English original of David Hirsh’s Interview in Le Figaro

There was an interview with David Hirsh published in Le Figaro about Labour antisemtiism in the UK. For the published version, in French, follow this web link. Here is the original in English, before it was tidied up and translated into French:

1.       Do you agree with rabbi Ephraim Mirvis saying Jews are justifiably anxious about the prospect of Labour forming the next government ?

Yes, Jews are anxious. Yes, their anxiety is justifiable.

2.       Where does this antisemitism come from ?

Left antisemitism has a long history, going back to people like Bruno Bauer, critiqued by Marx, who argued that Jews should not be emancipated in the state until they had emancipated themselves from their religion. August Bebel had to oppose the ‘socialism of fools’ – conspiracy fantasy which pictures the oppressors as Jewish. Much of the left at the time of Dreyfus was ambivalent, thinking this was a fight within ‘the elite’. The Stalinists made use of Jew-hatred, identifying Jews with capitalism and imperialism and they pushed hard this story that Israel is an imperialist and apartheid state.

Today’s left antisemitism begins as furious and focused hostility to Israel, it supports the exclusion of Israelis from the life of humanity, it defines its own identity in relation to the Israeli enemy and it tolerates all kinds of antisemitic discourse and bullying which it attracts.

Yesterday we saw the huge swirl of hostility not around Israel but around the Chief Rabbi, who is accused first of trying dishonestly to help Israel with his fake accusation of antisemitism and then is quickly also accused of being right wing and supporting the rich in trying to prevent a Labour government.

Corbyn himself, and the faction which raised him to power, and swept into the Labour Party to support him, has a long history of jumping to the defence of antisemites against Jews.

3.       Is Jeremy Corbyn’s defense convincing ? Did the party take appropriate measures to fight antisemitism in its ranks ?

Corbyn lies. First, he says that he is doing everything he can to rid the party of antisemitism, but this has been shown to be false. The Chief called it ‘mendacious speech’.  The truth is the opposite. As demonstrated by John Ware in his Panorama documentary, Corbyn, his office, and his supporters have deliberately slowed the disciplinary system, have helped out their allies.

Corbyn also lies when he says he would like to meet the Chief Rabbi and find out why he’s so upset. The truth is that Corbyn and his people have had a number of meetings with the leadership of the Jewish community – Jewish Leadership Council, CST, BoD… he doesn’t listen and he doesn’t reassure.

[note. I have since been told that there was in fact only one formal meeting of this kind. But the point holds I think. Corbyn has had every opportunity to understand the grievances and the Party has had every opportunity to engage with various institutions and individuals in the Jewish community. – DH]

Corbyn himself has a long history of supporting antisemitism against Jews: he has said Hamas and Hezbollah are dedicated to fighting for peace and justice; he has presented English language propaganda for Press TV; he said the antisemitic mural should not be taken down; he defended Steven Sizer, saying he was a good critic of Israel etc etc.

There are thousands of examples, carefully documented, of Labour antisemitism. LAAS, CAA, JLM have submitted them to the EHRC.  Look at the submissions to Chakrabarti.

There is political antisemitism at the top; it creates institutional antisemitism; that licenses people to bully and harass.

4.       Do you observe such a phenomenon in other left parties in Europe or in the USA ?

Yes. But it has not yet tainted the whole party in other democratic countries.

[Second Email]

1.        To what extent does clientelism of the Labour Party towards Muslims could threaten the English Jews?

I don’t think the issue of Labour antisemitism is, in the first place, anything at all to do with Muslims. I think that Corbyn’s kind of antisemitism is a traditional left antisemitism, with a specific Stalinist ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘antizionist’ heritage, and today mixing and swirling with a more traditional English antisemitism.

It is true that there is some shared political narrative, and some history of joint political work, between Corbyn’s faction and various kinds of Islamist politics.  Corbyn has ‘celebrated’ the anniversaries of the Iranian revolution and he has been hosted by Hamas and Hezbollah; he thinks that it is imperialism that is responsible for ISIS and Al Qaeda.  But I wouldn’t want to blame the current crisis on Muslims, and not even, primarily on Islamism.
2.    Why and how does antisemitism threaten Jews? 

Well, we just don’t know the answer.

We know that many Jews feel threatened by the prospect of an antisemite in No. 10.  We know that there are many conversations about leaving Britain, most of it only conversations.  I don’t think people are planning to leave Britain in any significant numbers but I do think that people are making sure that that option is open to them – they’re getting foreign passports, thinking about what kind of work they could do abroad, etc.

Are they justified?  I don’t know.

There are a number of specific and concrete threats: the use of the British chair in the UN Security council; funding for security at Jewish schools and synagogues; possible moves against dual nationals or against people who have fought in the Israeli army; a rise in BDS, sanctioned and legitimised by the government.

I think that if kids are bullied at school, for example, by being called “murdering Zionists” it will be difficult for teachers to know how to protect them – well, even the PM thinks it’s true.

We can think of many concrete things.  But I’m more worried about the other things.

Both Corbyn’s faction and also Brexit are conspiracy fantasies. They are populist – they divide the world into ‘the people’ and ‘enemies of the people’.

So Labour didn’t engage with the truth of what the Chief had said, it merely smeared him as a Tory and a Zionist – as “enemy of the people”.

We could not have this problem if there was not also a balancing problem on the right of British politics.  Johnson has done the same to the Tory Party that Corbyn has done to the Labour Party.
So the real danger is the mainstreaming of antisemitic discourse and conspiracy fantasy.

The result of an antisemite in no. 10 would be the rise of an antisemitic movement. Corbyn will fail and when he does, his people will blame Zionists and Jews.  Alternatively, Brexit will fail, and when it does, people will blame cosmopolitans, finance capital, globalists, the metropolitan elite.

The danger is the rise of an antisemitic movement.

There was an interview with David Hirsh published in Le Figaro about Labour antisemtiism in the UK. For the published version, in French, follow this web link. Here is the original in English, before it was tidied up and translated into French:

What is populism? David Hirsh

This piece, by David Hirsh, first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

David Hirsh


In politics, being popular is good but populism is something different, and it threatens our democracy. Left and right wing populism have a lot in common and they are both part of the same danger. Extremist ideas like racism, xenophobia and antisemitism have returned to the mainstream.

Populism splits everything into good and bad: ‘the people’ and ‘enemies of the people’. ‘The people’ is an idea, the opposite of the material diversity of flesh and blood human beings.

Politics is about representing people, with different tastes, opinions, values and dreams; people from different classes, genders and origins; with different interests, talents, and problems. Democracy as a whole, including Parliament, the rule of law, civil society organisations, international co-operation, democratic freedoms and cultures, is how we negotiate our differences and find ways of living together.

Our democracy is not perfect, but it is a huge achievement nevertheless and we should build on it, not devalue it.

But ‘the people’, as conceived by populism, has one interest, one appetite and one resentful fury. Because ‘the people’ is really an abstract idea, it cannot articulate anything; it needs a leader to understand its eternal soul and to speak with its voice.

Populism begins with the feeling that nothing that exists now is of any value and it is driven by sentimental nostalgia for a past which never really existed.

The populisms of the left and of the right agree that the real enemy is the ‘liberal establishment’ which is portrayed as only cunning and selfish. It is accused of pretending that society is based on freedom and democracy but secretly running everything according to its own secret self-interest.

News, according to the populists, is lies, concocted so that we will vote how ‘the establishment’ wants us to. Politics, for the populists, is a racket, in which a ‘political class’ only pretends to look out for the good of the country.

Populism treats science and expertise as mortally corrupted by power. Even the principle of human equality, the populists think, is sneakily transformed by those with power into a way of keeping us unequal.

The referendum of 2016 made one day holy. An election gives representation even to the losers but a referendum sets up a new timeless truth and it prevents ongoing debate. The demagogues took ownership of the referendum result and they appropriated the right to interpret what it meant.

Populism is utopian. Johnson does not promise to make Britain a little better but to make it the best country in the world. Corbyn does not promise to make Britain a little fairer but to abolish injustice. Populism has contempt for the rational policies that might improve things. Instead, it thunders that it will rip everything down rebuild a new world out of the ashes.

It is easier to destroy than to create. Populism will never deliver what it promises. That is why the idea of the ‘enemy of the people’ is so important. Failure will be blamed on the cosmopolitans, the liberal elite, the people of nowhere, the people ‘without roots in the community’, the people with no culture, those who are only interested in money and in ‘the one per cent’.

Antisemitism has evolved through many distinct species to become a ready-made emotional framework for imagining all of these enemies in one potent vision of evil.

We have seen antisemitism emerge into the mainstream left. In its appearance as ‘criticism of Israel’ it is still plausibly, to some, deniable; yet antisemitism is ‘educating’ a whole layer of left activists that ‘Zionism’ and ‘right wing Jews’ stand between ‘us’ and socialism.

Right populism is also structurally similar to antisemitism and it is creating fertile conditions for the emergence of its own antisemitic movement. Brexit can only be ‘betrayed’ since any Brexit which may be delivered would fall short of the fantasy.

It will lead to crisis, people losing their jobs and to a new and deeper ‘austerity’. Right populists will look for somebody to blame. They will find ‘enemies of the people’ and some of them will picture the enemy with a big nose and a grasping cunning.

Both of the big parties have been killed, hollowed out, and animated by hostile populist factions. This is not a crisis of the left or the right but of both. There could be no Corbyn without Brexit and there could be no Johnson without Corbyn.

Voters will think of supporting one populist leader for fear of the other but the price of that would be to strengthen the populist culture as a whole.

The alternative is to vote for anti-populist candidates, to maximise opposition to populism in Parliament, and to build a movement tough enough and smart enough to defend liberal democracy.

This piece, by David Hirsh, first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

To live is to fight. How the Jewish tradition prepares us to respond to the recent deadly attack on a German Synagogue – Robert Ogman

* This article, by Robert Ogman, was first published in German in Jungle World 44/2019.

Robert Ogman

Just days before the deadly attack outside the Halle synagogue, bracketed between the Jewish New Year celebration Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur, a friend of mine wrote to me what’s become a popular motto to summarize Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” The self-parodying motto, widely known in Jewish communities, refers to the triad of historical experience and social practice: doom, salvation, and affirmation of life. It recalls succinctly and humorously the permanent state of threat, the miracle of survival, and the necessity of rejoice. No holiday better encapsulates this triad as Pesach, when the story of slavery under the Pharaoh and exodus from Egypt is retold, and liberation is rejoiced over a large feast and four glasses of wine.

Yet just days later, when a heavily-armed neo-Nazi attacked a Halle synagogue on Yom Kippur, we were quickly reminded that the motto does not refer to closed historical events of the past which we have left behind. Wie Brecht schon sagte, “Der Schoß ist fruchtbar noch, aus dem das kroch.” When in today’s ‘post-national’ Germany, 25% of the population can imagine that something like the Holocaust could repeat itself here, then we – the main Feindbild – know that the triad danger-resilience-and affirmation of life refers equally to our current reality which we have to navigate in our own times. From this, there appears no simple and final redemption – not liberal cosmopolitanism, socialist internationalism, or even Jewish self-determination.

Yes, the Jews may have given the world the bible, broke out of the cyclical view of time, affirmed self- and societal development rather than obeying and mimicking nature – ideas taken up successively by all the monotheistic religions and secular culture alike – but for these gifts, the world has filled its libraries with lies against them.

Society permanently updates its assault with new rationalizations: first the Jews were the Christ killers, then the poisoners of wells, next the bringers of the bubonic plague and black death, afterward the destroyers of society with money and abstract value, then the undertakers of traditional culture with the assertion of universal equality, then blamed for colonialism and “the Middle East conflict”. A broken record always adapted to the times. In the fantasy world of the murderer in a Pittsburgh synagogue one year ago, south American migrants are not fleeing poverty, war, and oppression to seek better lives in the U.S., but instead are simply pawns manipulated by Jewish conspirators to demographically and culturally undermine the white Christian majority in the U.S. for their own interests. This ideology was mimicked in the manifesto of the Halle attacker Stephan B. According to his warped mind, the Syrian and Afghani exodus from their war-torn countries is not the flight of real people seeking security and better lives. No, instead these individuals lack agency and are mere “golems” – just dust brought to life by Jewish mystics through alchemical transformation, and brought to Europe with the devious aim of displacing German Christians and installing Jewish domination. For this reason he decided against attacking a Mosque, and sought instead to “cut off the head” of the supposed “plot”, and attack Jews.

So after we prayed, each in our own religious or secular ways, that the terror in Halle would end quickly and without any deaths or injuries, we screamed out in fury at the fascist danger. We criticized the ideology of that supposed lone wolf Stephan B., and the thousands of armed neo-Nazis throughout German society, which has infiltrated the police and security forces. We raged against the cuts to anti-racism education programs and right-wing extremism prevention projects. We criticized the intellectual instigators, the far-Right “Alternative for Germany” party, which have been called the “political wing of right-wing terrorism”. And we damned the authorities for minimizing our security concerns.

But yet, as loud as the “Never Again!” proclamations were in the media, social media, and at public vigils, so extremely silent were the people around me. So few were the phone calls or messages from friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or self-described “comrades” in the days after the attack. So easy it was to post something stupid banner on Facebook – so difficult they must have found it to reach out and ask, “how are you holding up?” How formally correct, and how socially and emotionally removed at the same time! This too is this state of Germany amid the “outrage” after Halle.

At our vigils we mourned the senseless loss of life, and we said the mourner’s kaddish for Jana L. and Kevin S. during services. Political commentators quarreled about whether the attack was of an antisemitic character, or directed instead against “society as a whole”. What a stupid exercise. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s prescient observation that totalitarianism makes all human life superfluous, and at the same time, that it has deep, critical differentiations which cannot be smoothed over – a contradictory truth we should try to keep in mind. The two unique individuals who did not belong to the Jewish community, but were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, were reduced by the fascist mind to nothing but superfluous matter, disposable objects in the mission to rid the world of Jews.

And while mourning the senseless loss of life, we also marveled at the narrow avoidance of a massacre – yes this contradiction could not cover up the miracle of survival. Yes, they tried to kill us (again) … and yet we survived! A remnant always does. We marveled at the wonder of a simple wooden door to stop evil, to stop a massacre in the unprotected Halle synagogue.

On the way to the hospital to be treated for shock – death narrowly escaped – the congregations’ survivors danced, and sang out “The Jewish people live on!” Upon nightfall, they congregated in the hospital cafeteria, completed the holiday prayers, blew the Shofar (the ram’s horn) signaling the end of Yom Kippur. They broke their Yom Kippur fast and drank beer.

The struggle against antisemitism is simply the fight against the reduction of life to mere matter, to an impoverished conception of ‘nature’, ‘race’, blood, labor, and force. And so this very cause must too defend the autonomy of life over all external causes. Hence after doom and salvation, we affirm life. We reject the objectivization and projections by anti-Semites, and also those by well-meaning ‘antifascists’ alike, and assert ourselves as subjects within history, through the renewal of our traditions. This is why it made sense, following the “Tree of Life” synagoge shooting in the United States, to call “all out for Shabbat!” For it is this creative interruption of time and space – the disruption of everyday life and labor, the halt to practices that change the world (through utilization and instrumentalization), and instead the uncompromising and simple affirmation of life – which may be a necessary part of the efforts to repair the world, of Tikkun Olam, or if secular terms are preferred, to “make it whole”, in the words of Ernst Bloch. That a similar call was not made in Germany may say much about the different political cultures in these two countries, but it doesn’t call for simple mimicry. There is much to be changed, but there is also much to be disrupted and affirmed – so we proclaim and sanctify life, for to live is our struggle, so let’s eat!


* This article, by Robert Ogman,g was first published in German in Jungle World 44/2019.

David Hirsh in Germany – November 2019

David Hirsh will be speaking on antisemitism, Brexit and populism.
Follow the links for details; more details will appear here when we have them.

31  Berlin


Follow this link for David Hirsh’s Goldsmiths homepage

Follow this link for ‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism’



Pete Willsman and the Al Jazeera ‘documentary’ that he gets his information from – David Hirsh

From the Guardian:

Pete Willsman, an ally of Jeremy Corbyn, … said the Jewish state was behind some of the antisemitism allegations – which he described as “total lies” – that have engulfed the party.

In a recording first disclosed by the radio station LBC, Willsman said: “It’s almost certain who is behind all this antisemitism against Jeremy: almost certainly, it was the Israeli embassy.

“They caught somebody in the Labour party who it turns out is an agent in the embassy.”

Last year 68 rabbis from different religious and political traditions made a joint statement that they were worried about Labour’s antisemitism problem. Willsman responded furiously, in a speech to Labour’s National Executive Committee, in front of the leaders of the Party, including Jeremy Corbyn.

He demanded that the rabbis provide evidence, implying that there was no evidence of Labour antisemitism, and saying that he had never seen any. He then said that some of the people in the Jewish community who are concerned about antisemitism in Labour are ‘Trump fanatics’. And then he said: ‘I am not going to be lectured to by Trump fanatics making up duff information without any evidence at all.’

When Willsman slips these three claims slip into each other, you are left with the allegation that people within the Labour Party who are worried about antisemitism have no evidence, because there is no antisemitism, and they are only saying there is because they’re Trump fanatics.

This is classic Livingstone Formulation. People, mainly Jews, raise the issue of antisemitism as a dirty and dishonest way of trying to silence criticism of Israel and trying to smear the left because it criticises Israel.

That is how Labour Jews get drummed out of the Party, politically and then physically; they are accused of being hostile to the left and agents of the right and of Israel.

On 4 September 2018, when Willsman returned to Labour HQ from his token suspension, he was cheered into the building.

The source of his latest claims, that Labour people who worry about antisemitism are in fact doing the bidding of the Israeli embassy is an Al Jazeera documentary which was  called ‘The Lobby’.

This was my own account, written in January 2017, of being secretly spied on by the people making that Al Jazeera film.

The film is being relied on right across the Labour party today as justification for what Willsman said. It is being referred to in every Labour forum.

The Al Jazeera spy introduced himself to me as “Robin Harrow”. I met him in the House of Commons as I was leaving the Labour Friends of Israel event at which I had spoken, following the release of the Chakrabarti Inquiry, and on the same day as Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at the Select Committee inquiry into antisemitism.

I was with my wife, who speaks German and who knows Germany. He said he had studied at the Freie Universitat Berlin. She asked if he’d known a friend of hers who had taken Jewish Studies there. He didn’t think so.

I sent him links to my work to read. He wrote back later saying he was particularly impressed by the “Livingstone Concept”. He wrote that it was an “eye opener”.

He asked if we could have dinner or lunch. I told him that I would be away most of the summer. He came back to me in September and asked for a meeting. I invited him to Goldsmiths. He said he wanted to talk about setting up a youth wing of Labour Friends of Israel.

In December, a friend of mine who works in one of the institutions of the Jewish community emailed me to tell me that “Harrow” was a spy. Initially I didn’t even remember who he was. I looked on my calendar and my email and vaguely remembered.

I hadn’t been alert, I hadn’t been suspicious. It isn’t unusual that somebody wants to meet me to talk about my work on antisemitism and its relationship to hostility to Israel.

I couldn’t remember what I had said to him. I remember asking him if he had come from an ‘anti-Deutsch’ political tradition – quite a few people I know who are serious about opposing contemporary antisemitism are German and come, broadly, from that kind of politics.

When I was told he was a spy, I couldn’t remember what I had said to him. I was anxious. When I write, I am careful to express myself precisely and unambiguously. When I am chatting with somebody I trust, over coffee, I’m likely to slip into shorthand, which is possible because there are shared understandings and shared meanings. I was trying to remember if I had been showing off, making bad jokes or using shorthand; if I had said anything which would look stupid or bad from the outside if it was taken out of context. I still don’t know. I’m glad I didn’t appear in the film. I was nervous about what might emerge. As it turned out, nearly everybody who was portrayed in the film had not done or said anything wrong at all. But there was still an attempt to make them look menacing.

He asked me about the connections between lobbying groups and Israel. I think, from memory, that I told him that Israel isn’t very good at fighting antisemitism in the diaspora; that it doesn’t prioritize it, that it isn’t good at understanding it and that what it does is largely counter productive; and that it ought to do much more to fight antisemitism and it ought to do it much better. Fighting antisemitism is one of the purposes for which Israel exists.

I think I told him that his project of setting up a youth LFI was a hugely difficult project – that we are anyway always accused of ‘lobbying for Israel’ – and that that accusation itself often constituted an antisemitic allegation of conspiracy. I told him that it would be difficult to attract young people to such a project.

I think I probably told him to find out if there was a danger of conflict between LFI and the Jewish Labour Movement – that he should talk to both. In any case, this would not have helped Al Jazeera to portray all the organisations as a single lobby organised by a foreign power.

I was interested in him, and how he had come to want to engage in this kind of politics. I told him about my mum, who had been born in Germany and had to leave in 1938. He told me about his English dad and his German mum – and how they had met, I can’t remember where, somewhere outside Germany.

So, I was left with fear. Perhaps I had said something stupid, something indiscreet, something which would make me look bad; perhaps it could cause me trouble in my job or perhaps it could harm my reputation. I don’t mean to suggest that I say or think something different in private from what I say in public. I don’t. But I think one may express oneself differently according to what one’s audience knows and understands.

The fear still lingers. Probably, I didn’t say anything stupid; because I’m not stupid; but I doubt myself. Compare with Donald Trump, who insisted that it is impossible for Putin to have anything compromising on him because he has never said or done anything compromising. My own response is to fear, and to doubt myself and to be anxious.

I am also angry. This man who posed as somebody who had read, understood and liked my work, this man who said he wanted to learn from me, at my university, was actually an antisemite who was hoping to portray me in an antisemitic way as part of an antisemtic project. Of course it is likely that he doesn’t understand himself as an antisemite at all. He understands himself as a hero of the Palestinian revolution. Or whatever. But he had read my work. He should know better.

He wanted to smoke after we had coffee, so we went to sit outside, at the front of the main building at Goldsmiths. Some of the covert photography in the film was done with a long lens from afar in public places. So this little antisemitic spy, or his collaborators, or his handlers, probably had a camera crew across the road or in a car with a lens pointed at me.

In the end, this guy was a very small guy and this project was a very small and ineffective project – and they did not get anything from me at all – so far as I know. Good. But the feeling of being lied to by an antisemite over coffee lingers.

And that he was German grates a little too. Perhaps it shouldn’t. But my family and my wife’s family – and pretty well every Jewish person I know’s family – has been profoundly impacted by German antisemites. As I said, a large proportion of the people who oppose contemporary antisemitsm are German – but this guy didn’t oppose it, he was part of it.

David Hirsh

Defending democracy will always mean opposing antisemitism – David Hirsh

This piece, by David Hirsh, is from Jewish News.

Politics in our time is about defending democracy against an arrayed series of related attacks that we might call ‘populist’. Each populism is at heart an irrational conspiracy fantasy. Each insists that democracy is fake and each populism blames some group of our fellow citizens for all our troubles, demonising them as ‘enemy of the people’.

It is not accidental that antisemitism is making a comeback as populism elbows its way back into mainstream politics. This fact is hugely consequential, not only for Jews but for anybody who wants to participate in the defence of democratic life.

Similarly, anti-Zionism constructs the ‘Israel’ that it positions it as being central to, or symbolic of, they key evils on the planet.

If that is right, then it follows that the defence against populism will also have to be a defence against antisemitism. Antisemitism is not a parochial issue about one small group of people. Opposing antisemitism is not to take one side in the Israel-Palestine conflict, a local conflict far away which we could choose to stay out of.

Antisemitism is the form of appearance of antidemocratic politics, not far away but here, not only concerning Jews but concerning us all.

Let me be clearer about what I mean by ‘populism’. The Corbyn, Trump and Brexit movements have quite a lot in common. There are many similar movements around the world: AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, the ruling parties in Italy, Austria, Turkey, Brazil, Russia, Hungary and Poland.

These are not yet totalitarian movements but they share a number of the characteristics by which philosopher Hannah Arendt defined twentieth century totalitarianism. They are proto-totalitarian movements; precursors to totalitarianism; movements which prepare the culture for the real thing. Jihadi Islamist movements fit in here too.

These movements are contemptuous of what exists and they see nothing of value in the democratic state as it is. There is no critique of Westminster, Brussels or Washington politics, no constructive thinking about how to improve life, only the promise to tear it all down and start again from zero.

Populism hates the democratic balance between liberty and community. It builds an atmosphere of fervour in which individuals rationalise their own happiness as the price payable for eventual Utopia. Populism does not struggle for specific improvements; it is only interested in the sunlit uplands of tomorrow.

Populist movements harness the politics of resentment to the advancement of those who assume the right to speak for ‘the people’. Anybody in the way is treated as ‘enemy of the people’. They build personality cults around leaders who act as empty ciphers into which every individual can pour their own dreams. The leaders offer us revenge against those who we can blame for our own feelings of inadequacy.

The populist demagogues construct communities of the good and they cast out those who do not fit. The Corbynites call the bad people, the ‘one per cent’, the Zionists, the bankers or the elites. The Brexiters call them betrayers of the will of the people or they denounce those who side with foreign nations and bureaucrats against ‘us’. There is much contempt for the ‘liberal elite’, cosmopolitans, globalists and citizens of nowhere. Populism embraces nostalgic nationalism but it has one eye on a more radical project for the whole of humanity.

Populism tends to explain inconvenient facts by reference to ‘fake news’, conspiracies which are said dishonestly to manufacture the consent of ordinary folk to their own subordination. It is contemptuous of science and expertise; only the charismatic leader knows. Witness President Trump’s recent advice on technical issues to the Paris fire service.

The populists do not understand markets and they are itching to repeat the disastrous economic policies of 1930s style protectionism and economic nationalism.

What does all this contempt for democratic culture, norms and politics have to do with antisemitism?

Antisemitism was at the very centre of Stalinist Communism and Nazism. These movements, by which people who felt powerless aspired to world domination, required a global, powerful and cunning ‘other’. Antisemitism is always projection. If you want to know what antisemites dream about, listen carefully to what they accuse Jews of doing.

The antisemitic construction of ‘the Jew’ has been forged over centuries by a succession of distinct antisemitic movements, each adding to the narrative and emotional vocabulary of the other. It sits there in our culture and we think it is a thing of the past, too vulgar and awful to constitute a contemporary threat. But antisemitic ways of thinking are nevertheless entrenched in our subconscious and are tempting resources for anti-democratic movements because they give material shape to unendurable, abstract, fear and fury.

Conspiracy fantasy is not always antisemitic but it is always ripe for it. The bad news is that we are all going to have to educate ourselves in the stealthy vileness of antisemitism. We cannot leave it to the Jews because it is not only about them. But we are resistant to this bad news. Nobody wants to be seen as the pro-Jew party, we prefer a universal message.

We cannot understand contemporary populism without understanding its relationship to antisemitism; but if we make that understanding explicit, then people will recoil against it and the message will be lost.

Of course it is far from true that every Labour supporter, Trump supporter or Brexiter is antisemitic. Indeed all of these movements have Jewish support, people who mobilise their own identities politically and publicly in an effort to protect their movements from such accusations. The angry denials of antisemitism are plausible because they are genuine. People are not aware of the antisemitism in their own movements, whether it is explicit, whether it is hidden and difficult to interpret, or whether, so far, their ideologies are only similar in shape and content to antisemitic ones.

What is true is that populist movements animate conspiracy fantasy and they denigrate ordinary democratic processes, cultures and ways of thinking. And where that is allowed to happen, antisemitism becomes hugely attractive, and it finds fertile ground, while opposition to antisemitism looks like special pleading and Jewish tribalism.

David Hirsh

What do we need to build, to save democracy? – David Hirsh

Maybe this is a mad, frightened question. I hope so. But I am frightened. I don’t share the complacency of those who ridicule ‘operation fear’.

There is an array of populist movements which trade on a cynical contempt for the democratic state: Corbyn, Trump, Brexit, Jihadi Islamism, Le Pen and the Gilets Jaunes, AfD, parties in government in Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland; Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin.

Populist leaders set up ‘the people’ as strong and good but oppressed and duped; they set up ‘enemies of the people’ who are the real power, secretly pulling the strings of fake democracy; and then they set themselves up as the voice of the people.

Populist movements, that is proto-totalitarian movements, are conspiracy fantasies. Brexit imagines that Britain’s real problems are caused by foreigners and EU bureaucrats and their unseen controllers, the cosmopolitan elite. Corbyn speaks for the 99% which he thinks is controlled by a 1% conspiracy of bankers cosmopolitans and capitalists; and he speaks for the people worldwide who he imagines are oppressed by Zionism and imperialism.

As conspiracy fantasy, populism is similar in structure to antisemitism and antisemitism is a constant temptation to it. Democratic people will not have the luxury of being able to ignore or to sidestep the dirty and disgusting battle against antisemitism.

Antisemitism is the form of appearance of anti-democratic politics.

So we need to build a movement for democratic life; a movement which knows how to take on populism; a movement which can persuade people that utopia is snake oil and that democratic life is worth fighting for.

Labour MPs are being targeted for deselection by the bullies and there isn’t a movement which can save them. Antisemites are getting legitmized by the Corbynites and there isn’t a movement which can de-legitimize them.

In the Tory Party too, the rational democratic people are being defeated, humiliated and driven out by the populists.

Streams of the politically homeless have nowhere to go.

What we need is a hard centre: which can win against Corbynites in the student union bar; against Brexiters in Colchester and Stoke; against Jihadis in Finsbury Park and Bradford; against antizionist Jews in North London.

We need to attract, educate and to then to harden hundreds and thousands of young women and men to ensure that democratic life will be possible for them and their families.

In Germany in the 30s the Communists and the Nazis were hard and organised; they agreed that the democratic state was a sham and they agreed that Weimar was responsible for its own collapse; and they had armed people on the streets. And the liberals and the social democrats were wiped out by them.

We need to build a social and a political movement that knows what it’s about, that’s exciting to be around, that has some answers, that wins some victories, that wants to build and to defend, not to sneer and to tear everything down.

David Hirsh

A straightforward and practical resource for understanding Labour’s antisemitism problem – David Hirsh

This web page, and the many links contained within it, is a resource for political people who will increasingly find that they need to understand contemporary antisemitism. Please bookmark it and come back to it when you need it. And I’m sorry to tell you that you will need it.

Antisemitism always positions its own image of ‘The Jews’ at the centre of all this that is bad in the world. It is a terrible irony that in our time not the Jews but antisemitism is implicit within most of what is threatening to democracy.

Antisemitism is not interesting and thinking about it is not what democratic people would like to spend their time doing. But we have no choice. The populist, that is the proto-totalitarian assaults on democracy which are mushrooming into mainstream politics are fundamentally conspiracy fantasies. And conspiracy fantasies are always pregnant with antisemitism, whether the fantasists know it or not.

We do not choose to be interested in antisemitism; antisemitism chooses us. Antisemitism is never only a problem for Jews, it is always also an indicator of a wider sickness of democratic politics within any space where it is tolerated. Anybody who fights for democratic politics and against populism will find themselves forced onto this terrain. And they need to know how to deal with it.

I have resigned from the Labour Party after fighting antisemitism on the left for three decades. For years I refused to be pushed out by antisemites or to acquiesce to my political homelessness. I respect those who still resist; as I respect those who never understood why I stubbornly remained.

I am on the same side as opponents of antisemitism no matter what party they’re in at the moment. People who disagree on strategy are not the problem. The problem is the antisemites: people who thrill at the ‘blasphemy’ of upsetting Jews; people who close their ears to the experiences of Jews; people who look the other way when they are shown the evidence; and people who insist that the issue of antisemitism is a conspiracy to silence criticism of Israel and to smear the left.

Follow this link for my resignation from the Labour Party

Follow this link for Eve Garrard’s piece about the pleasures of antisemitism

  1. Criticism of Israel and antisemitism

When people used to rail against Jewish bankers or Jewish pornographers, Jewish child-murderers or ‘cultural Marxism’, or the real power behind the politicians, this was not criticism of capitalist banking, pornography, murder, Marxism or democratic politics; it was antisemitism. When people ask why Hilary Clinton stood by her man or when they focus on Angela Merkel’s dress sense, that is not criticism but sexism.

There is much to love about Israel and being protective of Israel is a democratic imperative; Israel is a life-raft for the undead Jews of Europe and for their descendants; and for the Jews ethnically cleansed from the great cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East; and for the Jews who escaped the horrors of Russian Tsarism and then Communism.

Today, about half of the world’s Jews live in Israel and about half in the United States of America, give or take small communities in Britain, France, Germany, South Africa and Australia, and smaller communities elsewhere. A hundred and twenty years ago they lived almost wholly in eastern and central Europe, Russia, north Africa and the middle east. To nurse only an angry hostility to Israel within yourself is to refuse to feel the joy of Jewish survival and renaissance.

Some people are more critical than others of the ways in which Israel relates to its neighbours, and that is fine. There are real conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, and between Jews and the huge and largely hostile region which surrounds them. Of course it is important for people to critically and politically engage with Israeli policies and political culture, as it is important to engage with Palestinian and wider Arab and Islamist politics.

But antisemitism is not criticism of Israel.

The problem is when actual events come to be thought of in antisemitic ways. Yes, people under eighteen are killed in the conflict, no Israel does not set out to murder children. Yes, Israel and Jews fight politically for people to see things their way, no there is no Zionist control of the ‘mainstream media’. Yes, there is racism in Israel, no Israel is not in essence a racist endeavour. Yes, Jews sometimes worry too much about antisemitism, no they do not raise the issue, ‘weaponise it’, in a dirty conspiracy to silence the Palestinians.

Antisemitism, and the anger, hostility and demonization of Israel with which it comes packaged, is not the same thing as rational criticism of this or that Israeli policy or this or that aspect of Israeli culture.

Follow this link to Norman Geras’ piece on ‘Alibi Antisemitism’

Follow this link for David Hirsh’s ‘Open Democracy’ piece: ‘Stop accusing Jews of conspiring against the community of the left’

  1. The Livingstone Formulation.

The standard way, since the Macpherson Inquiry, of responding to somebody who says they have experienced racism or sexism is to begin with the assumption that they might well be right.

The standard way of responding to Jews who say they have experienced antisemitism is to assume they might be lying in an effort to smear or to silence.

My experience of raising the issue of antisemitism is precisely that. I was not treated as somebody who has something important to say, I was treated as somebody who means the left harm, somebody who is really from outside, an imposter, an alien, somebody who is spinning a malicious falsehood at the behest of a foreign state.

Follow this link for my description of being spied on by Al Jazeera

Populist politics tends not to engage rationally with what people say. Rather, it tends to define communities of those who are on the side of ‘the people’ in fixed opposition to those who are defined as being necessarily ‘enemies of the people’. Those who raise the issue of antisemitism get cast out of the ‘community of the good’ and treated as hostile; they are excluded from the universe of people who should be debated with and they are put into the universe of people who may be vilified as enemies. This is what happens to Jews on the contemporary left, those anyway who refuse to disavow Israel and to whitewash antisemitism.

The Livingstone Formulation is a refusal to engage with the issue of antisemitism; it is a refusal to look at the argument or the evidence; instead it reflects back an instant and angry counter-accusation that the Jew is the aggressor and that the antisemite is the victim.

Antisemites have always presented themselves as victims of the Jews.

Antisemitism is a weapon aimed at Jews; it is not ‘weaponized’ by Jews against antisemites.

Antisemitism silences Jews, it does not silence antisemites.

For more about the Livingstone Formulation, follow this link

For more on the way Jews get expelled from Corbyn’s ‘community of the good’ follow this link

  1. People who are most responsible for Labour antisemitism believe themselves to be the most consistent opponents of antisemitism

Is Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite? He is a man who for decades has embraced antisemitic politics; he has a long record of defending antisemites against Jews; he supports Hamas and Hezbollah; he participated in a wreath laying ceremony for the Munich Olympic murders of Jews; he treats Israel as a key evil on the planet; under his leadership antisemitism in the Labour Party has blossomed; he is so wedded to his way of thinking that he has been willing to endanger his whole project rather than deal with the problem; one of his key advisors said that the issue of defining antisemitism was a hill that he was prepared to die on.

Yes, but is Jeremy Corby an antisemite? My answer to that is, it depends on what you mean by the word. I am interested in what he says and what he does, not in the moral cleanliness of his own inner soul.

In our time, racism is not only, and not even mostly, about hatred. Racism is about social structures and fixed ways of thinking which seem like common sense and which exclude and discriminate against people.

Antisemitism is the same. People who defend antisemitic ways of thinking and exclusions are often quite convinced that they are doing the opposite. They look into their own heads and find themselves morally blameless; so they then look at the accusers and angrily accuse them of acting in bad faith.

But fighting antisemitism is not only about finding and expelling individuals. Antisemitism is a social phenomenon, external to any particular person; it exists objectively, irrespective of somebody’s subjective feelings about themselves or about Jews. The carriers of today’s antisemitism think of themselves as good people and as antiracists.

But if you, like Pete Willsman, a member of Labour’s NEC, say that those raising the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party are ‘Trump fanatics’; or if you, like a former vice chair of Momentum Jackie Walker, try to make people think of Jews as ‘the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade’; or if, like Ken Livingstone, you say that ‘Hitler was supporting Zionism… before he went mad’; of if you, like Jeremy Corbyn, present programmes for the propaganda outlets of the Iranian regime; then you are doing antisemitic things, even if that is not how you feel about yourself.

This is one of the difficult things about challenging contemporary antisemitism. People who say antisemitic things genuinely have no understanding of why people think they are antisemitic. And they are not open to thinking about the issue in an ordinary way.

But there is an issue of institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party because it is tolerated and licensed by the leadership – by its politics – and by the institutions of the Party even when they deny that this is the case.

In 2003 to 2011 we saw the University and College Union being infected by institutional antisemitism when it began to embrace the boycott campaign.  One of the forms this takes is a demand for secrecy. Institutional racism requires a tightly closed boundary around the institution. This facilitates ways of thinking becoming normal within the secret boundary that outside are looked upon as being entirely inappropriate. If there is nothing to hide then there is no reason why people should not be able to say in public what is happening.

It is noticeable that when institutionally racist institutions come under external pressure, they tend to enforce the boundaries ever more stringently, and punish those disloyal enough to talk in public about what happens within the institution.

For a detailed explanation of over a hundred specific instances of Labour antisemitism, follow this link

For submissions to the Chakrabarti Inquiry on Labour antisemitism, follow this link

For the full story of what happened in the University and College Union, follow this link

For Paul Bogdanor’s claim by claim critique of Livingstone’s cod history follow this link

  1. Antizionism and campaigns to boycott Israelis bring with them antisemitism into any social space in which they are treated as legitimate

Antizionism tends to make an ‘-ism’, a worldview, out of hostility to Israel. Antisemitism has always put Jews at the centre of all that is bad in the world; antizionism can’t resist the temptation to put Israel at the centre of all that is bad in the world.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Zionism was a movement which held that Jews could only defend themselves against antisemitism by creating a nation state; there were other competing movements, like Bundism, which said that Jews should find a new non-religious way of being Jewish and should defend themselves where they already lived; and there was Bolshevism, which said that Jews should combine with all the other workers of the world and should shed their Judaism and build a new world in which everybody would be unique. Antizionism, at this time, was an opposition to an idea, and it was fundamentally a Jewish critique; and it was a legitimate critique.

But all three antiracist movements were defeated by Nazism; none of them could save the Jews of Europe. After the Holocaust, and after the creation of the state of Israel, Zionism was no longer a set of ideas but it became a material reality.

Antizionists like to talk about Israel as though it is an idea, because if it is an idea, it can be a bad idea. That is why they like to deny that Israel is a nation state, because if it is a nation state, it just is; it cannot be good or bad; and it cannot be undone. Being against the existence of Israel today means siding with those who would destroy it.

We have learnt many times, and most recently from the experiences of the Yazidis, that minorities in the Middle East which cannot defend themselves are at grave existential risk.

For a progressive case for Israel, follow this link

For my debate with Israeli antizionist Ilan Pappé, follow this link

  1. The campaign to boycott Israel is an antizionist campaign which aims to create such a hostility to Israelis that people will feel justified in excluding them from the global community of scholarship, arts, sport and business. We know from experience that anywhere that the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) campaign takes hold, antisemitism follows.

For David Hirsh’s reasons that BDS is antisemitic, follow this link

For Alan Johnson’s critique of the claim that Israel is like apartheid South Africa, follow this link

For Robert Fine’s response to Desmond Tutu, follow this link

And for more debate on the apartheid analogy, follow this link

For Cambridge Scientist Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott of Israel, follow this link

For the myth of the ‘institutional boycott’ follow this link

Follow this link for some suggestions as what a genuinely left of egalitarian alternative to BDS might look like.

  1. Antisemitism takes an especially vicious form against Jewish women

Women Labour members, such as Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth, Margaret Hodge, Louise Ellman; and non-Jewish allies in the fight against antisemitism such as Joan Ryan, have had to endure specifically misogynist antisemitic abuse. There is something about a strong and articulate woman that antisemites find completely intolerable.

For a video link to Luciana Berger describing her experience, follow this link

For more on the intersection of misogyny and antisemitism follow this link

Follow this link for Karin Stögner’s brilliant analysis of intersectionality and antisemitism

  1. Antisemitism tends to construct Jews such that don’t fit into the normal categories of understanding of social life.

 It constructs them as being outside of nation, outside of race, outside of class, and it constructs them as having a special relationship to gender.

Jews are targeted by white supremacists who believe them to pollute the ‘white race’. But Jews are also targeted by many antiracists, who believe them to be ‘white’ and then ‘privileged’ and then ‘white supremacist’.

Jews are targeted by antisemites who say that Jews are bourgeois, particularly involved in banking and finance capital, that they work for the capitalists; and that they play a special role in global imperialism. Jews are portrayed as part of a liberal elite and they are said to have more loyalty to those of their own kind around the world than to members of their own local, national or class communities.

Jews are also targeted as being Bolsheviks and ‘cultural Marxists’; and Marxists are targeted as being Jewish.

Jews are targeted when they have no nation of their own, as ‘cosmopolitans’; and they are targeted when they have a nation of their own, as ethnic nationalists.

  1. There are a few Jews who fight hard for antisemitic politics

There is an overwhelming and strong consensus against Labour antisemitism in the Jewish community. There is a consensus as to what antisemitism is and as to how it manifests itself.

This letter, from 68 diverse rabbis is a clear expression of the consensus

But there is a small minority of Jews for whom hatred of Israel is an all-consuming passion. Many Jews are especially concerned with Israel. Some are especially concerned, and then obsessive, about its shortcomings. Antizionist Jews parade their Jewish identities, they speak ‘asaJew’, in order to try and portray the Jewish community as divided.

In truth, the institutions and individuals of the Jewish community are not divided: the Union of Jewish Students, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Holocaust Education Trust, the Community Security Trust, the synagogue movements, the Jewish Labour Movement, the list goes on… they know antisemitism when they see it.

But antizionist Jews do immense damage by trying to give Jewish legitimacy to politics which is dangerous to Jews.

If I were not Jewish, and I discovered that I had been taught antisemitic ways of thinking by my Jewish friends or comrades, I would be furious.

For more on Jewish antizionism, follow this link

Follow this link for a piece on “Jewdas”, who tried to give Jewish cover to Jeremy Corbyn when he was under criticism of presiding over an antisemitic party. 

  1. Antisemitism and left and right wing populism.

We have learnt that it is possible to be antisemitic even if you appear only to be concerned with the evils of Israel.

But we have also learnt, from people like Donald Trump and President Orban of Hungary, that some people who appear to be friends of Israel can also support antisemitic politics, and seek alliances with it.

On the left, antisemitism is often treated as a cry of the oppressed, while opposition to antisemitism is often treated as a discourse of power, trying to silence the oppressed.

On the right, xenophobia and racism are often treated as the cry of the oppressed, the ‘white working class’ or the ‘left behinds’, while opposition to racism is often treated as a discourse of power, a sly tool employed by those who wish to defend the status quo.

There is emerging a right wing Islamophobia in America, in Britain and in Europe which is analogous to left antisemitism in some ways; which is gaining the kind of apparent legitimacy in mainstream politics which five years ago it could only have dreamed about.

On the right, conspiracy fantasy about globalism, cosmopolitans, citizens of nowhere and the shadowy power behind politics, approaches closer and closer to antisemitic discourse.

Left and right populists both tend to see antisemitism and racism only in the other’s political family. “No, the real problem is over there!” they say, pointing at each other. In this way they license and legitimize the antisemitism or other forms of racism within their own political families.

For a simple explanation: “What is populism?”

For more on antisemitism and left and right populism in Britain follow this link

For a piece about why populism will always be open to antisemitism, follow this link. 

For a David Hirsh’s analysis of the 2019 General Election result. 

Some more Links

Read Dave Rich’s book, The left’s Jewish problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and anti-Semitism

Read Philip Spencer and Robert Fine’s book, Antisemitism and the left: on the return of the Jewish Question

Read these two pieces by Robert Fine: On doing the sociology of Antisemitism and on Marx and his approach to the critique of left antisemitism.

Read David Hirsh’s book, Contemporary Left Antiemitism

Watch a thirty minute video made by people who felt the Chakrabarti Inquiry had not listened to them: Whitewashed

Watch another documentary about the people who were forced out of the Labour party by antisemitism: “Forced Out”

Follow this link for David Hirsh’s Jewish Chronicle pieces which chart the progress of the problem of Labour antisemitism

Follow this link for David Hirsh’s Jewish News pieces on Labour antisemitism

Follow this link for Izabella Tabarovsky’s piece on the Soviet roots of contemporary left antisemitism

David Hirsh

Author of ‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism’

Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London

Exerpt from “Contemporary Left Antisemitism” relating to Jackie Walker – David Hirsh

Yesterday Jackie Walker was expelled from the Labour Party. This was written in 2017:

On 5 May, Facebook comments by Jacqueline Walker, a vice chair of the Corbyn supporting Momentum movement, came to light.  She had written:

As I’m sure you know, millions more Africans were killed in the African holocaust and their oppression continues today on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews.

. . . Many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. So who are victims and what does it mean?

It is a reasonable interpretation of these comments that they draw on a black nationalist antisemitic narrative that Jews were significantly responsible for, or were behind, the slave trade. In keeping with the Livingstone Formulation, Walker did not simply say that the people who alleged that there was antisemitism in the party were mistaken or had judged the situation wrongly; instead she hit back with the allegation that it was a ‘lie’ to suggest there was a ‘major problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party’.

Walker was not finally suspended from membership of the Party until 1 October, after she had been secretly filmed speaking at a training event put on by the Jewish Labour Movement for Party members, which was intended to raise awareness of antisemitism.  At that event, Walker implied that security at Jewish schools was more a manifestation of a Zionist campaign to make it appear that they are under threat from antisemitism than a genuine response to a real security threat.

Did Jacqueline Walker remember that in March 2012 Mohammed Merah appeared outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in the city of Toulouse and murdered a rabbi and teacher, and his two sons; and then he murdered an eight year old girl; and he shot and injured four other people?  Perhaps Walker does remember that the much respected and celebrated French intellectual Tariq Ramadan had insisted that that killer had not been ‘driven by racism and anti-Semitism’; notice the intellectual effort expended in the attempt to find the antisemite guilty of a lesser charge, any lesser charge, so long as it was not antisemitism.  Murder, yes; disorientation, yes; pathetic, yes; but he himself was, according to Ramadan, a victim, not a perpetrator of racism.  Ramadan’s full paragraph:

Religion was not Mohamed Merah’s problem; nor is politics. A French citizen frustrated at being unable to find his place, to give his life dignity and meaning in his own country, he would find two political causes through which he could articulate his distress: Afghanistan and Palestine. He attacks symbols: the army, and kills Jews, Christians and Muslims without distinction. His political thought is that of a young man adrift, imbued neither with the values of Islam, or driven by racism and anti-Semitism. Young, disoriented, he shoots at targets whose prominence and meaning seem to have been chosen based on little more than their visibility. A pathetic young man, guilty and condemnable beyond the shadow of a doubt, even though he himself was the victim of a social order that had already doomed him, and millions of others like him, to a marginal existence, and to the non-recognition of his status as a citizen equal in rights and opportunities.

Jacqueline Walker also spoke about Holocaust commemoration as though it had become a Zionist-owned enterprise whose primary function is to increase the victim-power which it bestows on Jews by creating a hierarchy of victimhood and by obscuring and downplaying other ‘holocausts’, as she calls them: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holocaust day was open to all peoples who’ve experienced Holocaust?’.  When told the day was indeed for all post-World War II genocides, she said ‘in practice it is not circulated and advertised as such’.

The politics of this sustained assault on Jews and Israel via the issue of Holocaust commemoration requires some unpacking; it relates to Ken Livingstone’s claim that Hitler was supporting Zionism; and it relates to Ilan Pappé’s claim that Israel is committing genocide like Nazis; and it relates to Desmond Tutu’s claim that Jews have forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust. It plays politics with the Holocaust by accusing Jews of playing politics with the Holocaust.  It engages in victim competition by accusing Jews of engaging in victim competition.  It obscures the actual relationship between Israel and the Holocaust by proposing all sorts of tangential, exaggerated and invented relationships between Israel and the Holocaust.  Lesley Klaff names the process whereby the Jews are portrayed as the new Nazis ‘Holocaust inversion’. ‘The Shoa need not be denied as a historical fact, it may be invalidated as a moral truth’, writes Abram de Swaan, in his paper about how ‘anti-Israel enthusiasms’ function as an avenue for psychological release for some people, after the general post war repression of antisemitic urges in Europe.  Secondary antisemitism is often illustrated by Zvi Rex’s remark that ‘[t]he Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz’.

One of the hoped for positive functions of publicly remembering the Holocaust is to remind us what actually happened.  Sometimes a particular image or anecdote or artefact can bring home to us, again, with a new freshness, the hugeness of what happened to the Jews of Europe.  Whether we are scholars of genocide, or political activists, or people who know nothing of history, events of commemoration have the power to take us out of ourselves, our own lives and our narrow political concerns and connect us back to the scale and depth of what the Holocaust was; and what genocide is.

In the Jewish museum in Prague, housed in four synagogues whose congregations no longer exist, there is an exhibition of drawings made by Jewish children in the ghetto and concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt in German).  From Terezín the children were transported to Auschwitz where they were all murdered on arrival.  The website of the museum describes the exhibit:

The story begins with reflections on the events immediately following 15 March 1939, when Bohemia and Moravia were occupied by the Nazis and transformed into a Protectorate. This is followed by a description of transports to the Terezín ghetto (starting on 24 November 1941), everyday ghetto life and the conditions in the children’s homes.

There are also depictions of holiday celebrations and of the dreams that the imprisoned children had of returning home or of travelling to Palestine. This section provides a sort of poetic interlude between the brutal uprooting from their homes and deportation to Auschwitz, which is the final and most tragic chapter of the whole story.[i]

Israel is the dream of the children who were never going to have a chance of finding asylum there.  All we can do now to help them is to look at their drawings in the lifeless museum.  There is a connection between the Holocaust and Israel, but it is not the self-serving and trivializing one offered in the clever speeches of today’s antizionist activists.

There are other senses in which Jackie Walker’s rhetoric falls far short, offered with great confidence and authority, always ‘as a Jew’, ‘as a black woman’, as an antiracist hero, to people who may not have the analytic tools, the courage or the knowledge to judge whether she is right or not.  She speaks as a teacher, in a broad sense, but she does not teach.  Many of the pioneers of genocide studies, the people who first studied the Holocaust and then who used some of the same concepts and ideas to study other genocides, the people who pioneered the notion that genocide was not unique to the Nazis, many of these were Jewish scholars of the Holocaust.  Totten and Jacobs, tell the story of the ‘Pioneers of Genocide Studies’.  They document the remarkable contributions of Jewish scholars such as Robert Melson, Israel Charny, Irving Horowitz and Helen Fein.  And in any case there was Raphael Lemkin, the man who developed the very concept of genocide, and who fought a long and lonely struggle for recognition which culminated in the Genocide Convention; Lemkin himself was a Polish Jew who lost forty-nine members of his family in the Holocaust.  More recently Philip Spencer has continued in that tradition with his book ‘Genocide since 1945’.  Spencer’s evidence of the hollowness of the aphorism ‘never again’ is a challenge to Walker’s Momentum worldview in another sense too.  The story is not simply one of imperialism committing genocide against non-white people; the stories are diverse and individual.  Many of them are stories of the immense failures of anti-imperialist movements and nationalisms to replace colonialism with something better; stories of people’s rage against imperialism being murderously manipulated and directed against ethnic groups like Tutsi, Tamils, Armenians, African Asians and Bosniaks; mass killing in the name of anti-imperialism are as much a part of the story of human inhumanity as are the crimes of imperialism itself.

And of course Walker is not right factually, about how Holocaust Memorial Days are actually organized; they are organized by people up and down the country, across the world, taking responsibility to organize days to facilitate reflection, memory and education.  It is not a Zionist conspiracy; it is a story of real men and women putting time, effort and energy into doing something which they feel is important.

There is always a tension in Holocaust education.  On the one hand, the Holocaust needs to be presented as something that happened specifically to the Jews, something about antisemitism in particular and something which profoundly altered the history of the Jews.  On the other hand, the Holocaust needs to be taught as a lesson for humanity about racism and totalitarianism in general.  It needs to remember the other victims of the Nazis and the victims of other genocides.  There is a tension between the particular and the universal lessons of the Holocaust.  Walker speaks as if she has no idea how people around the world agonize to create these events and to pitch them exactly right; perhaps sometimes they fail to pitch them exactly right.  Walker speaks as if she has no idea how Armenians, Rwandese, Bosniaks, Darfurians, socialists, Tories and Christians are involved in these events and how Holocaust memorial strives to remember and educate about genocide in general.

Jews have reason to fear Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD).  It is predictable, each year, that HMD will be seen as an appropriate occasion to mobilize the memory of the Holocaust against the Jews.  An activist in Lewisham shouts at a rabbi to include Gaza in the list of genocides for which he is lighting a candle; the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign hosts a reading of Jim Allen’s play Perdition, which tries to blame Zionist collaboration with the Nazis for the efficiency of the Holocaust; a city in Sweden cancels its planned torchlight procession due to an intensification of conflict in Gaza; the Muslim Council of Britain boycotts HMD ‘in protest at the Israeli offensive in Gaza’. An MP writes that he is ‘saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians’. That HMD will elicit antisemitic discourse is now, shockingly, as predictable as pogroms once were at Easter.

Jackie Walker went on Newsnight to defend herself against charges of antisemitism.  She said: ‘Of course the Jewish Holocaust was an awful, extraordinary event and Jews should have a day when they celebrate that’.  She repeated this obscene mistake of referring to Jewish ‘celebration’ of the Holocaust more than once.  One can only guess as to the Freudian connections which led to her using this word in this context. It may be related to the notion that Jews feel like celebrating their success in competing with other groups for the recognition of their suffering.  Feelings of envy for the Holocaust, and the immense victim-power with which it is felt by some to endow the Zionists or the Jews may come in to play.  There may be a feeling that being oppressed is connected to virtue and so worthy of celebration.[ii]

After Cathy Newman, the Channel 4 News journalist, had interviewed Jacqueline Walker, Newman was sent a number of antisemitic tweets.  She was denounced as a ‘useless Zionist bitch’ by one viewer.  Newman responded: ‘So people know this is what you get for asking legitimate questions about anti-semitism. Especially if your name is Newman’; Newman is, incidentally, not Jewish.  Another person who describes herself as a Labour activist on her Twitter profile wrote: ‘self pity won’t work here. Your jewish ancestors committed an holocaust against my ancestors in the transatlantic slave trade’ [sic].

Walker’s Labour Party membership was suspended on 30 September and her case was discussed at a meeting of the Momentum Steering Committee on 3 October.  The committee found Walker emphatically not guilty of antisemitism.  It ‘does not regard any of the comments she appears to have made, taken individually, to be anti-Semitic’.  But it found her guilty of lesser charges: ‘her remarks on Holocaust Memorial Day and on security of Jewish schools [were found to be] to be ill-informed, ill-judged and offensive’. The problem is that if it was to concede that antisemitism is possible within an ‘antiracist’ space, then it is conceded that one must be vigilant against antisemitism, that one must educate about antisemitism, that one must take care; that is why there is great reluctance ever to admit that anything that happens within an antiracist space is antisemitic.  What is required is debate about what is antisemitic and what is not.  In order to avoid such debate, it is necessary to deny that anything is antisemitic, and that all such charges are made in bad faith.

Momentum removed Walker from her position as vice-chair, it kept her as a member of the steering committee, and it opposed her expulsion from the Labour Party.

The other point that Momentum was keen to make concerned confidentiality.  In an institutionally racist institution, secrecy is taken seriously; the boundaries are policed. It is considered a breach of the community to tell tales outside the institution of what has been happening within it. A culture of institutional racism has to be protected by a culture of secrecy.  ‘Momentum is concerned that footage of a training session was leaked to the press’, it announced.  ‘The leak is unacceptable and undermines much needed political education’.

Yet Jacqueline Walker presents herself as a victim and she shows no sign of contrition or regret.  This from the webpage in which she is crowd funding so that she can pay for lawyers to sue the Labour Party for suspending her:

On 4th May I was suspended for the alleged (subsequently cleared) charge of antisemitism. As a Jewish person, whose partner is Jewish, this was heart-breaking. Since May I have continued to be targeted by the media, in print, online and in other places.  Currently I am suspended for questions asked at a training session on ‘Confronting Antisemitism & Engaging Jewish Voters’ at this year’s Labour Conference, after being unethically filmed by a Jewish Labour Movement campaigns officer who is also a Labour councillor. It seems this training was not a ‘safe space for all Jews’ by any means.

On 1 October, the film director Ken Loach spoke at ‘The People’s Assembly Against Austerity’ in Birmingham.  He spoke from the platform:

There have been some terrible smears in the last few weeks.  One of them’s the antisemitic smear.  An atrocious lie if ever I heard one.  I heard Jackie speak at a meeting about this so-called . . . this lie of antisemitism.  She made a thoughtful, constructive speech discussing Jewish identity.  She has a Jewish identity herself.  She is a decent, honourable principled woman.  And we know why the smears are made.  The smears are made to inhibit criticism of Israel.

In this speech, Loach goes on to re-state his support for a boycott of Israel.  In 1987 Ken Loach was the director of the Royal Court production of Jim Allen’s play ‘Perdition’, which was based on Lenni Brenner’s account of the ‘Kastner affair’ and which attempted to normalize the idea that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis to murder Jews because of their ideological similarity.  This was the material which had influenced Ken Livingstone to claim that Hitler had ‘supported’ Zionism.

Exerpted from ‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism’ by David Hirsh

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).

Ackerman, Kenneth (2017) Trotsky in New York: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution, Counterpoint.

Carmichael, Joel (1972) Trotsky, Hodder and Stoughton, New York.

Carmichael, Joel (1973) Letter to Encounter, 11 January, in reply to Joseph Nedava.

Cliff, Tony (1987) ’55 Years a Revolutionary’, Socialist Review 100, July-August.

Cohn, Werner (1991) ‘From Victim to Shylock and Oppressor: The New Image of the Jew in the Trotskyist Movement’, in Journal of Communist Studies, Vol.7, No.1, March, pp. 46-68.

Crooke, Stan (2001), ‘The Stalinist Roots of left “anti-Zionism”, in Two Nations, Two States, Socialists and Israel/Palestine, a Workers Liberty pamphlet.

Deutscher, Isaac (1963) The Prophet Outcast. Trotsky 1929-1940, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Deutscher, Isaac (1967) ‘The Arab-Israeli War’, New Left Review 44.

Fine, Robert and Philip Spencer (2017) Antisemitism and the Left. On the return of the Jewish Question, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Gerrard, Eve (2013) ‘The Pleasures of Antisemitism’, Fathom, Summer.

Geras, Norman (1986) Literature of Revolution: Essays on Marxism, Verso, London.

Geras, Norman (1998) The Contract of Mutual Indifference. Political Philosophy After The Holocaust, Verso, London.

Geras, Norman (2000) ‘Trotsky, Jewish Universalist’. The essay was written for the volume Les Juifs et le XXe siecle: Dictionnaire critique, edited by Elie Barnavi and Saul Friedlander and published by Calmann-Levy, Paris. The English translation appeared at Normblog on 2 September 2003.  http://normangeras.blogspot.co.uk/2003_08_31_normangeras_archive.html#106251147555977590

Geras, Norman (2013) ‘Alibi Antisemitism’ in Fathom, Spring. http://fathomjournal.org/alibi-antisemitism/

Hirsh, David (2017) Contemporary Left Antisemitism, Routledge, London.

Hobsbawm Eric (1980) ‘Are we entering a new era of antisemitism?’, New Society, 11 December.

Howe, Irving (1978) Trotsky, Fontana, London.

Howe, Irving (1982) A Margin of Hope. An Intellectual Autobiography, Harcout Brace, New York.

Hudson, Martyn (2014) ‘Revisiting Isaac Deutscher’, Fathom, Winter.

Johnson, Alan (2000) ‘Democratic Marxism: The Legacy of Hal Draper’ in Marxism, the Millenium and Beyond, edited by Mark Cowling and Paul Reynolds, Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Johnson, Alan (2015) ‘An Open Letter to Jeremy Corbyn’, Left Foot Forward, 2015.

Johnson, Alan (2016) ‘Antisemitic anti-Zionism: the root of Labour’s crisis. A submission to the Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism’. http://www.bicom.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Prof-Alan-Johnson-Chakrabarti-Inquiry-submission-June-2016.pdf.;

Johnson, Alan (2018) ‘In Defence of Ernest Erber’, Solidarity, 5 December, 2018.

Johnson, Alan (2019a) ‘Antisemitism in the Guise of Anti-Nazism: Holocaust Inversion in the United Kingdom during Operation Protective Edge’ in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Delegitimization, ed. Alvin H. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press.

Johnson, Alan (2019b) ‘Denial: Norman Finkelstein and the New Antisemitism’, in Jonathan Campbell and Lesley Klaff eds. Unity and Disunity in Contemporary Antisemitism, (Academic Studies Press, Boston.

Julius, Anthony (2010), Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kalmus, Jeffrey (2012) ‘Joshua Rubenstein on Trotsky’s Revolutionary Life’, in Harvard Political Review, 7 April. http://harvardpolitics.com/books-arts/joshua-rubenstein-on-trotskys-revolutionary-life/

Kessler, Mario (1994) ‘Leon Trotsky’s Position on Antisemitism, Zionism and the Perspectives of the Jewish Question’, in New Interventions, Vol.5 No.2.

Le Blanc, Paul (2012), ‘Trotsky – truth and fiction’, International Socialist Review, No. 82.

Mandel, Ernest (1995) Trotsky as Alternative, Verso, London.

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. 

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