“Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.” [Original emphasis] (Sara Ahmed, 2021)
“As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people. It threatens violence against those, including migrants, who have become cast as demonic forces and whose suppression or expulsion promises to restore a national order under duress. That is why it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” (Judith Butler, 2021)
In November 2021, three motions relating to academic freedom were tabled at my local UCU branch: two explicitly addressed the case of the sacking of David Miller (one of which called out his antisemitism) and one implicitly related to both the cases of David Miller and the resignation of Kathleen Stock. This latter motion is noteworthy in the differentiation it made between those who label the views of others as “‘hate’” and contributing to feeling “‘unsafe’” (note the use of single speech marks) and those who experience “genuine hate speech and threats to safety”. Two groups are implied here: Jewish students and staff, and trans students and staff. Whether intentional or not, this motion reflects a wider phenomenon in the leftist and feminist milieux: both Jewish and trans people are delegitimised when they call out, respectively, antisemitism and transphobia, since both are accused of manipulating their ‘apparent oppression’ for sinister ends.
Left antisemitism and the transphobia of gender critical feminists while separate also intersect: Jews (who do not denounce Israel) are seen to be complicit in a Zionist network of world destructive power; trans women are viewed as carrying patriarchal power and as seeking to both destroy sex-based rights and invade women’s spaces and bodies. Both Jews and trans women are deemed as having especially dangerous, invisible and lurking hegemony. The Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism.
Essentialism is precarious territory for leftists and feminists to slip into. The idea of a hierarchy of inferior to superior biological ‘races’ is both intellectually out-dated and regressive; this includes the delineation of naturalised culturally essentialist ‘races’. The gender critical feminist fixation on and essentialisation of – and primacy given to – biological sex is fundamentally incompatible with a project for human liberation and emancipation. Any intellectual and political endeavour that ascribes power to the skin colour or the religion or the genitalia that one is born with will find itself intersecting with a trajectory of far Right ideology.
“The earliest entanglement of Nazi anti-semitism and transmisogyny occurred in response to the emerging gay and trans liberation movement in Weimar Germany. The earliest development of an organised effort for gay and trans liberation emerged in Germany in the late 19th century, and reached a new level of power in 1919, with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. The Institute’s founder was Jewish Marxist scientist and political campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was a committed organiser in the German Social Democratic Party, and headed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – the world’s first gay and trans advocacy group. Hirschfield is credited with the coining of the term “transvestite” and “transsexual”, and in his research and advocacy he was committed to opposing the eugenic homophobic and transphobic science of sexology that emerged in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a science which had come to dominate state understandings of sexual and gender issues and which profoundly influenced the sexual and gender politics of National Socialism. […] Eugenic sexology understood homosexuality essentially through the lens of gender, specifically as the corruption of the male body and psyche by femininity. […] Transness is here understood as a dysgenic biological defect that must be eliminated for the health of the species.”
The denial of trans rights and existence on the basis of sex trumping gender is premised on the notion that trans existence is biologically false and unnatural and thus harmful to the body politic – the intersection and potential slippage here from gender critical feminist thought to fascist thought is plain.
Cohen (2018) continues:
“For his crime of arguing against this strand of eugenic science it is not surprising that Hitler is reported to have named Magnus Hirschfeld “The most dangerous Jew in Germany” […] The Institute was seen by the Nazis as a hub for Jewish Marxist intellectuals and their nefarious plans to undermine the purity of Aryan racial biology and culture. […] We can see that Nazism understands itself to be engaged in a culture war with Jews over gender roles and gender/sexual variance. But, just as we saw in the original National Socialist regime, Nazism also understands the fundamental terrain of this war to be on the level of biology. There is a deep anxiety expressed in Nazi and far-right thinking which is constantly concerned about the biological undermining of the white race yes, but also the white male, and his hormone balance, his testosterone level. Nazi political ontology understands the biological as one of, if not the most important terrains of political dispute. We know this in our understanding of Nazi race theory, but what has been neglected is the centrality of endocrinological purity and security to Nazi ideology. In this sense, endocrinological purity is the gender/sex corollary of the Nazi eugenic project of racial purity.”
Far Right ontological thought elevates the biological terrain in its quest for racial and sex purity. Social categories and material reality are reduced to biology, including the demand for men to be men and women to be women. Drawing on the work of Moishe Postone, Cohen (2018) offers an explanation for this biological materialism:
“[…] it is not only the concrete ‘side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized… the manifest abstract dimension was also biologized – as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews.’ The “natural rootedness” of the Aryan Volk is contrasted to “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the wandering Jews, who in their diasporic state, abstracted from territory or nation, become a perfect candidate to represent the transnational abstraction of the capitalist world-system. The essential content of National Socialism then is ‘a biologization of capitalism – which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension – as International Jewry.” The National Socialist project is therefore a fetishized ‘overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects’ through the total eradication of the Jews.”
Similarly, Cohen (2018) demonstrates (drawing on Gonzalez and Neton’s essay The Logic of Gender) that the far Right has:
“[…] an understanding of gender/sex wherein gender is understood as a social construction (an abstraction), but the naturalisation of sex is redoubled. Gender is therefore historical and mutable whilst sex forms the natural and transhistorical substratum upon which it is written. Following Postone, the authors argue that ‘the transhistoricisation of sex is homologous to a foreshortened critique of capital, which contends that use-value is transhistorical rather than historically specific to capitalism.’ If we take the structure of Postone’s argument about anti-Semitism and apply it here, we can begin to see where the foreshortened critique of gender posits sex as the concrete reality which must be protected from the pernicious abstractions of gender. In the National Socialist framework of fetishized concretism the concrete biological reality of sex is figured as primary and pure; along with a thorough renaturalisation of gender as a reaction against the mainstreaming of denaturalised nature under late capitalism. For National Socialism, the primacy of sex is reinforced in opposition to the ‘Talmudic abstractions’ of multiple and fluid genders then cast as the pernicious force which seeks to dominate and even erase the sensuous, simple and concrete sexual dimorphism and the natural binary gender roles which flow from it.”
Cohen (2018) concludes:
“Just as the Jew becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction of capitalism and the law of value, the trans woman becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction and denaturalisation of gender. The trans woman is a woman without the concrete biological content of womanhood. She is woman in the abstract, separated from her biological foundation, and therefore her use as the conduit for the reproduction of the Aryan race in this grand Darwinian struggle. She is everything that is detestable about womankind, for Nazism, without any of the redeeming biological expediencies. Further, she represents the worst excess of the cultural degeneration of modernity and contemporary capitalism. Just as the “rootless cosmopolitan” Jew represents abstraction by being rooted in no Nation, trans people demonstrate a rootless cosmopolitanism of gender/sex – with disregard for rootedness of sex and the allegiances of gender. She is a product of a culture so abstracted and so sick, in their eyes, that it actively encourages the corruption of the purity of biological sex and the destruction of gender roles so essential in the battle for racial primary.” [Original emphasis]
The powerful insight delivered by Cohen (2018) is that both antisemitism and transphobia operate on the same (il)logic of a concrete biological reality of ‘race’ and sex: the purity of the Aryan ‘race’ to be protected against the pernicious Jew, and pure and primary sex to be protected against the pernicious abstractions of gender. As long as the culturally naturalised and essentialised Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the biologically essentialised trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism, the related ideas and arguments of the leftist and feminist milieux will intersect with fascist ideology. Our comrades and sisters are not fascists. The battle for ideas is absolutely critical here if we are (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed’s opening quote) to breathe in a politics for the liberation and emancipation of all of humankind.
Academic freedom is contingent on the epistemologies and politics of the time.
A case in point are the past debates in the University and College Union (UCU) for an academic boycott of Israel, which premises that Israel’s negation of academic freedom for Palestinians should consequently negate academic freedom for Israel. A paper co-authored by the left-wing Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel and the Palestinian academic Asad Ghanem was submitted to the journal Political Geography in the spring of 2002. The paper, which identified the state of Israel as “dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group” and thus could not be substantively considered a democracy, was returned unopened. The explanation: Political Geography cannot accept a paper submission from Israel (Beckett, 2002). One of the journal’s editors, David Slater, stated that he did not read the paper, but because he was familiar with some of Yiftachel’s earlier work, he “was not sure to what extent [Yiftachel] had been critical of Israel”. The paper was eventually accepted for publication after substantial revisions were made, including the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa (Beckett, 2002). Slater (2004: 646) later stated that an academic boycott of Israel is a “legitimate and necessary” response to the Israeli state’s denial of academic freedom for Palestinians, but that his original “total boycott” was a “maximalist” position that he no longer held.
Intersecting with the epistemologies and politics of the time, academic freedom is dependent on research funding and the Research Excellence Framework (REF).
The REF effectively discourages academic diversity “because universities tailor their submissions to what they think REF panels want, and REF panels reflect disciplinary hierarchies” (Sayer, 2014) and the power of particular academic cultures (Stockhammer, 2021). The “continued narrowing of [the discipline of] economics”, for example, is “bolstered by the REF”; with “[n]on-mainstream approaches that rely on different ontological or methodological premises hardly ever […] published in the top journals” (Stockhammer, 2021). Thus, academic dissent, debate and innovations of thought are limited.
In principle, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to conduct teaching and research without political or commercial interference or institutional censorship; this must balance with, UCU (2021) notes, “the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others” and must “refrain from all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination”.
The sacking of David Miller in October 2021 was, according to the University of Bristol, the outcome of a disciplinary hearing that found Miller had failed to meet the standards of behaviour that the employer expects from its staff (BBC, 2021). If Miller did breach the staff code of conduct, then a genuinely independent, open and transparent process was needed. Academics should not be dismissed for their political views. Discriminatory or harassment behaviour, which may or may not follow from political views, could be considered grounds for dismissal but only after a due process and where alleviation without further harm to the victims is not possible (Solidarity, 2021).
Academic freedom is conditional on wider societal forces.
The resignation of Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex in October 2021, under her lament that she was a victim of a “medieval” “witch-hunt” (cited in Hayes, 2021; Adams, 2021), has since provided her with an extraordinarily high platform in mainstream media. This platform reflects both the dominance of the socially traditionalist ideas that Stock holds on the sex/gender binary and transgenderism, and the fact that she falls on the Conservative government’s side of its culture war on so-called ‘woke’ academia. Stock has used her hegemonic platform to question the right of students to protest and to discredit gender scholars such as Alison Phipps (see: BBC Women’s Hour, 2021; UnHerd, 2021). Under the guise that her own academic freedom has been infringed, Stock appears to be consciously seeking to infringe the freedom of others – students and academics in support of transgender rights based on gender identity – at precisely a moment in society when the rights of transgender people are under attack through the conservative notion of biological sex as destiny.
Academic freedom has never been sacrosanct, we must fight for it. It is a site of struggle shaped by competing ideologies, forces and conditions of existence and relations of power. Democratically-organised academic agency, which is active in critical thought and debate, is essential for its survival and necessary advancement.
The Al Jazeera podcast Degrees of Abuse is the result of a two year investigation into British universities and the institutional handling of sexual harassment complaints. It features the case of geographer Dr Ian Shaw – who, in his words, researches “political violence and how we can work together to build better worlds”, and who denies any and all wrongdoing (Davies et al, 2021). Listening to these two particular episodes was unsettling: it made explicit wider issues and problems that have long existed in academia (including on one’s own disciplinary turf of geography) and it implicitly raised a bigger question. Does a generalised academic culture effectively provide cover for, and fuel even, the abuse of power? The women featured in this podcast are courageous. I hope their courage is not in vain. It is the responsibility of all of us who consider ourselves to be progressive academics to foster a movement for change, but what does this mean when/if the perpetrators of abuses of power are themselves ‘progressive academics’ and part of a generalised culture and structures of power one seeks to challenge and resist?
The words of bell hooks, from her book Teaching to Transgress, are helpful here in offering an explanation for the potential disconnect between REF-rewarded minds and everyday academic bodies and, more specifically, of the incongruity of what a progressive academic might do and how they might be:
“I learned that far from being self-actualized, the university was seen more as a haven for those who are smart in book knowledge but who might be otherwise unfit for social interaction. Luckily, during my undergraduate years I began to make a distinction between the practice of being an intellectual/teacher and one’s role as a member of the academic profession. It was difficult to maintain fidelity to the idea of the intellectual as someone who sought to be whole – well-grounded in a context where there was little emphasis on spiritual well-being, on care of the soul. Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization. This support reinforces the dualistic separation of public and private, encouraging teachers and students to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and the roles of professors. The idea of the intellectual questing for a union of mind, body, and spirit had been replaced with notions that being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one’s academic work. This meant that whether academics were drug addicts, alcoholics, batterers, or sexual abusers, the only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned […].” (hooks, 1994: 16)
Spaces of spiritual self-actualization have, of course, also been sites of abuse; a movement for change requires something other than simply mindfulness and yoga. But the point here I think is that the systemic orientation and reward for one aspect of an academic’s identity (and productivity) nullifies the contradictions of an academic’s being. The powerful insight of bell hooks is that academia is an institutional asylum of emotionally destructive behaviour. Part of the journey towards academic self-actualization involves creating and sustaining spaces of reflection and dialogue that Degrees of Abuse helps open up.
I hope the testimonies of the Degrees of Abuse podcast stay alive as an impetus for transformation. The observation of hooks below poignantly resonates:
“[…] I listen to students express the concern that they will not succeed in academic professions if they want to be well, if they eschew dysfunctional behavior or participation in coercive hierarchies. These students are often fearful, as I was, that there are no spaces in the academy where the will to be self-actualized can be affirmed.” (hooks, 1994: 18)
Progressive geography, if it is to mean anything meaningful and worthy of its name, requires a radical overhaul of incongruent spaces and selves that are complicit with abuses of power. Progressive geography could, at its best, offer itself to shaping spaces in the academy for congruent self-actualization and wellness. This will entail open, honest and difficult conversations.
Sociologist David Miller reads onto the surface and off the surface a reflection of the surface. He fails to understand the surface as mere appearance of a dynamic and complex whole. Miller reads off the surface a world devoid of geography – a fluid geography of specific material realities and human consciousnesses and agencies. Through the lens of racialized conspiracy theory, he reads onto the surface an enveloping Zionism: an imperialist globalization in which space annihilates place and warps time. In the above mapping of Miller’s imagination, Israel and the United Kingdom are collapsed into one compressed space-time of a self-expanding, nowhere and everywhere, timeless and smooth global Zionist network.
Keith Kahn-Harris astutely identifies David Miller’s modern antisemitic thinking as a flatlands:
“The problem is that his work constructs a kind of ‘flatland’; a world in which networks of power and influence are so intricately connected that they form a seamless system. Each node that he exposes in this system, each connection that is traced between it and other nodes, is functionally identical to others. What we end up with is a process of progressively revealing a system so overwhelming that the only rational response to its exposure must be despair shot through with liberation. Take Miller’s well known slide from his presentation on how British Jewish / Zionist / Israel lobby institutions are interconnected (reproduced above). While the nodes on this network are differentiated by type (‘Israel institution’, ‘Key UK individuals’ etc) and while the nature of the interconnections are identified (‘donor’, ‘president’ etc), these annotations do not in fact tell us anything meaningful, because there isn’t any meaningful distinction to be made – and that’s the point. That, for example, Mick Davis and Vivian Wineman have been fiercely criticised from the right of the Jewish community for their dovish views on Israel is of no import. That the Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation are coalitions constantly riven by tension and dispute is not worth remarking on. Zionism / Israel forms a seamless whole. […] Miller’s map of the Zionist flatland grows remorselessly over time. The only way to avoid getting ensnared into it is by renouncing any connection to those who are on the map. […] Those who share Miller’s methodology of guilt by association will always end up progressively writing off whole chunks of humanity until only a small hardcore of enlightened ones is left. While Miller may be a particularly adept exponent of the politics of the flatland, it is not exclusive to him, to the left or to antisemites. We have to acknowledge that the flatland holds its attractions to those of any political disposition. Its mixture of liberation and despair are tempting: You no longer have to grapple with the intricacies of who people are; you are released from the burdens of developing a finely-calibrated politics. All is one; all is either enemy or friend. I suspect that the internet and social media have made the flatland more attractive. It is easy to trace associations, to find meaning in the liking of a tweet or the acceptance of a friend request. Like David Miller we are all tempted to see ‘research’ as the piling up evidence of contacts, rather than an investigation of the nature of those contacts. We can know everything and still know nothing. The alternative is hard: To understand relationships as relationships. There are no shortcuts here.”
Kahn-Harris is right that the internet and social media make flatlands politics more appealing. I wonder also of the symbiosis between Miller’s fantasy of a global Zionist network and his life in the internet network society. His above mapping of lines and nodes has a rudimentary resemblance of the below map of the internet, such that co-construction seems likely.
David Miller’s flatlands illustrates how antisemitism kills geography. It also indicates how both the most despairing accounts of globalization, which reduce humans to passive dupes and deny human agencies in all their nuance, and the infrastructure of globalization are themselves flatlands open to antisemitism.
“when the water is lapping up the road, I don’t know that people are going to be fretting so much about their whiteness. Maybe they will. Maybe the appeal of a racial war has its own psychic magnetism for some folk. But I would like to think that in the teeth of the emergency, if that awaits us, there will be other options there which are more future oriented, which allow us to live life relative to a future that we can’t quite anatomise from this distance.” (Paul Gilroy, from The Absurdities of Race)
There are three important reasons to engage with the work of Paul Gilroy, in particular, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) and Against Race (2000): one, his exploration of the intersection of racism and nationalism, which is in sharp contrast to Benedict Anderson’s (1983) separation of the two ideologies in Imagined Communities; two, and related to the former, Gilroy’s recognition of the cultural essentialist dynamic in contemporary racism; three, his desire to move anti-racism politics beyond the idea of racial difference and toward what he calls a planetary humanism, which sees culture as universal, hybrid and fluid. I recommend this engagement with Gilroy with two qualifications: first, what he and others identified in the 1980s as ‘new racism’ was not so new, since an interplay between biology and culture in the idea of natural races has long existed; second, in his search for a planetary humanism, Gilroy prematurely and crudely dismisses Marxism and fails to originally engage with the ideas of classical Marxism, despite, it’s worth noting, the influence of W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James in his work.
“Some years ago, a loose group of scholars in which the English philosopher Martin Barker was especially influential began, in recognition of changed patterns in the way the discourse of racial difference was employed in politics, to speak about the emergence of what they called a New Racism. This racism was defined by its strong culturalist and nationalist inclinations. Whereas in the past raciology had been arrogant in its imperial certainty that biology was both destiny and hierarchy, this persuasive new variant was openly uncomfortable with the idea that “race” could be biologically based. Consciousness of “race” was seen instead as closely linked to the idea of nationality. Authentic, historic nations had discrete cultural fillings. Their precious homogeneity endowed them with great strength and prestige. Where large “indigestible” chunks of alien settlement had taken place, all manner of dangers were apparent. Conflict was visible, above all, along cultural lines. Of course, these regrettably transplanted aliens were not identified as inferior, less worthy, or less admirable than their “hosts.” They may not have been infrahuman, but they were certainly out of place. The social, economic, and political problems that had followed their mistaken importation could only be solved by restoring the symmetry and stability that flowed from putting them back where they belonged. Nature, history, and geopolitics dictated that people should cleave to their own kind and be most comfortable in the environments that matched their distinctive cultural and therefore national modes of being in the world. Mythic versions of cultural ecology were invented to rationalize the lives of these discrete national and racial identities. The Germans became a people in their forests, whereas the British were a nation whose seafaring activity shaped their essential inner character. In all cases, fragments of self-evident truth nourished the fantasies of blood and belonging, which in turn demanded an elaborate geopolitical cartography of nationality.”
“the idea of “race” has lost much of its common-sense credibility, because the elaborate cultural and ideological work that goes into producing and reproducing it is more visible than ever before, because it has been stripped of its moral and intellectual integrity, and because there is a chance to prevent its rehabilitation. Prompted by the impact of genomics, “race,” as it has been defined in the past, has also become vulnerable to the claims of a much more elaborate, less deterministic biology. It is therefore all the more disappointing that much influential recent work in this area loses its nerve in the final furlong and opts to remain ambiguous about whether the idea of “race” can survive a critical revision of the relationship between human beings and their constantly shifting social nature. Whether it is articulated in the more specialized tongues of biological science and pseudo-science or in a vernacular idiom of culture and common sense, the term “race” conjures up a peculiarly resistant variety of natural difference. It stands outside of, and in opposition to, most attempts to render it secondary to the overwhelming sameness that overdetermines social relationships between people and continually betrays the tragic predicaments of their common species life. The undervalued power of this crushingly obvious, almost banal human sameness, so close and basically invariant that it regularly passes unremarked upon, also confirms that the crisis of raciological reasoning presents an important opportunity where it points toward the possibility of leaving “race” behind, of setting aside its disabling use as we move out of the time in which it could have been expected to make sense.”
“The context of [There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack] – originally – was the emergence of what a number of us had begun to call a new racism. By calling it a new racism we were drawing attention to the fact that it was strongly culturalist in character, and that it articulated nationalism and racism very tightly together. Now, at that time – I don’t know if this has changed completely – but thirty years ago, it was very conventional to say that nationalism belongs to one area of scholarship and racism belongs … if it belonged to any … if it belongs at all to scholarship, it went somewhere else […]. wherever it was, it was not connected to the academic study of nationalism. This separation was there, for example in Benedict Anderson’s very influential book (Anderson 2004). He tries to separate the two things out very sharply, and I suppose I felt that the starting point for any critique of the racism that I was most familiar with was a very close connection with nationalism. That association was accomplished through a particular sense of what culture could be, which had acquired all the force of an earlier biologically-orientated racism. But the new racism didn’t announce itself as a biological racism. It made culture into the favoured battleground. It made culture something we had to quarrel with. We had to offer a better understanding of culture. We had an opportunity I suppose […] to make a better theory of culture than the one that saw culture distributed in national buckets so that you were either in the bucket of your exclusive national culture, or somewhere else in some other bucket somewhere. We had a chance to show how culture moved, how it lived, how it reproduced, to understand its organicity, its fluidity, plasticity, mutability: the conflict that it hosted. […] As a result, we had to update our understanding of how to combat racism in the field of ideas: in our disciplines, in our institutions, in our universities. We could only do this if we saw the new variety of racism that was strongly cultural in character – so cultural, so different supposedly – from a biological racism that it could hold up its hands and plead that it wasn’t racism at all. So, to try and show that, to show the history of how that had happened, that was the aim, the principal aim of that book. […] Many people on the left thirty years ago, just as many people on the left now in the wake of the vote against the EU membership, they look to places like Norway and they say ‘Oh, but the left has always been nationalist’, ‘it is perfectly possible to be a leftist and a nationalist’ and so on. There were many people in my intellectual and political environment who regardless of the connection with racism were saying that we had to find a wholesome patriotism, find a ‘clean’ nationalism which will mean that we can challenge the hegemony of those who rule, exploit and expropriate by articulating national feeling to the Right. I was never convinced by that argument, because it was an argument that could only be made if you did not take racism into account. […] There was always the danger that there would be a kind of overlap between the left nationalism and patriotism and the things that were being said on the right. Today we have many – they call it ‘Lexit’ – the people on the left who support leaving the EU. This division is in some ways a replay of some of these older problems. Nowadays the anti-racist part of it – people like the Socialist Workers Party and these groupings – they are forgetful. Their memories have been very badly affected in the intervening time, because they don’t remember that the racists we were fighting in the street in the 1970s and early 80s, these were people who had a political programme where the first aim was ‘get the blacks out, get the browns out’ and the second thing on the list was ‘Leave the EU’. So now, those people want to talk about Trump and what’s happening in America, but they won’t talk about the actual issues involved in dealing with the political contradiction into which they have led people.”
“There are some people – rightly or wrongly – who want anti-racism to be a critical project only. They want to be able to say what is wrong with the world and to show how those wrongs might be challenged, undone. The emphasis falls on the practical work of disassembling those racial hierarchies when they are apparent in institutions, in interpersonal life, and so on. I think that is fine, and its noble and honourable and important work, and I wish it was not necessary – but it is necessary. However, I don’t think that is enough, and I think that we do that work better – we do it much better – if we have an idea of the world we want to make. And that might be difficult but it could not be avoided. I felt dishonest after a while if I could not answer the question which asked ‘Alright then, if you’re against racism, what kind of world do you want to make? Do you want to make a world where racial differences are just natural things, and racism comes along and messes them up?’. So you get rid of racism and then we all have natural difference and that is all fine. Well, I did not find that intellectually or politically satisfying. A lot of anti-racist work is of that type. It says: ‘Nature gives us racial differences, look around the room, some of the differences you see are racial; others are not’. It’s just racism makes those differences bad. I came to a different position gradually – and somewhat reluctantly – in which I see racism as a system assembling races in the world. It’s a more difficult idea to sell, I suppose you could say, but I think that racism generates or assembles races – can I put it that way? It is not something that grows from racial difference. It creates racial difference. The history, and the genealogies of racial systems of thought, seems to me to be interpreted better when we see its dynamic unfolding. That means we have to be able to say what kind of world we want to build and inhabit. I know that isn’t going to be the end and it isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m still convinced that we will be better off without the particular forms of violence, the particular forms of cruelty, the particular forms of error that arise from racial metaphysics and racial systems of thought. We are better off without all those things, even if we know there is still lots more work to do, we are better off without those specific things. I’m not sure you can have an anti-racism which is credible unless you are able to switch into a more constructive view of the world you want to build. You might have a black liberation project, you might have an equality and diversity project, you might have a McKinsey multiculturalism project – but you won’t have an anti-racist project unless you can say the kind of world you want to see arise. Someone like Du Bois is interesting because in his nineties he decided that he was going to revert to earlier ways of looking at the world and fight over what communism could be as a basis for rethinking a world without imperial and colonial and racial domination. Well, for me, communism isn’t that option, you know. I understand why he took that turn at that point, but that is not one for me. I think we have to be bolder, I think we have to be more imaginative than we often are. We’re not encouraged to be imaginative in this area, and it may well be that solving the practical and the immediate problems in our everyday relationship with racial violence, say, or racial institutions in the police force, or the way that death so often follows contact with the police, or the functioning of carceral systems. Out of those struggles can grow that different conception of what it is to be a human being that Césaire and Fanon spoke of. Remember, Fanon said: ‘Oh my body, make of me a man who asks questions’; and then he said: ‘we are going to make a new humanism’ which is – in his language, this is not my language – a formation that corresponds to ‘the real dialectic between the body and the world’. The real one, not the racial-corporeal schema.”
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”.
“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 Pappélays 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”.
“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.
“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.
“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.
Fine, Robert and Spencer, Philip (2017) Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
[Moishe] Postone argues that left-antisemitism has a “pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have”. In this, he is on the one hand speaking to the antisemitism sometimes referred to as the “socialism of fools”, in which people on the left see themselves as having an opposition to capitalism and, through the pervasiveness of racist antisemitic tropes, they associate capitalism with Jewish people. On the other hand he is also referencing what might be referred to as a “post-1948” strand of antisemitism. In that people look upon the policies and actions carried out by the Israeli state and, through seeking affinity and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, either generalise the Israeli state as a representative of all Jewish people worldwide and therefore seek to hold all Jewish people accountable, or seek revanchist solutions which would lead to the mass expulsion of Jewish populations from the Middle East. In either of the forms of antisemitism that Postone refers to here, the intentions of the person holding these views are, in general, of seeking justice and liberation for oppressed peoples. This antisemitism is justified by an idea of “punching up” rather than down. That is why these ideas have such a particular grip on the left and tend to take a form particular from that of the right.
The same can be said for transphobia. Transphobia on the left does not; generally speaking, appear in the same form as either the far-right strain […] or in the more broadly right wing bigoted view that tends to share a lot in common with homophobic bigotry that was most prominent in the 1980s. Rather, we have an extremely prominent (though small in terms of absolute numbers) layer of the labour movement organising and agitating against trans people. Some trans-rights activists make the argument that this layer of the labour movement are entirely detached from feminism. That is incorrect. Significant parts of this layer, as well as some of the milieu they draw around them, at the very least earnestly see themselves as feminists. In many cases they have a reasonably strong record in feminist activism within the trade-union movement as well as in keeping services like women’s shelters open during periods of very little funding or support.
The root of the problem is not lack of a broadly defined feminism that is. Rather, it is what we might term a “feminism of fools”, in which the societal prominence of misogyny is seen to be embodied by trans women, just as the 19th century’s “socialism of fools” scapegoated Jews as the embodiment of abstract capital. Quite a significant layer of activists who have for some time been on the left of feminist issues within the labour movement have managed to be on the wrong side of the issue of trans rights on the basis of “punching up” against trans women. It is important for the broader labour movement to come to terms with these tendencies. Given that the labour movement and the organised working class possesses the structural capabilities to fight for change in society, it is crucial that our own house is in order. If we are to fight for human emancipation, particular sections of our class cannot be sold down the river under the premise of “punching up”. (Cassidy, 2019)
O LIVING always, always dying! O the burials of me past and present, O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever; O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;) O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at where I cast them, To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind. (O LIVING ALWAYS, ALWAYS DYING by Walt Whitman)*
We know why students were promised a near normal campus experience. We understand the politics of government and the dance of Vice-Chancellors. The government should have stepped in over the summer of 2020 to underwrite the higher education sector, but they did not. And so the propaganda of university managements began, which, they gambled, if spun out for long enough would prevent the realisation of tuition fee and accommodation refunds.
University managements promoted their campuses as COVID-secure and, by enticing students back, made the university a major amplification hub of COVID-19. The assurance that the space of the university is COVID-secure was and remains a troubling and dangerous fallacy in contradiction of scientific evidence and recommendation, and critical thought. The COVID-secure campus implies a certainty to remain safe and unthreatened by COVID-19 when there is no certainty, only some measures that might reduce the risk of infection. It infers an ability to make the bodies within a designated space free from viral contamination. However, the higher education sector is unique in its geographical concentration of networks of young people and in its generation of the prime conditions for COVID-19 to spread and (as an RNA virus) to mutate.
The outcome we all saw coming was stated in The Lancet in early November 2020: “Universities have been a major hub of community transmission”. As academics and union members, the university amplification of COVID-19 has dragged us from a strike of biophilic love, solidarity and living towards the “valley of the shadow of death” (Fromm, 1968: 48).
In a surreal, illusionary alter-universe, university managements continue to busy themselves with surveys asking students what they want. It is the perverse logic of a marketised higher education sector to ask students what they want amid a global pandemic and public health emergency, rather than focus on what they need and delivering that well. It is a further perversity of this marketisation that university managements have chosen to ignore the possibility of morbidity, i.e. Long COVID, in their risk assessments and health and safety measures, while on their websites and press releases promote the cutting-edge research of their institutions on the reality and nature of Long COVID. The falsehood that set students up for a little less than normal university experience is one that threatens some of these students and their academic staff to long-term heart and multiple organ damage. The tendency of most academic staff to seek to avoid face-to-face teaching and deliver online is an expression of “the most elementary form” of biophilia: “a tendency to preserve life, and to fight death” (Fromm, 1968: 45). It is the basic desire for life, for oneself and others, not morbidity or mortality.
When university managements respond to the actual manifestation of sick students and staff and to the prospect of one of us dying, their rehearsed lines imply an indifference to life: one cannot prove they caught COVID on campus, or if they did catch COVID on campus then it was their fault for not following the health and safety guidance. This is the necrophilic logic of “quantification, abstractification, bureaucratization, and reification” (Fromm, 1968: 59); the “question here is not whether [we] are treated nicely […] (things, too, can be treated nicely); the question is whether people are things or living beings” (ibid: 57). The COVID-insecure and market-driven university has acutely exposed its workers, its students and the public to both an amplification of a perilous new infectious disease and its own class nature and detachment from life.
Fromm, Erich (1968) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. Harper & Row: London.