Though anti-Jewish racism on the left is of course not a new story, the issue came to the forefront last year in the UK with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader and ensuing scandals involving the suspension of party members for antisemitism.
The row continues to garner significant media attention both in the UK and abroad, and a recent report by a British parliamentary committee upheld complaints that the Labour Party leadership has failed to seriously confront incidents of antisemitism within their party.
Rich agreed to answer a few of our questions about his book, which is a must-read for those interested in understanding the political and intellectual context of the current crisis.
UKMW: In the first chapter of your book, ‘When the Left Stopped Loving Israel’, you argued that the rise of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism as the defining ideologies of the radical left influenced activists to see the Israeli-Arab conflict through a different lens. Is it a fair reading of this chapter to say that, contrary to most theories, this left-wing intellectual tide began to turn before the Six Day War – that is, before Israel occupied one square centimeter of land?
Dave Rich: Yes, this is correct, although – and this is the key point – the radical left argument was, and remains, that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land began in 1948 (or before), and 1967 was just an extension of that earlier ‘crime’. The Six Day War saw an outburst of anti-Zionism on the radical Left in several countries, but the political ideas fuelling that outburst were already visible in the decade prior to that war. In Britain, anti-colonialism had become a prominent liberal and left-wing cause during the 1950s as colonies gained independence, and the Suez Crisis exposed the shabby duplicity required to maintain Britain’s imperial interests. The idea that Israel was a legacy of Western colonialism, rather than a rejection of it as many leftists had believed in 1948, was increasingly heard in radical left-wing politics in the early 1960s. So when the Six Day War occurred it was, as one contemporary observer wrote, “the perfect example of the key event as orchestrator of a symphony which was ready to be played.” The war gave focus and energy to ideas that already existed: this is why the radical left-wing response in the years following 1967 was not limited to analysing that war and its consequences, but instead critiqued the circumstances of Israel’s creation and the ideology of Zionism itself. People began to see Israel as a settler state, comparable to South Africa and Rhodesia – all three of which were former British colonies, so the theory had particular purchase in Britain.
UKMW: In your chapter “From Anti-Apartheid to Anti-Zionism” you cite the influence of PLO and Soviet propaganda on those – in the 60s and 70s – within the radical/revolutionary New Left (particularly from the Young Liberals) who advanced the Israeli Apartheid charge. What political or ideological influences, in your view, promote this charge today?
Dave Rich: Firstly, those old influences are still visible, whether the people parroting old Soviet lines about Zionism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood are aware of it or not. In fact it is remarkable how much anti-Israel discourse today mimics the old Soviet anti-Zionist playbook. Beyond that, though, many people who take an interest in the Israel/Palestine issue are guided by mainstream human rights values and see it as an issue of inequality and denial of fundamental rights – and the ‘apartheid’ charge has obvious appeal within this framework. Then there is the question of racism, which is seen by much of the left as an issue of colour, whereby racism can only travel in one direction: from whites to non-whites. In this view, Jews and Israel are seen as white (and wealthy, and powerful) while Palestinians are seen as people of colour and victims of western hegemony. In the UK, left-wing understandings of racism are intimately connected to the legacy of colonialism (in contrast to the US, where theories of contemporary racism draw on the legacy of slavery), so anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-apartheid and anti-Zionism can be packaged together as part of the same political outlook.
Bear in mind, in all this, that most university undergraduates, for example, were not born when apartheid ended and have no memory of the detail of what it actually was and how it actually operated.
UKMW: We’re often asked when the Guardian turned against Israel – especially in the context of their historical support for Zionism and the modern Jewish state. Your chapter “Creating Palestine or Destroying Israel” recounts how in 1976 the anti-Zionist publication called ‘Free Palestine” published two multi-page ads over two consecutive days in the Guardian totaling twelve pages of articles. You argued that this was a significant moment in bringing the Palestinian issue to a “mainstream, liberal-minded audience” and noted that the Guardian’s own history of their changing relationship with Israel cites this advert as “the first sign that a new wind was blowing in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”. Do you think that this relatively radical change in coverage reflected the evolving ideological orientation of Guardian journalists and editors (and leftist opinion leaders of the day) or just a response to what was perceived as a change in their readers’ attitudes?
Dave Rich: It’s a good question, but I don’t know the answer! My hunch would be that it is a bit of both, as newspapers tend to reflect the views of their readership (or at least try to), but the Guardian has always seen itself as a campaigning newspaper. Daphna Baram, in her history of the paper’s coverage of Israel, points to the change in editor from Alastair Hetherington to Peter Preston in 1975 as an important moment.
UKMW: In your chapter “When anti-racists ban Jews”, you recount the harrowing period in the 70s (within 18 months of the UN “Zionism is Racism” resolution) for Jewish students when some Jewish Societies were banned (or effectively banned) because their support for Zionism was seen to contravene the NUS “No Platform Policy” whereby “racist or fascist” ideas wouldn’t be tolerated.
Here’s the No Platform resolution.
Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform….However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).
The language of the resolution would resonate with anyone following events of the past week at University College London (UCL), and ongoing efforts to prevent Israeli or pro-Israeli speakers from appearing on British campuses. Is it fair to say that this represents a classic example of how anti-Zionism (and the demonisation of Israel more broadly) leads to antisemitism?
Dave Rich: The question of whether anti-Zionism “leads to” antisemitism is an interesting one. There is a school of thought that, as long as anti-Zionists choose their language carefully and avoid obvious antisemitic resonances when implementing their campaigns, they’ll be OK. But there’s another way of looking at it, and here I’m going to quote Steve Cohen, a Jewish socialist (and non-Zionist) who wrote a seminal book about left-wing antisemitism called That’s Funny You Don’t Look Antisemitic (you can read it online here. I’d recommend it). He believed that a non-antisemitic, socialist anti-Zionism is possible, but he made an interesting argument: that it is not possible for anti-Zionism to slip into antisemitism, or to be “tinged” with it. There are different forms of anti-Zionism, some of which are antisemitic, but they can’t begin as a non-antisemitic form and then become, by some kind of accident, antisemitic: either they are antisemitic or they are not. In his words, “If an analysis is antisemitic then it is antisemitic in its origins and absolutely so – it does not become so.” He had in mind, primarily, the kind of antisemitic anti-Zionism that uses old antisemitic language and images about Jews – conspiracies, bloodthirsty devils, puppeteers, and so on – and uses them against Zionism and Israel. This kind of anti-Zionism is clearly antisemitic, and there does appear to be consensus on this between supporters of the ‘new antisemitism’ theory, who believe that opposition to Israel’s existence is a form of antisemitism, and their opponents. For example, those people who dislike the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism usually offer, as an alternative, a definition written by Professor Brian Klug, that – without digressing into too much detail – would include the use of classical antisemitic tropes directed at Zionism or at Israel.
In addition, though, I think we can paraphrase Cohen’s idea to construct a useful framework for understanding the bans and restrictions on Jewish societies: If a political campaign is antisemitic in its outcomes then there is probably some antisemitism in the political thinking that led to those outcomes. It can’t just ‘take a wrong turn’ or slip into antisemitism unnecessarily. So the particular form of anti-Zionist politics that led to Jewish Societies being banned had antisemitic thinking in its origins, whether the people behind it were consciously antisemitic or not. Cohen, in his book, also critiqued the kind of Marxist anti-Zionism that denies Jewish peoplehood or sees it as a reactionary identity, and this comes into play when Jewish expressions of collective identity are delegitimised in this way.
So this is a question of how political theories translate into concrete campaigns, and then how those campaigns play out in the real world. It is possible to construct a theoretical anti-Zionism that is not antisemitic, and I fully accept that there are forms of anti-Zionism that have existed historically, and some that still exist today, that are not antisemitic. However, whenever people have used the ‘Zionism is racism’ slogan as the foundation for political campaigns outside Israel, they have tended to result in antisemitic consequences. Perhaps in theory this needn’t been the case but in practice it usually is. This has been demonstrated time and time again, and in politics what happens in the real world is more important than the theory. The restrictions and bans on Jewish Societies in the 1970s and 1980s were the first practical manifestation of this phenomenon, what has come to be called the ‘new antisemitism’, in Britain.
Now, when you look at the events at UCL, on the surface this was an Israel Society event, with an Israeli speaker, and the pro-Palestinian protesters didn’t shout anything overtly antisemitic. But the intention of the protestors was the same as in the 1970s and 1980s when Jewish Societies were banned or had their activities restricted: to declare Zionism outside the boundaries of the democratic community of a Students’ Union. This inevitably places most Jewish students outside that boundary and restricts their rights and activities in comparison to other students on campus, because the students who want to talk about and celebrate Israel will be disproportionately Jewish. I’m pleased to say that Jewish students at UCL held an Israel-themed party a few days later, and Israeli politicians, diplomats and others speak regularly on British campuses without problems. The events at UCL were unusual and don’t represent the norm for Jewish students on British campuses.
UKMW: In your chapter “Antisemitism, the Holocaust and the Left”, you explain in good detail the new politics of anti-racism within the New Left: “racism is defined by colour and not simply a matter of prejudice”. “It is prejudice plus power”, this theory holds, “and can be found in society’s structures of power and inequality”. Anti-racism, it’s argued, “isn’t just about opposing prejudice, but about resisting the power structures that impose and encourage discrimination and inequality between racial or ethnic groups”. In this view, “those who have power can not be victims of racism and those without power can not be racist”. You further argue that the “relative places of Muslims and Jews” in this racist binary, within contemporary British ‘power structures’ (perceived or otherwise), make it difficult for many on the left to recognize antisemitism from Muslim, Islamist or jihadist actors. Our blog has analyzed this phenomenon with the British media, whereby antisemitism is not taken as seriously as other manifestations of racism. Though many critics of Jeremy Corbyn have argued that there is little evidence that he is personally antisemitic, do you agree that it’s likely he agrees with this “prejudice plus power” definition of racism, and that his reluctance to fight anti-Jewish racism in his party may be influenced by this view?
Dave Rich: Corbyn does seem wedded to the idea that antisemitism is part of a xenophobic package that includes racism, anti-Muslim hate, bigotry towards immigrants, intolerance of refugees, and so on. He is right to a certain extent, because this kind of antisemitism still exists and people who dislike Muslims, immigrants, Roma and so on are more likely to dislike Jews. However there is a problem, because this way of thinking views racism as a feature of power relations, both within Western societies and globally, and Jews are no longer seen as powerless, because they have full legal and civil rights in Western societies, there are prosperous and influential Jews in those societies, and Israel is allied to the world’s greatest power, the United States, and is militarily and economically dominant in its region. Therefore, according to this way of thinking, any antisemitism that exists today is a vestigial hangover from former times when Jews were powerless in European societies (or is not really antisemitism but is an expression of anger about Israel). However, there are also other strains of antisemitism, other methodologies as Steve Cohen put it, of left-wing antisemitism and Islamist antisemitism, that exist in their own right; and increasingly, these are the types of antisemitism that most concern and threaten European Jews today. Corbyn, like many on the left, seems incapable of seeing this. He seems to think that each case of antisemitism on the left is a random, isolated example, with no political meaning beyond the wrongheaded thinking or clumsy language of that particular individual, and certainly no pattern or pathology worth investigating.
The consensus that Corbyn himself is not personally antisemitic relies on the idea that antisemitism is a base prejudice, motivated by hate and manifested in a visceral dislike or reflexive suspicion of Jews. There’s no evidence that Corbyn is guilty of such a prejudice. However, it can be argued that antisemitism is not a simple prejudice comparable to other prejudices, but is rather a set of ideas and a way of viewing the world that has unique appeal and political application. Bernard Lewis, for example, differentiated between “normal” prejudice towards Jews and the “unique power” of antisemitism, which he explained by antisemitism’s connection to the founding ideas of Western, Christian societies. Similarly, the central role of conspiracy theories in antisemitism is vital for its appeal today and differentiates it from simple prejudice towards the ‘Other’. This kind of antisemitism is more common on the Left than the physical dislike of Jews that characterises the far right. Is Corbyn susceptible to this way of thinking? Perhaps. His comment that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog”, in an article he wrote in the communist Morning Star newspaper in 2009, hints at it. Certainly, the part of the left where he has spent his political career has proven to be a comfortable home for such ideas, usually expressed about “Zionists” rather than about Jews.
UKMW: Do you agree the view expressed by some that the current antisemitism scandal within the Labour Party has actually had one (counter-intuitive) positive outcome: It seems to have represented an ah-ha moment of sorts within the mainstream left on the dangers of antisemitism, and, at least to some extent, delegitimised expressions of anti-Jewish racism (including anti-Zionism)?
Dave Rich: When things polarise, support for both poles gets stronger. We are in one of those moments when the historic divisions within the left over antisemitism, Zionism and Jews have become politically operational. This naturally means that an increased number of people on the left (and beyond) see antisemitism as a problem and want to help fight it, which is good, and this has definitely been the case. However, we mustn’t forget that, in circumstances like these, the other pole also gets stronger: there are people who are motivated by other priorities, for example supporting the left-wing project of a Corbyn leadership, but if antisemitism becomes the battleground on which they have to fight then so be it and they will defend antisemites in the party as a result. Then there are those who actually hold antisemitic views or who follow an antisemitic politics, and are fully committed to positions that are hostile to the interests of the mainstream Jewish community, and they are fully aware that their core beliefs are under attack and they will fight to defend them. So the overall context of a divided, angry and resentful left, in which Jews and their concerns become something for the various protagonists to fight over, is not one to be welcomed.
This works in other ways. The extreme and at times outrageous ideas about Jews, Israel and Zionism that have built on the fringes of the left for years are now in the mainstream, which is clearly not a good thing. However the fact they are relevant to mainstream politics means that they now get much more scrutiny than previously. For example, one recent meeting hosted by Baroness Tonge in the House of Lords attracted so much mainstream media attention that it resulted in Tonge resigning from the Liberal Democrats, because of the offensive comments made during the meeting. This meeting was, for regular watchers of Britain’s anti-Zionist scene, completely unexceptional. There have been hundreds such meetings over the years, featuring similarly outrageous language (and worse), and most people haven’t cared. Now they do care, and when people are exposed to these kind of views for the first time they recoil in horror. It’s a reminder that most people don’t bother going through detailed academic discussions about whether this or that comment meets a particular definition or passes a subjective test before it can be declared antisemitic: they just feel the hate and draw their own conclusions.
- Book Review: The Left’s Jewish Problem (Fathom)
- Definitions of Antisemitism: A Quick Guide (CST)
- Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism: Questions to Answer (CST)
- The Holocaust, The Left and the Return of Hate (The Tower)
- The problem of antisemitism was not invented by Jews to smear the left (Engage)
- Antisemitism: the belief that Jews have a hidden agenda that needs to be uncovered (UK Media Watch)
- A glimpse at how the Guardian covered Palestinian terrorism in 1974 (UK Media Watch)