect victims. I don’t like its limitation of incitement to violence and hate only that kind of speech that is targeted at specific individuals rather than whole groups. A vigorous defence of freedom of expression and a vigorous support for restrictions on expressions of incitement to hatred and violence are not incompatible.

Written version of a talk given at colloquium on freedom of speech by Robert Fine, University of Warwick 17 November 2015

[1] On the escalation of antisemitic violence in France in recent years, see the five part series in Tablet  by Marc Weitzmann ( and Marie Brenner, “Frabce’s Scarlet Letter”

[2] Richard Seymour in the Jacobin described the demo as ‘platitudinous, mawkish and narcissistic’ – a ‘blackmail that forces us into solidarity with a racist institution’. It became something of a vogue to say ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’. Jon Wilson in Labour List referred to what he called the ‘obvious racism’ of Charlie Hebdo. Jacob Garfield in the Hooded Utilitarian described Charlie Hebdo as ‘xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Islamic’ and claimed it editorial board was all-white as if this were itself a damning argument (it was actually untrue – he seemed to forget about the murdered Algerian ? Moustapha Ourrad).

[3] Perhaps Charlie Hebdo is like Aristophanes. It is said that when the demagogue Cleon criticized Aristophanes for lampooning the city’s magistrates before foreigners, never daunted, Aristophanes’ two plays, The Acharnians and Knights, satirized the situation with Cleon. They resulted in prizes for the poet. Let’s hope for the same for Charlie Hebdo. Comedy can say and do what cannot otherwise be said or done with impunity in public life, and the behaviour of its audience is part of that special contract. The audience of Aristophanes could laugh without danger, even when the victims of comic abuse were in reality powerful and influential. I guess we can no longer laugh without danger.


[4] The argument drawn from the precedent of boycott in the struggle against apartheid, that it represented a non-violent and democratic ethos, is one-sided: it underplays the role of direct links and solidarity with fellow academics and unions; it erases from memory the considerable problems caused by the discriminatory enforcement of the boycott; it glosses over political differences between opponents of apartheid that underlay boycott debates. One argument put forward in favour of the boycott of Israeli academe is that it was called for by ‘Palestinian civil society’, but in theory it is in the nature of civil society not to speak with one voice and in practice the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank does not support the call.

Livingstone – not the first time he has used the mental illness slur

Yesterday Ken Livingstone, responded to political criticism of his appropriateness to co-chair Labour’s policy making body on defence.  In a previous debate about mental illness,  Kevan Jones had spoken emotionally about his own experience of depression.  Yesterday, in response to Jones’ criticism of his politics on defence, Livingstone said:

“I think [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”

Back in 2006, when Livingstone was Mayor of London, he responded similarly to a journalist who asked him for a quote outside a party for a Labour minister:

Oliver Finegold: “Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did it …”

Ken Livingstone: “Oh, how awful for you.”

Finegold: “How did tonight go?”

Livingstone: “Have you thought of having treatment?”

This exchange preceded the one in which Livingstone famously accused the Jewish journalist of being ‘just like a concentration camp guard’ because he was ‘only doing his job’.

Later last night on Channel Four News, there was an exchange between the Livingstone and Jones:

Livingstone: [asked if he was forced to apologize]  “Jeremy … reminded me that Jeremy’s strategy is that we don’t do all the offensive back-stabbing and rows that we’ve had in the past, so I just got on board with that.”

The reality is, … you provoked this row by questioning my ability to do this job …

Jones: “So that excuses your grossly offensive language?”

Livingstone: “And I thought your attack on me was grossly offensive.”

Livingstone understands that it is the practice of the new Corbyn politics to construct any political criticism as “grossly offensive”.

The standard response is then to act like a victim of powerful dark forces and complain about being “smeared” by the Tories/Zionists/Blairites/Tabloids.

But Livingstone took it one step further, giving everybody something concrete with which to “smear” him.  Then his hurt at being “smeared” could be all the louder, and his public escape from opprobrium all the more brilliant.

‘Jeremy doesn’t do personal’ does not mean that the Corbynistas refrain from insulting others; it means that they refrain from responding to that which they are able to construct as insulting.

Livingstone pioneered the ad hominem response to political criticism with the Livingstone Formulation – in which anybody who raises the issue of antisemitism is accused of doing so in bad faith in order to silence criticism of Israel.

Now the Corbyn faction is generalising the Livingstone Formulation into a political strategy.  Any political criticism which is hard to deal with can be characterized as a “smear” and can be slapped down with the counter-allegation that the critic is acting dishonestly and out of malevolent motivation.

This way of doing politics is more than just a rhetorical tactic however.  It is deeply rooted in the Corbyn faction’s Stalinist and ‘campist’ political tradition.  This faction defines people as being part of the “community of the good” or part of the “community of the bad” and it assigns people or groups or even whole nations to one or the other.  The Corbynistas do not relate to those who are bundled outside of the community of the good or the community of the oppressed by reason or by argument: instead they feel licensed to treat them as political enemies and to isolate and silence them.

For more on this, read: The Corbyn left: the politics of position and the politics of reason.





fathom Autumn 2015


By Gabriel Noah Brahm
In this in-depth interview, Israeli historian Benny Morris speaks with Professor Gabriel Noah Brahm about his work, his…READ MORE >Autumn 2015


By Jonathan Spyer
Leading regional expert Jonathan Spyer thinks not. While the single best organised and most aggressive alliance active currently…READ MORE >Autumn 2015


By David Hirsh
Abstract This paper is about a preference within contemporary left-wing culture for defining opponents as not belonging rather…READ MORE >Autumn 2015


By Luke Akehurst
Veteran activist and former UK Labour Party National Executive Committee member Luke Akehurst offers an in-depth look at…READ MORE >Autumn 2015


By Sara Hirschhorn
Settlements and settlers in the West Bank are seen as by many in Europe and the West as…READ MORE >Autumn 2015


By Alan Johnson
A shorter version of this talk was delivered as a contribution to a panel discussion on ‘The Left…READ MORE >Autumn 2015


By Philip Mendes
Australia and Israel are superficially the oddest of couples. They are geographically distant, and massively different in size….READ MORE >Autumn 2015


By Matti Friedman
Einat Wilf’s book Winning the War of Words: Essays on Zionism and Israel is available on Amazon or…READ MORE >Autumn 2015

David Ceserani: in memoriam

By Jeffrey Herf
As readers of this journal know by now, David Cesarani, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, London University…

The Corbyn left: the politics of position and the politics of reason* – David Hirsh

This paper by David Hirsh was published in fathom, Autumn 2015


This paper is about a preference within contemporary left-wing culture for defining opponents as not belonging rather than seeking to win them over. Opponents are constructed as being outside of the community of the good or the progressive. This licenses their treatment as ‘other’, impermeable to political argument, reason and evidence.

The Corbyn faction in the Labour Party employs an ethic of disdain for ad hominem politics but is keenly concerned with the construction and policing of the boundaries of progressive discourse. This faction’s rise to leadership is symbolic of the prominence of this political culture.

As a sort of anti-imperialist ‘campism’ emerges as the pre-eminent principle of the progressive movement, hostility to Israel becomes a key marker of political belonging. This paper examines the Livingstone Formulation, a rhetorical device that seeks to construe the raising of the issue of antisemitism as more suspect and inherently problematic than the phenomenon of antisemitism itself. The construction of opponents of the Israel boycott campaign as external to the community of the University and College Union (UCU) provides case-study material.

The conclusion draws on the social critique of the Enlightenment notion of the autonomous rational subject. This critique downplays reason and human agency in social life. It is a development from the notion of false consciousness which facilitates a spiral into what Hannah Arendt (1975) analysed as a central feature of totalitarian politics: a culture in which disagreements are treated as ‘originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason’.



From the beginning of his campaign for the leadership of the UK Labour Party, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most distinctive rhetorical stances has been: ‘I don’t do personal’ (Hattenstone 2015). 

During the campaign he responded in a speech to criticism from Tony Blair:

What this campaign is not about, and never will be about, is personal abuse, name calling, calling into question the character of other people, or other candidates. I believe many people, particularly young people, are totally turned off by the politics of celebrity, personality, personal abuse, name calling and all that kind of thing. Let’s be adult about it. Let’s have a serious debate, serious discussion, serious proposals put forward… (Hartley 2015).

In this article I argue that this statement by Jeremy corbyn is not only misleading, it is a profound inversion of the actual culture of his political milieu.

The Corbyn faction’s political practice is actually to avoid debate over ideas and policies. Instead it defines itself as the community of the good and it positions its opponents and its critics as being outside of that community. It is not doing this consciously and the suggestion that this is what is happening would be angrily rejected. But this ‘politics of position’, as I am calling it, is a significant phenomenon which is deeply embedded in contemporary left-wing political culture. Hannah Arendt (1975) argued that one of the defining features of totalitarian politics was the portrayal of political disagreements ‘as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason.’ The Corbyn left’s political praxis is not yet totalitarian but neither is it close to being confined to the democratic terrain of debate, argument and evidence.

The only Labour leader to have won General Elections in the era of colour television is Tony Blair. He won three. He is hated with a passion and a venom that goes beyond political disagreement.

The apocryphal insult thrown back at a Labour critic of Corbyn on a Facebook thread is: ‘you’re a Tory’. It could just as easily be ‘you’re a Zionist’ or ‘you’re a Blairite’. Exiling a critic outside the community of the good and punishing them for their bad faith is preferred to offering reasons why they may be mistaken on a matter of principle, policy or fact.

Admittedly it is true that there is a tribalism present in all political organisation; a warm camaraderie for ‘us’ and some degree of disrespect for ‘them’. Political narrative ties ideas and policies to communities of belonging emotionally as well as intellectually. But in the Corbyn phenomenon this process of staking out the boundaries separating the in-crowd from the out-crowd is key.

Perhaps this is because we are looking at a form of identity politics as much as a programme for government or radical change. If Labour cannot win even with Ed Miliband, and it has no interest in winning with a Tony Blair, then perhaps it is ready to lose courageously and honestly with a Jeremy Corbyn.

In a poll carried out during the leadership campaign, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper both scored higher than Corbyn with Labour members on the question: ‘are they likely to win a General Election?’ but Corbyn scored much higher on the question ‘Should they be leader?’ (Dahlgreen 2015). In another poll ‘knows how to win elections’ was thought to be ‘among the most important leadership qualities’ by only 27 per cent of voters in the leadership election (Kirkup 2015).

There is still the rich and exciting fantasy that Corbyn can sweep to power with his radicalism and his ‘new politics’; that he can enthuse masses of new people, persuade them, make them believe; that he can repeat in the country the impossible victory that he achieved in the Party.

But perhaps more important is the inward looking ‘not in my name’ politics which has given up on winning and on the positive hope of changing the world. The politics of socialism, a positive constructive project, has been replaced by the politics of resistance and of critique, a negative symbolic enterprise concerned primarily with asserting innocence. It is also infantilising insofar as it contents itself with opposition, often moralistic, often ineffectual.

The intense personal payoff of this variant of identity politics is a feeling of inner cleanliness. The world may be utterly compromised and there may be nothing I can do about it, but it isn’t going to be my fault, my own soul is clean. In this sense, while the Corbyn faction loves to say that it doesn’t do personal, it doesn’t do political either.

In the same speech quoted above, eight seconds after Corbyn has said he hates name calling and personal abuse, he indulges in name calling and abuse. ‘The rich’ and ‘the powerful’, he says, ‘that benefit so much from our political system, don’t care what kind of name calling goes on, providing their tax breaks go on….’ The rich and the powerful don’t care about any kind of personal bullying because they only care about themselves. It is fine to ‘do personal’ when the target is outside of the community of the progressive and the good.

Corbyn goes on to say he feels that those who ‘resort to personal abuse and name calling’ are really ‘probably a bit nervous about the power of democracy.’ He finds another way to address the putative root cause rather than the point made.

When Corbyn is challenged on his beliefs and his record, he tends to respond by characterising a political challenge as a personal attack. He treats it as intrusive, rude and vulgar. In so doing, he accomplishes three things. He paints himself as the innocent victim of unjust aggression; he avoids responding to the detail of the challenge; and he bolsters the distinction between the good people inside his tent and the bad people outside of it. Howard Jacobson writes:

There was something ‘How very dare you’, about Jeremy Corbyn’s recent temper tantrum in rebuttal of the charge that the company he kept reflected badly on him. ‘The idea that I’m some kind of racist or anti-Semitic person is beyond appalling, disgusting and deeply offensive,’ he said (Jacobson 2015).

‘Alarm bells ring when a politician stands haughty upon his honour,’ observes Jacobson. When Jeremy says he doesn’t do personal what he means is that he will not deal with criticism in the normal way. He will not respond to it by means of reason or argument; he refuses to enter into serious engagement over worldviews, over ideas or over his record. He is less interested in trying to persuade than in making criticism appear as personal insult. ‘Jeremy doesn’t do personal’ does not mean that he refrains from insulting others; it means that he refrains from responding to that which he is able to construct as insulting.

It is not accidental that the issue of antisemitism has become pivotal to this process of defining who is inside and who is not. In the post-war period, in democratic discourse at least, everybody recognised antisemitism as being bad and they recognised opposition to antisemitism as an entry requirement into progressive politics. Now, just the action of initiating a discussion about what is antisemitic and what is not rings alarm bells for people schooled in progressive culture. To ask if something said or done is antisemitic, if it relates to Israel or Palestinians, is to risk placing one’s own membership of the community of the good under scrutiny.

It is difficult to engage in a reasoned and evidenced discussion about contemporary antisemitism but it is easy to mobilise the issue of antisemitism as an indicator of political cleanliness. In our time a person who raises the issue of antisemitism is more clearly recognisable as belonging to the wrong crowd than a person who stumbles into actual antisemitism. Raising the issue becomes a marker of Blairite, Tory or Zionist obfuscation. It marks a bad faith move designed to silence or to de-legitimise criticism of Israel, or even left politics in general. Antisemitism itself, on the other hand, when it can plausibly appear supportive of the Palestinians, does little to damage a person’s reputation.

In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2015, David Cameron criticised Jeremy Corbyn for having called the killing of Osama Bin Laden a tragedy. Cameron went on, in party conference rhetoric mode, ‘My friends, we cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love…’ (Wilkinson 2015).

Now Corbyn is for unilateral nuclear disarmament and he has said that if he was prime minister he would never use nuclear weapons (Sparrow 2015). Over the years he has made clear his support for the ‘Iraqi resistance’, the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. Corbyn was the Chair of ‘Stop the War’ which has been explicit in its support for those fighting against British and American forces.

During an appearance on Press TV, the Iranian state English-language propaganda channel, on which Corbyn sometimes hosted a show, he had said that the killing of Bin Laden was a tragedy. The programme in question (video 1) was hosted by Yvonne Ridley, a leading member of George Galloway’sRespect Party. Ridley thinks that ‘Israel is a vile little state’ and has reassured us that Respect is a ‘Zionist-free party’ while the mainstream parties are ‘riddled with Zionists’ (Das 2012).

In this programme Corbyn participates in a spinning swirl of conspiracy theory; perhaps Bin Laden was murdered years before; his killing is like the ‘extra-judicial killing’ of Adolf Eichmann by the ‘Zionist state’; Charles II and Oliver Cromwell had their heads ‘displayed’, there is a ‘medieval triumphalism’ around the death of Bin Laden; Bin Laden’s killing is a ‘tragedy’ like 9/11 and like the attack on Afghanistan; the fact that photographs of Bin Laden’s body were not published demonstrates that President Obama may be lying about the death.

So how did Corbyn respond to Cameron’s attack on his nuclear unilateralism, of his support for terrorism, of his response to the killing of Bin Laden and of his support for those engaging British forces? Corbyn has answers. His political tradition understands the key evils on the planet to be American, British and Israeli imperialism. He thinks that forces which oppose imperialism, including the Iranian state and Yvonne Ridley, Iraqi Islamist militias, Bin Laden, the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah, are fundamentally defensive. He supports them insofar as they are ‘anti-imperialist’; insofar as they are anti-democratic, he regards them as creations of imperialism.

But Jeremy Corbyn did not engage with Cameron’s criticism by defending his own record and his own beliefs. Instead, his spokesperson responded with this: ‘The fact that David Cameron used his speech to make personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn are a sure sign that he is rattled by the re-energisation of the Labour Party.’

Corbyn’s official Facebook page characterised Cameron’s speech as the ‘most disgraceful name calling’ and as ‘personalised, playground attacks’. It went on:

You’ll notice the similarity between the prime minister’s words and those of the tabloid press, who have smeared Jeremy Corbyn throughout the summer and beyond…. The motivations are the same: to drown out debate and make our arguments taboo (Dearden 2015).

There seems to be a relationship between support for totalitarian ideas and movements on the one hand, and the adoption of totalitarian practices on the other. Hannah Arendt (1975) wrote that a defining characteristic of the totalitarian movements of the 20th-century was

… the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction.

For sure, the Corbyn phenomenon is not currently a physically violent movement in spite of the vicarious thrill it enjoys by embracing violent movements in its global coalition. But my argument is that there is a discursive violence present in the way in which it pushes opponents out of the room. Arendt’s description (1975) of the totalitarian approach to debate and to disagreement resonates with the experiences of those from the left and from within the labour movement who have dared to oppose the Jeremy Corbyn faction.

Struggles over the boundaries of political discourse are often important sites of political contestation. On the contemporary left, people and ideas are more and more being bundled over the boundaries of legitimate discourse by discursive force rather than rational debate and persuasion. This is not done for good reason, but in order to avoid having to give reasons. It is not the outcome of debate which positions some kinds of politics outside the community of the good; rather the act of positioning prejudges debate itself. In the absence of reasons and discussion, the process of defining people as not belonging takes more fixed and essentialist forms. That’s why, although there are good reasons to worry about antisemitism on the contemporary left, those reasons are not heard. They are silenced by the shared assumption that anyone wanting to give such reasons is really speaking in bad faith in order to collude with the oppression of the Palestinians. The totalitarians of old defined the enemies of the good in fixed categories. They were not people who said this or that; they were people who were this or that. It is the retreat from the politics of persuasion and discussion and its replacement with something more menacing that is the focus of this paper. (For more on struggles over the boundaries of political discourse and antisemitism, see Hirsh 2010).


The next section of this paper looks at how one element of the socialist and critical tradition, opposition to colonialism and imperialism, was raised to a new ‘–ism’ itself, anti-imperialism. From being one element of the tradition, anti-imperialism became an absolute principle, predominating over other left wing and democratic principles such as self-liberation, equality, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, liberty, women’s rights, lesbian and gay rights and national self-determination. This process is related to a resurgence of antisemitism on the left.

Corbyn’s victory in the Labour Party is significant as an indicator of the progress of this anti-imperial-ism from the fringes to centre stage. Characteristics that were at one time confined to the dusty and obscure corners of the obsessive left now make a clear claim to be considered characteristics of the mainstream left. Nothing about Corbyn’s record put off his supporters, not his history of support for antisemitic movements, for example, not his habit of defending antisemitic individuals nor his work for Press TV; not his support for the IRA, not his encouragement to those fighting against British forces, nor his support for Hamas and Hezbollah. None of this constituted an obstacle to supporting his leadership bid. Corbyn won a clear majority in every section of the party, amongst full members, trade union affiliated supporters and the new category of registered £3 supporters. There is no reason to believe that people voted for Corbyn in spite of these views rather than because of them.

The presence of antisemitism within radical and left wing thought is not new, but in democratic countries it had died down significantly after the Holocaust, even if it always remained strong in the Soviet Bloc as well as in Arab Nationalist and Islamist circles. In 2001 the confluence of three events heralded the return of antisemitism as a temptation for progressives. At Durban there was a huge UN conference at which Zionism was constructed as the most significant racism on the planet. The following Tuesday was 11 September, when the USA was attacked by Al Qaeda. In the same year the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed and the Second Intifada re-normalised the targeting of Jewish civilians as a means of resisting oppression.

With the post war resurgence of democratic Europe and the rise of American power, much of the left began to downplay those of its core values which did not provide a defining contrast against the newly dominant democratic ideology. Democratic values were more and more subordinated to the principle of opposition to imperialism. Struggles for equality within nations, and solidarity between the powerless across national boundaries, were sometimes sacrificed to struggles by ‘oppressed’ nations and peoples against imperialist states. For ‘imperialist’ read ‘democratic’. For ‘oppressed nations’ read ‘the men who rule over them and speak in their name’.

This set of developments led to a splitting of the antiracist tradition. Any racism that was understood to be rooted in imperialism was vigorously opposed while any racism that blurred the black/white binary was downplayed.

The peoples who tended to suffer most acutely as a result of the struggle againstimperialism were those who were held to be compromised by their ‘collaboration’ with imperialism: Tutsis, Tamils, Kurds, Baha’is, Yazidis, African Asians, Bosniaks, Armenians, Ukranians and of course, Jews. Some on the left are not as exercised as they might be by the oppression of these groups because it is carried out by forces which they think of as broadly on the progressive side in the struggle against imperialism. The blood of those on the anti-imperialist left only really boils when it perceives white people, or people that it constructs as white, to be the villains. The left can be so tied to this emotional framework that it comes to feel as though all bad things in the world are the work of white people. Sometimes other people do bad things but, at root, it is white people who are found to be responsible. In this way, a part of the left finds itself stumbling into a worldview in which the only significant social agents are white people and all others are constructed as infantilised victims.

Jews seem to have the attribute, in the imagination of this current on the contemporary left, of being both white and not white; they are both ‘us’ and also not quite ‘us’. They are sufficiently ‘us’ to give westerners the satisfaction of basking in the required guilt, but they are sufficiently not ‘us’ so that westerners can project their guilt onto them.

The Jews of the Holocaust still symbolise absolute powerlessness, the oppressed; but the Jews who survived the Holocaust, particularly those who found sanctuary in Israel or the US, fit better into another ready-made way of thinking about Jews: disproportionate power. In the tradition of secondary antisemitism, the Holocaust itself is thought to be one significant source of that power. In the tradition of anti-capitalist antisemitism, the sale of their souls to imperialism is the other source of Jewish power. This is the old ambivalence of the left: are the Jews glamorously powerless or are they menacingly all too powerful? Are they oppressed or oppressors?

The Corbynist worldview is one which sees some authoritarian states, some terrorist movements and some kinds of antisemitism as being objectively on our side against imperialism, as being part of the global progressive movement. Sometimes there is an admission that the violence and the antisemitism of these ‘comrades’ are not quite in keeping with our own values; they are admittedly not pretty, but who are ‘we’ to lecture to the oppressed about values?

Alan Johnson (2015) characterises this worldview which raises anti-imperialism to an absolute and which places great emphasis on position rather than agency, ‘campism’.

It has caused parts of the left to abandon universal progressive values rooted in the Enlightenment and sign up instead as foot soldiers in what they see as the great contest between – these terms change over time, … – ‘Progressive’ versus ‘Reactionary nations, ‘Imperialism versus ‘Anti-Imperialism, Oppressed’ versus ‘Oppressor’ peoples, ‘The Empire versus ‘The Resistance’, or simply ‘Power versus ‘The Other’.

It has been steadily gaining ground on three fronts. In academia it has come to dominate disciplines such as post-colonial studies and Middle East Studies and it is considered unremarkable and scholarly in a number of mainstream disciplines, including English, Sociology and Anthropology. Judith Butler, an influential and much admired philosopher and social theorist famously said that ‘understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important’ (Johnson 2012).

She later clarified: ‘They are “left” in the sense that they oppose colonialism and imperialism, but their tactics are not ones that I would ever condone.’ (Zimmer et al 2015).

Butler’s distinction between their positioning within the progressive movement on the one hand and what they actually do and say on the other, is significant. It is in particular this practice of positioning that is directly relevant to the argument here. Who is considered to be part of the progressive movement and who is considered to be outside of the progressive movement? How is it decided and what happens to those who are placed outside?

The second front on which the ‘campist’ worldview was marginal in Britain but has now made huge strides into the mainstream is the political left. The way in which positioning is taking precedence over debate in the Labour Party is indicative of its growing centrality.

The third front on which this worldview has been making significant inroads is in public opinion and attitudes. My hypothesis is that it is becoming standard within influential liberal and left-wing sections of the elite. In this milieu it is perfectly normal to believe, for example, that Tony Bair is a war criminal, that Israel should be boycotted, that America is responsible for most of what is wrong in the Middle East and that English teenagers who go to fight for Daeshare victims of British foreign policy and were radicalised by efforts to stop them. In my world, in my trade union, in my university, in my newspaper, in my Labour Party, on BBC Radio 4, the unexamined assumptions of this variant of anti-imperialism are to be found frequently repeated without serious critical assessment. They constitute the warm background community-defining set of things that good people are expected to believe. There are acknowledged and unwritten boundaries which divide ‘us’, the ‘good people’, from them, the uncultured, the Tories, the Americans, the Neo-Cons, the Blairites, the Islamophobes and in particular, the Zionists.

One of the spheres in which the boundaries of the community of the good are reinforced is comedy. Much contemporary comedy in the UK assumes these shared values and it coheres the community of the good around shared laughter at those who put themselves outside of it with their absurd and laughable opinions.

I now examine three specific case studies of this division into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the resulting exclusions from the community of the ‘good’: The Livingstone Formulation, the University lecturers’ trade union UCU, and the Corbyn campaign.

Case Study 1. The Livingstone Formulation: how concern about antisemitsm became more suspect than antisemitism itself

One of the key things that progressive people in the UK understand is that making an accusation of antisemitism attracts more suspicion than having an accusation of antisemitism made against you.

While Nazi antisemitism and other historical Jew-hatreds are universally understood to have been evil, the standard progressive view is that these are phenomena of the past. The thesis outlined in academic form by Matti Bunzl (2007), that Islamophobia is the new antisemitism, fits in well with current common-sense thinking. The dominant sensibility on the left is that while Nazi antisemitism was real and awful, for too long the Jews have made too much of a fuss about it. It is all in the past and there are many other less recognised atrocities that deserve attention; there are the more recent genocides of which the victims are not white and privileged and do not have such easy access to the media and the levers of power. True, the notion of powerful and privileged victims of genocide should not survive a moment’s reflection; but it does survive in part owing to the left’s ambivalence on where to slot ‘the Jews’ into its schemas and narratives. There are whole literatures concerning ways in which Zionism is said to have benefitted from the Holocaust, is said to milk the Holocaust for legitimacy, to exaggerate the uniqueness of the Holocaust; and there are literatures in which Zionism is even said to have collaborated with or conceived the Holocaust. It is also commonly said to re-enact the Holocaust against the Palestinians (Klaff 2014).

The Livingstone Formulation is named after Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London. Livingstone got into an argument with a Jewish journalist, Oliver Feingold. Feingold asked him for a comment about a birthday party from which he had just emerged. Livingstone got angry and Feingold responded that he was ‘only doing his job’. Livingstone latched onto this phrase, replying that Feingold was like a Nazi war criminal for using that defence. Feingold told him that he was Jewish and he objected to that. Livingstone told the journalist that his paper was ‘was a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots’ and that it had a record of supporting Fascism.

In this ostensibly embarrassing and inconsequential dialogue, Livingstone spotted a political opportunity. He wrote an article in The Guardian criticising the occupation of the West Bank in which he said: ‘For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been’ (Livingstone 2006).

This Livingstone Formulation is a response to a charge of antisemitism. It is a rhetorical device which enables the user to refuse to engage with the charge made. It is a mirror which bounces back onto an accuser a counter-charge of dishonest Jewish (or ‘Zionist’) conspiracy.

Firstly, the Livingstone Formulation conflates anything allegedly antisemitic, in this case repeatedly insulting a Jewish reporter by comparing him to a Nazi, into the category of legitimate criticism of Israel. Secondly, it goes further than accusing people who raise the issue of antisemitism of being wrong; it accuses them of being wrong on purpose; of crying wolf, of playing the antisemitism card. It alleges an intent, often a collective intent and so a conspiracy, to mobilise Jewish victim-power for illegitimate purposes.

Livingstone refused to engage with the actual charge of antisemitism. Instead he preferred to accuse his accusers of Zionist bad faith.

There is a tendency for the Israel-Palestine conflict to attain a place of great symbolic importance. If Palestinians are symbolic representatives of the oppressed everywhere, then Israelis tend to become symbolic representatives of oppressors everywhere. In this context discussion is sometimes less about the actual conflict on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and more a struggle over symbolic narrative. The thrusting of Israelis to the centre of a worldview mirrors antisemitic traditions insofar as they have always constructed Jews as being central to what is wrong with the world (see also Fine 2009).

Ken Livingstone was neither the first nor the only one to respond to a person, typically a Jew raising a concern about antisemitism, with an angry counter-accusation of ‘Zionist’! ‘Protector of Israel, oppressor of Palestinians!’ The function of this response is to evade a reasoned discussion of the issue and instead to place the person who wants to discuss it outside of the community of the progressive.

The contemporary left wing ‘campist’ political practice of splitting the world into anti-imperialist and imperialist states dates back to Stalinist Russian Communism. After a brief flirtation in 1948 with the idea that Israel might become an ally in the Middle East, Soviet policy shifted to support for Arab Nationalist and Ba’athist regimes against Israel. Soviet antisemitism long pre-dated Israel, but the Stalinists were the first on the left to see the potential inherent in a strategy of demonizing Israel as pro-imperialist. The apartheid smear, that Israel is illegitimate in the same way that the apartheid regime in South Africa was illegitimate, was also a Soviet invention (Crooke 2004). This smear functions as a thought-free shortcut to the politics of boycott.

In 1952 Rudolph Slanksy, who was himself the murderous dictator of Communist Czechoslovakia, was faced with an antisemitic purge by his ‘comrades’. Slansky was removed from power and the following ‘confession’ was extracted under torture:

I deliberately shielded Zionism by publicly speaking out against the people who pointed to the hostile activities of Zionists and by describing these people as anti-Semites so that these people were in the end prosecuted and persecuted. I thus created an atmosphere in which people were afraid to oppose Zionism (Shindler 2011:145-6).

This is identical to Livingstone’s formulation. The Jew confesses to (or is accused of) mobilising a bad-faith accusation of antisemitism in order to silence opposition to Zionism.

The Livingstone Formulation is employed frequently in contemporary political discourse. The Reverend Steven Sizer was a leading supporter in the Church of England of the campaign to boycott Israel. He wrote a letter to The Independent responding to an argument by the Chief Rabbi that the campaign was part of an emerging antisemitic culture in the UK. The Synod of the Church, wrote Sizer (2006), would not be ‘intimidated by those who … cry “antisemitism” whenever Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied territories are mentioned.’ He went on: ‘Why has the Archbishop faced a torrent of criticism over [a vote to divest from Caterpillar]? Simple: the people in the shadows know that Caterpillar is only the first [boycott].’

Sizer responded to an argument that BDS was antisemitic by alleging that the argument was made in bad faith ‘by the people in the shadows’, in order to unfairly de-legitimize criticism of Israel and the occupation.

One of the people who leapt to Sizer’s defence against a charge of antisemitism was Jeremy Corbyn. Years before he ever imagined becoming Labour leader, Corbyn wrote a letter to the Church of England in support of Sizer, saying that he ‘was under attack by a pro-Israeli smear campaign.’ (Simons 2015). In other words, Corbyn used the Livingstone Formulation. Sizer was later banned by the Church from further participation in social media after he promoted an antisemitic article on his Facebook feed entitled: ‘9/11: Israel did it’ (Bingham 2015).

Alain Badiou is a Maoist philosopher, but this does not prevent him from being considered legitimate in antiracist and scholarly circles, or from being celebrated and successful in France and around the world. He co-authored a book in 2013 called Reflections on Antisemitism (Badiou et al 2013) which, in the words of the publisher’s web page, dissects ‘how facile accusations of “anti-Semitism” are used to stifle dissent’ (Verso 2015). Gérard Bensussan (2014)reviewed the book in Libération, arguing that in making antisemitism respectable, the extreme-left had achieved what the far-right could only dream of. He argues that Badiou participates in a contemporary restoration of French antisemitism.

Badiou’s first response is that there ‘could be no such thing as a far-left anti-Semitism – an absurd oxymoron…’ (Badiou 2014). This is a clear illustration of the eclipse of the politics of reason by the politics of position. By definition, there can be no antisemitism in this place, within the community of the progressive. The suggestion that there may be such a thing as left antisemitism is not rebutted or denied, it is met with a threatening, aggressive and emotional volley of insults which effectively puts the person who made the suggestion outside the community.

Badiou proceeds to respond with the most condescending sarcasm, implying that Bensussan and his academic institution are well below his own intellectual level. He says that the accusation of antisemitism is a matter for the courts, meaning that it is a libel, but since he places no trust in the bourgeois courts, his remedy for the libel is as follows: ‘I’ll simply give Professor Bensussan a smack in the face if I ever come across him, which will be a richly deserved reward for his muck-spreading rhetoric.’ (For more on the pleasures offered by contemporary antisemitism, see Garrard 2013.)

Badiou is clear. An accusation of antisemitism, if it concerns a person on the left, if it concerns something which relates to hostility to Israel, need only be responded to by violence. Reasons, evidence or argument are appropriate for disagreements within the community of the progressive but are not appropriate for an accuser of antisemitism. (For more on the Livingstone Formulation seeHirsh 2010.)

Case Study 2: The boycott campaign and the UCU: how Israelis are to be excluded from the global community and people defined as their ‘supporters’ from the community of trades unionists

The campaign to boycott Israel seeks to situate Israel outside of the community of the good and the progressive. The campaign situates those Israelis who are unwilling to disavow their country in the same way. They are to be isolated, ignored, silenced, excluded and punished; their narratives, their experiences and their motivations are to be treated as dishonest propaganda. When people within the community of the oppressed do bad things, these things are judged in the material context of the bad things that have been done to them. When people are situated outside of the community of the oppressed, what they do is judged in a purely formal and abstract way.

The boycott campaign does not impact at first in Israel. The boycott campaign exists in the UK, in America, in South Africa, around the world. The exclusion it seeks to set up is ‘here’, where the campaign is, not ‘there’ in the Middle East. The universities from which Israeli scholars are to be excluded, the shops which are to be emptied of Israeli goods, the theatres in which Israeli actors are not to perform, the sports stadia in which Israeli footballers may not play, they are ‘here’ not ‘there’. Sometimes people say Corbyn is bad on foreign policy but his domestic agenda against austerity is what is important. But the antisemitism of the boycott campaign is not foreign policy, it couldn’t be closer to home. It impacts first within the Labour movement.

Prior to the boycott is the campaign for the boycott. The campaign exists ‘here’ in the unions, ‘here’ in the churches, ‘here’ in the political parties. The boycott campaign tends to operate by defining those who disagree with its strategy of boycott as supporters of Israel. It rejects the notion that there can be different ways of showing solidarity with Palestinians or different ways of supporting the peace movement.

The boycott campaign’s treatment of the distinction between civil society and state in Israel as uniquely fictional facilitates the treatment of citizens as though they were responsible for state policy. The boycotters treat opponents of the boycott within the progressive movement as proxy Israelis and so by extension agents of the Israeli state. Opponents are called ‘lobbyists’ or ‘agents’ in order to signal their illegitimacy. In the narrative of the boycotters, lobbyists or agents of Israel should be no more recognised as authentic within the progressive movement than Israel itself is recognised as authentic in the Middle East.

Many of these opponents of the boycott campaign who are thus defined as being foreign to the progressive movement are Jews. The boycott campaign sets up a presumption or a suspicion around Jews; that they are in some sense collaborators with Zionism, conceived of in hateful terms. True, the boycotters offer Jews routes by which they can show that this presumption is unfair in their own special case. It offers them opportunities to disavow Israel or Zionism or their institutional connections. But it is the presumption and the suspicion that is important in itself. In any case, for most Jews the route of disavowal is too redolent of historic antisemitisms to be a tolerable option. These are the logical progressions by which discursive and institutional antisemitism follow in the wake of the boycott campaign. But in the end the relationship between hostility to Israel and antisemitism is an empirical one, not a logical one. Experience shows that they are related.

From 2003 the campaign to boycott Israel began to take shape within the forerunner unions of the UCU. By 2011, virtually nobody was left in the decision making structures who was willing and able to oppose the boycott campaign. UCU Congress that year resolved to campaign against the European Union Monitoring Commission (EUMC) Working Definition of Antisemitism because that definition provided a framework by which certain kinds of hostility to Israel, taking context into account, could be understood as antisemitic. The union, instead of ceasing to do things which were potentially antisemitic according to the working definition, resolved instead to fight against the working definition. (For more on struggles over definitions of antisemitism, seeHirsh 2012 and Marcus 2015).

The proponents of the boycott campaign do not think of themselves as Jew-haters but they do set themselves up in a fight with the overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews. (For further analysis of antisemitism of which the carriers are not conscious, see Hirsh 2013.) The boycotters seek to punish Israel for human rights abuses and to hold all Israelis collectively responsible for the actions of their government; they target no other state for boycott and they seek collective punishment for no other citizens. Those who oppose the boycott campaign are treated as though they are enemies of Palestine; they are identified as outsiders. Jews are more likely to have personal, family or work connections to Israel; they are more likely to feel compelled to speak up against a campaign that seeks to put Israelis outside of the community of the progressive, the rational, and the civilised.

Moreover, there is a wider context: a deep reservoir of antisemitic discourse, images, emotions and tropes within what we might call ‘western’ culture. It has been deposited by the distinct waves of antisemitism that have washed over Europe since the original rise of Christianity out of Judaism. It would be surprising indeed if a campaign to make people think of Israelis as being outside of the community of the civilised did not draw, even unconsciously, on these ready-made ways of thinking, linked to intense affective triggers. The campaign to treat Israelis and their ‘supporters’ as pariahs tends to bring with it echoes of previous campaigns against Jews. Images and tropes from old antisemitic themes are unconsciously recycled, and Jews who oppose the boycott are framed as conspiratorial, powerful, rich, bloodthirsty (particularly for children’s blood), bourgeois, connected to dishonest bankers, warmongers etc.

After the last opponents of the boycott had resigned or been pushed out of the UCU, there was a final attempt to marshal the evidence of antisemitism within the union and to get a fair hearing for it. Ronnie Fraser, a union member, initiated a court action against the UCU alleging that it had, in the language of the Equality Act 2010, ‘harassed’ him by ‘engaging in unwanted conduct’ relating to his Jewish identity, the ‘purpose and/or effect’ of which has been, and continues to be, to ‘violate his dignity’ and/or create ‘an intimidating, hostile, degrading humiliating’ and/or ‘offensive environment’ for him. Fraser’s lawyer, Anthony Julius, described a complex but interlinked course of action by the union, including absence of action, which he said amounted to institutional antisemitism.

The case was heard by the Employment Tribunal, in the autumn of 2012. It heard evidence on behalf of Fraser from 34 witnesses: union activists, scientists, sociologists, historians, lawyers, philosophers, Members of Parliament, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, academic experts on antisemitism, Jewish communal leaders. Witnesses gave written statements and were subjected to cross-examination. (Full disclosure: I was one of those witnesses).

The key mode of intimidation that Fraser and the other witnesses described was a constant and relentless stream of allegations of bad faith. People who said that they had experienced or understood something said or done in the union as antisemitic were told that they were really only trying to de-legitimise criticism of Israeli human rights abuses and the boycott campaign. Rather than have the substance of what they were saying taken seriously, those who said they had experienced antisemitism were cast out of the union’s community of good faith and were constructed as enemies who were engaged in a campaign of trying to harm the union.

However, what the Jews had suffered in the union, it turned out, they were now to suffer at the hands of the tribunal, which found against Fraser on everything: on technicalities, on legal argument, and on every significant issue of substance and of fact. The tribunal found everything the UCU said in its defence to be persuasive and it found nothing offered by Fraser or any of his witnesses to have merit. The culture, the practices and the norms inside the union were found to be not antisemitic, neither in intent nor in effect. Indeed, everything that Fraser and his witnesses experienced as antisemitic, the tribunal judged to have been entirely appropriate. The judgment had the form of reasoned judicial argument but it contained none of the grey, none of the complexity, none of the uncertainty which one would expect.

The tribunal found, simply, that ‘at heart’ the case represented ‘an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means…’ (para 178). In other words, the tribunal produced what amounted to a judicialLivingstone Formulation.

The tribunal made clear that it believed that Fraser was trying to mobilise a bad-faith allegation of antisemitism in order to silence good-faith critics of Israel when it continued, ‘We are also troubled by the implications of the claim. Underlying it we sense a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.’

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the tribunal in fact refused to delve into the detail of the evidence, ‘a trial bundle of 23 volumes’. If it had done so it would have perhaps been concerned by some of it and perhaps remained unconvinced by other elements. What the tribunal seems to have done instead is to accept the union’s overall narrative of the case. The union presented itself as a neutral and progressive institution, many of whose members were keen to show solidarity with the Palestinians. It presented those who supported Fraser as slick and dishonest but formidable and articulate nevertheless. It said that they were trying to pull the wool over the eyes of other union members and then the tribunal itself, in an attempt to mobilise the victim-power of the allegation of antisemitism.

In a few places in the judgement, the tribunal could be thought to have allowed its contempt to show through. It contrasted the ‘down-to-earth style’ of Ronnie Fraser to the ‘the magnificent prose in which his written case was couched’ by Anthony Julius. One might think it is unremarkable for a lawyer to be more eloquent than his client. But here there seems to be an allusion to Fraser’s prestigious and expensive representation. The Tribunal goes on: ‘what makes this litigation doubly regrettable is its gargantuan scale.’ This may be read as alluding to the power of those who are assumed to be financing the case. From Fraser’s point of view, however, it may equally be thought that the union was the powerful rich institution. In fact, the Fraser case was less than half-heartedly supported by the voluntary institutions of the Jewish community and it relied to a great extent on the commitment of one individual, the lawyer Anthony Julius.

Three of Fraser’s witnesses were praised by the tribunal as being ‘careful, thoughtful, courteous’ in form and ‘mindful of their obligations as witnesses’. The content of their evidence was, nevertheless, totally disregarded.

His other witnesses were accused of ‘playing to the gallery’, ‘ventilating their opinions’ and enjoying making speeches in the witness box. The union’s witnesses, good honest simple union officials, were, said the tribunal, ‘rather less colourful’ than the claimant’s, and were there ‘for the mundane purpose of telling’. The simplistic distinction made between fact and opinion sits uncomfortably with the difficult realities of communicating experiences of antisemitism, and the understandings which those experiences helped to shape.

The tribunal chose not to hide its irritation. It did not regard the allegation of institutional antisemitism as being worthy of its time as compared to the deserving cases that the tribunal ought to be dealing with, allegations of discriminatory treatment which it considered genuine:

The Employment Tribunals are a hard-pressed public service and it is not right that their limited resources should be squandered as they have been in this case. Nor, if (contrary to our view) it was proper to face them with any claim at all, should the Respondents have been put to the trouble and expense of defending proceedings of this order or anything like it.

Later, when the union pursued Ronnie Fraser for its costs, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds, the tribunal was forced to admit that it had over-reached its own powers in its enthusiasm to emphasise the inappropriateness of the case having been brought. It was forced to recuse itself from adjudicating the costs application on the basis that it had already pre-judged the issue in its original judgment. However, new judges were appointed and they closed ranks with the original tribunal, going out of their way to praise its substantive judgment.

There was an instructive exchange during the cross examination of the General Secretary of the UCU, Sally Hunt. Anthony Julius took her through a large number of examples of allegedly antisemitic things which had been said or written within union spaces; during Congress, at other meetings and on the UCU activists’ email list. Hunt considered each example and she judged each one in turn to be not antisemitic. As though rather exasperated, Julius put a hypothetical to her: ‘If somebody said, “If you want to understand the Jews, read Mein Kampf”, would that be antisemitic?’ Hunt answered that within the union context, because the union is an antiracist union, then no, it would not necessarily be antisemitic.

This answer is an explicit endorsement of the politics of position over the politics of reason. For Hunt, what was important in judging whether a statement was antisemitic was the space in which it was made and the people who made it, not the content of the statement itself. Like Badiou, who claimed that left-wing antisemitism was logically impossible because antisemitism is by definition not left wing, Hunt regards antisemitism within an antiracist union to be unthinkable. Instead of coming to terms with the normalisation of antisemitism in the union, Hunt defined the antisemitic behaviour and the antisemitic speech as being antiracist, not by virtue of its content but by virtue of its occurrence within a space which is a priori not antisemitic. Anybody who challenges this a priori truth must be cast out; anybody who tries to engage with the truth by discussion, reason, evidence or argument risks their status as part of the community.

Having presided over the relentless cross examination of Sally Hunt, having seen her deny that each example was antisemitic, having seen her reject even the hypothetical, Judge Snelson scolded Anthony Julius in a rather condescending way and expressed the hope that Julius would soon come to discussing the evidence of the case.

Case Study 3: How the Corbyn faction puts its political opponents outside the room rather than reply to their criticisms

The final case study is an examination of a number of examples of how the dictum ‘Jeremy doesn’t do personal’ has been inverted into personalised attacks against Corbyn’s critics. The effect of this inversion has been to avoid addressing the criticism by throwing the critic out of the community of the good. Once the critic is excommunicated, their criticism is cauterised and a warning is served on other potential critics.

On 14 August 2015, as Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a front runner in the leadership election, the Jewish Chronicle (JC) took the unprecedented step of giving over its front page to seven questions regarding Corbyn’s record on the issue of antisemitism (JC Editorial 2015).

It asked him about his relationship with campaign called ‘Deir Yassin Remembered’ which was run by Paul Eissen, a man who came out as an open Holocaust denier. Eissen said that Corbyn had donated money and had been supportive.

The JC asked Corbyn about his planned appearance the following week on a platform with Carlos Latuff, an antizionist and antisemitic cartoonist who had been awarded the second prize in President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust Denial cartoon contest in Tehran.

The JC asked Corbyn about his defence of Steven Sizer and his own accusation that Sizer’s critics had been Zionists who were trying to smear him unfairly.

The paper asked Corbyn about his relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah, antisemitic organisations which he had referred to as ‘friends’ and which he had warmly supported, saying they were dedicated to peace and justice in the Middle East (Video 2).

Corbyn was asked why he had never condemned the antisemitic posters and banners that dominate the annual Al-Quds Day rally, sponsored by Stop the War, of which Corbyn was the National Chair.

Corbyn was asked why he defended Raed Salah as an ‘honoured citizen’, a man who had explicitly employed medieval style blood libel rhetoric in order to incite people against Jews.

Corbyn’s answers were not convincing (JC Reporter 2015). He said he could not remember giving money to Eissen. He said that he had supported Eissen’s campaign before it became clear that he was an antisemite, but so did a lot of other people. He said that he had decided not to appear with Latuff but he did not say why. He said that he had defended Sizer as being the victim of a Zionist smear campaign before Sizer had become an antisemite, not after.

Corbyn’s stock answer as to why he referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’ is that it was diplomatic language and that he was engaged in the peace process. He used the same ‘diplomatic language’ excuse in relation to his defence of Raed Salah, the blood libeller. In truth, Corbyn has embraced the politics of Hamas and Hezbollah, he has been hosted by Hamas in Gaza, he does not criticise their antisemitism, he is not worried by their links to the Iranian regime; in short, he thinks that they are freedom fighters.

Corbyn answered the question about antisemitic banners and posters by saying that he opposes antisemitism.

His answers to the Jewish Chronicle were evasive and partial. But the answer which has real kick, the one which the Corbyn faction really relies on, is that Corbyn supports the Palestinians, and the people who accuse him of antisemitism are doing so to smear him in order to silence his criticism of Israel.

James Bloodworth, the editor of the Left Foot Forward blog, appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on 28 August 2015. He went out of his way to begin with the customary throat-clearing disclaimer that nobody is saying that Corbyn is antisemitic. Bloodworth then explained why there was a problem with Corbyn’s tolerance for antisemitism and his participation in, and support for, antisemitic organisations and movements.

In response, Diane Abbott, a senior left wing Labour MP went on the attack. This attempt to portray Corbyn as antisemitic was a sign, she said, that the ‘Westminster Elite’ and the ‘Political Class’ were afraid of him and his anti-austerity agenda. Abbott marshalled all of her rhetorical power to make clear that such questions were impertinent and inappropriate; that they were ‘personal’ attacks and not political. She answered them by portraying Bloodworth as having overstepped the boundary of political honesty and decency; British politeness too.

The previous week, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown had written a piece in The Independent headed ‘Fling mud if you must but don’t call Jeremy Corbyn an Anti-semite’.

It is an accusation that is both absurd and menacing. The right, Blairites and hard Zionists have formed the most unholy of alliances to slay the reputation of the next likely leader of the Labour party. … Most depressing of all is the collusion between the powerful right and Zionists. They seem determined to crush all alternatives to neoliberal economics and Western hegemony. … As the forces of darkness turn on Corbyn, the leadership contest continues its descent into a passion play. (Alibhai-Brown 2015)

Alibhai-Brown mobilizes all of the fierce, outraged denunciation that she can muster against those who dare to raise the issue of antisemitism. Ironically she makes use of a number of antisemitic tropes in doing so. She employs righteous anger at the impertinence of it. There is also an appeal to the Jewish authority of antizionist Jews, those Jews whose place within the community of the progressive is assured. ‘The right, Blairites and hard Zionists’ are the ones employing this dirtiest imaginable political manoeuvre, she says. The ‘forces of darkness’ are the ‘powerful right’ and ‘Zionists’. Alibhai-Brown’s piece is not even particularly supportive of Corbyn as a candidate for Labour leader, but what it does do is police the boundaries of the community of the progressive. Blairites and the right are outside, along with ‘hard Zionists’ and ‘Zionists’.

In July, Corbyn had been interviewed on Channel 4 News (Video 3). Krishnan Guru-Murthy asks him why he referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his ‘friends’. Corbyn repeats his stock answer that he is in favour of a peace process and that should include Hamas. Gury-Murthy asks again why he called them ‘friends’. Corbyn begins to get angry and accuses him of interrupting his answer. He carried on his speech about peace negotiations and Gury-Murthy asks for a third time why he called them ‘friends’. Corbyn starts to raise his voice and to point, demanding to be allowed to finish. He accuses Guru-Murthy of being unprepared to discuss the wider issues of the Middle East. The issue is this, he says: ‘Hamas and Hezbollah are part of a peace process…’ When pushed again on whether Corbyn considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be friends, he accuses Gury-Murthy of ‘trying to trivialise the whole discussion…’. Eventually Corbyn sits back in his chair and declares: ‘thanks for the tabloid journalism’. When cornered, Corbyn preferred to try to cast Guru Murthy out of the community of the good (‘tabloid!’) rather than to respond to the question seriously.



The great philosophers of modernity articulated the revolt against the divine right of kings and against the clerics who, with the authority of God, told us what to think. Descartes democratised knowledge, insisting that what was important was method, reason and evidence, not the power of the knower. Rousseau, Hobbes and Kant put the rational individual, thinking about the world and deciding what to do, at the heart of the new democratic politics. The American Declaration of Independence raised the pursuit of happiness to an inherent and inalienable right.

Then along came the social theorists who said that ideal of the human being as an engaged, rational, autonomous subject was not exactly realised in the real world. It was a world where lots of power structures got in the way of allowing individual human beings to know and to pursue their own rational interests. We make history, but not under the circumstances of our own choosing. We construct our world but we are also constructed by it: we are given language, thoughts, habits, education, nation, religion, gender and race. They become part of us, part of how we relate to the world and part of how the world relates to us.

So the absolute centrality of the principle of the rational autonomous subject was eroded. Hegel founded human agency in the material world; Marx said our decisions were manifestations of social relations; sociologists said that the social world constructs us as much as we construct it; feminists said that women were excluded from the rational; Freud said that the subconscious is more telling than the conscious; Arendt said that rational critique could feed into a swirl of totalitarian rage; Said argued that colonialism clouds our thinking with racism; Foucault said that rational knowledge is still corrupted by power.

These social theorists were right to see the ways in which real human beings fell short of the ideal of the politically, ethically and legally rational and responsible subject. But many of their followers were not satisfied with that intuition. They went on to create accounts of the mass of humanity as being wholly determined by social forces. The idea of the human being as a subject with agency was ridiculed as a bourgeois and oppressive fiction. It was replaced with the division of the world into the oppressor as a rational subject, white, male, rich; and the oppressed as the irrational object, black, female, poor.

There was always, perhaps, a seed of this kind of worldview present in the social critique of bourgeois liberalism, but it has grown to dominate oppositional thinking.

In March 2008, John Molyneux, a leading intellectual of the Socialist Workers Party, at the time the most influential organisation of the Marxist left in the UK, wrote:

… an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically). (Molyneux 2008)

Molyneux is clear. Who you are in the global binary of oppressor/oppressed is everything; what you think, what you say, what you do, is nothing at all.

The Enlightenment ideal was that to relate seriously to somebody was to relate seriously to the content of what they say. The ‘new politics’ is less interested in what you say and more interested in whether you are part of the global community of the oppressed or the global network of the oppressors. The more rational you seem, the more you’re likely to be shoved into the oppressor camp. This shove is achieved by power and not by debate; not yet, in the Corbyn Labour Party, by physical violence, but by the kind of discursive violence that silences opponents and puts them out of the room.

It was the Marxists who embraced the notion of ‘false consciousness’. They could see that workers were oppressed and that what they needed to do was to unite with all the other workers, the overwhelming majority of humanity, and to make a revolution. The problem was that the workers did not yet understand their own position and their own role in history. The Marxists believed that the working class would inevitably become conscious of its own role; a class not only ‘in itself’ but also ‘for itself’.

Max Weber (1978) responded that:

The most classical expression of this pseudo-scientific use of concepts is the contention of a gifted writer that the individual may well mistake his own interests, but the ‘class’ is ‘infallible’ about its interests.

The contemporary version of ‘false consciousness’ is still more presumptuous than the Marxist one. Now, the metropolitan intellectuals award themselves the role of speaking for the oppressed. They have given up hope that the oppressed will become conscious and embrace the truth as elucidated by the metropolitan intellectuals. They think that because the oppressed are so excluded from the power discourses of rationality, they are only able to feel; thinking is too much to ask for from the oppressed. Excluded from reason, they are left with only passion. The job of the intellectuals is to interpret the passion of the oppressed into the language of reason. For example, some Palestinians may embrace Jew-hatred; they may participate in suicide bombing; they may perpetrate random knife attacks on Jews. Their role, according to their western supporters, is not to be rational, to become conscious, and to develop universal socialist political forms; their role is to act through passion. The intellectuals co-opt the orientalist image of the passionate native and they interpret this passion into whatever language and ideas is convenient to them.

Democracy itself, along with freedom of expression, law, truth and human rights, now become suspect; they hide the reality of raw power behind a facade of legitimating discourse. Costas Douzinas tells that Spanish soldiers unfurled banners in response to the Napoleonic invasion that read ‘Down With Freedom!’ He suggests, and hopes, that the oppressed may soon be ready to raise the slogan ‘Down With Human Rights!’ (Douzinas 2000). The idea that human rights are western and imperialist is standard in contemporary progressive discourse and is routinely taught in universities. It leaves people who campaign for human rights within what is thought of as the ‘community of the oppressed’, entirely unsupported; not only unsupported but even constructed as opponents of the global coalition against imperialism. Campaigners for human rights, for women’s rights, for lesbian and gay rights, against what are thought of as ‘anti-imperialist regimes’ are, themselves, in danger of being slung out of both the communities of the oppressed and of the progressive.

Any apparent concession won under existing conditions is considered insignificant. ‘Manufactured consent’ (Herman and Chomsky 1995), say the radical intellectuals, is not consent at all, but false consciousness. It is this ultra-radical and one-sided critique of everything valued in bourgeois society that both Hannah Arendt (1975), and George Orwell (2004), in their distinct ways, identify as characteristically totalitarian. It is above all the ‘pursuit of happiness’ and personal relationships that are prohibited under totalitarianism. Everything human must be subordinated to the ultimate collective goal.


Jeremy Corbyn has appointed Seumas Milne as his Chief of Communications. Milne’s own political tradition is the Stalinist wing of the British Communist Party. Later he was close to George Galloway and the Respect party. From 2001 Milne was the comment editor at The Guardian and since 2007 he has been an associate editor of the whole paper. All the while he has been writing model opinion pieces and editorials demonstrating how to describe events in the world plausibly within the ‘campist’ and anti-imperialist paradigm.

Two days after 9/11 he wrote a piece headed: ‘They can’t see why they are hated’(Milne 2001), which assigned responsibility for the attack to US foreign policy. As though oblivious of the fall of the Soviet Union, Milne is still a cheerleader for Russian opposition to NATO, is still an apologist for its authoritarian leader and is still unconcerned about Ukraine’s assertion of its right to self-determination (Milne 2015). There is video of Corbyn himself, two days after the tube and bus bombings in London on 7/7, with George Galloway at his shoulder, saying to an applauding crowd: ‘We have to recognise that the security of this country is at risk. It’s at risk because of the way we inflict an insecurity on so many other people around the world.’ (Video 4).

Milne also embraces the notion that where people are situated in the spectrum of global oppression is more politically significant than what they do and what they say. In defence of a pro-Hamas column (2008) he wrote:

Hamas and the support it attracts is only the current expression of a spirit of Palestinian national resistance to oppression and dispossession going back decades. (Hirsh 2008, in comments)

Indeed, it may be unsurprising if some Palestinians respond to the everyday realities of the Israeli occupation in the language of antisemitism. Milne himself sees it as his own job to translate antisemitic language back into the democratic language of a timeless ‘spirit of Palestinian national resistance.’ By doing so, he replaces what actually happens with what he wishes was happening. He tells us what Palestinians, conceived as being without significant internal diversity,really mean if they vote for Hamas. And what they really mean, according to Milne’s translation, is that they want an inclusive, non-racist, and democratic state.

When Milne (Hirsh 2008, in comments) was challenged about Hamas and its antisemitic charter in 2008, he said that it was obsolete and that bringing it up in discussion was a sign of bad faith. In response to a claim that he was ‘apologizing for, and denying, racism against Jews’ in his support for Hamas, he responded with a venom which can only be explained by the desire to make clear that such criticism is beyond all that is appropriate within polite antiracist discourse. Milne characterised the claim as ‘perverse and contemptible’ on the basis that the Hamas charter of 1988 was admittedly a ‘reactionary, anti-Jewish document’, but it had been repeatedly disavowed by Hamas leaders, specifically in relation to the anti-Jewish tropes. It is noticeable that even about the charter, Milne could not bring himself to use the word ‘antisemitic’. Of course, the disavowal was only a rumour put around for the use of liberal apologists in democratic countries. Seven years on, we are still waiting for such a disavowal from the Hamas leadership.

The politics of position not the politics of reason is coming to predominate in the UK Labour movement and in the universities. It has some chance, albeit not a big chance, of forming the next government. It has clear totalitarian potential because it is more concerned with the ‘objective’ position of a person or a group, in a fixed and essentialist schema, than with what that person or group says or does. The 20th-century totalitarians defined the core enemies of the good as capitalists, kulaks, Jews, or gays. What capitalists, kulaks, Jews or gays said and what they did was irrelevant. They were treated as though they blocked the road of the community of the good, on its journey to the good society.


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Douzinas C. (2000) The End of Human Rights, Oxford: Hart.

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Hartley E. (2015) ‘Jeremy Corbyn Responds To Tony Blair: ‘I Don’t Do Personal Abuse’, 14 August 2015, Huffington Post., downloaded 26 October 2015.

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Herman E. and Chomsky N. (1995) Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of the mass media, New York: Vintage.

Hirsh D. (2008) ‘Half-truths cannot aid peace’ The Guardian, 6 March 2008,, downloaded 26 October 2015.

Hirsh D. (2010) ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism’, Transversal 1/2010, Graz, Austria. Available on Engage,, downloaded 26 October 2015.

Hirsh D. (2012) ‘Defining antisemitism down: The EUMC working definition and its disavowal by the university & college union’, Fathom 1, pp. 30-39.,downloaded 26 October 2012.

Hirsh D. (2013) ‘Hostility to Israel and Antisemitism: Toward a Sociological Approach’, Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, JSA Vol 5#1, available on Engage., downloaded 26 October 2015.

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Fraser v University and College Union (2013) Employment Tribunal, Case Number: 2203290/2011.


  1. ‘Jeremy Corbyn and Yvonne Ridley on PressTV’, downloaded 26 October 2015.
  2. ‘Jeremy Corbyn on Hamas and Hezbollah’
  3. ‘Jeremy Corbyn slates C4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s “tabloid journalism”’
  4. ‘Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway After the 7/7 Bombings’

* Warm and grateful thanks are due to friends and colleagues who helped in diverse ways with the formulation of these arguments: Monique Ebell, Robert Fine, Richard Gold, Alan Johnson, Anthony Julius, Eamonn MacDonagh, David Seymour, Ken Waltzer and two anonymous referees.

This paper by David Hirsh was published in fathom, Autumn 2015

That’s Funny 1

That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic

An anti-racist analysis of left anti-semitism by Steve Cohen

© 1984 Steve Cohen
© 2005 Engage

This publication and parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, by any method, except for non-commercial use. In citing the publication, please acknowledge author and source.



Steve Cohen’s little pale-blue book on left wing antisemitism caused a rumpus in the colleges when it first came out. Helped by the arresting title, which still raises a smile, That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic appeared in the coffee bars, Labour Clubs and Jewish Societies during the Miners Strike of 1984-85. Back then there were lots of Jewish lefties and the campus battles between Jewish students and the operational antisemites were starting to hot up again.

That’s Funny was a timely intervention. It helped prepare anti-racists for these battles. And it had an emotional impact on the reader. One socialist undergrad from Manchester vividly remembers sitting in a sunny park and reading it in one go, open mouthed. I remember sitting in the politico’s end, the smoke-filled, messy end of Manchester University Students Union’s coffee bar and looking around at the three tables of students all reading the same book. And these were not the type of students who did a lot of reading. That’s Funny was compelling.

Over at the politically-Jewish table sat the leaders of UJS (Union of Jewish Students) and the Union sabbaticals (full-timers) who had always felt there was something off about the left (in addition to their socialism) but hadn’t really mastered the subject. It took a while for them to read each page because they didn’t understand all the references to the left. I don’t suppose they liked Steve’s attacks on the Jewish Community’s leadership.

I sat at the SO table. SO (Socialist Organiser—the group that later became the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) students were swiftly moving towards a “Two Nations, Two States” position and generally got on fine with Jewish students. We were chilled by that book. Although by 84 we had started to talk about left wing antisemites we were not yet on top of the arguments (Sunderland Poly Student Union had not yet banned its J Soc—it would be another couple of months before this massive learning experience convulsed the student movement and required us to become fluent opponents of antisemitism). We were slow readers too. It took us a while to read each page because we didn’t understand the Jewish stuff and because we broke off our reading to denounce Cohen as a cultural nationalist—while we giggled, tickled by the wonderfully crazy, eccentric fact of the existence of a Bundist in 1984.

And then there was the table of Jewish lefties. We’d been their mates for a while—gone to the same parties and on the same demos. We’d never been asked our position on Israel on a picket line: they had and their accusers were not looking for conversation. Instead they were making sure these Jews knew they were not part of the left. I guess these guys liked the book the most, even if they did agree with us about the Bund and even though they might have agreed with their other mates that Steve was too harsh on the communal leadership. These guys speed read the book. They understood the lefty bits and the Jewish bits.

The rest of the left, the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) and Workers Power were sitting at a fourth table. They were not reading That’s Funny. But it seemed to me they were starting to feel uncomfortable. Rowing about Zionism was a popular sport in that coffee bar, but to me it didn’t look as though they fancied another ten rounds against the recharged, re-inforced blue-red alliance just right then.

These battle lines and alliances were already drawn up by the time Sunderland Poly Student Union banned its J Soc. Then they hardened by the day. That’s Funny didn’t cause those battle lines and it didn’t make any of us Bundists. But it did provide excellent references and it did provide a framework for understanding left-antisemitism. I think it played a role in legitimising the discussion: the very idea that there is left-wing antisemitism. As SO students we would have been far more isolated if that book hadn’t been around. At least we could point to a real book to back up our claims.

That’s Funny’s 21st Century reprint has caused a lot of bother too.

I’d never met Steve Cohen before I popped up to Prestwich to see if he wanted to post the otherwise unavailable That’s Funny on the Engage website. I offered him space to write a new introduction.

In the 20 years since writing That’s Funny, Steve has been the lawyer for and leader of anti-deportation campaigns and he has occasionally written for the AWL’s publications—both Solidarity and Socialist Organiser. Given this pedigree you can imagine the surprise when he turned out an Introduction with which I hardly agree on any point. For instance, Steve has an unusual position on the Israel/Palestine conflict. He thinks that all nationalism is racist and so he is “against” nation states on principle. In his head, his particular anti-Zionism does not single out Israel. He has equally unusual politics in relation to all nationalisms and states. But it’s not good manners to trash a deal just because Steve’s new Introduction is politically miles away from Engage. And it’s not on to retrospectively trash That’s Funny either. In fact, Pangloss insists that That’s Funny stands in a better light when the politics of the author are understood: he has one foot in the camp of the anti-Zionists and yet he is still mortified by left-antisemitism. Steve Cohen’s position is that Engage underestimates the power of left-wing antisemitism.

Jane Ashworth

There Must Be Some Way Out of Here

In 1984 I wrote a booklet against anti-Semitism. For this I was denounced as a Zionist. Engage, in its important struggle against Left-wing anti-Semitism, is now reproducing this booklet. In 2005 I wrote a pastiche poem criticising Zionism. For this I was denounced as an anti-Semite by some people on the Engage website. What is happening here?

It seems to me that one of the things that is happening is that whatever the fundamental political distinction between anti Semitism and anti Zionism (a distinction I see as absolute) yet on an emotional and existential level the two have become hopelessly intertwined—and this itself is political. Something else which is happening is the confirmation as far as I’m concerned of a political analysis of anti-Semitism which in my naivety, strikes me as obvious but which I’ve never seen articulated anywhere else. This is that the Jewish Chronicle and Socialist Worker are both correct. And incorrect. Zionism is anti racist. And Zionism is racist. I cannot see how Zionism in its triumphant form (the Israeli state) is anything except essentially racist. It was founded on the dispossession of the Palestinians. And it continues on the super exploitation and humiliation of the Palestinians as the “other”. To deny this strikes me as fundamentally immoral. I also happen to think that two states, one of which by definition has to be exclusively Jewish is similarly immoral. I think majoritarianism (the legitimisation of an entity through numbers) is immoral wherever it presents itself—it leads at the very least to forced population movement and at its most extreme to ethnic cleansing and all that implies. I’ll leave open to discussion and personal judgement the point on this continuum that Israel may already guilty and at which a divided state would become guilty.

On the other hand it seems to me equally undeniable that Zionism in its inception was anti-racist. It was a reaction against, a way of dealing with, European anti-Semitism. Maybe as a revolutionary socialist writing in Prestwich in 2005 it would not be my way. However as a Jew of whatever political persuasion in Europe after the coming to power of Hitler in 1933 or the defeat of the revolution in Spain in 1939 I may well have had a different position. And if fascism ever took over here and Jews were barred entry elsewhere then I guess I might take a different position. I empathise with the “bolt hole” theory of Zionism. I appreciate the significance of the remarks by Isaac Deutscher, the Polish Marxist ex-rabbi, who wrote in later life “In this controversy (between socialism and Zionism) Zionism has scored a horrible victory, one of which it could neither wish nor expect; six million Jews had to perish in Hitler’s gas chambers in order that Israel should come to life … If instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jewry to go to Palestine, I might have saved some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers” (Israel’s Spiritual Climate). I take it as axiomatic that any revolutionary of that pre-war period would have fought for the absolute right of Jews to enter Palestine. To have argued otherwise, to have argued for immigration controls, would have meant support for the British Mandate whose army tried to prevent entry. However the tenets of revolutionary socialism (tenets to which I still hold even in these days of Blair, Bush, Sharon and … Bin Laden) would demand that entry into the then Palestine would/should have lead to an attempt to forge an alliance between Jewish workers and Palestinian workers and peasants against the Zionist leadership, the absentee Palestinian landlords and the British soldiery. Of course the task would have been enormous. But the failure of that historic task has lead to what we have today—Israel the perpetual blood bath.

It is because Zionism is both racist and anti-racist that I call myself an anti-Zionist Zionist. It is also because Zionism is racist and anti racist that there is an even more urgent need to rigorously distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism. This itself requires a rigorous definition of both—otherwise how is it rationally possible to ever distinguish the two? I do not think there is ever the question of anti-Zionism discourse “becoming” or “sliding into” anti-Semitism. If a position is anti-semitic then it is anti-semitic in its origins—it does not become so. It is nothing whatsoever to do with Zionism. So, fascistic critiques of Israel are not about Zionism. They are about Jews. And this is the point. Anti-Zionism is about solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti-Semitism is about the Jewish conspiracy. Not all critiques of Israel are based on Jewish conspiracy theories. And anti-Semitism is not going to help progress the Palestinian cause. Just as August Bebel famously described the equation of capital with Jew as the socialism of fools then the equation of Zionism with world domination with Jew is the anti-zionism of fools.

It often feels like the wisdom of Solomon is required to know how to deal politically with this grotesque foolishness. One issue is the actual (the “cleansing” of Jews from Jerusalem in 1948, the suicide bombings of today) or threatened (“drive them into the sea”) repression of Israeli Jews which fuels a fortress mentality and to which sections of the left retain an ambivalent or agnostic attitude. Another issue that should be a matter of concern is that anti-semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism drives away those who would otherwise want to give solidarity to the Palestinian cause. For myself, this is what I found unfortunate in the debate over the boycott of some or all Israeli universities. Whatever the motive of those proposing the boycott (and like Engage I’m opposed to exceptionalising Israel) there is still an imperative need to offer real, material, political support to the Palestinians. I think for myself the best way of dealing with any particular proposed boycott is to come to a decision on whether the boycott would help the Palestinians irrespective of its proposers—and organise independently against anti-Semitism. Which perhaps meaning building a movement that simultaneously is dedicated to Palestinian solidarity and opposition to anti-Semitism.

It is apparent from what I’ve said that I also disagree with what I take to be the dominant position within Engage—namely that in our contemporary world anti-Zionism must inevitably equate with anti-Semitism. Paradoxically I also disagree with Engage’s position that in the modern world the form that anti-Semitism takes is through (foolish) anti-Zionism. I think it is worse than that. Obviously this is one form that is taken by the theory of the world Jewish conspiracy. However it seems to me that this is merely concealing more classic forms—Jew as all-powerful (the “Zionist lobby” running the USA), Jew as financial manipulator (the world being supposedly run by trans-national corporations and not imperialist states), Jew as murderer (take your pick—the blitzing of Iraq comes in there somewhere through its constant equation with the repression of the Palestinians). Jew as the subject of the blood libel (ditto but add the surreal accusation that Jews are responsible for September 11th), Jew as the killer of the first born (double ditto), Jew as poisoner of the wells (the anti-urbanisation of much Green politics—with Jews being the urban people par excellence). These images, these world-views, are powerful enough to split off from any anti-zionist base. And they have begun to split off within sections of the anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist movement. It is here that the anti-Zionism of fools emerges with a vengeance but is still subservient to the classic socialism of fools and also to the pre-capitalist feudalism of fools—the real McCoy of jew hatred. This is because anti-capitalism is shared by socialists who aspire to post-capitalist formations and right-wing organisations who hark back to an earlier pre-capitalist age—which is one of many reasons why genuine socialists have to be vigilant against any equation of capital with Jew.

Anti-Semitism on the left has for too long been a taboo subject—probably since the inception of the socialist project itself. I know because in 1984 I was that taboo! I became for a short period a political pariah in sections of the socialist/communist movement (my movement) for daring to raise the subject. Actually when I began writing my book I had no intention of writing anything on anti-Semitism, left or right. I wanted to write and condemn the (latest) Israeli onslaught on Lebanon. I used the left press as source material—and became horrified by what I was reading. And what I was reading was gross stereotyping of the Jew via the stereotyping of Israel as the most powerful force in the universe. All this was redolent of all the old-time European, Christian imagery—just stopping short it seemed of accusations of desecrating the wafer. So I did some research and quickly realised that this left anti-Semitism did not spring from nowhere but unfortunately had a long and dishonourable tradition—going back at least to the successful agitation for immigration controls against Jewish refugees and the 1905 Aliens Act. As it so happened, I was at that time thinking of writing another book just on this agitation—but Pluto Press told me that “Jews don’t sell”. To which I replied that I thought this was what we’ve always been accused of doing too much of. To show Pluto they were not being true Marxists I quoted Marx’s own piece of self-hatred from his On The Jewish Question: “What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling”. And then bizarrely I started to come across references and allusions (illusions) in parts of the left press to the wealth and power of Jews, of Jewry, all in the service of Israel—or maybe Israel was in the service of Jews and Jewry. Who knows? It was all rubbish anyway—but extremely dangerous rubbish.

And without managing (with the support of some comrades in the Jewish Socialist Group—the JSG) to keep fixed in my head the absolute distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, I guess I could have gone schizophrenic. There were two great successive nights when I was evicted from a mosque then a shul. I’m always sorry I never made the hat-trick of our common enemy—a church. The mosque incident involved picketing (along with some Asian youth) some local anti-Jewish ayatollah. The shul incident was wonderful. It was in Liverpool. I went with other members of the JSG to picket a meeting that was being held in support of the invasion (a shul supporting a military invasion? This really was Old Testament stuff). What we didn’t know was that the guest speaker was some Israeli General—we should have recognised him by his ripped jeans and tee shirt. As we were being lifted horizontally, face downwards, out of the shul by the stewards I looked down on a face looking up at me. The face looking up said “Weren’t we at Oxford together?”. To which I replied “I think so—were you at Trinity?” That to me is a classic example of tribalism. Mea culpa. I always regret not screaming out “Let my people go!”.

That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic did create ripples. It managed to split the JSG whose then dominant leadership thought it might offend the Socialist Workers Party. It resulted in some pretty dreadful correspondence over many weeks in journals like Searchlight and Peace News. A pamphlet was written denouncing me as a “criminal”. There was a particular review—in Searchlight—one sentence of which I will never forget. Every Jew on the left will know that terrible syndrome whereby, whatever the context and wherever one is, we will be tested by being given the question “what is your position on Zionism?” Wanna support the miners—what’s your position on Zionism? Against the bomb—what’s your position on Zionism? And want to join our march against the eradication of Baghdad, in particular the eradication of Baghdad—what’s your position on Zionism? And we all know what answer is expected in order to pass the test. It is a very strong form of anti-Semitism based on assumptions of collective responsibility. Denounce Zionism, crawl in the gutter, wear a yellow star and we’ll let you in the club. Which is one reason why I call myself an Anti-Zionist Zionist—at least that should confuse the bastards. Anyhow this particular review, noting that my book actually did attack Zionism, said “It is not enough to trot out platitudes, as he does, about being against Zionism and in support of the Palestinian struggle”. So I’m not allowed into the club even though I fulfil the entry requirements. I’m not allowed in because I recognise and oppose the existence of anti-Semitism on the Left—and this therefore renders all support for Palestinians a “platitude”. Well it ain’t me who’s here confusing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

An accusation greeting the publication of That’s Funny was that even if anti-Semitism existed, it was trivial compared to other forms of oppression—not least that being inflicted on the Palestinians. I find this argument abhorrent. The struggle for communism is not about establishing some equitable scale of oppression and exploitation. It is about smashing all such oppression and exploitation. Switch to Germany 1925—”Comrades why are you harping on about anti-Semitism? It’s trivial. If it ever became significant we will deal with it. Honest”.

But there were positives back in 1984. There were allies out there—for instance the then Manchester and Liverpool branches of the JSG. I discovered that a similar political battle was going on within the feminist magazine Spare Rib and a kind of informal alliance was formed here. I remember that a large debate was organised in the Peace Studies department at Bradford University—where I shared some dope with a member of the PLO. It was Lebanese! And then the three of us who had published the book (we called ourselves The Beyond The Pale Collective) organised a biggish conference in Manchester. And Pluto Press was wrong—we sold a lot of books. We sold enough books to publish another one—on Holocaust Denial by Gill Seidel. This had been accepted by Pluto but then pulped after it had been typeset! I guess this was part of their reality denial.

As far as I’m concerned I’m still prepared to stand behind most of what I wrote those two decades ago. However there is one issue where my position has somewhat changed. And there is a second where I think I missed the plot entirely. First I think the book was, in its critique of assimilation, far too uncritical of the concept of “Jewish culture”. In fact I think it was implicitly far too generous towards Bundism in this respect (though I still support the Bundist championing of political self-organisation). I no longer see Jewish (or any) culture as monolithic. It is fractured and determined by issues of class. I have been in too many situations where the need to fight racism (racist attacks, immigration controls, fascist mobilisations) has been counter-posed by some suggestion about having an “ethnic” evening with “ethnic” clothes and “ethnic” food. It’s got to the stage where, to paraphrase Goebbels, whenever I hear the word multiculture I want to reach for my gun. In particular I am now ruthlessly opposed to denominational schools—be they Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or Church of England. Some of this has been informed by the racist admission practices of the Jewish School in Manchester (no Jewish mother no entry). However the substantive point is that as a militant atheist I am opposed to the state subsidising the garbage of religion—any religion. And anyhow, I’m for the unity of people of all ages not their division. At the same time I’m equally opposed to the (political) drive towards assimilation—I don’t see incorporation into the norms of imperialism as a step forward for humanity. The latest example of this drive towards incorporation is the suggestion by the Home Office Minister, Hazel Blears, following the London underground bombings that ‘minorities should be described as, for example “Asian-British” rather than simply as “Asian”‘. (Times 8 August 2005). The idea of the labelling and re-labelling of human beings as a method of protecting the citizenry of London is as ludicrous as all other justifications used for restricting the free movement of the same human beings. In the past slaves were branded—literally and with fire. Under the modern market economy it is people. This commoditisation of the alien reduces her or him to a piece of capital, to a new form of enslavement – the enslavement of a forced identity within a hostile society ever ready to deport and expel.

Second I come to missing the plot. This is not about what I wrote. It is about what I did not write. In fact it was what I explicitly refrained from writing. So I said “The book says nothing about socialist or liberation movements in the third world, deliberately so, because countries in the third world have not historically been within the grip of Christianity, and thus have no tradition of conspiracy theories. For example within Islam both Jew and Christian were seen as infidels—and certainly there was no constant mythology of universal Jewish domination. If notions about Jewish power entered the third world, then that is a product of imperialistic and Christian penetration”.

Looking back on this from today’s realities it clearly is inadequate. For instance I cannot see any basis for conspiracy theories (i.e. classic anti-Semitism) within Islam historically, however badly Jews (usually alongside Christians) were sometimes mistreated. I guess for this we have to be thankful we never bumped off Mohammed as well as Jesus. However it would be a matter of interesting political investigation to see precisely how conspiracy theories have subsequently entered the Muslim world—to see how they have become the Islam of fools. Moreover whatever the significance today of Left anti-Semitism, its influence and social weight is insignificant compared to that within Muslim communities (an anti-Semitism which is possibly matched by racism within the Jewish community). So the Elders of the Protocols of Zion is a best seller in Arabic speaking countries. So I’ve read how Islamicists blame “world Jewry” for both the New York and London underground bombings. And this junk needs to be challenged. And it needs to be challenged by the Left—and it isn’t. In fact it is encouraged—if only obliquely.

It is encouraged by Israeli exceptionalism—by the constant depiction and caricaturing of Israel as somehow being the pre-eminent world imperialist power. Inasmuch as I might be for some boycott of Israeli universities then I’m equally in support of a boycott of British universities because of their collusion in the institutionalised apartheid of immigration controls—that is either collusion by their silence or by their active co-operation with the Home Office in developing controls (which appears to be the case with University College London). It is encouraged by the emergence on demonstrations against the American invasion of Iraq, of the denunciation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—as though there was some intrinsic connection between the two which is not shared with other imperialist interventions. It is encouraged by the sycophantic, uncritical relationship that the SWP/Respect has towards the Muslim leadership as organised, for instance, around the mosques—these Muslim machers are as right-wing and often as anti-Semitic as their Jewish macher counterparts organised around the shuls are anti-Islam. In the beginning was the Board of Deputies? Today there is the Muslim Association of Britain. Macherism, the political reliance on a self-appointed leadership (the macherites) is a political disease which needs to be challenged and destroyed—instead sections of the Left are cultivating it at its most dangerous points.

Is there any way out of this mess? Particularly is there any way out of this mess for socialists in this country trapped politically between the existential linkage of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism? Is there a wisdom of Solomon? In all humility I think so. Of course we can all have our own politics on the way forward as regards Israel/Palestine. My own vision is of a federated secular and socialist middle east. This maybe is utopic but so is socialism. So is the revolution. So is all meaningful change. However there is going to be no way forward without a recognition of the fundamental block towards any change whatsoever—namely the world wide antagonism between Jews and Muslims. The international nature of this cleavage is central. Only joint and grassroots solidarity between the players in the game can possibly open up any dialogue. In Israel/Palestine this means between the Jewish and Palestinian masses. For instance let there be a march of a hundred thousand Israeli peaceniks into the occupied territories—and let them stay until the Israeli army and the settlers march out (or co-operate with the Palestinians in the sharing of resources—including the opening up of the new townships to Palestinians). Let Engage encourage this with its co-thinkers in Israel!

In this country it means joint activity between Jews and Muslims (and socialists) with the Jewish and Muslim communities. And what this boils down to is joint activity against fascism and racism. I suggested above the necessity to start to develop a movement simultaneously based on struggle for Palestinian rights and against anti-Semitism. This is presently an abstraction. However another real movement does exist against racism which can draw the two communities together in struggle. This is the disparate movement against immigration controls—for whom the Jews were the first and Muslims the latest victims. Of course controls need to be challenged in their own right—not just as a device for unity. However the challenge can also forge a unity which presently seems a million miles away. What is more the history of the last thirty years of struggle by migrants, immigrants and refugees against controls shows something that SWP/Respect have utterly missed. This is that real, meaningful, progressive political activity within the Muslim community (and all third world communities) comes from the grassroots either by by-passing or defeating the community machers. Let Engage become involved in these struggles both because of their intrinsic political importance and as part of its commitment to challenging left anti-Semitism by building meaningful alliances!

It could begin by supporting the campaign of Samina Altaf and her two children to fight deportation. Samina’s is just one of countless stories—though I guess more immediately poignant. Having fled Pakistan to avoid repeated domestic abuse she was refused asylum here. Like all asylum seekers she is outside of the welfare state and has been forcibly dispersed into Salford by the so-called National Asylum Support Service (NASS—a wing of the Home Office). And now as a failed asylum seeker who is refusing to return “voluntarily” to the country from she fled she is being threatened by NASS with eviction onto the streets. And I forgot to mention this—Samina is disabled with rickets. And her children are crippled with rickets. Get involved with the campaign! Write a letter of support to her constituency MP—Hazel Blears that well known re-labeller of third world identity and warrior against international terrorism (address House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1). Blears happens to be a Home Office MP—so terrorise her with letters of support. And invite a speaker from the campaign to one of your meetings—whilst sending money to the campaign (address Samina Altaf Defence Campaign, c/o Bury Law Centre, 8 Banks St, Bury BL9 ODL).

Finally I think that not one iota of the above can ever be resolved through communalism, through tribalism, through uncritically supporting Jews as Jews or Muslims as Muslims. My religion right or wrong! And all due to an accident of birth. I guess I recoil when I read on the Engage website the reflection on being Jewish—”frankly I can’t get enough of it”. Jewish identity as an addiction is not much of an advert for clarity of political thought. I was shocked by a news report I read a few years ago. It is a story that deserves creative fictionalisation. It concerned a guy who was raised in a highly Zionist family (I guess High Zionism is the Jewish version of High Church). He was raised as a conscious racist towards the Palestinians. Dirty Arabs! Until he discovered he was one of them—He was an adopted son. His biological parents were, I think, Libyan. Overnight (or maybe it took a little longer) he became a vehement anti-Zionist—and Jew hater. Dirty Jews! I was struck by two very powerful televisual images during the recent eviction of the Gaza settlers by the (Orwellian entitled) Israeli Defence Force. One was that of Israeli soldiers crying. The Israeli army in tears? One of the most powerful militaries in the world! Why no tears when the Palestinians were evicted? The second image was just bizarre in its tribalism. This was that of the settlers being evicted and the soldiers evicting them temporarily desisting from their civil war and praying together on shabbos—with the evictions resuming as soon as shabbos ended. Compared to this crazy chauvinism the legendary Christmas Day football match in the trenches of World War One between German and British soldiers was a genuine act of internationalism. However there can be no genuine internationalism, no genuine international solidarity, no meaningful working together of ordinary people wherever tribalism or communalism dominates. And at the moment it is precisely these reactionary formations that dominate both Muslim and Jewish communities—and the tragedy is they are hardening. It would be good if Engage put its energy into helping soften them.

Steve Cohen

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