Leon Trotsky’s Long War Against Antisemitism – Alan Johnson

This piece, by Alan Johnson, is from fathom. 

All his life Trotsky was a consistent fighter against antisemitism. – Joseph Nedava, Trotsky and the Jews, 1971.

Of course we can close our eyes to the facts and limit ourselves to vague generalities about the equality and brotherhood of all races. But an ostrich policy will not advance us a single step … All serious and honest observers bear witness to the existence of antisemitism, not only of the old and hereditary, but also of the new ‘Soviet’ variety. – Leon Trotsky, Thermidor and Antisemitism, 1937.

The rise of Nazism in Germany led the Russian revolutionary to a global revision of his approach to the Jewish question.  – Enzo Traverso, Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate 1843-1943, 1994.

The dispersed Jews who would want to be reassembled in the same community will find a sufficiently extensive and rich spot under the sun. The same possibility will be opened for the Arabs, as for all other scattered nations. – Leon Trotsky, ‘Interview with Jewish correspondents in Mexico’, 1937.

The writings of Trotsky are a blast of clean air through the swamps of hysteria, ultra-left fantasy, vicarious Arab chauvinism, and – I think – elements of age-old antisemitism recycled as ‘anti-Zionism’ into which much of post-Trotsky Trotskyism has disintegrated on this question. – Sean Matgamna, 2001.[1]


The classical Marxist tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that Jewish peoplehood, along with antisemitism, would inevitably dissolve in the solvent of the coming progressive universalism.[2] Specifically, it looked to the inevitable victory of an international proletarian revolution, and the advanced stage of human civilisation it would usher in, to solve what was called ‘the Jewish Question’ once and for all.[3]

But world history went another way and Jewish history went with it: a terrifying wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe and the resulting rise of the Zionist movement, the defeat of the European socialist revolution, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism (and antisemitism), the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the closure of the world’s borders to the Jews, and the unprecedented radicalisation of antisemitism, culminating in the Shoah, an industrial-scale genocide in the very heart of European modernity. In place of history-as-progress, then, the Jews were faced with what the cultural critic Walter Benjamin – before he committed suicide himself, trapped at the French-Spanish border as he tried to outrun the advancing Nazis – called history-as-train-wreck.[4] As a result, many Jews turned to the Zionist movement to fashion their own escape from the wreckage: mass emigration and the eventual creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine in 1948.

More than any other Marxist, it was the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky who, in the years before his murder in 1940, broke from the unscrupulous optimism of Marxist orthodoxy on the Jewish question. This essay is about how and why he did so, the alternative approach he began to put in its place, and the relevance of that alternative for the Left today.

Isaac Deutscher, author of the classic three-volume biography, tells us that Trotsky ‘re-formulated his views on the Jewish problem’ before his death, while the scholar of antisemitism, Robert Wistrich, has praised Trotsky’s ‘important theoretical shift’.[5] For Werner Cohn, by the late 1930s Trotsky ‘saw how wrong he had been’ about the nature of antisemitism, and about the best way to tackle it.[6] The Italian Marxist Enzo Traverso has claimed that Trotsky’s late writings are ‘the most profound analysis of antisemitism that Marxist thought produced in the interwar period’ and that, despite their fragmentary character, what he calls Trotsky’s ‘global revision of his approach to the Jewish question’ amounted to nothing less than a ‘rich … but embryonic’ renewal of Marxism per se on antisemitism and the Jews.[7] Ernest Mandel, a Jew who survived the concentration camp in Dora in Germany to lead the mainstream of the Trotskyist movement for the next half century, argued that the Left had not taken the measure of the ‘new approach to the Jewish question … less simplistic and less mechanical’ that Trotsky developed in response to the rise of the Nazis. Mandel believed that ‘[His] analysis of contemporary antisemitism and his recognition of the right of self-contained Jewish populations to a territorially and politically secure national existence constitute a coherent unity and a decisive step forwards in the Marxist attitude to the Jewish question’.[8] Robert Service (in a unrelentingly hostile biography of Trotsky), insists that ‘on a single big topic he shifted his position … a homeland for Jews in the Middle East’.[9]

In the first part of the essay I explore what it was in orthodox Marxism’s approach to the Jewish Question that Trotsky revised, why he did so, and what his alternative was. I agree with Enzo Traverso about the limits of Trotsky’s late writings; they are indeed only ‘the outline of an alternative,’ best read as ‘a series of intuitions rather than a coherent and systematised conception’. It’s certainly up to us to do the work today. Still, as the Left is not exactly overrun with serious attempts to fathom antisemitism outside of  ‘economistic limitations,’ it is surely wise to attend carefully to those it does have.[10]

In part two I suggest a couple of reasons why Trotsky was able to change his mind on the Jewish question. First, the course of his life, punctuated as it was by fierce battles against antisemitism of several different kinds. Second, the cast of his Marxism, sceptical as it was of those economistic simplicities, alert to national specificities, and unusually sensitive to the looming danger of barbarism. What Traverso has called Trotsky’s ‘practical … nonsystematised’ Marxism, at odds with ‘any form of evolutionist and positivist Marxism’ surely helped make possible his global revision on the Jewish question.[11] In part three, I ask if Trotsky ended his life as a Zionist. I answer ‘no, but…’ and I claim that Isaac Deutscher developed Trotsky’s approach for the era of the Jewish state in ways still relevant to today’s Left. I conclude with a suggestion: knowing about Trotsky’s war against the antisemitisms of his day can help the Left understand and confront those it faces today, including the one within its ranks.


Orthodox Marxism and the ‘Jewish question’

Enzo Traverso has identified six components of the dominant Marxist approach to the Jewish Question in the late 19th century. Each blocked a proper understanding of antisemitism and made an effective political response to it impossible.

First, Marxism reduced the Jewish people to an historic economic function, a commercial caste of hated usurers. Incapable of seeing the significance of culture, identity and religion, Marxism struggled to ‘understand in any depth the origins and depths of antisemitism’ or to credit either the fact or the value of Jewish peoplehood, says Traverso.[12]

Second, Marxists reduced antisemitism to either an epiphenomenon of social and economic backwardness, or a ruling class plot to divide the workers. The French Marxists were neutral during the antisemitic Dreyfus affair, dismissive of a mere spat between two wings of the bourgeoisie. The press of the Austrian social democracy, noted Mandel, contained ‘antisemitic overtones’.[13]

Third, in their proposals to combat antisemitism, Marxists managed to combine crude determinism and panglossian optimism. Antisemitism was to wither away in a quasi-automatic fashion when the material base for it – the performance of the commercial economic function by the Jews as a ‘people-class’ in feudal society – withered away, as capitalism advanced. Frederick Engels, to take just one Marxist, wrote in 1890 that economic development was rendering antisemitism laughable and anachronistic.

Fourth, Marxism was militantly assimilationist, viewing the continuation of Jewishness – Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood – as historically reactionary, particularist, and communalist. In short, Jewishness was viewed as an embarrassing obscurantist diversion from the class struggle. This failure of vision was part of orthodox Marxism’s wider failure to adequately grasp anyoppression that was not directly reducible to class. Despite Marx’s own 1864 Critique of the Gotha Programme being not just open to, but positively celebratory of, sensuous particularity and difference, most post-Marx Marxists failed to see that the concept of equality should include the equal right to be different.[14]

Fifth, Marxists failed to appreciate the Jewish question in its dimension as a national question. They struggled to adequately theorise the nation per se,elaborating lists of objective criteria while neglecting ‘the subjective processes of forming a community of culture, united by a collective destiny’. The ‘Pope’ of Marxism, Karl Kautsky, had issued his edict: the Jews were not a nation. The assimilation of the Jews was, anyway, assumed to be inevitable and progressive, so the question irrelevant. In consequence, Traverso argues, the Marxist understanding of the Jewish question in Eastern Europe was ‘deprived … of its national character,’ mis-reading antisemitism as a purely ‘economic and political problem (the role of Jewish commerce, the consequences of the antisemitic legislation, and so on)’.[15]

Sixth, Marxists rejected Zionism – the movement of Jews to establish a Jewish national home in part of Palestine – absolutely, as a reactionary nationalist response to antisemitism and a diversion from the class struggle.[16] In this vein, a youthful Trotsky had attacked Theodor Herzl as a ‘shameless adventurer’.[17]

Trotsky’s Revisionism

Trotsky’s revisionism of the 1930s amounted to three new understandings: of the nature of antisemitism, the viability of the political programme of assimilation, and the collective rights of the Jews as a people to a Jewish national home. In short, he came to think antisemitism was not going away, assimilation was a dead-end, and in a darkening world, the Jews needed a state.

Trotsky as Revisionist (1) Rethinking Antisemitism

Like other Marxists, Trotsky had long conceptualised antisemitism as an essentially pre-modern phenomenon; a hangover from feudalism which would disappear as capitalism advanced. However, in 1937 Trotsky acknowledged that capitalism was having no such effect. In truth, he wrote, ‘decaying capitalism has everywhere swung over to an intensified nationalism, one aspect of which is antisemitism’.[18] He noted that antisemitism was at its worst in the most highly developed capitalist country of Europe, Germany.

Antisemitism appears in Trotsky’s late writings as a more complex phenomenon, and this is because of what Mandel calls Trotsky’s insight into the ‘nonsynchronism of socio-economic and ideological forms’ and therefore his grasp that the transhistorical, the modern, the pre-capitalist and the capitalist sources of antisemitism were now combining in unexpected ways in particular societies.[19]

Moreover, and refining the approach further, Trotsky also understood how political entrepreneurs – i.e. political leaders and activists, whether they were Tsarist autocrats, counter-revolutionary Whites or ostensibly ‘left-wing’ and ‘anti-Zionist’ Stalinists – were manipulating antisemitism to mobilise effective political movements. For example, he warned in 1937 that ‘the [Stalinist] leaders manipulate it with a cunning skill’. He watched Stalin reach down into the Russian depths, pick up the ancient antisemitism of the peasants and the Tsars, give it a new ‘communist’ veneer by muttering about ‘Zionists’ and ‘cosmopolitans,’ and use it to delegitimise the opposition to his rule. Finally, Trotsky – the most prominent sympathiser of Freud among the Bolsheviks – also saw the unconscious and irrational sources of antisemitism, warning that: ‘Antisemitism consists not only in hatred of Jews, but also in a fear of Jews. This fear enlarges ones eyes to see non-existent things.’[20]

Trotsky as Revisionist (2): Rethinking the political programme of assimilationism

Once embraced as the only acceptable solution to antisemitism, Trotsky came late in his life to reject assimilation as a programme for the Jews as a people. (Of course, he continued to support assimilation as an option for an individual, to be pursued or not according to their own lights.) ‘During my youth,’ he wrote in 1937, ‘I rather leaned toward the prognosis that the Jews of different countries would be assimilated and that the Jewish question would thus disappear, as it were, automatically. The historical development of the last quarter of a century has not confirmed this view’.[21] Chastened, Trotsky declared that not even ‘a socialist democracy’ would ‘resort to compulsory assimilation’.[22]

In this, history had been Trotsky’s teacher. ‘He admitted that recent experience with antisemitism in the Third Reich and even in the USSR had caused him to give up his old hope for the “assimilation” of the Jews with the nations among whom they lived’, recalled Deutscher.[23] Traverso concurs: Trotsky became ‘convinced of the necessity of a national solution to the Jewish problem’ becausehe became ‘conscious of the impasse into which assimilation had entered’.[24]

Breaking with the assimilationist dogma allowed Trotsky to break also from the limits of that inherited Enlightenment culture from which the dogma had been derived, and which was unable to achieve ‘a synthesis between a universal conception of humanity and a recognition of human diversity’.[25] One consequence of that imaginative failure for Marxism had been its tendency to demand that the Jews (a) be satisfied with civic rights as individuals only and so (b) stop seeking collective or national rights as a Jewish people.

Norman Geras pointed out that orthodox Marxism offered the Jews only a ‘spurious universalism’ as only the Jews were being told to ‘settle for forms of political freedom in which their identity may not be asserted collectively’.[26]Joel Carmichael, author of a study of Trotsky, put it particularly bluntly: ‘ … all classical Marxism had to tell us was that the Jews, having survived for discreditable reasons, should finally toss in the sponge and vanish.’[27] Traverso says the gravitational pull of Enlightenment culture on Marxism meant that Marxists wanted to emancipate the Jews ‘without recognising them’.[28] The assimilationist dogma, he argued, was one cause of the ‘constant attempt to suppress the Jewish problem’ within the Marxist movement.[29] Rosa Luxemburg, for example, argued that ‘[f]or the disciples of Marx and for the working class the Jewish question as such does not exist’. Traverso warned that ‘this repression has continued until today’.[30]

Trotsky as Revisionist (3) Rethinking the rights of the Jews: from cultural autonomy to a territorial solution 

‘Trotsky’s thinking on the Jewish question’ argues Traverso, ‘would experience a remarkable evolution: during the 1930s: he admitted the existence of a Jewish nation, culturally living and modern, that had to be defended against the Nazi menace’.[31] In addition to his long standing commitment to civic rights for Jews as individuals and the right of Jews as a collective to cultural autonomy, Trotsky now also embraced the rights of a ‘Jewish nation’ which he believed would ‘maintain itself for an entire epoch to come’.[32] Trotsky came to believe the Jews had a democratic right to a Jewish national home, but he thought only socialist revolution could achieve it. ‘If the Jewish workers and peasants asked for an independent state, good – but they didn’t get it under Great Britain. But if they want it, the proletariat will give it. We are not in favour, but only the victorious working class can give it to them.’[33] He now spoke of the ‘territorial base’ for the Jews as a ‘compact mass,’ ‘in Palestine or any other country,’ after ‘great migrations’.[34] Deutscher had no doubt that in these years Trotsky ‘arrived at the view that even under socialism, the Jewish question would require a “territorial solution” i.e. that Jews would need to be settled in their own homeland’.[35] ‘A workers government’ wrote Trotsky, ‘is duty-bound to create for the Jews, as for any nation, the best circumstances for cultural development (emphasis added)’. This may entail, he wrote, ‘a separate territory for self-administration and development’.[36] He dismissed the territory set aside for the Jews in Russia, Biro-bidjan, as ‘a bureaucratic farce’.[37]

By 1937, aware of the Zionist movement, Trotsky argued that ‘the very samemethods of solving the Jewish question which under decaying capitalism have a reactionary and utopian character (Zionism) will, under the regime of a socialist federation, take on a real and salutary meaning,’ asking ‘how could any Marxist or even any consistent democrat object to this’?[38] So, even though he thought only a socialist revolution was capable of enabling a ‘great migration’ of the Jews, Trotsky plainly thought desirable something akin to what we would today call ‘the two states for two peoples’ solution. How else are we to interpret this statement: ‘The dispersed Jews who would want to be reassembled in the same community will find a sufficiently extensive and rich spot under the sun. The same possibility will be opened for the Arabs, as for all other scattered nations.’[39] Why mention ‘the Arabs’ if the spot he had in mind was not Palestine, but in Eastern Europe?

One can detect absolutely nothing in Trotsky of the contemporary Left’s tendency to treat the Jews as some kind of a ‘bad people’ undeserving of the collective rights of other peoples. For example, when invited in 1934 to define the clashes in Palestine between Jews and Arabs as what would today be called ‘progressive’ or ‘anti-imperialist resistance to Zionism,’ Trotsky refused. Making a distinction which would see him drummed out of most Trotskyist gatherings today, he said he would need more information to gauge the relative significance of ‘national liberationist’ elements as opposed to ‘reactionary Mohammedans and antisemitic pogromists’.[40]

Trotsky revised his thought about the character of antisemitism, the political programme of assimilation, and the necessity of, and the Jews right to establish, a Jewish homeland. But in what ways did the course of his life and the cast of his Marxism equip Trotsky to make that ‘global revision’? To that question I now turn.


Trotsky’s had never been a culturally or religiously ‘Jewish’ life. As a universalist and an atheist he ‘hated it when people emphasised his Jewish background’.[41]The American socialist Max Eastman believed ‘Trotsky was as little bothered about, or influenced by, his being a Jew as any Jewish person I ever knew’.[42] Of himself, Trotsky said: ‘I have lived my whole life outside of Jewish circles. I have always worked in the Russian workers movement. My native tongue is Russian. Unfortunately I have never even learned to read Jewish. The Jewish question has, therefore, never occupied the centre of my attention.’

But Trotsky immediately added, ‘This does not mean that I have the right to be blind to the Jewish problem which exists and which demands a solution.’ [43] It is not only that ‘Trotsky neither uttered nor ever wrote anything against his people which might be indirectly taken as casting aspersions on his ancestry’.[44] It is that Trotsky had ‘a much greater feeling of solidarity with the victims of antisemitism than was the case with Kautsky, Viktor Adler, Otto Bauer or even Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg’.[45] He may have wanted to be what Isaac Deutscher once called a ‘non-Jewish Jew’ – i.e. one of those Jewish-born internationalist-universalist men and women of world culture such as Spinoza, Marx, Luxemburg, and Freud – but the world would not let him be only that. Instead, his life was punctuated by episodes of passionate opposition to the antisemitism of Left and Right, practical solidarity with its Jewish victims, and intellectual reflection on the origins, psychologies and political uses of antisemitism.

Nedava points out that ‘even quantitatively speaking, he dealt with Jewish topics perhaps more than any other Jewish or non-Jewish Bolshevik,’ and that ‘no other Jewish (or for that matter non-Jewish) Bolshevik leader – including Lenin – dealt with the Jewish problem as extensively, albeit unsystematically and fragmentarily, as Trotsky’. [46] While Trotsky tended to down play this record for obvious Russian reasons, Joshua Rubinstein’s judgement is fair: ‘When Jews are oppressed, Jews are threatened, Jews are physically attacked, [Trotsky] responds in very vehement, and sometimes courageous ways.’[47] A review of some of those battles can reveal how they may have shaped his later rethink of the Jewish question.

1899 and 1903: Antisemitic Pogroms

Trotsky learned early that antisemitism could be irrational, murderous, and popular. The antisemitic pogroms of 1899 had been ‘a deeply traumatic experience for Trotsky as a child’ claims Nedava, and this ‘accounts for the matter always being on his mind … a recurring theme’ in his writing.[48] When 24 years old, Trotsky reacted with fury to the antisemitic Kishinev pogrom of 1903. Although he was already a Russified atheist revolutionary, the pogrom ‘affected him deeply,’ and we can find thereafter ‘many references [to it] in his writings and speeches’.[49]

1905: Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution

In the 1905 revolution Trotsky was confronted by the political utility of antisemitic pogroms to the Tsar, the autocracy and the Church, and by the undeniable emotional and psychological satisfactions that antisemitism provided to the pogromists.[50] Rubinstein notes it was because it was led by Trotsky that the 1905 revolutionary Soviet (or Council) ‘recognised the need to defend the Jews from pogroms’. Throughout the revolution, Trotsky ‘never abided physical attacks on Jews and often intervened to denounce such violence and organise a defense’, creating armed units in St Petersburg, some ‘twelve thousand men, armed with revolvers, or with wooden or metal clubs’, who ‘effectively forestalled the regime’s [antisemitic] attacks’. [51]

When a Jewish student from Nikolayev asked to meet Trotsky to discuss self-defence he was told by Trotsky, ‘You should know that we have entered into an agreement with the heads of the local Zionists with the object of establishing a common self-defence organisation. This will consist of your Zionist friends and members of the Russian Social-Democratic Party.’ Later, Trotsky advised the student to link up with Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s armed Zionist self-defence group in Odessa.[52]

Norman Geras, in a brilliant essay making the case that many of Trotsky’s writings are a literature of revolution, argues that Trotsky learned in the 1905 revolution of the ‘inexhaustible reserves … of darkness, ignorance and savagery’ which lie in ‘the depths of society’. Picking out Trotsky’s description of a pogrom, Geras discerns in its acute insight and deep empathy the twin sources of the foresight that allowed Trotsky, perhaps alone, to predict the Holocaust in 1938. Here is the passage Geras cites, from Trotsky’s book 1905:

The gang rushes through the town, drunk on vodka and the smell of blood. The doss house trap is king. A trembling slave an hour ago, hounded by police and starvation, he now feels himself an unlimited despot. Everything is allowed to him, he is capable of anything, he is the master of property and honour, of life and death. If he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third-floor window together with a grand piano, he can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a little girl while the entire crowd looks on, hammer a nail into a living human body … he exterminates whole families, he pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames, and if anyone attempts to escape, he finishes him off with a cudgel. A savage horde comes tearing into an Armenian almshouse, knifing old people, sick people, women, children … there exist no tortures, figments of a feverish brain maddened by alcohol and fury, at which he need ever stop. He is capable of anything, he dares everything.[53]

As Geras comments, being drunk on blood is hardly an orthodox Marxist category, yet it was one Trotsky was willing to turn to in order to explain antisemitic savagery.

1912-1913: The persecution of the Romanian Jews

Trotsky came to understand more about the national specificities of antisemitism when covering the First and Second Balkan wars as a journalist in 1912-1913. The experience produced ‘his most extensive writing about the fate of his co-religionists’ as he turned his attention to the terrible persecution of the Romanian Jews.[54] While Trotsky admitted he could not personally respond to their ‘religious melodies and national superstitions,’ he did rail against their ill-treatment: the absence of civic rights, the forced military service, the abuse and the violence. More: Trotsky registered his ‘profound disgust’ at the sordid financial and diplomatic deals that kept things that way. Again, moral outrage and social analysis were combined. The Jew, he wrote, was the ‘lightening rod for the indignation of the exploited,’ while up above there was the King’s ‘mystic fear’ of Jewish financial power. For Romania as a whole, antisemitism had become ‘a state religion – the last cementing factor of a feudal society rotten through and through’.[55]

1913: The Beilis Blood-Libel Trial

Trotsky’s intellectual understanding of antisemitism was inseperable from his personal empathy with the persecuted Jew. As a journalist, Trotsky reported on a blood libel trial in Kiev in 1913. After a 12-year old gentile boy was murdered and his body thrown into the Dnieper River, a Jewish brick factory worker called Beilis was framed for the crime. Beilis was accused of using the boy’s blood to prepare Matzos for the Jewish Passover holiday – a Medieval antisemitic lie still doing service to Jew-haters in the 20th century (and to antisemitic Islamists like Raed Saleh in the 21st century).[56] Trotsky developed an ‘ardent interest’ in the case and a mastery of its details.[57] His reporting exhibited not only a profound identification with the accused Jew, but some analytical brilliance about the complex reasons for his persecution. He showed how the following co-mingled: popular ignorance and the satisfaction of deep emotional needs of the poor; elite manipulation and political calculation; and even international diplomacy and financial intrigue.

The trial transcript produced ‘first and foremost … a feeling of physical nausea’ in Trotsky, such that he ‘could not restrain his anger [and] sarcastic fury’ at this grotesque miscarriage of justice.[58] This fury was reflected in his writing:

When an ordinary Jewish worker … is suddenly torn away from his wife and children, and is told that he has drained out the blood of a living child, with a view to consuming it, in one form of another to the joy of his Jehovah, then one need only visualise for a moment the state of this wretch during twenty-six months of isolated imprisonment to cause one’s hair to stand on end. Every effort was done to instil hatred towards Beilis as a Jew in the … jury.[59]

It may be said that the willingness of Trotsky to ‘visualise’ i.e. to empathise deeply with the persecuted Jew, is no great achievement. But it was not an achievement of every Marxist, to say the least. Again, we may offer the example of Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote angrily to a friend from her prison cell, ‘What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? … [there are] so many cries of anguish [that] have faded away unheard, they resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto.’ Well, Trotsky did. And as Ronald Segal has argued, that Trotsky ‘saw the plight [of the Jews] for the special one that it was can scarcely be dismissed as unimportant, when so many of his revolutionary colleagues with Jewish origins chose rather to avoid or deny it’.[60] A quarter century later, with Europe on the edge of catastrophe, Trotsky was still invoking ‘the image of a poor, lonely Jew falsely accused of killing a Christian child’.[61]

January 1917: The ‘Trotsky-Conspiracy’ in New York City

Trotsky gained first hand experience of the conspiracism that lies at the heart of all antisemitism when he arrived in New York City via Barcelona in January 1917 and lived there for ten weeks en route to revolutionary Russia. He threw himself into agitation against a war that the US would enter three months later, publishing articles in the New York Yiddish press. What then broke over his head was ‘The Trotsky-Jewish conspiracy’ or ‘The Jewish Plot’. ‘The idea was spread that Jewish bankers had paid Trotsky to overthrow the government and create Bolshevism’ says Kenneth Ackerman, author of a study of this period. The conspiracy seems to have been birthed within US and British Military Intelligence. ‘Trotsky was being tracked by British intelligence at the time,’ explains Ackerman, ‘and several of the people the British had on their payroll were people from Russia with clear track records of antisemitism’ including Boris Brasol. Copies of the antisemitic fraud ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ were circulated to American and British Military Intelligence by Brasol, ‘making the case that Jews were running Bolshevism,’ and that the chief Jewish conspirator was Leon Trotsky.[62] As a result, Trotsky was arrested en route to Russia by police in Canada and held as a prisoner of war in Nova Scotia for a month. The conspiracy theory remained part of the antisemitic propaganda of the US Nazi movement throughout the inter-war period.[63]

1917: The Russian Revolution and Antisemitism

Whatever criticisms can be made of the Bolsheviks during the early years of the revolution, when Trotsky was influential on policy,[64] the decision to appoint a Jew, Jacob Sverdlov, as the first president of the new Soviet republic has rightly been described as ‘an act of courage whose importance should not be underestimated; it was a declaration of war against antisemitism, now identified with the counter-revolution’. And in July 1918 a decree was passed outlawing antisemitism, promising harsh measures against pogromists and declaring antisemitism ‘a mortal danger for the entire revolution’.[65] The result was that ‘the party’s leadership was widely identified as a Jewish gang’.[66]

The revolution taught Trotsky about the ubiquity of antisemitism. He saw that it was present among the revolutionary as well as the counter-revolutionary armies. Trotsky fought antisemitism in the Red Army he led as Peoples Commissar for War. In July 1920, when Trotsky heard that some Red Guards were attacking Jews in Novorossiysk, ‘his intervention brought an end to the pogrom’.[67] Traverso records that Trotsky ‘punished three regiments accused of having organised pogroms and attempted by every means to stop such events recurring’.[68] Keen for Jews to serve in the Red Army to undermine antisemitism, Trotsky tried to establish Jewish fighting units. Under his leadership, the Peoples Commissariat for War set up a section ‘dedicated to making propaganda against pogroms’.[69] During the civil war, whenever the Red Army was itself guilty of antisemitism‘ Trotsky ‘rushed to the place of their occurrence to supervise personally the punishment of the perpetrators’.[70]

The counter-revolution practiced antisemitism of entirely different scale and intensity however, and this also educated Trotsky. Symon Petlyura (a man honoured in Ukraine in 2017) led the murder of 50,000 Jews by the counter-revolution in Ukraine in 1918-1921, most of the victims being women, children and older people. It was ‘a traumatic shock to Trotsky’ and the memory of it, the knowledge of what was possible, surely informed his prediction about the Nazis in 1938 as well as his shift to explicit support for a Jewish homeland.[71]

Trotsky himself soon became the target of antisemitism from the counter-revolution. Posters about him were ‘routinely Judeaophobic’. He was cast as an alien to Russia, a ‘cosmopolitan Jew’ and – years before Hitler took up this theme – a ‘Jewish Bolshevik’.[72] The leaders of the counter-revolution lied that ‘the Jew Trotsky’ was turning churches into movie theatres and forcibly circumcising peasants. Pogromists would scream, ‘Down with Trotsky!’ as they attacked Jewish villages and towns.[73] He was turned into the ‘demonic symbol of Judeo-Communism for antisemitic gentiles’ and the personification of ‘the evil influence of the Jews’.[74] He was depicted (see below) as the gross, naked ogre of the Kremlin, a powerful giant, but one shaped according to antisemitic tropes: the Jew bespectacled and intellectual, hooked-nose, wearing a Star-of-David, wading in the blood of the Gentiles or imperious on top of a mountain of Gentile skulls. No wonder he understood that antisemitism was about an irrational fear of Jewish power.

The 1920s and 1930s: Stalin and Left Antisemitism  

Trotsky came to know a lot about Left antisemitism. During the inner-party struggle of the 1920s Stalin repeatedly used Trotsky’s Jewishness against him. By 1926, the dictator was openly using the fact that the three leaders of the United Opposition – Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev – were Jews, to defeat them, and later made sure their original Jewish names were used in Soviet press reports of their show trials and executions.

When the persecution of Trotsky’s son Sergei was approaching its deadly end, the Russian press routinely used the Jewish sounding ‘Bronstein’ as Sergei’s family name – not ‘Sedov’ or ‘Sedova’, his legal name after his mother Natalia, and not ‘Trotsky,’ his father’s name since his pre-revolutionary Siberian exile. Stalin also spread the lie that Sergei was guilty of preparing a mass poisoning of workers. Trotsky immediately saw this not just as a lie but an antisemitic one: ‘My son is accused,’ he wrote, ‘not more nor less, of an attempt to exterminate workers. Is this really so far from the accusation against the Jews of using Christian blood?’[75] In 1937, in the essay Thermidor and Antisemitism, Trotsky drew a balance sheet‘History’ he concluded, ‘has never yet seen an example when the reaction following the revolutionary upsurge was not accompanied by the most unbridled chauvinistic passions, antisemitism among them’. He felt the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia was no exception. ‘To reinforce its domination the bureaucracy does not even hesitate to resort … to chauvinistic tendencies, above all, to antisemitic ones.’

The Moscow Trials may be a byword for Soviet injustice and Western leftist intellectual gullability and apologia, but Trotsky pointed out what few have: they were also antisemitic events. ‘In all such trials the Jews inevitably comprise a significant percentage, in part … the leading cadre of the bureaucracy at the centre and in the provinces strives to divert the indignation of the working masses from itself to the Jews. This fact was known to every critical observer in the USSR as far back as ten years ago…’[76] In 1937 when he arrived in Mexico he told local journalists that: ‘The latest Moscow trial, for example, was staged with the hardly concealed design of presenting internationalists as faithless and lawless Jews who are capable of selling themselves to the German Gestapo. Since 1925 and above all since 1926, anti-semitic demagogy, well camouflaged, unattackable, goes hand in hand with symbolic trials against avowed pogromists.’[77]

Trotsky’s pain and shock as this antisemitic campaign unfolded inside the Communist party was expressed in a letter to Nikolai Bukharin: ‘Is it true, is it possible, that in our Party, in Moscow, in WORKERS’ CELLS, anti-Semitic agitation should be carried on with impunity?!’[78] When Trotsky raised the matter at the Politburo he was met with ‘denials or a silent embarrassment’.[79]However, in a development common to all episodes of Left antisemitism, there were plenty of left-wing pro-Stalin Jews in Russia and abroad who were neither silent nor embarrassed. They went on the offensive, attacking Trotsky for smearing Stalin with false charges. These ‘Jewish Voices for Stalin,’ as we might call them, were useful idiots. One, B.Z. Goldberg, writing in the New York Yiddish daily Der Tog, claimed ‘there is no antisemitism in the life of [the Soviet Union] … it is therefore unforgivable that Trotsky should raise such groundless accusations against Stalin’.[80] Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The entire revolutionary experience had been unrelenting in driving Trotsky to revise his views on the Jewish question. Mandel suggests that soon after 1917 Trotsky ‘became increasingly aware of his own Jewish origins and of the political reaction to this in significant sections of the Russian population’.[81] In 1922, when Trotsky refused Lenin’s request to become the first deputy chairman of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars (in effect, Lenin’s No. 2) he cited his Jewish heritage as the reason. Trotsky, says Mandel, was ‘more aware than the other revolutionary leaders, including Lenin, of the potential horrors of active antisemitism’.[82] In 1930, exiled and hunted, Trotsky almost titled his autobiography ‘The Planet without a Visa’ (he used the phrase for its final chapter instead). By the later 1930s, thinks Norman Geras, Trotsky had registered that ‘his situation now resembled in certain ways the situation … of the people from whom he had come’.[83]

1933-1940: The Nazis as ‘final stimulus’

It is often said that no one predicted the Holocaust, but that is not true. In December 1938 Trotsky issued this warning. ‘The number of countries which expel the Jews grows without cease. The number of countries able to accept them decreases. It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the net development of the world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’

It was the rise of the Nazis that ‘provided the final stimulus for Trotsky to change his position on one decisive aspect of the Jewish question’ writes Mandel. And from 1937 ‘he recognised the right of the Jewish nationality to its own state at least in those territories in which it constituted a self-contained population with its own language’.[84] Hitler provoked Trotsky’s revisions because the Jewish question now ‘came to assume the proportions of a global emergency.[85]Robert Service also believes that it was only after Hitler came to power in 1933 that Trotsky decided ‘a specific set of measures had to be designed to avert the extinction of world Jewry’.[86]

Today, many understandably fear that a robust anti-capitalism can become an antechamber to antisemitism. They see the return of a blatantly antisemitic discourse about ‘Rothschild-Capitalism’ and ‘Jewish Bankers’ spreading across the alt-Right and the far Left. Parts of today’s Left are making anti-capitalism frightening to Jews. It is the task of anti-capitalists to understand that, and to purge their discourse of any footholds for antisemitism. For his part, Trotsky looked at Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and was in no doubt that capitalist crisis was a major cause of the ‘monstrous intensification of chauvinism, and especially of antisemitism’ that the Nazis fed off.[87]

In the epoch of its rise, capitalism took the Jewish people out of the ghetto and utilised them as an instrument in its commercial expansion. Today decaying capitalist society is striving to squeeze the Jewish people from all its pores; seventeen million individuals out of the two billion populating the globe, that is, less than one per cent, can no longer find a place on our planet! Amid the vast expanses of land and the marvels of technology, which has also conquered the skies for man as well as the earth, the bourgeoisie has managed to convert our planet into a foul prison.[88]

Trotsky’s came to see that, in his arresting phrase, a crisis-ridden capitalism can cause society’s old and ‘undigested barbarism’ to be vomited up. ‘The content of the category of barbarism’, explains Geras, is ‘essentially anthropological’ referring to ‘obsessive unreasoning hatreds, extreme and endemic violence, the enjoyment of cruelty, indifference to great suffering and so forth’.[89] Trotsky, Geras insisted, grasped that a distinguishing feature of contemporary antisemitism was this ‘combination … of old and new ideological forms’.[90]

To sum up: the first broad reason Trotsky was able to carry out his global revision on the Jewish question was that his life had been spent in practical resistance to antisemitism and deep reflection on that experience. I believe the second broad reason was the cast of his Marxism.


Robert Wistrich’s study of the attitude of the far left towards the Jews – which he characterises as a journey from ambivalence to betrayal – claimed that it was Marxism’s ‘economistic superficiality’ that was the major cause of its failure to see plain the ‘fundamentally demonic view of the world’ of the antisemite, or to grasp the ‘mythical power of antisemitic stereotypes of the Jew’.[91] In similar vein, Traverso has argued that it was orthodox Marxism’s ‘reduction of Jewish otherness to commerce, a socioeconomic function that the Jews had fulfilled over several centuries’ that ensured ‘the entire Marxist debate’ was reduced to ‘one problem: assimilation’. The result was that Marxism as a whole ‘remained the prisoner of a single interpretation of Jewish history, inherited to a large extent from the Enlightenment, which identified emancipation with assimilation and could conceive the end of Jewish oppression only in terms of the overcoming of Jewish otherness’.[92] From Karl Marx’s ‘geldmensch’ to Karl Kautsky’s ‘caste’ and Abram Leon’s ‘people-class’ we find these same dogmatic economistic simplicities.

Beyond the Philosophy of Progress

Trotsky was different not only because he had a wide experience of fighting several different forms of antisemitism but because he then allowed his experience to shatter the simplistic framework of his thinking. I think this was possible for him because he had already taken his distance from all Marxist versions of the Enlightenment philosophy of progress.[93]

In place of Marxism’s overconfident expectation of a linear and progressivehistorical development, Trotsky saw plain both the non-simultaneity and non-linearity of history, and the possibility of catastrophe.[94] A year before he died, Trotsky faced up to the possibility that the proletariat could ‘prove incapable of accomplishing its mission’ and the socialist programme could ‘peter out as a utopia’. In such a situation, he thought the new task would be to ‘defend the interests’ of the exploited and oppressed come what may.[95] Something of this sensibility is surely at play in his late revisionist thinking on the Jewish question. It was a sensibility that Deutscher would render tragic and develop into a democratic Left programme for the era of the Jewish state, as I discuss in the conclusion.

An undogmatic theory of the nation

Trotsky was able to embrace the idea of the Jewish nation because, contra to the Stalinist caricature of Trotsky as a national nihilist and romantic internationalist, his thought was marked by an acute understanding of ‘national peculiarities and uniqueness’.[96] Traverso has shown that he possessed an ‘original … dialectical, open, and undogmatic theory of the nation’ based on a ‘fundamentally cultural-historical conception’ of what a nation is. He was completely understanding of the subjective or ‘invented’ character of peoplehood and national consciousness.[97] As early as 1915, he argued that ‘the nation constitutes an active and permanent factor in human culture’. Moreover, he believed ‘the nation will not only survive the current war, but also capitalism itself. And in the socialist regime, the nation, freed of the chains of economic and political dependence, will for a long time be called upon to play a fundamental role in historical development’. I believe this kind of insight, so infrequently heard today, also enabled his radical rethinking of the Jewish question in the late 1930s, in particular his understanding that ‘[t]he territory, language, culture, and history of a people … even if they did not always coexist, materialised the nation’. [98]


The establishment of a territorial base for Jewry in Palestine or any other country is conceivable only with the migrations of large human masses. Only a triumphant Socialism can take upon itself such tasks. Leon Trotsky, 1934.[99]

Did Trotsky become a Zionist, then? Joseph Nedava, author of Trotsky and the Jews, claimed so in an exchange with Joel Carmichael, one of Trotsky’s biographers. In the late writings and interviews, wrote Nedava, Trotsky was ‘subscribing indirectly to the Zionist solution’ and had he lived, ‘would have sanctioned this historic fact, even if only as a “temporary” solution to the Jewish problem’.[100] Carmichael, while he accepted that given the situation in Europe Trotsky had been ‘forced to accept a territorial solution,’ insisted ‘he did not become a Zionist, even theoretically’.[101]

I think both are right.

Yes, it is possible to simply point to Trotsky’s statements decrying Zionism, and move on.[102] But things are more complicated than that. Consider: we have already seen that Trotsky believed assimilationism as a political programme for the Jews was bankrupt and that the physical destruction of the Jews was imminent. And we have seen that, as a result, he supported the idea of a ‘mass migration’ of the Jews, who had the right to live as a collective in a ‘compact mass’ in a ‘territory,’ ‘in Palestine or elsewhere’. Could those commitments not be said to amount to support for a programme akin to ‘Zionism’?

I think Sean Matgamna has put it best: what Trotsky was proposing in the late 1930s, as the skies darkened, was ‘a different, socialist version of the Zionistterritorial state-creating solution’. After all, what else can be meant by his statement that ‘The very same methods of solving the Jewish question which under decaying capitalism have a reactionary and utopian character will under the regime of a socialist federation, take on a real and salutary meaning’? Why else would he then have added, as he did, that ‘the Arabs’ would of course have their own equally ‘extensive and rich’ spot under the same sun? It was because he anticipated the reaction from the Left to this early version of the two-state solution that Trotsky asked ‘how could any Marxist or even any consistent democrat object to this?’ I believe Ernest Mandel is right when he says Trotsky did not became a Zionist and when he says Trotsky ‘would not have rejected the right to a limited state-political autonomy for the Hebrew-speaking minority in Palestine’.[103]

Trotsky proposed a socialist version of the Zionist state-creating solution because he thought Zionism itself was incapable. ‘There can be no doubt’ he wrote in 1934, ‘that the material conditions for the existence of Jewry as an independent nation could be brought about only by the proletarian revolution’. In 1937, again: ‘Only a triumphant socialism can take upon itself such tasks,’ and only the ‘complete emancipation of humanity can solve the Jewish question’. In July 1940, after Britain changed policy and became hostile to the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, Trotsky thought his position had been vindicated. But he took no joy in that. He was fearful: ‘The attempt to solve the Jewish question through the migration of Jews to Palestine can be seen for what it is, a tragic mockery of the Jewish people.’[104]

History proved Trotsky wrong of course. His state-creating solution to the Jewish question did happen in 1948, but not by his method. It was Zionism and the Haganah, not the international proletariat led by the parties of the ‘Fourth International,’ who created it. Israel was not a ‘tragic mirage,’ as Trotsky forecast, but a real-world refuge for the traumatised Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and the Farhut, the expulsion of some 700,000 Jews from the Arab lands in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Trotsky may have thought that ‘salvation [for the Jews] lies only in revolutionary struggle’ but for the Jews who made it to Palestine, salvation lay in auto-emancipation and sovereignty it created there. Post-war Marxists would respond to this new reality in radically different ways.


In 1954 Deutscher looked back at Trotsky’s advice to the powerless Jews of Europe about to be murdered by a bestial enemy – that they should stay and fight for world socialist revolution.

I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers. For the remnants of European Jewry – is it only for them? – the Jewish state has become an historic necessity. It is also a living reality.

And Deutscher knew something else. Precisely because Israel was created not by Trotsky’s benign World Socialist Federation allocating rich spots in the sun to the various stateless peoples who demanded them, but only after the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the vicious local war between Jews and the Arabs from 1947 to 1949, the new state could not be simply a refuge state for the Jews. After the fighting, for the Palestinians, it was a land lost. Deutscher captured the genuinely tragic quality of that history for both victim peoples, and its implications for them and for the Left, in his famous image of mid-century Europe as a burning building.

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune.

If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realised that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control.

But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds.[105]

Deutscher’s metaphor is not perfect, of course. Palestinians may point out that Zionism was more knowing and strategic than the image of a spontaneous ‘leap’ suggests (as well as asking, reasonably, ‘why us?’) The Jews may say the UN proposal to partition the land was the rational solution, that it was accepted by the Jews but, tragically, rejected by the Arabs. And many Jews will object that Deutscher rests the claim of the Jews to a national home in Palestine solely on an emergency – the rise of eliminationist antisemitism in mid-century Europe and the closing of the doors to the Jews by the states of the world – ignoring the Jews’ millennia-long relationship to the land.

And yet, even after acknowledging the force of all these objections, I confess that ever since I was introduced to Deutscher’s metaphor almost 40 years ago as a young member of a small group of left-wing socialists in the British Labour Party, Socialist Organiser, it has seemed to me to be both (a) the analytical alternative to ‘settler-colonialism’ or ‘God’s will’ as an explanation of the conflict and (b) the political alternative to those all-or-nothing maximalisms that are proposed by the extremists, whether Arab or Jewish, as a political programme to resolve the conflict.[106] For those on the Left who would continue in the spirit of the late Trotsky while recognising both the right of the Jewish state to endure and the Palestinian state to come into existence, Deutscher’s approach has much to recommend it: a tragic sensibility, a commitment to consistent democracy, and a belief in deep mutual recognition not ethnic exclusivism. Fir myself, that points to ‘two states for two peoples’ and, in time, who knows, to the mutual acceptance that could made possible relatively porous borders and more besides, much more than we imagine today.

Its 2019: why bother with Leon Trotsky?

Where has the [Labour antisemitism] crisis come from? From five decades of political and moral ferment on the ostensibly ‘Trotskyist’ Left in which absolute hostility to Israel, to any Israel, has slowly built up in the political atmosphere like poisonous smog. During the Blair-Brown epoch, that ‘revolutionary’ Left was excluded and self-excluded from the Labour Party. The ‘Corbyn surge’ that recreated a mass membership almost overnight pulled into the new, new Labour Party a lot of people educated on the Middle East question in the kitsch Left. With them they brought their political baggage, and a trolling and bullying culture. – Sean Matgamna. [107]

Trotsky matters because since the late 1960s, Trotskyism has been an influence on much wider circles of the Left, and has even been capable of exercising a decisive influence from time to time. Paul Le Blanc is probably right that we are entering a new ‘Trotsky moment,’ as a result of the ‘re-emergence of capitalist crisis, radical ferment and global insurgencies in our own time’.[108] Trotsky also matters because post-Trotsky Trotskyism has not followed in the tracks Trotsky laid down in his late revisionism on the Jewish question. Instead, it has gone off in a different direction altogether, being shaped decisively by (a) the ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigns of the Stalinist and Arab states, and (b) the politically crude, romantic Third Worldism of the young ‘New Left’ which transformed the wider Left from the 1960s and taught it to view the world and everything in it as composed of just two ‘camps,’ variously described as good and bad, oppressed and oppressor, the imperialised and imperialist, Empire v Resistance, and so on.

The story of the Stalinist roots of contemporary left antisemitism has not yet found its historian.[109] But in 1980 the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm – a sharp critic of Israel – did warn about a new form of antisemitism, one ‘dressed up’ as anti-Zionism, as he put it. Across huge tracts of the world, he noted, antisemitism had never gone away. It had survived in two major regions in the post-war years – ‘under Islam and, unfortunately, in some countries committed to an ideology which rejected racism, notably the Soviet Union’. Although Hobsbawm was himself a lifelong member of the Communist Party, he pointed out that across Stalinist Eastern Europe, ‘antisemitism … was … tolerated and sometimes encouraged’ after the Holocaust, ‘albeit now dressed up as “anti-Zionism”’.[110]

It is this ‘antisemitism dressed up as anti-Zionism’ that has now plunged the British Labour Party into crisis. Sean Matgamna, one of most acute observers of the disastrous impact of Stalinism on the international Left,[111] points out that the legacy of the Stalinist campaigns are still with us: ‘[Antisemitism] spread to the Left from the USSR and the satellite countries, where, after World War 2, official government anti-Zionism provided a new flag of convenience for the Judeophobia long endemic there.’ Matgamna goes on: ‘This official Left “anti-Zionism” spread from the East throughout the labour movement. It spread to the non-Stalinist Left partly by way of Stalinist influence, partly as a by-product of the Left’s proper involvement with campaigns against colonialism and imperialism.’

The consequence has been the intellectual and moral disarmament of a part of the left in the face of fascistic antisemitic movements that are hostile to all left-wing, democratic and feminist values. At its worst, some now even offer up hymns of solidarity and praise to Hamas, Hezbollah and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad as their ‘friends,’ ‘the brothers,’ and ‘part of the global Left’ who are ‘bringing about long term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region’.[112]

And when this crude and reductive two-camp world view is applied to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Trotsky’s and Deutscher’s approach and sensibility is thrown out the window. In place of their awareness of the tragic, complex and unresolved national question, and their programme of consistent democracy and deep mutual recognition, the far Left, Trotskyists to the fore, has sought to teach the following to the rest of the Left:

(a) violent opposition to the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination, i.e. support for the destruction of Israel, any Israel;

(b) solidarity, sometimes critically, often uncritically, with the most reactionary regional actors, even the murderous antisemitic Islamist ones. Parts of the left now gloss the explicit, proud, canonical, and eliminationist antisemitism of such actors as heroic ‘anti-imperialist resistance’;

(c) a bullying culture ready to anathematise anyone who defends Israel’s right to exist;

(d) an ugly, demonising and dehumanising discourse of antisemitic anti-Zionism in which the Nazi analogy is ever-present, and which erases the border between legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy – of which they can be plenty, most of it made by Israelis themselves most days – and the repetition in new forms of the older antisemitic tropes, i.e. antisemitism ‘dressed up’ as anti-Zionism.

In a rich historical irony, the Left that wants to reject all that can learn much from… Leon Trotsky.

It can learn that antisemitism shape-shifts. Trotsky saw first hand how the core antisemitic demonology about the Jews could morph into new forms, including ostensibly left-wing forms, depending on the needs of the antisemites and the dominant intellectual language of the time. He saw that while antisemitism has a core message (or rumour, more like), that the Jews, collectively and in their essence, are not just the ‘Other’ but malign, the content of this perceived malevolence changes with the times and the needs of the antisemites. Trotsky had to stand against not just those antisemites crying ‘God-killers!’ or ‘untermenschen!’ but also also those targeting the ‘rootless cosmopolitans!’ and the ‘Jewish capitalists!’

When we understand this shape-shifting quality, is it really so hard to grasp that in the era of the first modern Jewish state, the dehumanising discourse of ‘anti-Zionism’ can sometimes play a similar role? That it can be the latest code word marking the Jew out for destruction? Is it not obvious that, sometimes, the Left is no longer engaged in legitimate ‘criticism of Israel’ but rather in demonisation, saying, in effect ‘the Zionists are our misfortune’, and with the same unbridled animus towards a spectral collective that the Nazis did when they said ‘the Jews are our misfortune’?

The Left can learn from Trotsky not only about the existence of left antisemitism but also about this fact: every time you find Left antisemitism you also find some left-wing Jews denying it exists and blaming the victims. The left-wing Jewish Stalin apologist B.Z. Goldberg, who said Trotsky was smearing Stalin and that there was no antisemitism in the Soviet Union, is a figure seen throughoutthe history of Left antisemitism. Realising this, perhaps the left might be a little less willing to reject a claim of Left antisemitism today just because some contemporary B.Z. Goldberg has issued a kosher certificate.

Above all, Trotsky can help the Left to come to terms with the existence of the nation-state of Israel, even as it campaigns for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. If Trotsky, writing before the Holocaust, thought that a Jewish national home would be needed even under socialism, if he could look forward to both Jews and Arabs each having their own rich and extensive spot under the sun, then isn’t there something terribly amiss with those who today – over 70 years after the Holocaust and the creation of a Jewish state, and in full knowledge of the grisly condition of today’s Middle East, where states fall, jihadi armies rise, minorities are routinely persecuted and eliminationist antisemitism is rife – propose to ‘Smash Israel’ as a ‘Nazi state’ and chant ‘Palestine, from the river to the sea!’ and wave their placards declaring ‘We are all Hezbollah Now’?

Today there are no hard borders between the different historic forms of antisemitism, ancient and modern, religious and secular, left-wing and right-wing. Ours is now a world in which the alt-right and the far Left, the Raed Saleh Islamists and the Stephen Sizer Christians, share the same tweets and memes, all depicting ‘Zionism’ as an all-powerful, malign, but hidden global hand, controlling politics, media and finance, starting wars, crashing economies, and bringing down Jeremy Corbyn. If you can’t see all that as a modern antisemitism then you are determined not to.

Trotsky is a resource for those on the Left who have had enough of all this. Reading about his long war against Jew-hatred, his bold revision of Marxism on the Jewish question, and his democratic vision of an accommodation between the two peoples, each enjoying their rich spot under the sun, Jews and Arabs both, in two homelands for two peoples, it is clear that the Old Man still has much to say to us.


* The following writings by Trotsky can be most easily accessed in Leon Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, Pathfinder Press, 1970. ‘Letter to “Klorkeit” and to the Jewish workers in France’ (10 May 1930); ‘Greetings to “Unser Kamf”’ (9 May 1932); ‘On the “Jewish Problem”’ (February 1934); ‘Reply to a question about Birobidjan’, October 1934); ‘Interview with Jewish correspondents in Mexico’ (18 January 1937); ‘Thermidor and Anti-Semitism’ (22 February 1937); ‘Appeal to American Jews menaced by fascism and anti-Semitism’ (22 December 1938); ‘Imperialism and anti-Semitism’ (May 1940).

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Matgamna, Sean (1988) ‘Anti-Semitism and the Left: An Open Letter to Tony Cliff’, in Workers Liberty No.14, pp. 11-12.

Matgamna, Sean (1996) ‘Two states for two peoples’, Workers Liberty, July, pp.15-17.

Matgamna, Sean (1998) The Fate of the Russian Revolution. Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Vol.1., Workers Liberty, London.

Matgamna, Sean (2001) ‘Marxism and the Jewish Question’ in Israel-Palestine: Two Nations, Two States, Alliance for Workers Liberty, London, pp. 19-22.

Matgamna, Sean (2015) The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism, Workers Liberty, London

Matgamna, Sean (2017) The Left in Disarray, Workers Liberty, London.

Matgamna, Sean (2019) ‘Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis: an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn’, Solidarity 497, 26 February.

Molyneux, John (1981) Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution, St Martin’s Press, New York,

Nedava, Joseph (1971) Trotsky and the Jews, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia.

Nedava, Joseph (1973) ‘Trotsky as Jew’, Commentary, 11 January.

O’Malley, J.P. (2016) ‘Trotsky’s day out: How a visit to NYC influenced the Bolshevik Revolution’, The Times of Israel, 19 September.

Rubinstein, Joshua (2011) Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life, Yale University Press.

Segal, Ronald (1979) The Tragedy of Leon Trotsky, Hutchinson, London.

Service, Robert, (2009) Trotsky. A Biography, Pan Macmillan, London.

Sternhell, Zeev (2010) ‘In Defence of Liberal Zionism’, New Left Review, 62.

Traverso, Enzo (1994) The Marxists and the Jewish Question. The History of a Debate 1843-1943, Humanities Press, New Jersey.

Traverso, Enzo (1999) Understanding the Nazi Genocide. Marxism After Auschwitz, Pluto, London.

Trotsky, Leon (1934) On the Jewish Problem. Class Struggle, Official Organ Of The Communist League Of Struggle (Adhering to the International Left Opposition), Volume 4 Number 2, February 1934. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1934/xx/jewish.htm

Trotsky, Leon (1940) ‘The Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution: The Manifesto of the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International’, in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, Pathfinder, 1973.

Trotsky, Leon, (1975) The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Pelican, London.

Trotsky, Leon (1975) My Life, Penguin, London.

Trotsky, Leon (1970) On the Jewish Question (a collection of 8 articles and interviews), Pathfinder, New York.

Wistrich, Robert S. (1976) Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky, George G. Harrop, London.

Wistrich, Robert S. (2010) ‘Trotsky’s Jewish Question’, Forward, 18 August.

Wistrich, Robert S. (2012) From Ambivalence to Betrayal. The Left, the Jews and Israel, University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska.

Wistrich, Robert S. (2010) ‘Trotsky’s Jewish Question’, in Forward, 18 August.

[1] No British Marxist has done more to bring Trotsky’s late thinking to the attention of the contemporary left, to apply it to the present day, and to educate a layer of left-wing activists and intellectuals to think about Israel and Palestine outside the confines of Stalinist demonology than Sean Matgamna. See Matgamna 1996, 2001, and 2017: 231-244, 306-317.

[2] This essay was first presented as a paper to the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism conference ‘Zionism and Antisemitism’, 24-26 May 2017. Thanks to Eve Garrard, Martyn Hudson and Stephen de Wijze for feedback on this version.

[3] For 19th century Marxists, ‘the Jewish Question’ meant roughly ‘the antisemitism question’. Why were Jews excluded and oppressed and what should be done about that? How can Jews be brought into citizenship? Relatedly, are the Jews a people (and if they are, do they have the right to a state of their own)? Or, are they ‘only’ a religious minority, owed only the rights of a religious minority? However, Robert Fine and Philip Spencer (2017) have pointed out that the expression ‘Jewish Question’ can carry the implication of something more disturbing, especially in the move from question to answer. All too often, they suggest, asking ‘the Jewish question’ leads to answers vitiated by three dubious assumptions: that what we should be trying to do is identify the harm Jews inflict (the harm being assumed), explaining this harm (finding the bit of Jewish nature or being that explains why they inflict this harm), and then finding a solution to that harm (from civic rights to genocide). I share their concern.

[4] See ‘The Messianic Materialism of Walter Benjamin’ in Traverso 1994: 167-187.

[5] Deutscher 1963: 369; Wistrich 2012:399.

[6] Cohn 1991.

[7] Traverso 1994:202. He also praises the contributions of the Judeo-Marxists, including Borokhov, and writers from the Frankfurt School, for stressing the protean character of antisemitism, its modernity, and its unconscious as well as conscious wellsprings. While this essay focuses on Trotsky it does not claim he was the only socialist, or even the only Bolshevik, to make a contribution to the understanding of antisemitism. For the latter, see Brendan McGeever’s forthcoming monograph The Bolsheviks and Antisemitism in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019). The political point is that Trotsky is a credible messenger to a large portion of today’s ‘left that has lost its way’. Hence my focus.

[8] Mandel, 1995: 148, 152.

[9] Service 2009: 481.

[10] Traverso 1994:201-2.

[11] Traverso 1994:204.

[12] Traverso 1994:234.

[13] Mandel 1995: 147.

[14] Traverso 1994:236.

[15] Traverso, 1994: 235, 233.

[16] Traverso points out that the implications of Zionism for the Arabs of Palestine were scarcely registered until much later, except perhaps by Karl Kautsky.

[17] Traverso 1994: 232-33.

[18] Trotsky, ‘Interview with Jewish Correspondents in Mexico’, 1937.

[19] Mandel 1995:107.

[20] Trotsky, quoted in Nedava 1971:113.

[21] Trotsky, ‘Interview with Jewish Correspondents in Mexico’, 1937.

[22] Trotsky, ‘Thermidor and Antisemitism’, 1937.

[23] Deutscher 1963, 369, n.1. Rubinstein’s recent study of Trotsky was commissioned as part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series, yet it misses this late but radical rethinking of the Jewish question by Trotsky, more or less completely.

[24] Traverso 1994: 228.

[25] Traverso 1999:1.

[26] Geras 2013.

[27] Carmichael 1973. Ernest Mandel notes that in the young Soviet Republic, ‘it was only the Jews that were declared a nationality without having their own territory. Although they were numerically larger, territorially more concentrated and characterised by a higher level of cultural homogeneity then many of the other nationalities that were given an autonomous territory or autonomous republic, the Jews were not granted the right to their own state’ (1995: 147).

[28] Traverso 1999:3.

[29] Travero 1994:9.

[30] Traverso 1994:9.

[31] Traverso 1994:140.

[32] Trotsky, ‘Interview with Jewish correspondents in Mexico’, 1937.

[33] Trotsky 15 June 1940, in Writings1939-1940, p. 287.

[34] Trotsky, ‘Interview with Jewish correspondents in Mexico;, 1937; ‘The Jewish Problem’, 1934; ‘Thermidor and Antisemitism’, 1937.

[35] Deutscher 1963: 369.n1.

[36] Wistrich 2012. 399.

[37] Trotsky, ‘Appeal to American Jews menaced by fascism and antisemitism’, 1938.

[38] Trotsky, ‘Thermidor and Antisemitism’, 1937.

[39] Trotsky, ‘Interview with Jewish correspondents in Mexico’, 1937

[40] Trotsky ‘On the Jewish Problem’, 1934.

[41] Service 2009: 199.

[42] Nedava, Joseph, 1971: 28.

[43] Trotsky ‘Thermidor and Antisemitism’, 1937.

[44] Nedava 1971:122.

[45] Mandel 1995:148-9.

[46] Nedava 1971: 5, 69. It is surprising then, that Robert Wistrich, after praising Trotsky for breaking from Marxist orthodoxy, damns him for remaining ‘imprisoned within the straitjacket of Marxist dogma’; for viewing antisemitism as only a symptom of capitalist crisis (400), and for having an ‘unconscious Jewish complex’ (whatever that is). Although Wistrich’s contribution to our understanding of left antisemitism was huge, I do not find his argument persuasive in this case for two kinds of reasons: it is not accurate and it is an example of a wild psychoanalysis.

Trotsky did not reduce antisemitism to a symptom of capitalist crisis. He posited a connection between the rise of antisemitism in Germany and severe capitalist crisis in Germany (See Geras 1998:72). And he was right to do so. Trotsky is valuable today not least as a corrective to the tendency today to simply equateanti-capitalism and antisemitism, treating any half-radical economic reform proposal as if it were the antechamber to a pogrom. Geras’s warning is still valid: ‘the link between capitalism and barbarism is not to be lightly shrugged aside’ (1998:169).

Wistrich quotes approvingly Chaim Weizmann’s claim that Trotsky thought ‘immoral any focus on the sufferings of Jewry’, but writes a few lines later of Trotsky’s ‘impassioned and deeply felt’ attack on antisemitism, concluding that ‘no other Marxist revolutionary matched him’ (386-7). So which was it?

About Trotsky’s conduct after 1917, Wistrich claims that once his ‘messianic hopes’ were confirmed by the revolution he dismissed ‘such trifles as the sufferings of Jewry,’ a claim which is demonstrably untrue. Wistrich then passes on without comment a smear from a ‘Zionist Hebrew writer’ that when it came to Jewish suffering, ‘Trotsky is more to blame than a thousand Denikins’. But Denikin was an energetic pogromist and Trotsky risked much, not least his own life, to stop those pogroms (393).

Wistrich puts Trotsky on the couch and delivers himself of what Freud would have called a ‘wild’ psychoanalytic reading of his subject. The analysand Trotsky is laid bare by the analyst Wistrich, and after one session, so to speak. We are told of Trotsky’s ‘mocking eyes’, ‘aristocratic hauteur’, ‘blind fanatical devotion’, ‘unconscious Jewish complex’, and ‘latent anti-Jewish prejudices’ (2012:401). For example, Wistrich claims to find in Trotsky’s political criticism of the MenshevikMartov, an unconscious antisemitic assault upon the Jew Martov. He reads Trotsky’s distinction between Bolshevik intransigence and Menshevik wavering as a proof that Trotsky ‘never fully succeeded in shaking off [the] shadow Jew in his own unconscious’ (2012:411). It seems Wistrich’s access to Trotsky’s unconscious, which surely died along with his body in August 1940, was total.

Wistrich even reads Trotsky’s fight against Stalin’s antisemitic attacks on his son as an expression of Trotsky’s own ‘unconscious antisemitism’! He suggests that when Trotsky objected to the Soviet press describing his (soon to be murdered) son Leon Sedov as ‘Leon Bronstein’, this was an example of Trotsky ‘exposing his own unconscious “Jewish” complex’. (2012:401). In fact, Trotsky was exposing not his own but the antisemitism of the Stalin regime. Is the work of unmasking the running dog Leon Trotsky never done?

[47] Rubinstein, interviewed in Kalmus 2012.

[48] Nedava, 1971:49.

[49] Rubinstein, 2011:31.

[50] On the psychological benefits of antisemitism to antisemites see Garrard 2013.

[51] Rubinstein 2011 :52, 45.

[52] Nedava 1971: 60-61.

[53] Geras 1986: 249.

[54] Rubinstein, 2011:61.

[55] For Trotsky’s writings on the Beilis Trial, see Rubinstein 2011.

[56] Johnson 2015.

[57] Segal 1979:105.

[58] Rubinstein, 2011, 65.

[59] Rubinstein 2011: 65.

[60] Segal 1979:102.

[61] Rubinstein 2011:67. Rubinstein finds it peculiar that Trotsky responded so powerfully and in a language of ‘plain disgust’ to the plight of Beilis and the Romanian Jews, while remaining largely silent about his own childhood experiences of antisemitism. But is that not a common psychological phenomenon? Irving Howe, the American democratic socialist (and himself the author of a fine short study of Trotsky), recorded in his political memoir, Margin of Hope, that although he grew up poor in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, ‘only after I started high school did the idea of poverty come to me with any force; only then did I see it with the familiar blend of outrage, shame and ambition.’ He explains why: ‘I began to read a magazine that printed Sherwood Anderson’s quavering reports about North Carolina textile workers who had been on strike for months, and these articles brought tears of indignation to my eyes.’ Howe then asks himself, ‘Was I aware that I might have been feeling sorry for myself? Probably not. It was easier to feel sorry for others’ (Howe, 1982:8).

[62] Ackerman quoted in O’Malley 2016.

[63] Ackerman 2017.

[64] For my own very critical take on many aspects of the practice of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, see Johnson 2000 and Johnson 2018.

[65] Traverso 1994:153.

[66] Service 2009:205.

[67] Rubinstein 2011:113.

[68] Traverso 1994:152.

[69] Nedava 1971:165.

[70] Nedava 1971:64.

[71] Mandel 1995:149.

[72] Service, 2011:205.

[73] Rubinstein 2011:114.

[74] Wistrich 2010; Geras 2000.

[75] Rubinstein 2011:171. During the Moscow Trials, the original Jewish family names of the accused were highlighted in the Stalinist press, Kamenev and Zinoviev appearing as Rozenfeld and Radomyslsky (Rubinstein 2011: 176).

[76] Trotsky quoted in Nedava 1971:184. Trotsky had earlier supported the Shakhty Trial (1928), the ‘Industrial Party’ Trial (1930) and the ‘Menshevik Centre’ Trial (1931). Only in 1936 did he admit he had ‘greatly underestimated the degree of shamelessness of Stalinist “justice” and in light of this took too seriously the confessions of the former Mensheviks.’

[77] Trotsky, Interview with Jewish correspondents in Mexico, 1937.

[78] Trotsky, quoted in Kessler, 1994. Bukharin conceded to Trotsky that there may have been be ‘individual instances’ of antisemitism in the party, but he opted to seek an alliance with Stalin so stayed quiet. He was executed by Stalin in 1938, asking at the very end ‘Koba [Stalin’s nickname], why do you need me to die?’ Arguably, Trotsky had no right to be shocked. The ‘socialism of fools’ was already a venerable if minority tradition on the left. One example: in a speech to students on the 25 July 1923 the German communist leader Ruth Fischer said: ‘Whoever protests against Jewish capitalism, gentlemen, is already a class-warrior, whether he knows it or not. You are against Jewish capitalism and want to beat down stock exchange jobbers. That’s all right. Stamp on the Jewish capitalists, string them up from the lamp-posts, trample them underfoot – Stinnes, Klockner ….’

[79] Segal 1979: 298.

[80] Nedava 1971:185, 186.

[81] Mandel 1995:149.

[82] Mandel 1995:149.

[83] Geras 2000.

[84] Mandel 1995: 151.

[85] Traverso 1994:202; Geras 2000, emphasis added.

[86] Service 2009:207.

[87] Trotsky 1940.

[88] Trotsky 1940. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/1938-1949/emergconf/fi-emerg02.htm

[89] See Geras 1998:153. Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell used a similarly visceral term in New Left Review when rejecting the idea that Zionism was just another European ‘settler-colonialism’. There are many reasons why the Jewish experience is not captured by the concept of ‘settler-colonialism’ but one is certainly that, as Sternhell put it, once ‘Europe vomited up its Jews’, Israel became an ‘existential necessity’ (2010).

[90] Geras 1998:152-3.

[91] Wistrich 2012.

[92] Traverso 1994: 5, 2.

[93] Traverso 1999: 61, 45.

[94] Or at least he sometimes did. There was a tension in Trotsky’s thought between the ‘evolutionist and positivist Marxism’ (Traverso 1994:204) that he had ‘absorbed from Plekhanov and Kautsky in his youth’ (Molyneux 1985) and the guiding assumptions and animating concerns – we might say the ‘problematic’ – of his own urgent political revisions and developments of Marxist theory as he responded to Stalinism and Nazism. The tension was never resolved before Stalin’s agent struck.

[95] Trotsky quoted in Deutscher 1963:379.

[96] Molyneux 1985:35.

[97] Traverso 1994:139.

[98] Trotsky, quoted in Traverso 1994: 140, 139.

[99] Trotsky, ‘On the Jewish Problem’, 1934.

[100] Nedava 1973.

[101] Carmichael 1973.

[102] Trotsky defended the right of the Jews to move to Palestine in the 1930s to escape the Nazis. Some post-Trotsky Trotskyists came to think even that had been an impermissible concession to ‘Zionism’. In 1987 Tony Cliff, the long-time leader of the Socialist Workers Party and himself a Palestinian Jew, said ‘I used to argue that poor Jewish refugees should be allowed to come to Palestine, that they shouldn’t be excluded. That was an unjustified compromise, when you look back at it’ (Cliff, 1987).

[103] In June 1937 Mrs Beba Idelson, a Russian-born socialist-Zionist living in Palestine, visited Trotsky in Mexico. While it is impossible to verify her account of their meeting it does chime with the thrust of his late writings. ‘I told him who I was and … if he was interested, I would tell him about our life in Palestine. Trotsky got up from his chair, asked me to wait awhile, and soon returned with his wife. He introduced me to her and asked me to tell him everything. He wanted to know about Palestine and was happy to hear a report from a person living there’. Idelson went on: ‘I was under the impression that the subject absorbed his thought and heart. The conversation lasted nearly three hours.’ She asked Trotsky if he would consider moving to Palestine. ‘I felt that a shiver ran through his spine … Trotsky came over to me, pressed my hand, and said “Thank you. It is a long time since I have felt so good. But you should know that I have friends throughout the world. We have not renounced out views.”’ She recalled that later, over lunch, Trotsky ‘was particularly interested in our relations with our Arab neighbours … whether there were communists in Palestine… the status of women … I cannot forget how attentively he listened.’ She claims Trotsky asked her to keep the conversation ‘between us’ lest he be accused of ‘sympathy for Zionism’ (See Nedava 1971: 206-207).

[104] Of course, had Rommel’s Afrika Corps not run into the wall that was the British 8th Army at El Alamein, Trotsky’s grim prediction about the Yishuv may be viewed differently today.

[105] Deutscher 1967.

[106] See Hudson’s 2014 essay on Deutscher.

[107] Matgamna 2019.

[108] Le Blanc 2012.

[109] Though see Crooke 2001, Hirsh 2017, Julius 2010.

[110] Hobsbawm 1980: 502, 504.

[111] Matgamna 1998, Matgamna 2015, Matgamna 2017.

[112] See Johnson 2015, 2016, 2019a, 2019b.


This piece, by Alan Johnson, is from fathom. 

Claudia Globisch is speaking at Goldsmiths, University of London, Monday 11 March

11 March, 18.00, Main building, RHB 343.


“Us and them & the third“: Ideology and strategies of the far right in Germany & Austria

This lecture looks at the relationships between racism, antisemitism and anti-genderism within the contemporary far right in Germany and Austria. It presents the empirical findings of research into far right movements and shows that ethnopluralism figures as a key strategy which disguises the far right´s racism. This is a discourse that the far right adopts in order to appear not racist, but which in fact functions as a facade which covers the enduring and underlying racialized agenda of these movements. Ethnopluralism is also intertwined with anti-genderism, which itself sometimes comes packaged as a kind of national feminism.

The main enemy of this form of racism are universal postulates that deny an ethnopluralistic world order and are blamed for making cultural differences invisible. Antisemitism serves as an ideology to stabilize ethnopluralistic world views, as Jews are constructed as the third, threatening the imagined ethnopluralistic world order: “Germany to the Germans, Austria to the Austrians, America to the Native Americans … Israelis get out of Palestine”.

Dr. Claudia Globisch is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology of the University of Innsbruck. She does research on antisemitism, right-wing extremism, social policy and poverty. Her first book was on antisemitism from the far left and far right in Germany. Her Habilitation is a case study on autonomy, activating social policy and poverty resilience.

Stephen Marks, Momentum candidate to adjudicate antisemitism in Labour, has been flirting with antisemitic politics for decades

This is a re-posting of a report that Michael Ezra wrote (under the name ‘Mikey’) on 10 December 2005 about a public event at which Stephen Marks spoke from the platform.

This has become relevant again because Stephen Marks is on the Momentum slate for the National Constitutional Committee (NCC).  Momentum want him to be elected to a position where he will be responsible for making judgements on whether things that members have said or done were antisemitic. Stephen Marks was got his political education in IS, the fore-runner to the Socialist Workers Party, led by the antizionist Tony Cliff.

Asghar Bukhari, who spoke on the platform with Marks that evening, later admitted having sent money to help David Irving’s losing court bid to silence Deborah Lipstadt’s book which explained what Irving’s Holocaust Denial meant.

Alan Hart, also on the platform, included a discussion in his book ‘Zionism, the real enemy of the Jews’, already out at that time, about Jewish Power and influence; and later pushed the claim that the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11 were Israeli false flag operations.

“The Great Debate” – The Truth About Zionism - 'Mikey'



“The Great Debate” – The Truth About Zionism – ‘Mikey’

This event, Hosted by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPACUK), was held at Friends House on Friday Evening 9th December 2005. It had originally been scheduled to take place at Westminster University, who eventually decided not to host it. The report below is not a word for word transcript from the debate but just based on some notes I made from the meeting that I attended.


Alan Hart: Author of “Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews”
Stephen Marks
Asghar Bukhari: Head of MPACUK
Sadia Hossein: MPACUK (moderating)

In the introduction it was made clear that Stephen Marks was speaking in a personal capacity and not as a representative of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, even though he had been billed as a representative of Jews for Justice.

The first speaker was Alan Hart (AH)

AH stated that he has spent six years writing and researching his book. He commented that in the Judeo/Christian world a debate about who must do what for peace in the Middle East is futile as the history that has been taught is “the” “Zionist” history. He stated that the aim of the book was to rewrite the Zionist mythology for the truth. AH then stated that he had very many Jewish friends. He commented that few of them could define “Zionism” so he gave his own definition as follows:

“Zionism is the Jewish Nationalism of some but not all Jews who colonised Palestine to create a state for some but not all Jews”

He stated that the colonisation of the land by the settlers required the Palestinians to be ethnically cleansed. He believes that it is possible to be passionately anti-Zionist without being antisemitic in any way.

He stated that during the summer he sent letters to the editors of various newspapers and journals offering an advance copy of his book, but he got no replies. He also stated that he wrote letters to the “top fourteen people at the BBC” but also got no replies. This, he claims, says something about the fear of offending “Zionism”. It is not selling newspapers that make the media money but selling advertising to corporations that make money and the media do not want to upset their corporate advertisers. He admitted that the argument about corporate advertisers could not be used against the BBC, but did not specify why the BBC turned him down.

AH went on to state that he believed it was true that antisemitism was on the rise but the prime cause of the rise in antisemitism was the behaviour of Israel and America’s support for the “Zionist State”. He does not believe any American President will ever act against Israel because if they even tried it, Israel would warn them to be careful as they have an atom bomb.

AH believes it to be a Zionist myth that Israel has ever been in danger of annihilation but a myth that the Zionists want the world to believe.

He believes that the main thing that needs to happen is that Jews in the Diaspora who constitute the majority of Jews in the world need to speak out. However they are silent for the following three reasons:

1. Many fear a second Holocaust and therefore perceive a need for Israel as the refuge of last resort.
2. Jews not living in Israel live in a ghetto and believe that the community they live in will provide them security
3. If they do speak out the Zionist lobby will organise the members of the community to condemn them.

He stated that a lot of people say that it is time to boycott Israel, but that if the boycott does not carry the support of the Diaspora Jews then the boycott will not happen. Jews will claim that anti-Semitism is happening again. The purpose of his book was therefore to end the silence of “the Jews”.

He stated that he could not be accused of antisemitism and that if Zionists want to suppress debate then they call any criticism of “Zionism” or Israel antisemitic. If it comes from someone who is Jewish then they are called a self-hater. He wanted to make it clear that if anyone accused him of antisemitism then he would sue and has put the Board of Deputies on notice that he will sue if he is referred to as an antisemite. He continued that, as “the Zionists” cannot accuse him of antisemitism, they ignore him and use the media to suppress debate.

His next comment was that “Zionists” know how to play all the cards and used America as an example of the effect of “Jewish money” and “Jewish votes”. He states that the Arab states could have trumped all of that if they were united, with oil and if they were united could have gone to America and used the oil card if Israel refused to go back to its 1967 borders. However the Arab states were not united and his book is therefore critical of the Arab regimes. It is on the side of “the people” irrespective of whether they are Jewish, Muslim or Christian.

The next speaker was Stephen Marks (SM)

Unfortunately my notes on SMs speech are not so detailed as in my opinion he kept jumping around in what he was saying and was not very coherent. However the main gist seemed to be about the creation of the State of Israel itself, which he clearly believed to be unjust. He pointed to the fact that before the creation of the State of Israel the United Nations Security Council had said that no-one should take any unilateral action. Israel, he said, made a unilateral declaration of a state in 1948. He argued that the creation of the State had constituted a criminal injustice. He commented that “real Zionists” go and live in Israel and “insurance policy Zionists” just support Israel. “Zionism” was about colonisation and not just about living in Israel and that the Jewish Diaspora have constructed the idea that “Zionism” is a psychological necessity.

Stephen Marks then went on to discuss various forms of antisemitism and said that he saw nothing in Alan Hart’s book that could be understood as antisemitic. The only section that could possibly be seen as antisemitic is the discussion on “Jewish power and influence”. But that in itself is not antisemitic if it is just a discussion of facts. For example he believed one should be able to discuss the “Zionist lobby” and how that lobby has shaped American policy without being accused of antisemitism.

The final speaker was Ashgar Bukhari

This was not so much a speech but more of a rant. The tone was set in his opening comments where he made clear that he was there to talk to the Muslims in the room. He said he was not going to talk about “Zionism” as the other speakers were far more knowledgeable than him. He wanted to talk about how Muslims must protect themselves from “Zionists”. He stated that “Zionism” was a very powerful force and much if its aim was directed against “you” (addressing the Muslims). He went on at length how the Muslim community is not doing enough to defend itself against “Zionism” and that it was asleep to the danger. He mentioned that the Christian-Zionist lobby was “very very powerful indeed” and that most Muslims have no idea of this power. He went on to criticise Muslims for not doing enough to defend Islam, that it is not enough just to learn to wear the hijab. Muslims must also defend the hijab and the beard and cap.

He mentioned that Muslims could learn from “the Zionists”, that the meeting was not held at Westminster University as “Zionist students” lobbied behind the scenes to ensure it didn’t happen there. Muslim students on the other hand did nothing. “We are asleep”.

He went on: “Brothers and sisters, there will be two things that will be your downfall: firstly, Muslim Institutions, and secondly, your own mindset.

“The reason why you are not mobilised is that no-one organises you. Mosques and Islamic societies do not mobilise you. Your leaders are not mobilising you so you are not mobilised. ”

“When I was a little boy, I believed I could conquer the world, but when I got bigger and a brother is shot in Palestine, Muslims will shrug their shoulders and say ‘what can we do?'” When it comes to their job Muslims can work hard at being doctors or lawyers but when it comes to defending Muslims they do nothing.”

“Today Palestine, tomorrow your neck on the block. Never forget Bosnia!”

“Most people in the audience are too pacified, they will go home and go to sleep. They are not prepared to do anything”.

“I know that as MPAC tries to activate the Muslims there will be those that try to silence us and accuse us of antisemitism. We are a bunch of volunteers and we make mistakes. We are not like AIPAC with a budget of hundreds of millions, we run on a budget of £12,000 a year. We have made mistakes and when we find them, we try and rectify them”

“Muslims, do not sit down. We must fight to do something for the eleven year old who will get his eyes blown out in Palestine”.

Question and Answer Session:

The first question/statement came from “Abdul”, who claimed that Alan’s book interested him as well as the book by Norman Finklestein. He commented that there is too much emphasis on religion and that Muslims should criticise injustices anywhere and Muslims should awake a political entity. Whilst reading the Koran was good Muslims must participate in other aspects, as there is too much emphasis on religious matters. MPAC should enlist the support of all communities to emphasize the injustices anywhere in the world.

The second question came from Layla who claimed to work in a human rights organisation. She asked Alan Hart about the other silences. AH responded that he discussed the silence of the Jewish Diaspora but the other silences were the silence of “the gentiles” who did not speak out because they still feel guilt about the Holcaust. The other silence was the silence of the Muslims and that they did not speak out partly as a generational thing as the older generation did not want to rock the boat and also because Muslims are scared about accusations of antisemitism. Alan Hart stated that he wanted these silences to be ended as the only way to make democracy work.

The next question came from someone who claimed to be an independent who asked that if the Arab regimes are corrupt and incompetent what can Muslims do? Stephen Marks seemed to completely ignore this question but made some comment about the Bund in Poland criticising rabbis. Stephen Marks then went on his own rant about Christian Zionists being the biggest Jew-haters in the world. He stated that the most powerful Jew haters are not a bunch of Nazis who put Swastikas on Synagogues or desecrate graves but the Christian Zionists. Lord Balfour, who kept the Jews out of England and some of his own family perished as a result, was an example of this. Stephen Marks then said that Zionists were getting clever and that they were now saying “Not all anti-Zionists are antisemitic but all antisemites are anti-Zionists”. Stephen Marks said that this view was wrong and it is the Christian Zionists who are the biggest antisemites and that it was odd that there was an alliance between Jews and the “Christian antisemitic Zionists”.

Alan Hart also did not answer the question but answered just the end part of the question and seemed to assume a different beginning to the end of “What can Muslims do?” He stated that British society was quite racist but in a more sophisticated way than America. He stated that if Tony Blair is calling you (the Muslims) a bunch of religious nuts then British Muslims should get involved in politics.

Another question then came from the floor, this time from someone referring to himself as a political commentator who goes by the name “The Sharpener”. He wanted to know how much antisemitism was on the rise and from where that antisemitism was coming. He claimed that there was no violent antisemitic activity amongst Muslims in this country and that the antisemitism that there was, originated from the far right. Alan Hart responded that the House of Commons Committee is considering this at the moment and they put the rise in antisemitic incidents at 40% last year. He went on to add that the idea that Muslims are antisemitic is not true. What drives Muslim fury is America’s support for Israel. He claimed that the monster of antisemitism is the product of European societies.

Asghar Bukhari interjected that the only time he has seen antisemitism discussed by Muslims is when the matter of Palestine is discussed and that he has never met a Muslim that has stated “I don’t like Jews”. Stephen Marks then piped up about MEMRI, which he claimed to be financed by Israeli Intelligence. He stated that MEMRI’s sifts through all the Arab media to find the odd crackpot who has said something that can be used against them. He wanted to know where the equally well-funded anti-Zionist equivalent of MEMRI was, that could deal with the filth that came out of Israel. Alan Hart came back and added that Zionism is brilliant because it is well funded, but he said that there are 1.4 billion Muslims in the world, including a lot who are wealthy. With Arab and Muslims as enemies the Zionists do not need friends.

Until now, the meeting had been quite orderly with the exception of one heckler who had heckled on a few occasions. On each occasion, he was asked politely to keep quiet or he would be asked to leave. He was reminded that there would be time for questions. He was now given the chance to speak. He introduced himself as a regular Jewish Jew who was pro Zionist, and started to talk about the population of Jews in Israel by Mid 2006 and by 2020 in relation to the rest of the world, but was told by Alan Hart to get to the question. (Personally I felt this was unfair as a number of others from the floor who spoke made quite lengthy statements and no one else was told to get to their question.) He did then ask his question which was if you can’t persuade us (the Jews) to stop supporting Israel, what are you going to do about it?

Stephen Marks did not answer that question but started going on about the fact that his problem with Israel was that it was racist and that 92% of the land in Israel was reserved for Jews. He made an analogy in relation to Israeli laws that if the mayor of London said that there were too many blacks in Brixton, it would be illegal. He said all the racist laws in Israel should be scrapped. The questioner was clearly very agitated through this and made a number of interruptions asking again in relation to his original question “What are you going to do about it?” A suggestion was made that he be removed from the room and one of the stewards clearly touched him to try and make him leave. This led to the questioner screaming at the steward “Don’t touch me”. The steward then raised his fist to the questioner as if to hit him. This act was clearly seen by all in the room. The moderator then screamed “No Violence” and rushed over to the situation and admonished the steward. The questioner was then escorted from the room.

In relation to the above fracas: There was a later statement from the floor where someone claiming to be a trainee lawyer talked about Islam being a way of life, and that any truly practicing Muslim must be politically active. He then went on to say that the Zionist did not denigrate our (Muslim) religion and that any violence should not have happened. Later on the moderator also gave an apology for the behaviour of the steward.

In my opinion the things that MPAC did wrong here was firstly not really giving the self declared Jew and Zionist an opportunity to make a proper statement of a reasonable length in line with the length of other contributors from the floor and also having a particularly violent steward. Given that the meeting was headlined “The Great Debate” it did not seem to me that it was a debate at all as everyone up and until then were on the same side. I do not believe that MPAC really wanted any debate as such.

A question then came from the floor from a student at UCL that objected to “Zionists” being portrayed as baboons on the web site of MPAC and wanted to know all about the Spiderman imagery used on their site.

Asghar Bukhari from MPAC responded as follows:

“MPAC is a volunteer organisation. We are highly anti-Zionist and are not afraid to say it. It is a good thing. We do not have offices and a number of people can put things on the web site. A few years ago it could have been an 18 year old girl updating the site.”

“People send us articles every day and we do not have time to read it all. If it looks OK, we may not read it and just put it up. As MPAC has grown and we have more manpower, as soon as something is flagged to us we take it down straight away.”

“18 months ago, an article went up that may not have been appropriate, but we wouldn’t know as at one point we were receiving about eight articles a day.”

“We make mistakes. What I find crazy though is the idea that we must have known it or did it on purpose. Now for the first time Spiderman is considered anti Semitic. The phrase “pound of flesh” was used on the web site. I had no idea that it was Anti-Semitic, I don’t know Shakespeare. We screw up. We are humans. We take it off. If you think it is that bad, give us some money and we can go over everything with a fine tooth comb.”

A questioner from the floor wanted to know if there was anything in Judaic religious law that said something about “Zionism” being wrong. Stephen preceded a long response by admitting he was not an expert on Jewish religious law. He went on to add that for a long time it was not part of Jewish belief to establish a state. He gave an example of 1492 when Jews were expelled from Spain and could have all gone to Palestine, but only a few hundred families went. He accepted that the majority of Jews have accepted the “Zionist” view of Judaism but there were a few organisations such as Neturei Karta who view Israel as an abomination. He also stated that the majority of orthodox Jews are non-Zionist and that the Liberal and Reform movements saw Judaism as an ethical code. He went on to quote a Jewish philosopher who has claimed that modern Zionism is a form of idolatry as people are worshipping Israel instead of worshipping God. He also quoted Mark Ellis who said something like modern Jews should take the Sefer Torahs out of their arks and replace it with F16s and guns as that is what they worship. Alan Hart then stated that the survival of the Jewish people does not depend on land but relies on living n accordance with the religion. He commented that Zionism is an enemy of the Jews and that prior to the Holocaust most Jews who were thoughtful were opposed to Zionism.

The next questioner from the floor wanted to hear from a Jew explaining why they are not “anti-gentile”. The questioner understood terms like “Goy” to be derogatory. It was OK for Jews to charge interest and to have rape relationships with non-Jews. Stephen Marks responded by saying that verses in all religious texts can be taken out of context.

Someone called Deborah from Jews for Justice for Palestinians asked Alan Hart if it was too late for a two state solution. Alan Hart responded that the idea of a two state solution was absurd and that it was a one state solution or no solution at all.

I then raised a question myself by stating that it was not just 18 months ago that MPAC were publishing antisemitic stuff on their web site, but only this week, they had put up two articles. The first one claiming, in relation to David Cameron’s election, that Likud has won, claiming that Cameron has Israeli masters. Furthemore I wanted to know why were they claiming that Mossad were operating in British Universities. Stephen Marks claimed that it was not antisemitic just silly. Ashgar Bukhari also denied that it was antisemitic. I then queried why had they then taken the posts down. Bukhari then turned away from looking at me to address others in the audience and said that Muslim religious leaders are too passive and that they do not teach political activism. He claimed that they (the Zionists?) will publish a list of all the mistakes made by MPAC. He said that “the Zionists” are awake. Pointing at me, said that this was an example of it, and it was happening in front of your eyes. (Note before my question, I did not introduce myself nor did I state or even imply that I was a “Zionist”at any point). He went on to state “We (Muslims) are always going to be under attack and that they (“the Zionists”) want to smear you so you can’t fight for the Palestinians. Don’t let MPAC fight alone. Activate yourself”.

Stephen Marks ended his contribution by stating that there are Jews who fight for the Palestinans. Alan Hart concluded by saying that the reason why “the Zionists” want to suppress debate is that they know they have done wrong.

The moderator from MPAC in her final announcements advertised the march the next day being organised by Hizb ut Tahrir.

I left the meeting immediately at the end as I did not want to hang around in that atmosphere, but someone who did stay to ask Bukhari some more questions afterwards reported back to me that Bukhari said and I quote “Any one who supports Israel can go and boil their head”.


You can also have a look at MPAC’s own account of last night’s event, and at this rather good one, on Indigo Jo’s blog. And this oneon Harry’s Place.

Here is Stephen Marks’ comment on Harry’s Place:

It’s difficult to reconstruct a meeting at which you were one of the speakers. I am trying to reconstruct what I said from my notes, as I don’t recognise most of it from the accounts that have appeared elsehere. Mark Elf can’t post anything on his blog till tomorrow and my efforts are hindered by a stomach bug.

The cancellation of the meeting by Westminster, in response to secret behind-the-scenes complaints, was scandalous. On those freedom of speech grounds alone I am glad I spoke.A phone call from persons unknown was enough to get the meeting cancelled – I don’t know of a Muslim organisation in the country that could get that result in that way.

I don’t know who was responsible but if it was the UJS I wouldn’t be surprised – in my experience that is the way they operate. If you don’t like anti-Jewish conspiracy theories – and I dont – then don’t act like a conspirator.

I still don’t know what the charge against the meeting was supposed to be. If they think Hart’s book was antisemitic let them come out and say why – Hart has said he will see them in court. I made clear my points of agreement and of disagreement with it from the platform. The banners had their chance to do the same – they chose not to.

The same goes for MPAC. If they want to say it should be banned as an organisation from holding meetings on campus let them say so in the open and the question can be discussed. I made clear to Asghar from the platform that I thought their coverage of issues like Cameron and UJS was childish and hysterical, not least because it actually precluded a serious discussion of the issues.

I would like to see a serious discussion of the role of Conservative Friends of Israel and its Labour equivalent, as well as of the Labour Middle East Council and CAABU. I would certainly like to see a serious discussion of the way UJS operates on campus to close down debate. But rants about ‘Likud wins’ and ‘Mossad agents’ actually get in the way of that and discredit those who come out with them, as I told Asghar to his face.

In the same way, I would like to see a serious discussion of whatever comes out in the RESPECT local election manifesto. As someone very sceptical of that outfit I would expect it to contain unexceptionable sentiments about local services; criticisms of New Labour’s record with much of which I could agree; and an alarming degree of ignorance about the nuts and bolts of local government and actual policy implementation; all covered with a lukewarm sauce of demagogic goo.

I would also expect to keep an eagle eye open for concessions to certain communalist concerns of a conservative or reactionary nature – though as local government has little say in such matters as gay rights and abortion there would probably be little room for that.
So I was glad to see that David T had posted some advance leak of the RESPECT local election manifesto and clicked on the link hoping to see something serious.
What I got of course was a childish joke of a kind that give or take the difference in bias, would fit in well to the MPAC website on a bad newsday. Keep it up David T; you’re well on the way to winning the title of the thinking man’s Asghar Bukhari.

Actually that’s unfair on Asghar – at least when he makes a damn fool of himself, he leaves the comments box open.
Posted by stephen marks at December 12, 2005 12:12 PM

Message of support to Chuka Umunna – from Shalom Lappin

Dear Mr. Umunna,

Shalom Lappin 

I am writing to express my support and my gratitude for the strong, principled stand that you have taken on recent developments within the Labour Party. I am a longstanding Labour supporter, but I find myself unable to endorse the Party under its current leadership.

I feel politically disinherited, and deeply discouraged by the current political situation in the UK. To the right we have an incompetent Tory government driving the country head first over the cliff of Brexit. The Prime Minister’s inability to provide intelligent direction in these difficult times leaves the country adrift, and at real risk of serious economic and social chaos. She has allowed herself to be held hostage by rabid Euro Skeptics pursuing a Trumpian agenda of anti-immigrant prejudice and reactionary economic policies. To the left we have Labour in the hands of Corbyn and his dismal band of 1970s ideologues, promoting a bizarrely regressive neo-Soviet politics. It is replete with howling purges of independent voices, and the sewage of Stalinoid anti-Jewish racism. In the centre the Liberal Democrats languish ineffectually, thoroughly compromised by years of collaboration with Tory austerity policies and assaults on the welfare state.

In this grim landscape the presence of a progressive social democratic alternative is achingly absent. You and your colleagues from the traditional moderate core of Labour are badly needed. I fear that saving Labour from within is now a lost cause. Corbyn and Momentum have succeeded in harnessing the energy of young, well meaning activists, with no sense of political history, for an assault on the democratic left. They have become an unwitting Red Guard in the hands of his functionaries, supplying the shock troops for his destruction of Labour as a party of radical democratic reform. Should the moderates and the independents in the Party remain, they will be systematically isolated and jettisoned.

It is, I believe, urgent that you create a party of the democratic left now rather than later. Such a party is an imperative in an environment devoid of serious political leadership. We are living in a dangerous period of instability in which the foundational norms of liberal democracy are under attack throughout the world from extremists, racists, and irresponsible adventurers of every type. It is crucial that decent, politically progressive leaders present a forceful and convincing alternative to these agents of chaos and reaction. I very much hope that you and your colleagues take on this challenge as soon as possible.

Should you embark on a the creation of a new party, I would be honoured to assist in any way possible.

Shalom Lappin, FBA, MAE
Emeritus Professor of Computational Linguistics
King’s College London

The taboo temptation: Labour’s euphemistic anti-Semitism – Yaron Matras

A ‘euphemism’ is a word that is used as a substitute for an expression that can cause offence or embarrassment. Authors Kate Burridge and Keith Allan define euphemisms as a shield and at the same time a weapon: They are a way of confronting the problem of how to talk about things that can be uncomfortable – like body parts and bodily functions, sex and lust, death and disease, hate and dishonesty. They are a way of venturing into taboo territory without getting caught, like when we say ‘poo’ or ‘wee’ when we’re talking to children.

So if you were looking for a way to say that ‘Jews are disloyal’, then you might try substituting the word ‘Jew’ by the word ‘Zionist’. Why would that work? For a start, you would be avoiding the taboo of singling out an ethnic group for wholesale abuse. You would also create a smokescreen of ambiguity: Zionism is defined broadly as a political idea, and Zionists are those who support that idea. So singling out Zionists would be seen as a legitimate form of political criticism.

But there are pitfalls: For a start, those with a nuanced understanding of history know that there is an array of different opinions that all fall under the rather vague umbrella term ‘Zionist’. This is why Labour’s Emily Thornberrry was inclined to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn himself was, in fact, a Zionist. And next, when you use a collective term like ‘The Zionists’ to refer to a group of specific people who are not individually named, then you are purposefully obscuring the political meaning of the term and strengthening instead its function as a euphemistic label. For that reason, the smokescreen effect becomes apparent, just like we all know what we mean when we say ‘poo’ or ‘wee’.

That is why the Chakrabarti report on anti-Semitism in the Labour party, otherwise widely criticised as a whitewash, concluded, albeit rather reservedly, that ‘Zionist’ should be used ‘advisedly, carefully, and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse.’ So when a video emerged that showed Jeremy Corbyn remarking that ‘Zionists’ lack qualities of Englishness such as irony even though they have ‘lived here all their lives’, it infuriated those who over the past weeks and months have already been on edge through a series of transgressions in the Labour party that might be described as wholesale euphemism: playing around with criticism of Israeli policy as a way of testing the boundaries and challenging the taboo.

To be clear, I am not a fan of Israeli policy, and I’ve done my bit over the decades to actively oppose it and to actively cultivate links of trust and collaboration with Palestinians, though I’m not going to spell it all out here as I don’t feel that I need to establish my anti-Zionist credentials in order to legitimise my fear of even the most subtle forms of anti-Semitism. But what we’ve been seeing in sections of the Labour party is a drive to challenge the taboo: Suggestions that Hitler was a Zionist, that Israelis are Nazis, that Jews control the media (well exemplified by the Morning Star’s recent reference to the ‘wealthy and powerful’), or that Jewish Labour party members are Israeli agents, contain no element of political analysis or strategy. Nor do they help further the cause of the Palestinians. All they do is toss around offence and insult, under the seemingly protective euphemistic wrap of political criticism of Israel.

We need to look at this in full context. ‘Othering’ of Jews is more common in UK institutional settings than many might wish to admit or recognise, and that includes the UK higher education sector: I was once teased by a senior colleague about whether I spent a supervision meeting with a Jewish student chatting about ‘how to kill Arabs’. I witnessed another Israeli colleague being asked to remove himself from a PhD panel because ‘it would not be appropriate for an Israeli to supervise a Jordanian student’. In 2005, after the university lecturers’ union AUT declared a boycott of Israeli academia, a line manager who learned that I had talked to a senior Israeli academic about the possibility of giving a seminar threatened me with disciplinary action for ‘committing the University to a political position’, though the university had never adopted the union’s policy of singling out any country or individual scholar for boycott.

It’s hard to see how such expressions of suspicion and exclusion would unequivocally fall under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism that has become the focus of Labour’s most recent debates. But when the full range of institution-based practices is taken into consideration, one can understand what led three Jewish newspapers to write in late July 2018 that a Corbyn-led government would pose an existential threat to Jewish life in this country: If a trade union resolution to boycott Israel could trigger the kind of reaction that I describe above, what would happen if it became government policy to treat Jews as ‘Zionist agents’ who cannot be trusted, whose conversations should come under scrutiny, and whose international links need to be put under surveillance?

In early September, Labour will return to debating the IHRA definition. But even if the Labour leadership were to back track from its initial reservations, the issue won’t go away. Corbyn has so far been talking in reverse, saying that he deplores anti-Semitism but will not be deterred from criticising Israel. In that way he is only strengthening the perception that he sees the whole debate as an attempt to prevent him from supporting the Palestinians. Instead, a simple and straightforward statement is called for: Labour should declare explicitly that it opposes Israel’s policies, but that this position gives no legitimacy to the use of hostile imagery against Jews as Jews. It should declare an end not just to the use of individual expressions as euphemisms, but to a pattern of behaviour by which the debate around Israel is seen by some as a tempting arena through which to challenge the taboo, and get away with it without sanctions.

Yaron Matras
Professor of Linguistics, School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures, University of Manchester
Affiliated Researcher, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge

Here’s an interview with David Hirsh in German

Denial: Norman Finkelstein and the New Antisemitism – Alan Johnson

This piece, by Alan Johnson, is from fathom. 

In recent days the US polemicist Norman Finkelstein has injected a crude claim into the debate about antisemitism in the UK Labour Party: ‘the brouhaha is a calculated hoax — dare it be said, plot?’ This kind of denialism and victim-blaming is, of course, itself an example of contemporary antisemitism, and if the UK Labour Party listens to the counsel of Norman Finkelstein about antisemitism in its ranks then it really will have lost its way, and perhaps for good.[i] In response, Fathom is making available an extract from ‘Denial: Norman Finkelstein and the New Antisemitism’ a chapter by our editor Alan Johnson in Unity and Disunity in Contemporary Antisemitismedited by Jonathan Campbell and Lesley Klaff (forthcoming, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2018). The editors wish to express their thanks to Academic Studies Press for permission to publish the extract. We encourage our readers to buy the book. The other contributors areDavid Hirsh, the late Robert Fine, Kenneth Marcus, Dave Rich, David Seymour, Bernard Harrison, Matthias Kuentzel, Rusi Jaspal, Amy Elman, and Lesley Klaff.

The concept of a ‘new antisemitism’ directs our attention to some of the ways in which some people talk about Israel, Israelis and ‘Zionism’, suggesting that these ways have left the terrain of ‘criticism of Israeli policy’ and become something much darker.[ii] The concept is concerned to distinguish between legitimate criticism of that policy (most obviously, of the occupation of the territories, the settlement project, the treatment of minorities in Israel, and the degree of force Israel uses to restore deterrence against Hamas) and an essentialising, demonising and dehumanising discourse which bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism (and most Jews) out of shape until they are fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism.

The concept alerts us to antisemitism’s tendency to shape-shift through history. And to the possibility that since the creation of a Jewish state, in some quarters, what the demonized and essentialised ‘Jew’ once was, demonised and essentialised Israel now is: malevolent in its very nature, all-controlling, full of blood lust, and the obstacle to a better, purer, and more spiritual world.

The new antisemitism, which might also be called antisemitic anti-Zionism, has three components: a political programme to abolish the Jewish homeland, a discourse to demonise it, and a movement to make it a global pariah state. The old antisemitism – which has not gone away, but co-mingles with the new form – believed ‘the Jew is our Misfortune’. The new antisemitism proclaims ‘the Zionist is our misfortune’. The old antisemitism wanted to make the world ‘Judenrein’, free of Jews. The new antisemitism wants to make the world ‘Judenstaatrein’, free of the Jewish state which all but a sliver of world Jewry either lives in or treats as a vitally important part of their identity.

We have no right to be disbelieving of this development. After all, antisemitism has never really been about the Jews, but about the need of some non-Jews to scapegoat Jews. As those needs have changed throughout history, the physiognomy of antisemitism has also changed.

… read the rest of this piece by Alan Johnson, on the fathom website. 

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