Jews, Israel, & the Atavistic British Left: A response to Bob from Brockley

A guest post by Hadar Sela

During the three weeks since I wrote my CiF Watch essay about Andy Newman’s CiF piece about Gilad Atzmon, Bob from Brockley has published a couple of pieces, at his blog, in reply which I think raise points necessitating some broader discussion, mainly because they appear to me to be symptomatic of the syndrome currently plaguing the British Left.

It is, of course, possible to discuss the ins and outs of various Socialist theories on the subjects of Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is also possible to dissect the assorted anti-Zionist tributaries and differing shades of anti-Semitism, but little of that seems to lead to honest examination of the real and very pressing question of why the British Left collaborates with and promotes racists and bigots and how that both effects British society as a whole and renders a much-needed Left increasingly irrelevant.

That examination obviously needs to be executed by British Leftists themselves; some have tried to plough the first furrows, but come up largely against stony ground. What is still sorely lacking is honest discussion based on the understanding that whilst Socialist theory has its place, its real test comes with practice. Unless human beings can be introduced successfully into the theoretical equations, the theory is surely of no use to those of us who regard Socialism as a moral concept rather than merely the inevitable outcome of the class struggle.

Anti-Zionism

In the first of his pieces on the subject, Bob from Brockley attempted to differentiate between different forms of anti-Zionism.

“… it seems to me that anti-Zionism that also takes a consistent opposition to all nationalisms (including Palestinian nationalism) is not antisemitic; Jewish religious anti-Zionism such as that of the Satmer Hasidim is not antisemitic; Jewish anti-Zionism which rejects the Zionist solution to the questions of Jewish survival and continuity (such as the position of the Jewish Socialist Group or others in the tradition of the Bund, folkism and other diasporist traditions) is not antisemitic; anti-Zionism from the perspective of Israeli citizens (Jewish or Arab) who want to see Israel as a democratic state for all its citizens (rather than a Jewish state) is not antisemitic; finally anti-Zionism which sees Zionism as a form of imperialism and takes a consistent opposition to all imperialisms without singling out Zionism as unique is wrong-headed, but not in itself antisemitic.”

Let’s take these one by one, with the easiest first. The fringe phenomenon of Jewish religious opposition to the modern State of Israel is, I believe, better described as ‘non-Zionism’ rather than anti-Zionism. The quibble here is not about the what, but about the when and by whom: the moment they perceive the religious conditions as being ripe the Satmars will be on the first plane to Tel Aviv too. Apart from a very small handful of much paraded extremists, few religious non-Zionists actually do anything to undermine existing Jewish self-determination and therefore cannot be described as anti-Semitic.

The other categories however are a different kettle of fish because whilst in theory Bob may well be correct, the all-important practice presents a different picture. Many of those supposedly opposing Jewish nationalism on principle are at the same time campaigning vigorously for Palestinian nationalism and any calls for the dissolution of other nation states (apart from the Jewish one) are either non-existent or dismissed as cranky. We (fortunately) witnessed no demonstrations by the far Left in London opposing the recent creation of the world’s newest state in Southern Sudan.

The Jewish Socialist Group style of anti-Zionism could possibly be seen as legitimate at a personal level (and indeed on a par with religious non-Zionism) but when advocated on a national scale it is ultimately a phenomenon proved anachronistic by history – one which promotes failed solutions and negates the right to Jewish self-determination.

The ‘anti-Imperialist’ style of anti-Zionism is, as Bob points out, wrong-headed from its foundations, but also must be called out for the fact that it is for the most part not consistent. The Jewish state appears to be able to incur an intensity of wrath in a manner which genuine imperialist or colonial projects (especially those conducted by non-white people – e.g. the take-over of Lebanon by an Iranian proxy militia) largely do not. Demanding of the Jewish state things which are not required from other countries (i.e. the application of double standards) is, of course, anti-Semitic.

Anti-Zionism within Israel itself is a more complicated subject and one which requires dividing into two parts. Jewish post-Zionism is a form of negation of self-determination. Arab anti-Zionism is for the most part a stepping stone to another version of both nationalism and imperialism.

The common denominator between all these forms of anti-Zionism is the rejection of the Jewish right to self-determination. Some may appear less malicious than others, but the bottom line in practical terms is that they all employ some kind of Socialist-related theory in the attempt to take from Jews a basic right afforded to other nations. Interestingly, we do not see Socialist theory being employed in order to promote the revoking of the emancipatory achievements of other minorities. One cannot, I hope, imagine a world in which Socialists would be found advocating the re-criminalisation of homosexuality or the repeal of equal rights for women or people of colour, but for some reason we do hear Socialist voices promoting the idea of the abolition of Jewish self- determination. That is undeniably racist.

No less importantly, the right which anti-Zionists attempt to deny Jews is not some theoretical one, but a right already exercised today by over half the Jewish nation and one which the majority of Jews want and support. Does the British Left really see the annulment of hard-won rights by an ethnic minority as part of its agenda? If not, it cannot condone anti-Zionism in any of its forms, however eccentric.

That fact in itself should perhaps prompt decent Socialist thinkers to take a less blasé attitude towards the anti-Semitic roots of anti-Zionism in all its different hues. But in addition, it should also be taken into account that the Jewish people have – within living memory – already experienced the trauma of having their hard-won rights and emancipation revoked by a supposedly enlightened Western society into which they were assimilated and with which they totally identified. It is easy to demand of Jews that they exercise a “sense of proportion” when criticising anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but it is also vital to remember that what may be perceived as over-sensitivity by some has its roots in bitter experience rather than “hysteria” or “paranoia”. Jews have earned at a terrible price the right, the ability and also the obligation to call out anti-Semitism wherever we encounter it.

Antisemitism

However, in his second article, Bob from Brockley writes the following:

“One thing I am sure of is that there are lots of different antisemitisms, including lots of different left antisemitisms, and they are not all as bad as each other or equivalent to each other, and they are not all genocidal in their logic. We need a sense of proportion and more calmness in approaching them. We hurt only ourselves through hysteria and paranoia.”

This is a worrying statement coming from the anti-racist Left. One must ponder who exactly gets to define what is ‘bad’ or ‘not so bad’ anti-Semitism (in much the same way as some of us are asking ourselves who gets to define anti-Semitism as a whole) as well as wondering if the same yard-stick is to be applied to other kinds of racism and bigotry. Is there also bad homophobia and not so bad homophobia?

Whilst there are indeed forms of anti-Semitism and other types of racism which are not “genocidal in their logic”, surely the point should be that today we know that the path to genocide starts with small, often seemingly inconsequential, steps. Stereotyping and prejudice create a climate conducive to discrimination. Discrimination leads to scapegoating and then to violence and hate crime – an escalation which, in the 20th century, represented a path to genocide.

Whilst I am not for a moment suggesting that Britain is about to commit full-blown genocide of its Jewish population, I do think that there is every reason for British Socialists to be very concerned (and ashamed) about the fact that their nation has over the past thirty years or so climbed steadily up the pyramid of hate.  Jewish self-determination is used as a scapegoat to explain away terrorism and conflict.  Violence and hate crime against Jews are far from unheard of. And it is a casual or hesitant approach to anti-Semitism in all its forms – including the seemingly trivial – which facilitates these phenomena from the base.

No less important is the effect of Britain’s failure to deal with its expressions of anti-Semitism in the modern world of instant communications. Those elements in the Middle East which are of a genocidal bent are strengthened by the fact that the Jewish right to self-determination has once again become an acceptable subject for discussion in London living rooms.  The same elements are enabled by the decisions of editors of Western media outlets such as the Guardian to provide their leaders and supporters with a legitimising platform despite the fact that those same leaders are responsible for actions which clearly contravene the UN convention on genocide.  And of course they are also encouraged by the type of ‘we are all Hizballah/Hamas now’ parade which has become synonymous with the predominantly Left-led so-called pro-Palestinian movement in the UK.

So, rather than continuing to fail to comprehensively address the issue of anti-Semitism in the ranks of the far Left, rather than engaging in the type of mental gymnastics which deal with such nit-picking questions as to whether Gilad Atzmon comes from the Right or the Left or what kinds of anti-Semitism are not so bad after all, maybe it is actually the Left itself which needs to find a “sense of proportion” – mainly for its own sake.

As a first step, the Left surely needs to ask itself why its reactions to anti-Jewish racism (and Jewish objections to it) differ from its reactions to racism of other kinds. The uncomfortable fact is that if there is one group which stands as a constant reminder to the Left of its failure to make racism and discrimination a thing of the past, it is the Jews. Anti-Semitism is the hatred which will not go away; it continues to raise its ugly head time after time both on an individual and a national scale. In both cases, the response of the Left has all too often been to advocate assimilation, either as individual Jews or as a nation, by adopting the anti-Zionist stance which denies Jews their collective right to self-determination.

The fact is that the debate on whether Israel should exist or not is one which should not be given a platform by Leftists who believe in Socialism as a moral concept. Israel already exists, and to contemplate the annulment of the right of the Jewish nation to self-determination should be an atavistic concept in the Socialist world.

Unfortunately for modern Socialism, it isn’t. Indeed this is a path which Socialism has been down before with shameful results, as the writings of Nachman Syrkin as long ago as 1898 serve to remind.

“Socialist principles and theory are opposed to any denial of Jewish rights; yet it often happens that, for tactical and opportunistic reasons, socialist parties adopt passive attitudes or even abet attacks on the Jews. No matter how diametrically opposed the Social Democratic Party of Germany is to anti-Semitism in principle, there were numerous political occasions when the party rejoiced in anti-Semitism, or, at least, failed to attack it. Recent political history offers a number of examples to illustrate the character of the socialist parties. A case in point is the attitude of the French socialists toward the ‘Dreyfus Affair’. Just as the opportunism of the German Social-Democratic Party sometimes led it in a direction opposite to the basic principles of socialism, so, too, because of opportunism, the French Party excluded the Jews from its devotion to absolute justice.”

It is often said that history has shown that ‘what begins with the Jews doesn’t end with the Jews’ and it is that aspect of the British Left’s flirtation with racist and discriminatory elements which should also prompt it to urgently get its house in order. Jews are far from being the only ones currently being sold out by the Left’s inability to stick to the principle of Socialism as a moral concept based on universal human rights and it is that inability which is rendering the Left more irrelevant by the day.

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