Escaping the prison house of the Jewish question and left antisemitism

I. The ideological terrain

The recent move by Britain’s right-wing Conservative government, notably, Gavin Williamson’s punitive request in October 2020 to university vice-chancellors to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, and the government announcement in February 2021 of a ‘free speech champion’ to protect freedom of speech on universities campuses, is, simply put, a demagogic culture war which should be opposed in such terms. As this looms, in this paper, I am seeking a fuller and richer culture on the activist and academic Left for freedom of thought on Palestine and Israel that involves an honest and critical self-reflection on the issue of left antisemitism, alongside freedom of speech and peaceful action against the longstanding and ever-worsening oppression of the Palestinians by Israel’s state and military. This is a plea from the Left to the Left: to oppose a right-wing government’s culture war in the name of freedom of speech, at the same time as, on our own terms, enacting what belongs to us at the grassroots, and to discuss the problem of left antisemitism while opposing the Israeli state and military occupation and dispossession of Palestinian land and subjugation of Palestinian people. My local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) debated the government imposition of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Whilst I consider this working definition a good educational basis for discussion on the nature of contemporary antisemitism, which does not prevent criticism of Israel’s state and military, I supported the branch’s rejection of the government’s effective enforcement. Any working definition of antisemitism should be shaped at the grassroots by open debate and discussion within our academic communities. There is however a closure to such open debate and discussion at the grassroots, which is that the very idea of the existence of ‘left antisemitism’ is denied by many on the Left. The 2006, 2007 and 2008 UCU Congresses passed a series of motions that demonstrate this: in 2006, denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming that “defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate and in the context of Higher Education to restrict academic freedom”; in 2007, that “criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic”; and in 2008, that “criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-Semitic” (cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 119). Much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive embodiment of the Right: either as a feature of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a fabricated allegation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left globally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. This paper is an effort to move us beyond this impasse.

To illustrate the ideological terrain that impedes recognition of contemporary and left antisemitism, I draw on rejoinders from three well-known pro-Palestinian left academics on this question. Norman Finkelstein, in an address in 2015 to the Philosophy Society at the University College Dublin, responds to a question on whether there is a rise of antisemitism in Europe. His full response is available to watch on YouTube.

Finkelstein states: “There’s just no evidence for these claims about a rise of antisemitism in Europe and we have to all renew our battle against antisemitism, it’s just not true.” He evidences this reply as follows:

“By far and away the most accepted minority in all the western countries, by far and away, are Jews […] the sign of acceptance, when you know what’s called assimilation has tipped, the sign is always inter-marriage […] Well in the United States today, I would say, there isn’t a single ruling class family that hasn’t intermarried with Jews.”

Finkelstein then goes on to qualify his answer:

“What you do find is, if you look at the opinion polls, there is a spike in antisemitism […] every time Israel launches one of its murderous invasions […] That’s not antisemitism in any meaningful sense, that’s a state that calls itself Jewish carrying out in a horrifying way and so people react to it against Jews, if you want to prevent antisemitism there’s two things you can do, number one you can stop committing massacres and number two stop calling yourself a Jewish state, just call yourself Israel, and then I think the number of antisemitic acts will go back down”.

He concludes:

“If you had a choice, in any European country where they say ‘oh the antisemitism is going berserk’ […] if you’re in France, would you rather be Jewish or short, would you rather be Jewish or obese, […] would you rather be Jewish or ugly […] the world is so plagued by so many horrifying crimes, so much suffering […] so okay some people have some prejudices about me, but if you take it at the legal level, Jews are doing better than anybody else, so all this talk of antisemitism, it’s just a joke.”

Finkelstein claims four things here: one, that in the context of crime and suffering across the world, antisemitism is trivial; two, that what might be considered antisemitism is not antisemitism in a meaningful sense because it is an understandable response to the murderous actions of Israel, and when Israel ceases to be a Jewish nation-state, the so-called problem of antisemitism will disappear; three, that antisemitism is the product of a Jewish nation-state that commits massacres; and, four, that in key respects, Jews actually hold a higher position in society than others. It is worth emphasizing, on this final point, that Finkelstein evidences his observation about Jewish assimilation not by identifying an assimilation to the general, vast majority population but rather by stressing an incorporation (which he calls assimilation) into the ruling class and jobs with power.

In a public meeting hosted by the Socialist Workers’ Party in 2019, titled “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Ilan Pappé lays bare the relationship between anti-Zionism, Zionism, and the allegations of antisemitism in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Pappé (2019) explains:

“The inability to cover the criminality in Gaza is one of the reasons that you get instead a hyper inflated coverage of a few emails that may or may not be antisemitic, as if this is an issue that threatens people’s life or existence, and this imbalance between, a manipulated hysteria of something that doesn’t happen and a total ignorance of what really happens is one of the major challenges that this ridiculous equation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism is causing, and which we will have to challenge”.

He stresses, as a continuous mistake from Corbyn down to the activist base when in the mainstream media, that:

“They apologise, not understand what they are apologising for, but they think that apologising is good, apologising is terrible, apologising means that you think there is some truth in it, maybe a little misunderstanding […] every minute we waste on talking about antisemitism instead of talking about Palestine is a wasted minute”.

Pappé elaborates:

“because they cannot […] challenge with facts, they cannot challenge us with a moral position, they have nothing in their arsenal that can really struggle efficiently against our humane position and universal position on Palestine, so they blame us of antisemitism”.

On the journalists who covered the antisemitism allegations in the Labour Party, he speculates:

“either these people are intelligent and I suppose many people who work in The Times and BBC and so on are intelligent and that’s worse, that means they know exactly what they are doing, because they’re afraid, because someone is paying them, I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m not going to investigate, I’m interested in the outcome not in their motives […] or […] they’re ignorant […] on an area that they should know a lot as British journalists, but we should be on the onslaught here, attacking their ignorance or the sinister manipulation effects and stop apologising for something we are not”.

Pappé then moves to a full exposure of what is happening by spelling out that for the first time in the history of any mainstream political party in the West since 1948, a leader holds a pro-Palestinian position:

“This is the whole story, they thought this would never happen, it suddenly unfolded in front of their eyes, they cannot use F-16s, they cannot bomb Jeremy Corbyn, they cannot send Israeli tanks […] to the Labour Party headquarters, so they can’t use the main method they usually use to silence people […] in this case they were a bit more limited in what they could do, I must say to their, cynically I would say, to their credit, they found a way”.

In his summation, he responds to a question about Netanyahu’s rule to explain the true nature of Zionism:

“In those ten years […] all the shields of complexity that Israel, especially the Israeli Labor Party […] the so-called Israeli peace camp, the left Zionist camp, all these shields of complexity, where you supposedly could be a socialist and a Zionist, you could be colonizer and an enlightened person, you could be a progressive and an ethnic cleanser, that all these impossible oxymorons, even the Israeli electorate seem to find them quite ridiculous and that’s why they kicked out the Zionist left, it doesn’t exist anymore, and Netanyahu is just the epitome of this kind of inevitable […] political development inside Israel, where you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.

On the question of left antisemitism, Pappé presents a situation regard the British Labour Party in which a morally devoid, sinister and manipulative ‘they’ – i.e. Israel and Zionism – have exerted a global reach to witch hunt and silence Jeremy Corbyn and the pro-Palestinian Left by fabricating allegations of antisemitism. On the question of Zionism, Pappé gives it a fixed and inevitable drive of colonization and ethnic cleansing, seemingly gloating at Netanyahu’s success and the defeat of the Zionist Left because it proves him right, apropos “the so-called Israeli peace camp”, that Zionism is the absolute antithesis of progressive universal values.

Finally, in terms of a response to the question of left antisemitism, and also its relationship to the issue of freedom of speech, I present the contentions of the pro-Palestinian left academic David Miller, both from a public meeting in 2020 titled “In Defence of Free Speech” and from a conference in 2021 titled “Building the Campaign for Free Speech”; both hosted by Labour Against the Witch-hunt, an organisation that frames the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party as a “purge of pro-Corbyn supporters” and akin to McCarthyism. This public meeting and conference are available to watch on YouTube.

David Miller (2020) talks of his “shocked, perhaps not that surprised” realisation of the complicity of the leadership of the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby, in the witch hunt:

“They [the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby] adopted the witch hunt […], they decided that what was going on here was people who had genuine grievances, perhaps mistaken but genuine grievances about members of the Party, and we should engage them in constructive dialogue, and of course there is no constructive dialogue with the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement isn’t interested in dialogue, in truth, in finding out how best to tackle antisemitism, and that is the fundamental mistake and a fundamental error for the Labour Party […] so it wasn’t just a question of the Zionist movement, of the trolls, of the JLM, of Labour Against Antisemitism, and […] and all of that lot, you know backed of course by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in Israel, it wasn’t just a question of them […] you see in the Labour leaked report […] there’s a bit where they discuss the people that they took on to be in charge of antisemitism investigations, one of whom is a former member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a well-known [bleep] faction, and the other one says in a long passage in the report, which he himself must have written, that he learned about left antisemitism from reading a book by Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, an organisation which has been at the forefront of pursuing the witch hunt, which is unable to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and which purposefully blurs together those two concepts in order to pursue the Left  […] so the idea that people like that should be engaged in constructive dialogue is a fantasy, these are people who must only be faced and defeated, they are supporters of Israel, of the racist policies of the Israeli government and of course of the racist foundation of the Israeli state founded of course as we know on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism […] there is of course much we can do to engage in Palestine solidarity work, as many people are doing, but also we must of course engage the enemy in this which is, not just of course the British government and US imperialism but the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement and the Israeli government are the enemy of the Left, the enemy of world peace and they must be directly targeted […] in order for the Palestinians to win, Zionism as a philosophy, as an idea, as an ideology, must be defeated, and that seems to be the clarity which the current historical moment gives us […] I think that there’s a strategic problem in discussing this under the rubric of free speech on Israel or Zionism or antisemitism, I mean there isn’t free speech for racists […] and you know the problem with defending the principle of freedom of speech in relation to this issue is that we don’t have the freedom of speech and they have the freedom of speech and we are never going to get the freedom of speech because they are in power, and so it seems to me that what we should be talking about is not counterposing our conception of ‘Zionism as racism’, which I think most of us are agreed on, with their conception that ‘we’re all anti-Semites’, because that’s a balance which is based on falsehood and it’s based on a racist understanding of how things are, it’s not acceptable for them to call us racist, it’s untrue, and so what I think we should be saying is not how we create slightly more space for the Left to say slightly more things about Palestine and Israel while they at the same time are using their speech to destroy people’s lives, careers, mental health, and jobs […] we should be saying is, no we’re not here to defend freedom of speech, we’re here to end Zionism”.

Miller (2021) later proclaims:

“The enemy we face here is Zionism and the imperial policies of the Israeli state, and free speech is not the main problem here […] It didn’t start with the Labour Party, it’s not started with the Labour Party and moved to the universities, it’s an all-out onslaught by the Israeli government, mainly through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, but also other ministries too, on the Left globally and this is not something which just happened in Britain […] this is an all-out attack by the Israeli government […] this attempt by the Israelis to impose their will all over the world and that I think is what we should recognise”.

Miller’s narrative on antisemitism in the Labour Party and freedom of speech on Palestine and Israel is that, Zionism is racism so there cannot be freedom of speech for Zionists, and Zionism is an all-powerful and infiltrating movement which is waging a war globally against the Left: hegemonizing freedom of speech for itself while denying the pro-Palestinian Left its freedom of speech under the accusation of antisemitism and the pretence of fighting antisemitism. Zionism must be faced and defeated in all of its multiple personifications and manifestations: both as an omnipotent, permeating global movement that seeps right down to the local and individual level and consciousness, and as a settler-colonial state. He identifies people who accept a basis to the claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party as supporting a racist Israel based on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism – people who, in his words, “must only be faced and defeated”. In sum, for Miller, what’s freedom of speech in times of war.

II. Defining left antisemitism

A definition of antisemitism attributed to the academic Brian Klug is often cited by members of the activist Left as offering a sensible and simple insight into what antisemitism actually is and academic legitimation of how accusations of left antisemitism are false; a part sentence or paraphrase of Klug’s work is picked out, specifically, “anti-Semitism is hostility to Jews as Jews” (Klug, 2013: 471). The pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein, speaking at a public meeting titled “The abuse of antisemitism to silence free speech on Israel” in 2017, hosted by Brighton’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and available to watch on YouTube, is an example of how the definition of anti-Semitism as hostility to Jews as Jews is applied to the question of left antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Greenstein (2017) states:

“All this stuff of antisemitism has nothing at all to do with antisemitism whatsoever, it’s a complete blind and a complete smokescreen […] the antisemitism crisis and the allegations, of the hysteria that’s grown up, has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism, it has everything to do with Israel’s record and Zionism’s record in the Middle East […] one of the ways you defend it is by saying that anyone who criticizes it is antisemitic, they’re singling it out, yes we are singling out Israel in one respect because it’s the only apartheid state in the world […] there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state […] the definition of antisemitism is remarkably simple, you don’t need to be a genius to work out […] it is hostility to Jews as Jews, it is simple, an Oxford academic, a friend of mine, Brian Klug, worked that out years ago, but the government has a problem, and the problem is how to associate antisemitism with Israel, and therefore they have come up, they came up in 2004 with what they called the working definition, the European Union Monitoring Committee [EUMC] Working Definition of Antisemitism, which met a lot of resistance, the University College Union opposed it, the National Union of Students opposed it […] and in 2013 the successor agency to the EUMC […] took it down from its website and it basically fell into a bed, however, the Zionist monster is a multi-headed Hydra and it has grown again, it’s becomes something called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.”

Here Greenstein provides an opposition to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism based on the idea that it is an end product of a Zionist racist monster that has manufactured false allegations of antisemitism to silence international criticism of its monstrous record in the Middle East; in making this case, he offers up an Oxford academic’s simple and obvious definition of antisemitism.

The definition of antisemitism as hostility to Jews as Jews has very limited explanatory power, because what does one mean by ‘Jew’? The process of racialization is skipped: the process of identifying difference as significant and the cause of harm, which requires the one doing the racialization to identify and label a difference and to assign negative meaning and consequence to that difference. Let me put it differently, one could define anti-Muslim racism, or Islamophobia, as hostility to Muslims as Muslims. But what does one mean by ‘Muslim’? The process of racialization is omitted: again, the process of identifying difference as significant and the source of harm, which involves identifying and labelling a difference and giving negative meaning and consequence to that difference. On September 15th 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a man of American nationality, was attacked and killed in a hate crime in the US state of Arizona. He was a practising Sikh with a beard and a turban – the beard and the turban were identified with the figure of the Islamist terrorist. Explaining this hate crime as hostility to Muslims as Muslims actually offers no explanation at all; more precisely, Balbir Singh Sodhi was a victim of anti-Muslim racism and the process of racialization that that entailed.

Similar to other forms of racism, with anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, it is not ethnic difference per se that matters but the identification of ethnic difference as significant and a problem. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism involves a process of signification that assigns ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which fuses into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, surreptitiously, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace.

In a comparison of contemporary Islamophobia and antisemitism, old and new, Pnina Werbner (2013: 451) astutely observes its intersection with the politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

“we find these concepts and the protagonists who enunciate them entangled with each other in mutual recriminations, invoking a wide concatenation of ambiguous, polysemic, ideological tropes: Zionism, Islamism, racism, colonialism, apartheid, genocide, terrorism, Nazism, orientalism, occidentalism.”

Revisiting her conceptualisation of the “three archetypal demonic figures conjured up by the racist imagination […] the slave, the witch and the Grand Inquisitor” (ibid: 455; see image below), she recognises that on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “extremist actions seem intent on confirming the worst racist imaginaries each group has of the other” (ibid: 461): the Jews as conspiratorial witches and the Palestinians as the Islamic Grand Inquisitor.

Werbner, Pnina (2013) “Folk devils and racist imaginaries in a global prism: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 36:3, 450-467.

“The witch”, Werbner (2013: 455-456) elaborates:

“crystallizes fears of the hidden, disguised, malevolent stranger, of a general breakdown of trust […] Your neighbour may be a witch who wants to destroy you. He or she is culturally indistinguishable in almost every respect because the witch masquerades as a non-alien.”


“[t]he Islamic Grand Inquisitor is not a disguised, assimilated threat as the Jewish ‘witch’ […]; ‘he’ is not subservient and bestial like the black ‘slave’. He is upfront, morally superior, openly aggressive, denying promiscuous society and the validity of other cultures […].” (ibid, 458).

Both antisemitism and Islamophobia mobilise religion as a marker for racialization and entail a dynamic of ‘conspiratorial racialization’ – defined by Reza Zia-Ebrahimi (2018) as an ahistorical and unchanging, psychological and moral essentialisation of a population as “a monolithic group animated by only one will”” (ibid: 319) that is “the ultimate enemy out for our destruction” (ibid: 318). Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism operates a racist imaginary akin to Werbner’s description of the Jewish witch and Zia-Ebrahimi’s (2018) understanding of conspiratorial racialization: many on the Left seek to expose the hidden power of Zionism and its followers who are out to destroy us and see Zionism as the ultimate epitome and personification of the insidious harm wrought by global capitalism and imperialism.

In their book Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Robert Fine and Philip Spencer (2017) construct a powerful argument around the two faces of universalism: its emancipatory face that seeks to include the Other as an equal human being and its repressive face that singles out the Other as the failure of what is required for membership of humanity. They explore how the negative face of universalism has shaped the Jewish question over time; ‘the Jewish question’ being, “the classic term for the representation of Jews as harmful to humanity as a whole” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 2). Furthermore, they recognise, quoting Hannah Arendt, “[t]he classic form in which the Jewish question was posed in the Enlightenment” – that is, the belief that the Jew can only be a human being when he or she stops being a Jew – “provides classic antisemitism its theoretical basis” (Arendt cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 17). Fine and Spencer (2017: 6) reason that while it should not be controversial to state that a critique of antisemitism should be integral to any emancipatory movement that strives “to understand” the problems of “modern capitalist society rather than simply blame it on secret conspiracies or particular scapegoats”, much of the Left respond to ‘charges’ of antisemitism with suspicion; a suspicion not made of other forms of racism. As such, they suggest, “something has gone seriously wrong with the universalism of the antiracist imagination” (ibid: 7). Fine and Spencer (2017) identify four methodological assumptions that have seeped into the culture of the activist and academic Left that support and intensify the Left’s misrecognition of antisemitism: one, ‘methodological separatism’, which disconnects antisemitism from other forms of racism; two, ‘methodological historicism’ that places antisemitism as a phenomenon of the past; three, ‘methodological dualism’, which obscures our view of antisemitism and racism through a world framework of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, “reinforced […] when racism is condemned as the exercise of oppressive power while antisemitism is excused as a mislabelled or misguided form of resistance” (ibid: 8), and when those who raise concerns of antisemitism are consequently placed in the camp of the oppressive power; and, four, ‘methodological nationalism’, or rather, “the replacement of the cosmopolitan critique of methodological nationalism by a simulacrum of cosmopolitanism that projects into one particular instance of nationalism the defects of nationalism in toto” (ibid: 9). The idea that something must be done to end the harm caused by the Jewish nation-state and its supporters because of its particular infliction on humanity is the contemporary form which the Jewish question and left antisemitism takes.

I propose that the methodological assumptions that Fine and Spencer (2017) identify as made by much of the Left, and which underpin and compound its misrecognition of antisemitism, have some roots in what Robert Miles (1989; 1993) critiques in much of the theorising about capitalism and racism in British and North American academia since the 1960s. Such theoretical work, while recognising the immorality of the racism that culminated in the Holocaust, nonetheless applies:

“a colonial model which has little scope to explain much of the European racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly not that form of racism which others label anti-semitism […]; it does, however, have a relevance to the controversial debate about whether or not Zionism can be defined as an instance of racism […]. Consequently, we are offered definitions and theories of racism which are so specific to the history of overseas colonialisation (that is, specific to the domination of ‘white’ over ‘black’ as so many writers express it) that they are of little value in explaining any other (non-colonial) context.” (Miles, 1989: 68)

Miles (1989: 33) understands that the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not simply replace earlier representations of the Other, rather earlier ideas of “savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it”. Widening one’s historical and geographical perspective beyond a colonial model of racism enables us to comprehend the racialization of religion, or rather the co-constitution of ‘race’ with religion. As James Thomas (2010: 1738-1739) in his study of the racial formation of medieval Jews points out, whilst:

“[m]ost scholars still conceive of race as a post-Enlightenment ideology built upon the Atlantic slave trade, hinged upon observable phenotypical human differentiation and therefore absent in pre-modern societies whose ideologies of difference were simply ‘cultural’ […] discourses of modern racism not only antedate the social taxonomies arising out of nineteenth-century scientific thought, but it was Christianity which provided the vocabularies of difference for the Western world, and even for secularized science […].”

Returning then to Fine and Spencer’s (2017) identification of methodological slippages into a left misrecognition of antisemitism, a colonial model of racism can be seen to have contributed to a disconnection of antisemitism from racism, an effective relegation of antisemitism to the past, and a framework of ‘white’ domination over ‘black’ in which Zionism is racism. In Ilan Pappé’s (2007) words, on Palestine and Israel, “[t]he story here is a simple story, a story of white people who were persecuted in Europe and who drove away the black people who used to live here”.

Contra to a colonial model of racism, Miles (1993: 21) theorises racism through a focus on “the articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism, because”, he explains, “this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects”. And although “[c]olonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, […] racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism […]” (ibid: 21). Miles (1993: 61-62) expands on both the distinctiveness and potential overlap of nationalism and racism:

“For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. […] The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation become more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. […] Because nations were identified as naturally occurring groups identifiable by cultural differentiae, it was logically possible to assert that these symbols of ‘nation’ were themselves grounded in ‘race’ […]”.

Earlier in this section I quoted the pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein (2017), including his assertion, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. A colonial model of racism aids the singling-out of the nation-state of Israel as an examplar of settler-colonialism in an era of decolonization. Only seeing racism in the context of European colonization (and decolonization), rather than as intersecting with capitalist political economy and the nation-state more broadly, enables the possibility of the statement, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. On the question of apartheid, South African apartheid operated through a narrow caste exploiting the labour-power of a majority population – a class dynamic that is not present in Israel. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court alongside the 1973 United Nations General Assembly’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid define apartheid as the institutionalized and regime-maintaining, systematic domination and oppression of one racial group over another racial group. Even with this wider definition of apartheid, there are nation-states other than Israel guilty of an apartheid racism but which fall outside of the lens of a colonial model of racism. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and segregation of the Rohingya population, for example, and China’s persecution of the Uyghur-majority population in the state of Xinjiang through the detainment of an estimated one million Uyghars in re-education camps, the mass separation of children from Uyghar families, and the forced contraception and sterilisation of Uyghar women.

III. Challenging left antisemitism

“An emphasis upon racism as a ‘false doctrine’”, Robert Miles (1989: 80) points out, “fails to appreciate that one of the conditions of existence of ideologies (which by definition constitute in their totality a false explanation, but which may nevertheless also incorporate elements of truth) is that they can successfully ‘make sense’ of the world, at least for those who articulate and use them.” This point is congruent with Antonio Gramsci’s dissatisfaction with the notion of false consciousness and his alternative concept of contradictory consciousness: the co-existence of two competing philosophies, common sense and good sense. Common sense is a way of making sense of the world that goes against “thinking dialectically”, instead encouraging dogmatism and eagerness “for peremptory certainties” (Gramsci, 1971: 435). Common sense is employed by people simply because it seems to make sense as “a specific way of rationalising the world and real life, which provide[s] the general framework for real practical activity” (Gramsci, 1971:337) – albeit “a creation of concrete phantasy” (ibid:126). “Common sense as the site of unexamined prejudices, values and normativities” co-exists with “good sense” which “demand[s] a human life for all people” (Holub, 1992: 53). The way in which much of the Left understands and responds to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict reflects contradictory consciousness, both common sense – left antisemitism – and good sense – a sincere and passionate commitment to end the longstanding and ever-worsening repression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state and military. Freedom of speech and peaceful action are essential here, but so too is the creation of circumstances that enable people on the Left, activists and academics, to engage in critical self-reflection and honest debate. This necessitates an advancement in the culture of the Left: a culture where “people join in a criticism of themselves and their own weaknesses without [losing] faith in their own strength and their own future” (Gramsci, 1985:251), both challenging and overcoming common sense and developing existing embryonic good sense.

In a Socialist Workers’ Party public meeting of its July 2017 Marxism Festival, titled “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Brian Klug is a guest speaker. The Socialist Workers’ Party member Rob Ferguson refers in this meeting to Klug’s 2004 article in The Nation, “The Myth of the New Antisemitism”, and his 2013 keynote lecture in Berlin, “What do we mean when we say ‘antisemitism’”, as a benchmark to understanding antisemitism. What Klug says in this public meeting is nuanced and insightful, and the other contributions made thereafter are noteworthy.

In sum, Klug (2017) critiques “a discourse [on the pro-Palestinian Left] that folds Zionism completely, without remainder, into the history of European imperialism and colonialism, as if Zionism does not have its roots in the Jewish experience […] of centuries of exclusion and persecution in Europe”. He emphasizes that he does not want to be seen as defending Zionism, which he is not, rather his agenda is for a change on the pro-Palestinian Left to how Zionism is spoken about and for a more thoughtful response to the question of antisemitism. Klug stresses his political credentials: recognising and rejecting dominant Zionism today as dispossessing Palestinians and possessing Jews. He continues by stating that whether or not any of the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party were true, there clearly was a cynical and shameful campaign by enemies of Labour on the outside and enemies of Corbyn within, under the guise of combating antisemitism, “and yet”, he adds, “things are not quite that simple”. Klug then tells the meeting of an experience that was told to him by a friend, “I’ll call her Daphne, not her real name”: a lifelong socialist and a Jewish anti-Zionist. Daphne, it is relayed, had recently proposed a motion at a well-attended Labour Party CLP meeting criticising Ken Livingstone for his comments linking Zionism with Nazism. For her, Klug explains, the history of the Holocaust is part of the identity of all Jews regardless of what one might feel about Israel, and her motive had nothing to do with Livingstone’s politics on Israel which she made clear when she proposed the motion. He continues:

“Nevertheless, and I quote her, “everyone who spoke against the motion suggested that it was part of a plot by Israel or that it was an attempt to prevent discussion of Israel”. Daphne was made to feel, in her own words, “an agent of the Israeli state”. Her opponents didn’t address her arguments, they didn’t try to defend what he [Livingstone] said, Daphne told me, “they were”, I quote, “only interested in discrediting those behind the motion by linking it to Israel or right-wing manoeuvring in the Party”. In effect, her opponents, I quote, ““shut down discussion, I felt I was being silenced”, she said”.

Klug makes two points on this. On the one hand, one is familiar with people crying antisemitism to shut down critical discussion of Israel, on the other, in Daphne’s case, there were those, in effect, crying Zionism to shut down discussion on antisemitism. The second point:

“Here we have an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew being made to feel by a group of people on the Left, all of whom knew her, as though she were an agent of the Israeli state. […] What should we call this? Antisemitism? Or maybe, I don’t know, and I almost said I don’t care, the word antisemitism is so contested, so emotive that it sometimes seems to get in the way of thinking [original emphasis]”.

Klug does nonetheless call this incident an injustice: an injustice to Daphne, just like the injustice when it is the other way around. He states that while he refrains from ‘crying antisemitism’, someone without a pro-Israel agenda could suspect bigotry at play. He concludes on the case of Daphne:

“All too often, when a Jewish person, even an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew says they feel uncomfortable or worse with the way in which Jews or Israel are spoken about, the knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and to cry ‘Zionism!’, we wouldn’t treat members of other racialized minorities this way, then why the Jews?”

Klug then returns to expand on the standard way Zionism is thought and spoken about on the pro-Palestinian Left:

“Zionism is seen as part and parcel of the history of European, especially British, imperialism and Israel as a settler-colonial state, to which I have two responses, yes that’s true and no that’s false, it’s true as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough and what it leaves out is crucial which is why it’s false.”

Klug’s main point here is that Zionism was part of an argument about how to save the Jews, not a debate about how to make Great Britain greater; “this is the piece that is missing from the stock discourse […] the missing piece is the centrepiece of the story but it is certainly not the whole story”. Zionism, he suggests, should be recognised as Janus-faced, as belonging to two opposite histories simultaneously: as part of a history of Jews as a racialized minority and the internal Other of Europe and as part of the history of British imperialism. While Zionism from the outset spoke the language of colonization, Klug stresses that Zionism thought of itself as a colonization for emancipation not a colonization to expand and enrich an Empire. He cites a Palestinian academic to summate his point, the European saw the back of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives, the Palestinian saw the face of settler-colonialists. Klug’s participation and contribution in this public meeting is commendable. His aim was to invite thinking; in a Gramscian sense, he was an organic intellectual in a genuine effort to generate a culture of “thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does” (Gramsci, 1985: 25). Noteworthy then is the rest of this public meeting, i.e., the contributions of the other two panellists and those from the floor. While there was some limited discussion about Ken Livingstone connecting Zionism with Nazism, which ranged from Tom Hickey calling his comments “clumsy” whilst stating that Livingstone must nevertheless be defended, to someone else saying you don’t mention Zionism and Nazism together, no one identified the story about Daphne as either problematic or, further still, antisemitism. Indeed, the second speaker from the floor – Jonathan Rosenhead – was the only person to directly address the case of Daphne. He said this: “she was offended, she felt criticised […] I use to be offended like that […] we are not obliged to be hypersensitive about people who are still feeling offended that Israel can be criticised in serious ways”. The general Socialist Workers’ Party line pushed in the meeting was twofold, the threat of antisemitism comes from the far Right and fascists and we are the true opponents of fascism, racism and antisemitism, not the Zionists who capitulate to antisemitism and promote an illegitimate racist colonial state, and, that we must engage and have arguments with Jewish students on university campuses who are attracted to soft Zionism, while being mindful of our language, in order to get them to make the break from Zionism.

IV. Conclusion

“The Jewish question is not just an attitude of hostility to Jews or to those who invoke the sign of ‘the Jews’ but a theory designed to explain the winners and losers of capitalist society. It is formulated in terms of dichotomies – the modern and the backward, the people and its enemies, the civic and the ethnic, the postnational and the national, imperialism and anti-imperialism, power and resistance, the West and the rest. In every case Jews appear as the ‘other of the universal’: a backward people who stubbornly resist progress or an all-too-clever people who manipulate progress and hold the world in its thrall; a nation within a nation that is endemically treacherous or a nation unlike all other nations in that it is not a valid nation at all; a ‘settler-colonial’ state in an otherwise decolonised world or a ‘cosmopolitan elite’ with no comprehension of global responsibility. The ‘othering’ of Jews inevitably creates an inequitable economy of compassion and a restrictive arena of solidarity. In its spiritless radicalism it at once turns Israel into the primary source of violence in the world and places Palestinians into a single identity script as victims, only as victims and only as victims of Israel. Just as it subsumes the plurality of Jewish voices to ‘the Jews’ and the plurality of Israeli voices to ‘Israel’, it also subsumes the plurality of Palestinian voices to ‘the Palestinians’ and risks turning them into ciphers of our own resentments. […] Jews never were the problem; they are not the problem now. What has to be dealt with is not a Jewish question, but the question of antisemitism that generated the Jewish question in the first place.” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 124)

To recap, much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive manifestation of the Right: either as an aspect of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a false accusation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left internationally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, involves a process of signification that ascribes ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which merges into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, clandestinely, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace. What follows is the conclusion that the Jewish nation-state must cease to exist as a Jewish nation-state in order to belong to humanity, and that the Zionist Jew must stop being a Zionist Jew to be included in the commune of human beings. As Fine and Spencer (2017) make plain, the Jewish question and left antisemitism expresses itself through the negative face of universalism, as the Other of universalism. This is confirmed by Ilan Pappé’s (2019) damning assertion, previously quoted, “you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.

The independent Marxist theoretician and French Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson does well to emphasize that the prevailing colonial philosophy in Europe both explains and is responsible for the fact that the actual population of Palestine was generally ignored by the early Zionists (Rodinson, 1968). A new population of Europeans settled on an already occupied territory whose people refused such a settlement and these settlers “came from that world which was everywhere known as the world of the colonizers” (ibid: 215). For the Arabs, Zionism, a manifestation of nationalism that pursued its project in an era of decolonization, is synonymous with imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, and the Palestinian refugees are the living symbol of injustice (Rodinson, 1968). At the same time, the ultimate momentum for this mass settlement was European fascism: “anti-Semitism played a capital role in gathering together an entire group that was otherwise on the road to disintegration. Zionism played no significant role […] before 1939 […]” (Rodinson, 1983, page 164). Rodinson (1973, page 91-93) concludes that while the “creation of the State of Israel was an outrage committed against the Arabs as a people”:

“Colonists and colonizers are not monsters with human faces whose behavior defies rational explanation, as one might think from reading left-wing intellectuals. […] The Jews of Israel too are people like other people. Some of them have hammered out an illusory ideology to which they have sacrificed themselves as well as a great deal of effort and many human lives. They are not alone. Many are those who have suffered much but have looked with indifference upon the sufferings and rights of others. Many went there because it was the life preserver thrown to them. They most assuredly did not first engage in scholarly research to find out if they had a right to it according to Kantian morality or existentialist ethics. It is accordingly useless to reproach them for it. […] Let it be said forthrightly, even if it hurts or arouses indignation among left-wing conformists who believe the social revolution solves all problems. There is no “revolutionary solution” to the Israeli-Arab problem.”

What’s more, the proclaimed revolutionary solution of undoing the Jewish nation-state to deliver redress and justice to the Palestinian-Arabs is “liable to be calamitous and unjust” (Rodinson, 1968: 231). It “binds”, as Daniel Randall (forthcoming) puts it, the “advancement” of “Palestinian rights to an outcome” of historically unprecedented “mass collective disavowal of national rights by Israeli Jews”, which would be achievable only “by bloody force”; “[i]t is rare for lasting equality and justice to emerge from ashes”, more often, such ashes are the “fertile ground for ongoing cycles of nationalist resentment and revanchism. If the left cannot construct an active solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination on the basis of consistent democracy and equal rights, our politics are doomed”.

In our opposition to the culture war of Britain’s right-wing Conservative government against the Left in academia, which includes its punitive request to impose the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, we must also create space for a fuller and richer culture of discussion and debate that is able to escape the prison house of the Jewish question. There is, however, a danger that opposition to this culture war is blended into the Jewish question – that too, we must resist.


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