“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.
“Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the ‘folklore’ of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is. At those times in history when a homogenous social group is brought into being, there comes into being also, in opposition to common sense, a homogenous – in other words coherent and systematic – philosophy.” (Gramsci 1971: 419)
“Many working class people believe in Brexit. Who can blame them?”, writes self-defined anarchist working class academic Lisa Mckenzie in her LSE blog post. Her narrative on working class support for Brexit is of a class long and systematically excluded from British cosmopolitan society fighting back. What is critically missing from Mckenzie’s narrative is a consideration of the politics which they are fighting back on. As such, she fetishizes the working class: they have been so downtrodden that their resistance is… well, what exactly?
“How depressing that now seems as chaos ensues in Parliament, the political system is at breaking point and rage is infectious. The only positive is that Brexit has at last broken the political and social hegemony that kept our population subdued and somewhat apathetic. They are no longer apathetic, and their rage has become unbearable to the Westminster political and media chattering classes.” (Mckenzie)
Is Mckenzie suggesting here, rage is good because it is working class rage?
The recent period has seen an ascendency of right-wing nationalist populist politics in Britain, the United States, and Europe: captivating significant sections of the sociologically working class through an anti-establishment discourse. “Take Back Control”, in retrospect, was a brilliant slogan because it had traction: it made common sense to people’s life experiences and conditions, to their reality of social and political exclusion. But, following Gramsci, common sense is not good sense. Mckenzie is right to emphasize that many who voted did so feeling politically empowered after years of disempowerment, but she fails to scrutinise the politics of “Take Back Control”. Worse still, she dismisses its racist current.
“I have written and argued in academic journals, and on panels at academic conferences, that for some working class people in the UK – those who had experienced political, economic and social exclusion – the question they saw on the ballot paper was not about leaving or remaining in the European Union, but was ‘Do you want things to stay the same, or do you want things to be different?’ Those people – whom the media has since named ‘the left behind’ – answered. They wanted things to change, they wanted things to be different. […] working class people had read, understood and heard the debates around the EU as exclusive, and elite, too often using language that diminished their own life experiences: ‘stupidity and racism’ has been the most common.” (Mckenzie)
The legacy of mainstream political parties in England and Wales long problematizing immigration meant that the EU referendum was a tinderbox-in-waiting: the spark to set off the nationalist populist Right and far Right. Enter UKIP, the English Defence League, and the rest. This is not to say that all people who voted Leave were racist; of course not. But it is to say that the common sense ideology of the right-wing Leave campaign was an exclusive and excluding racist nationalism – on this point, see Expounding racial hatred before and after the Brexit vote and Brexit’s inevitable racism.
Mckenzie deplores the disgraceful dismissal of her working class heroes as ‘stupid and racist’. Yes that’s a crude assertion, but the flipside of this notion isn’t analytically accurate either: that people voted Leave in a coherent and fully informed way and weren’t affected by its common sense ideology. What’s more, the working class – as perhaps distinct from Mckenzie’s working class heroes – are not a uniform group. The Lord Ashcroft Polls established that older people were more likely than their younger counterparts to vote Leave and black and Asian people were more likely to vote Remain. University educated people were also more likely to vote Remain. The working class who are classified sociologically lower middle class were fairly evenly split between Leave and Remain.
The nationalist populist Right succeeded in gaining a hegemony during and after the EU referendum.
The Left thus far has failed, either by pursuing Stalinist nationalist Lexit politics or by simply not winning the arguments wide and well enough. The progressive Left has failed in winning the idea that cosmopolitanism, the expansion of civil and political rights, feminism, environmental concern, globalisation, the internet, and immigration are not ‘the enemy’ of the working class. Further still, the progressive Left has failed to spell out that it’s in favour of globalisation as democratically controlled by international working class interests rather than the interests of big business, and in favour of freedom of movement of labour (in a world that allows freedom of movement of capital).
“Westminster, the media, and the academic world – all of which are solid bourgeois spaces devoid of working class people – are in full agreement: the past 40 years of deindustrialisation and aggressive policies of social mobility that marginalise working class life, pride and identity have no credence in the debate about the EU. […] Brexit has let those rational, liberal masks slip, and you are ugly.” (Mckenzie)
Mckenzie makes a false argument that the academic world is in full agreement that the past four decades of deindustrialisation and socio-economic and political exclusion of the poorest in our society had no bearing on the EU referendum. Of course it did. She is right that Westminster, the media, and the academic world generally ignored significant layers of the working class, yet she omits that the likes of UKIP readily stepped in and captured hearts and minds during the referendum. Again, the liberal and radical Left failed. Oswell (2006: 46), following Gramsci, reminds us that, “[in] order to change people’s mind and conduct, common sense must not be foregone in favour of an arid knowledge, rather it must be carried over, as it is that passion that forms the connection between the leaders and those who are led”:
“One cannot make politics-history without this passion, without this sentimental connection between intellectuals and the people-nation. In the absence of such a nexus the relations between the intellectual and the people-nation are, or are reduced to, relationships of a purely bureaucratic and formal order; the intellectuals become a caste, or a priesthood.” (Gramsci 1971: 418)
“Take Back Control” could have been the political slogan of the Left, successfully translated into the demand for a labour-led socialist united states of Europe.
Back to the fetishized rage of the working class. Is the demand not to be binded to a referendum decision made two and a half years ago political disenfranchisement of the working class? Is the demand to have a say on the actual political reality and options here and now undemocratic to the working class? No, it’s politics: the necessary on-going battle of ideas on how society is and how it could be. As Oswell (2006: 46) states, “common sense is not only the ground upon which ideological battles are fought, it is also that which needs to be contested and brought to bear under the weight of critical consciousness.”
David Oswell (2006) Culture and Society: an Introduction to Cultural Studies. Sage Publications, London.
“In late modernity, authoritarian movements have arisen again that seek to ideologically combine an organic and holistic natural-social order, a purified nationality, a primeval mysticism, and a belief in a superlative civilisation that was created by an ancestral community of blood.” (Bhatt, 2000: 589)
Protester holding a sign in Washington D.C. during an anti-Iraq War demonstration, September 15 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)
Post-9/11 sections of the British Left have championed the term ‘Islamophobia’ (fear of Islam) to describe and challenge the surge of racism against people signified as Muslim. This term, however, has limited power to explain the vilification and discrimination of Muslims in the contemporary era both since 9/11 and with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. This prejudice and harm should be understood as anti-Muslim racism. What’s more, Islamophobia’s implied antithesis, ‘Islamophilia’ (love of Islam), is an inadequate basis for a politically progressive anti-racist politics. Much of the British Left – posed as champions against Islamophobia – through its anti-war campaigning at the height of the imperialist War on Terror, identified as allies Islamist movements to the disregard of solidarity with secular, feminist, and democratic forces who opposed both imperialism and Islamism (see Bassi, 2009). This Left not only failed to critique religious fundamentalism, but went further in silencing its critique of religion in general. Through the Stop the War Coalition, at rallies and on demonstrations, women-only areas were organised alongside propaganda stating, for example, “We are all Hezbollah”. Racism as a common sense ideology fixes and orders the world through a hierarchy of assumed and desired homogenised groups of people, whereas a socialist anti-racist politics should understand the reality, and our own desired future, of the world as driven by dynamic exchange and hybridisation of peoples. At a moment when reactionary nationalism is on the ascendancy, it is worth reasserting that we are in favour of globalisation – a globalisation by and for our class.
Racism entails a process of signification, or racialisation: identifying an assumed ‘racial’ difference, be that somatic and/or cultural, as significant and denoting such difference with characteristics and consequences that are negative. The difference that racism signifies is related to what we might understand as ethnicity: to common geography, familial heritage, and socio-cultural make-up (sometimes national, sometimes religious, and sometimes both); whose expression is indicated through somatic difference, such as hair and skin colour, and/or cultural difference, like language, food, beliefs and practices, and clothing. In the case of anti-Muslim racism the signifier of religion connects up with geography, ancestry, and socio-cultural constitution, and difference is seen somatically and culturally.
As a second generation British Indian, born into an extended Jatt Sikh family, I have a specific perspective on anti-Muslim racism. Anti-Muslim racism is a potent ideology in India and across the global Indian diaspora. Moreover, it is a racism that has proven to be compatible with post-9/11 and Brexit and Trump-era racism. Why? Because of a commonly signified and racialised ‘Muslim Other’. The crux of this ideology is not a theological critique but rather a fusing of religion with the idea of a group of people as a biological and cultural ‘race’ apart and below. This racism denotes Muslims as inbred, degenerate, and unclean, and as a dangerous and violent threat to one’s own purified existence. It should be of no surprise then that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have savvily attuned to this current of anti-Muslim racism within the Indian diaspora – courting Sikhs as an exemplary and assimilatable ‘race’ above the ‘Muslim Other’. The footage of a speech by a UKIP MEP (see below) arguing in defence of the Sikh religious and racial right to wear the kirpan positions Sikhs as fighters for democracy. This should be understood in its historical, racialised context. During the British colonial Empire, the British ruling class divided the population of India into martial and non-martial ‘races’, of which the Sikhs (particularly Jatt Sikhs) were designated as the former.
British India Sikh soldier, 1898 (Wikimedia Commons)
Sikh soldiers, 1846, Illustrated London News (Wikimedia Commons)
Similar to UKIP’s courting of Indian diaspora Sikhs is Trump’s courting of Indian diaspora Hindus during his presidential election campaign and his appeal to Hindu nationalists in India: here in common is the racialised enemy of the ‘Muslim Other’.
“The whole world is screaming against Islamic terrorism, and even India is not safe from it. Only Donald Trump can save humanity!” – Hindu Sena (quoted in the US far right newspaper Breibart)
“I love Hindu!” – Trump at a pre-election US Hindu rally (DNA India)
The anti-Muslim racism of the global Indian diaspora owes much of its origins to Hindu nationalism. Chetan Bhatt (2000), in an article titled “Hindu Nationalism and Indigenist ‘Neoracism’”, explains how Hindu nationalism accommodates what it considers a sect of Hinduism, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, while it otherises Muslims. Bhatt (2000: 577) expounds:
“the birth of contemporary Hindu nationalism is usually traced to, and just after, the inter-war period, from 1916-25; during which two organisations, the Hindu Mahasabha (The Great Assembly of Hindus) and its ‘semi-rival’, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the National Volunteer-Servers Organisation) were formed. Hindu nationalism’s key, but by no means only ideologue was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an anti-colonial revolutionary hero and founder of the Mahasabha, who in 1923 presented the novel idea of Hindutva, the essence or ‘beingness’ of a Hindu. Hindutva was a hereditarian conception, born from the time the intrepid Aryans entered India and whose ‘blood commingled’ with that of the original inhabitants of India. For Savarkar, a Hindu could be defined as someone who considers India as their fatherland, motherland and holyland and ‘who inherits the blood of that race whose first discernible source could be traced back’ to the Vedic Aryans (Savarkar 1989: 115). Savarkar’s formulation of Hindutva considerably influenced Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, formed in 1924) as well as Madhav Golwalkar, the RSS’s second leader. Golwalkar extended strands of Hindutva to develop an extraordinarily modern, Nazi-like racial idea of Hinduness […].”
Contemporary Hindu nationalism (as propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and its parent organisation, the RSS):
“undertakes the familiar metaphoric substitution of the nation by the idea of the national, or social or human body; conversely minorities, especially Muslims, are seen as a polluting presence within that body. Consequently, Hindu nationalism is dangerously obsessed with Muslim demography, reproduction and fertility (see, for example, Lal 1990).” (Bhatt 2000: 580)
An example of this is the Hindu fundamentalist theory of Romeo Jihad or Love Jihad, which claims that “Muslim men seek to wage jihad by making Hindu women fall in love with them and marry them, so as to covert them to Islam” (Dixit, 2017).
A parallel can be drawn between Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ and the legislative moves by the Indian government in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016; in this, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Muslim-dominated Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – unlike their Muslim counterparts – are no longer identified as illegal migrants but rather as suitable for naturalisation as citizens of India (Mitra, 2017).
The anti-Muslim racism that is rampant across Europe and the United States, and which finds an easy alliance with Hindu nationalists in India and with a current of Sikhs and Hindus in the global Indian diaspora, is a racism based on the ideas of a purified (racialised) nationality, an advanced (racialised) civilisation, and a natural (racialised) social order. It is not Islamophobia, it is racism – old and new.
Bhatt, C (2000) “Hindu Nationalism and Indigenist ‘Neoracism’”, in L Back and J Solomos (Eds) Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 573-593.
Much of the British Left comprehends anti-Semitism as the exclusive property of the Right: either as a phenomenon of the far Right (fascists) against Jewish people, or as a false accusation by the Israeli Right and its allies against the Left to silence political criticism of Israel, or as an ironic bedfellow of the Israeli Right to justify its existence as an expansionist and racist nation-state.
“Antisemitism” by the Brazilian left-wing political cartoonist Carlos Latuff (Wikimedia Commons)
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” by Carlos Latuff (Wikimedia Commons)
In this blog post I endeavour to demystify left-wing anti-Semitism. Moreover, I define anti-Semitism, including historical and contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism, as anti-Jewish racism. Specifically, I present: a general history of racism and anti-Jewish racism; an overview of what has been defined as the anti-Semitic anti-Zionism of the Stalinist Left and New Left of the 1960s and 1970s; the consequences of a colonial model of racism, as developed in US and British academia since the 1960s, for enquiry into anti-Jewish racism and the framing of Zionism; and, contra to an absolute colonial model of racism, an understanding of the interrelationship between the capitalist mode of production, the nation-state, and racism. Within this context, I conclude by expounding the contemporary nature of left-wing anti-Jewish racism. I draw on a range of sources, but primarily upon the work of the sociologist and Marxist scholar Professor Robert Miles.
I. Racism and anti-Jewish racism: origins and evolving nature
“The specific content of racism should be expected to change temporally and contextually. A discourse ‘inherited’ from the past is likely to be reconstituted if it is to be used to make sense of the world in a new context, while new circumstances can be expected to stimulate the formation of new representations.” (Miles 1989: 133)
In the history of racism, a key transformation occurred with the epistemological shift from religion to science as the standard criterion to measure and evaluate the apparent nature of the social and material world (Miles, 1989). Miles (1989: 13-18) explains the early origins and evolution of (European) racism:
“prior to the fifteenth century, the geographical region that is now Europe had been subject to a variety of invasions from Asia (Baudet 1976: 4) and the ‘old continuous nations’ of Europe were haltingly emergent rather than extant (Seton-Watson 1977: 21-87). The notion of Europe as an entity began to emerge only in the eighth century (Lewis 1982: 18) and, until at least the twelfth century, it was subordinate to the economic and politico-military power of the Islamic world, its populations being in practice colonised (Kaye 1985: 61). Indeed, it was because the Islamic world constituted a dominant force, motivated and legitimated by a view of history by which ‘the Muslims were the bearers of God’s truth with the sacred duty of bringing it to the rest of mankind’ (Lewis 1982: 39), that a representation of Europe as a distinct entity expressed by the common religion of Christianity was to emerge. […] Before the interests of the feudal monarchies and merchant capital of Western Europe combined in order to colonise the Americas from the fifteenth century onwards, the main focus of external interest (and concern) was the Middle East, North Africa and India, collectively known as the Orient.”
As Edward Said (1995: 59-60) notes in Orientalism:
“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the seventeenth century the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life.”
Miles (1989: 20-24) continues:
“By the fifteenth century, the centre of economic and political power in Europe had consolidated in the emergent nation states of the north and west of the continent (Kiernan 1972: 12-13, Wallerstein 1974). Trade, travel, and exploration were interdependent elements in an attempt by the feudal ruling classes to resolve a major economic crisis (Fox-Genovese and Genovese 1983: 10) and together, they widened the European contact with populations elsewhere in the world. This resulted in a major change in the structural context within which representations of the Other were generated and reproduced. Up to this point, the non-Islamic Other was beyond and outside the European arena. Moreover, in the case of the discourse about the Islamic Other, it was for a long time a representation generated in the context of European subordination to a greater economic and military power. But once the emergent European city and nation states began to expand their material and political boundaries to incorporate other parts of the world within a system of international trade (Braudel 1984: 89-174), a system which was subsequently linked with colonial settlement, the populations they confronted in this exercise were within the arena of Europe in an economic and political sense, even though not spatially. And when colonisation became an objective, a class of Europeans began a new era of contact and interrelationship with indigenous populations, a contact that was increasingly structured by competition for land, the introduction of private property rights, the demand for labour force, and the perceived obligation of conversion to Christianity. Collectively, these were all embodied in the discourse of ‘civilisation’. […] The complexity of European representations was hierarchically ordered around the view that Europeans were superior by virtue of their ‘civilisation’ and achievements (of which world travel and trade were but one sign): the condition of the Other was represented as proof of that interpretation.”
From the late eighteenth century, with the secularisation of culture and the rising hegemony of science, a transformation in European representations of the Other took place, namely, “the emergence of the idea of ‘race’” – “an idea that was taken up by scientific enquiry and increasingly attributed with a narrow and precise meaning”:
“As a result, the sense of difference embodied in European representations of the Other became interpreted as a difference of ‘race’, that is, as a primarily biological and natural difference which was inherent and unalterable. Moreover, the supposed difference was presented as scientific (that is, objective) fact. This discourse of ‘race’, although the product of ‘scientific’ activity, came to be widely reproduced throughout Europe, North America and the European colonies in the nineteenth century, becoming, inter alia, a component part of common-sense discourse at all levels of the class structure and a basic component of imperialist ideologies (for example, Biddiss 1979b, MacKenzie 1984).” (Miles 1989: 30-31)
This 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” (Miles 1989: 33). While the end of the Second World War marked an era in which the scientific establishment largely discredited the determining biological category of ‘race’, the idea of ‘race’ survives and continues to evolve as an everyday common-sense discourse, id est, as an ideological framework for making sense of the world and its social and material relations.
Vis-à-vis anti-Jewish racism, the historical shift from Christian anti-Semitism (which was religious-based) to racial anti-Semitism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries effectively fused religion with the idea of ‘race’ born from ‘racial’ science. Miles (1989: 36) observes that within Europe:
“representations of the Other as an inferior ‘race’ focused, amongst others, on the Irish (Curtis 1968, 1971) and Jews (Mosse 1978). This was sustained partly by claiming a biological superiority for the Nordic ‘race’.”
The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History (Wikimedia Commons)
“Homo europaeus, the white man par excellence. It is everywhere characterized by certain unique specializations, namely, wavy brown or blond hair and blue, gray or light brown eyes, fair skin, high, narrow and straight nose, which are associated with great stature, and a long skull, as well as with abundant head and body hair. […] The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats in sharp contrast to the essentially peasant character of the Alpines. Chivalry and knighthood, and their still surviving but greatly impaired counterparts, are peculiarly Nordic traits, and feudalism, class distinctions, and race pride among Europeans are traceable for the most part to the north.”
Grant argues for a eugenics programme – improving the population ‘stock’ via controlled breeding of advantageous ‘racial’ characteristics – to enable the survival of the Nordic ‘race’.
“Map Four: Present Distribution of the European Races” from The Passing of the Great Race. This illustrates Grant’s vision of a status quo, with the Nordic ‘race’ in red, the Alpine ‘race’ in green, and the Mediterranean ‘race’ in yellow (Wikimedia Commons)
Campaigns for immigration controls in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century focused on Jewish refugees from eastern Europe:
“the notions of ‘immigrant’ and ‘alien’ became synonymous in everyday life with that of Jew […] Moreover, Jewishness was increasingly interpreted as a quality determined by blood, and therefore as hereditary and ineradicable. References to the existence of a Jewish ‘race’ became common. This ‘race’ was signified as an alien presence that had the potential to destroy civilised society through the promotion of an international conspiracy: consequently, the Jews became the racialised ‘enemy within’” (Miles 1993: 135-136)
A British Brothers League poster from 1902, which aimed to curb Jewish immigration to the East End of London (Wikimedia Commons)
Demands for immigration controls to the United States in the early twentieth century included pro-Nordic and anti-Jewish ‘racial’ components:
“In comparison with people of British, German and Scandinavian ‘stock’, Italian, Polish, Russian and Jewish immigrants were said to have naturally inferior intelligence and their increasing presence in the United States was considered to lower the average level of intelligence.” (Miles 1989: 58)
Within a wider economic and political crisis, it was in Nazi Germany “that the idea of the Jews as a degenerate, unproductive and criminal ‘race’, as simultaneously a ‘race’ of exploiters and revolutionaries (Mosse 1978: 178, 219)”, evolved into a state policy and practice of genocide (Miles 1989: 59).
“This picture shows me, Capt. Alfred de Grazia, in front of a pile of dead bodies at Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria Germany, two (maybe three) days after the liberation of the camp by the American army. I was then Commanding Officer of the Psychological Warfare Combat Propaganda Team attached to HQ, the Seventh Army.” (Wikimedia Commons)
II. Stalinism, the New Left, and anti-Semitic anti-Zionism
In the USSR the period between 1949 and 1953 was marked by an officially-endorsed anti-Zionism that was anti-Semitic. This period concluded in a series of show trials, including the Slansky trial, which demonised the alleged collaborators of Zionism as bourgeois, cosmopolitan, Trotskyist, and conspiratorial enemies of the state (Crooke 2002; Rapoport 1990; Rodinson 1983; Vaksberg 1994; Wistrich 1979). Although the 1953 Doctors’ Plot, a planned show trial of five Jewish doctors accused of attempting to poison Stalin and his aides whilst ‘under the influence of Zionism’, was cancelled after Stalin’s death, by the end of this period Zionism was popularly depicted as the stalking horse of US and Western imperialism. Post-1967, another official anti-Zionism campaign began in the USSR and Eastern Europe (Ciolkosz 1979; Crooke 2002; Oschlies 1979). Oschlies (1979: 161) illustrates its anti-Semitism by referencing a letter published in June 1968 in the Prague evening newspaper Vecerni praha:
“During the last few years a tacit, but persistent, anti-semitism has informed official attitudes, and it will take a long time before it can be eradicated… In this context the word Zionism is invariably used. Please take your notebook and interview people; I am sure they will tell you what they always tell me: that (a) Jews are out to destroy the socialist countries; (b) Jews aspire to world domination; (c) They want to revenge themselves for the victims of the gas chambers.”
With anti-Semitic anti-Zionism becoming common currency in Stalinist Communist Parties worldwide, it is argued that the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s (pioneered by a number of ex-Communist Party members) inherited this tendency as part of a general leftist, anti-imperialist, third worldist, and ultimately dual campist outlook (Cohen 2004; Frei 1979; Forster 1979; Hearst 1979; Krämer-Badoni 1979). This New Left represented an orientation away from class-centred politics towards activism linked to broader protest movements and mass politics, with its proponents ideologically drawing from, notably, Debray, Fanon, Guevara, and Mao (Buhle 1991; Cohen 2004; Scruton 1998) and motivated by the national liberation struggle of the Viet Cong in North Vietnam and the national revolutions of Cuba and Algeria (Cohen 2004).
After the formation of the nation-state of Israel in 1948, general public opinion in the West, including on the Left, regarded Israel as a civilised country amid backward, barbaric masses who desired its annihilation (Rodinson 1968, 1983). As this opinion feared Israel’s destruction in the escalation to the Arab-Israeli Six-day war of June 1967, pro-Israeli demonstrations took place in, for example, London, New York, and Paris (Rodinson 1968, 1983). For Edward Said for example, these demonstrations were pivotal: “1967 in New York, was probably the most shattering experience in my life, because I was surrounded on all sides by people who identified with the Israeli victors” (Said, cited in Katz and Smith, 2003: 645). Indeed, the portrayal of Arabs in the media during this time spurred Said’s writing of Orientalism (Katz and Smith 2003). The turning point, in terms of general leftist opinion, came with outcome of the 1967 war. Post-1967, Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state was called into question by a new generation of Maoists, Trotskyists, and New Leftists (Bassi 2012; Cohen 2004; Crooke 2002; Wistrich 1979):
“the Israeli victory in the 1967 war and subsequent settlement of occupied Arab territories […] brought the younger generation of Western Marxists, the Trotskyist or Maoist ‘new left’, to an extreme anti-Israeli position. Israel, which from 1967 also developed close relations with the US, was condemned as racist, the oppressor of the Palestinians and the main progenitor of imperialism and colonialism in the Middle East (Halbrook, 1974; Ram, 1999; Rubinstein, 1982; Said, 1980; Turner, 1984).” (Golan 2001: 129)
The “militant anti-imperialism” of the 1968 Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Charter, including its call for a democratic secular Palestinian state in all of former British Mandate Palestine, situated the Palestinian cause “at the forefront” of the New Left’s broad revolutionary politics (Hassan 2002: 64).
Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati, 1973: pro-Arab pickets at Israeli birthday celebrations (Wikimedia Commons)
For this New Left, Frei (1979: 260) concludes, “Israel is a colonial fact, a ‘spearhead’ created in the back of the Arab peoples to prevent their emancipation from imperialism; she is expansionist by nature, her ideology (Zionism) is racist and her politics fascist.”
III. Colonial model of racism and its consequences
Miles (1989: 67; 1993) is astutely critical of “much of the British and North American theorising about capitalism and racism since the 1960s”. Although such theorising acknowledges the immorality of racism which culminated in the Holocaust, it nonetheless:
“utilises 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 (for example, Cox 1970: 393-4); it does, however, have a relevance to the controversial debate about whether or not Zionism can be defined as an instance of racism (see Kayyali 1979). Consequently, we are offered definitions and theories of racism which are so specific to the history of overseas colonisation (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: 67-68)
He offers a specific caution to the work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS):
“often implicit in their writing is the assumption that the only contemporary form of racism in Britain is that which has people of Caribbean and South Asian origin as its object. Even if this were the case during the 1970s (and I doubt that it was), it is not true for the late 1980s, a period which has witnessed the growth of an increasingly explicit racism against Jews […] The expression of anti-Irish racism is even more consistently ignored.” (Miles 1993: 85)
Miles insists that a theorisation and analysis of racism grounded solely in colonial history and which subsequently elevates the somatic characteristic of skin colour – such that racism is exclusively understood as a ‘white ideology’ created to dominate ‘black people’ – has “a specific and limited explanatory power” (Miles 1993: 148). Vis-à-vis the history of anti-Jewish (and anti-gypsy) racism in Europe, he explains:
“These instances demonstrate that, contrary to those who argue that ‘being black’ makes ‘black’ people especially vulnerable to racism in a ‘white society’, it is because visibility is always the outcome of a process of signification in a historical context that one can conclude that those who cannot be seen by virtue of their really existing phenotypical features are equally vulnerable to being racialized: their ‘non-visibility’ can be constructed by the racist imagination as the proof of their ‘real’ and ‘essential’ (but ‘concealed’) difference, which is then signified by a socially imposed mark (as in the example of the Nazi requirement that Jews wear a yellow Star of David: Burleigh and Wipperman 1991: 93-6).” (Miles 1993: 13-14)
“Frau mit Judenstern und Kind” (Wikimedia Commons)
Miles (1993: 14) continues:
“Otherness can also be constructed by means of a racism which signifies a wholly imaginary presence as real […] The very fact that there are so few living Jews can become socially accepted as proof of either the real extent of ‘Jewish power’ or of the continued success of Jews in assimilating themselves, of ‘hiding’ in order to continue their ‘destructive’ work. […] The racist imagination can be made to do its work not only with a real population as its subject (but transmuted through signification into an Other), but also with an absent, wholly imagined, subject (transmuted through signification into a ‘really existing’ Other).”
“Many physical characteristics (both real and imagined) have been and continue to be signified as a mark of nature and of ‘race’ (cf. Guillaumin 1988). Moreover, cultural characteristics have also been, and continue to be, signified to the same end. The reification of skin colour therefore mistakenly privileges one specific instance of signification and ignores the historical and contemporary evidence which shows that other populations (Jews, Irish people, etc.) have been signified as distinct and inferior ‘races’ without reference to skin colour (Miles 1982, 1991b). Moreover, it restricts analysis of the nature and determinants of racism to a debate about the effects of colonial exploitation. […] The economic and social positons of Jews in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe cannot be understood as a situation, or a product, of colonialism.” (Miles 1993: 87-88)
Vis-à-vis anti-Jewish racism, the colonial model of racism, as prevalent in US and British academia (and indeed on the wider political Left), is not able to explain the combination of events, circumstances, and social relations in which certain populations have been racialised and excluded without being colonised; furthermore, this model offers intellectual credibility to the ahistorical notion of ‘Zionist racism’: of rich, colonial, white Jews oppressing poor, anti-colonial, brown Arabs.
IV. Capitalism, the nation-state, and racism
Contra the colonial model of racism, Miles (1993: 21) advances a theorisation and analysis of racism that focuses on:
“the articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism, because […] this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects. Colonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, but racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism […].”
Miles (1993: 61-62) recognises the distinct natures of nationalism and racism (including their potential overlap) and their developments amid European internal and external reorganisation of political economy:
“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’. This was not only because there was little agreement about the boundaries between the supposed ‘races’, but also because scientific racism did not posit a single, coherent political object. 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 became 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. The increasing profusion of physiological and cultural variation, as recognised in western Europe, became the object of intellectual curiosity and, thereby, of the theoretical practice of scientists and philosophers. But it also became the focus of political attention and action as populations within and beyond Europe were nationalised and racialised by the state […].”
At the most extreme end of ‘racial’ science:
“‘race’ determined both cultural capacity and historical development, and it therefore followed that each ‘nation’ was the expression of a particular biological capacity. This was an articulation in which ‘race’ was ‘nation’.” (Miles 1989: 89)
“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’, that ‘blood or race is the basis of nationality […]’.” (Miles 1993: 62)
This was not, however, an articulation that happened in all historical instances – “there is no necessary reason why any particular ‘nation’ should be naturalised and identified by ‘race’” (Miles 1989; 1993: 64).
V. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism
“An emphasis upon racism solely as a ‘false doctrine’ 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.” (Miles 1989: 80)
I contend that operating in and through a mainstream current of leftist understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a particular ideological form of anti-Jewish racism which works to both ‘fix’ and ‘make sense’ of this conflict. This anti-Jewish racism has roots in the Stalinist Left and New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the more general history of racism. What’s more, this anti-Jewish racism is compounded by the legacy of US and British academia’s colonial model of racism, which, one, provides limited to no recognition of racism beyond what ‘white people’ do to ‘black/brown people’ (and, within the recent discourse of Islamophobia, of what ‘white people’ do to ‘black/brown Muslims’) and, two, intellectually endorses an ahistorical notion of Zionism as an instance of racism. Leftists in this current argue that it is necessary for individual Jews to break from ‘them’ and assimilate to ‘us’ by becoming anti-Zionists who vocally denounce the existence of Israel. Indeed, the Left’s promotion of certain individual Jews who have done just this – for example, Ilan Pappé, Norman Finkelstein, Gilad Atzmon, and Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein) – is held up as proof of the Left’s tolerance and acceptance of Jews. And yet it is with critical qualification. Indeed, the evolving nature of racism has led to many instances in which its discourse accommodates the Other through a deemed necessary process of assimilation; take, for example, the Conservative Party general election poster from 1983: “Labour says he’s black, Tories say he’s British”. Perhaps the Left’s version could be stated as: “Israel says he’s a Zionist Jew, we say he’s a liberated anti-Zionist”.
With racism in general, real and imagined somatic and/or cultural characteristics have historically been and continue to be signified as an innate mark of ‘race’. Indeed, there are historical instances in which representations of the Other have been based exclusively on cultural characteristics, notably, “European representations of the Islamic world”, which “extensively utilised images of barbarism and sexuality in the context of a Christian/heathen dichotomy” (Miles 1989: 40). Similar to all other manifestations of racism, with contemporary left anti-Jewish racism it is not difference per se that matters but the identification of this difference as significant (Miles 1989). Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism involves a process of signification that defines the Other by real and imagined cultural features – id est, it marks out a group of people in relation to Israeli/Zionist Jewishness – and assigns this categorised group of bodies with negative characteristics and as giving rise to negative consequences. This Jewish Other is generalised with a singular and static understanding of Israel and Zionism: that this Jewish collective has uniquely world domineering and tyrannical power.
Poster held by a protester at an anti-war rally in San Francisco on February 16th 2003 (Wikimedia Commons)
The leftist demand (often implicit) that the Israeli Jewish nation-state must be undone because it is uniquely despotic (comparable only to fascist Germany and/or apartheid South Africa) – a judgement and a demand not made of any other nation-state worldwide now or in history – is racist. It is racist because real and imagined cultural characteristics have been and are signified as an innate mark of the nature of Israel and Zionism (and of the cultural ‘race’ of Jews associated with Israel and Zionism), which are deemed especially deplorable and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Protest in Edinburgh against Israel’s war on Gaza, 10th January 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)
Home-made placard from a protest in Melbourne at the State Library against Israel’s attack on Gaza, December 30th 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)
Furthermore, the logic underpinning the leftist demand to boycott Israeli academia is an unprecedented denial and writing-off of any progressive role for the Israeli-Jewish working class now or in the future. This is racist since this working class is singled out and solidified like none other and is generalised as a cultural ‘race’ (of the collective Zionist Jews) that is especially wretched and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Miles (1993: 49) does well to remind us that:
“In so far as Marxism asserts that all social relationships are socially constructed and reproduced in specific historical circumstances, and that those relationships are therefore in principle alterable by human agency, then it should not have space for an ideological notion that implies, and often explicitly asserts, the opposite.”
In this post I present, first, a brief overview of the current period in Britain vis-à-vis racism and hate crime; second, the limitation of a dominant academic understanding of racism; and third, a historical exposition of the nature of racism which offers explanatory power for our contemporary era.
I. Hate crime post the EU referendum
Anti-Polish propaganda which was posted through the doors of immigrant residences in Cambridge during the EU referendum campaign (source: YouTube)
Britain’s EU referendum cannot simply be regarded at its face value as a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. More than this, it was a noxious campaign on immigration, which was preceded by years of political and media discourse that has mainstreamed anti-immigration sentiment. The Brexit vote legitimised racism: it took the shame out of racial hatred and unleashed waves of its verbal and physical expression. The Economist (2016) reports hate crime data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council of 3,076 incidents of harassment or violence between June 6th and 30th 2016, a rise of 915 on the same period the previous year. More recent figures, from between August 5th and 18th, indicate 2,778 cases, an increase of 14% on the same period in 2015. The stark reality behind these statistics can be seen through the following summary by The Independent (2016) of hate crime incidents since the EU referendum:
“Gangs prowling the streets demanding passers-by prove they can speak English
Swastikas in Armagh, Sheffield, Plymouth, Leicester, London and Glasgow.
Assaults, arson attacks and dog excrement being thrown at doors or shoved through letter boxes.
Toddlers being racially abused alongside their mothers, with children involved as either victims or perpetrators in 14 per cent of incidents.
A man in Glasgow ripping off a girl’s headscarf and telling her “Trash like you better start obeying the white man.”
Comparisons with 1930s Nazi Germany and a crowd striding through a London street chanting: “First we’ll get the Poles out, then the gays!””
This provides a critical backdrop and climate to the horrific fatal assault on a Polish man, Arkadiusz Jozwik, in Harlow, Essex, on 27th August 2016. The question addressed by this article is: why and how have we arrived at this moment? To answer this, we need to adequately understand the history and nature of racism in Britain.
II. Dominant academic framing of racism
The UK Independence Party’s “Breaking Point” poster that was launched during the EU referendum campaign
Sociologist Gurminder K. Bhambra (2016), in a blog post written soon after the EU referendum result, states that what was “unleashed in the weeks prior to the vote was the most toxic discourse on citizenship and belonging, and the rights that pertain as a consequence”. She questions the idea of Britain as an ‘independent’ nation, given its history as part of wider political entities: notably, the colonial Empire and Commonwealth, and the European Union. Bhambra continues, the idea of the British nation has long been dependent on “a racially stratified political formation” of its making and, decisively, it has been:
“the loss of this privileged position – based on white elites and a working class offered the opportunity to see themselves as better than the darker subjects of empire […] – that seems to drive much of the current discourse. Austerity has simply provided the fertile ground for its re-emergence and expression.” (Bhambra, 2016)
Thus, she argues, to understand ‘Britain’ one needs to understand its colonial and imperial Empire and governance. The 1948 British Nationality Act was a turning point, for previously Britain’s colonial subjects were defined as British subjects but with the Act they became Commonwealth citizens. And as the bodies of these Commonwealth citizens migrated into the space of the British nation-state, “mythologies of the changing nature (or, perhaps more accurately, face) of Britain” developed:
“Mythologies that continue to reverberate in the present and have taken on a renewed political vibrancy in light of the debates regarding our continued EU membership. […] The transformation of darker citizens from citizens to aliens over the 1960s and 1970s was based on a visceral understanding of difference predicated on race that brought into being two classes of citizenship – full citizenship and second-class citizenship. […] immigration into the country was increasingly managed by the passing of Acts to discriminate among citizens on the basis of race.” (Bhambra, 2016)
From this twentieth century history, Bhambra concludes that the “common-sense position” on what it means “to be British or English is to be white”, as based on the “mythology of a white Europe or a historically white Britain”. The consequence of this (racist) common sense is a grave misrepresentation of Britain’s “multiracial political formations”. As such:
“we must rethink our analyses to take into account the imperial configuration of Britain and all those who were subjects within it and subject to it. If this is not done, then that demonstrates a commitment to a racialized national history that has no space for its darker subjects.” (Bhambra, 2016)
For me, this academic narrative leaves unexplained the present-day racism against Eastern Europeans, for example. Without a doubt, racism before and since the EU referendum affects Britain’s darker subjects, but what has evolved is not simply or only a racism that targets those of different skin colour. Other markers, both visible and invisible, are also at play as signifying negative racial difference and inciting hatred. Helpful here is the work of the sociologist Robert Miles (1993), who makes the point that proposing (or indeed assuming) the ideology of racism has its historical origins in colonialism can lead to a conclusion that racism is an ideology created exclusively by ‘white’ people to dominant ‘black’ people. However, “in part, the origins of racism can be traced back to pre-capitalist social relations within and beyond Europe” and “its reproduction is as much determined by the rise of the nation state as by colonialism” (Miles, 1993). From the highly cited and regarded work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) collective, a dominant academic understanding of racism has problematically developed, as Miles observes, “often implicit in their writing is the assumption that the only contemporary form of racism in Britain is that which has people of Caribbean and South Asian origin as its object”. Yet:
“Many physical characteristics (both real and imagined) have been and continue to be signified as a mark of nature and of ‘race’ […]. Moreover, cultural characteristics have also been, and continue to be, signified to the same end. The reification of skin colour therefore mistakenly privileges one specific instance of signification and ignores the historical and contemporary evidence which shows that other populations (Jews, Irish people, etc.) have been signified as distinct and inferior ‘races’ without reference to skin colour […]. Moreover, it restricts analysis of the nature and determinants of racism to a debate about the effects of colonial exploitation.” (Miles, 1993)
I turn now to detail Miles’ exploration of the history of racism, which, I will illustrate, provides astute explanatory power to the contemporary era surrounding Brexit.
III. On the history of racism and its reverberations in the present
Miles’ explanation of the historical interrelationship between nationalism and racism vis-à-vis capitalist development is instructive:
“In the context of its formation, nationalism was […] a revolutionary doctrine because it sought to overturn monarchy and aristocratic government by an appeal to the popular will of ‘the people’ who were the ‘nation’ […] 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’. This was not only because there was little agreement about the boundaries between the supposed ‘races’, but also because scientific racism did not posit a single, coherent political object. 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 became 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. The increasing profusion of physiological and cultural variation, as recognised in western Europe, became the object of intellectual curiosity and, thereby, of the theoretical practice of scientists and philosophers. But it also became the focus of political attention and action as populations within and beyond Europe were nationalised and racialised by the state […]” (Miles, 1993)
Mesocephalic indexes of different ‘races’ – an illustration of racial science from the Popular Science Monthly Volume 50, 1896 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
While distinct ideologies, nationalism and racism can overlap: the construct of the ‘nation’ as based on cultural differentiae is compatible with the notion that the nation is founded on a biological ‘race’. Miles continues to demonstrate that first the feudal aristocracy’s, and later the bourgeoisie’s, ‘civilisation’ project became fused with racism – a civilisation project which was central to emergent and developing capitalist social relations within and outside Europe:
“In France, notions of politesse and civilité were used by the feudal aristocracy to contrast the refinement of their behaviour with that of the ‘inferior’ people whom they ruled. […] the bourgeoisie became its leading exponent once it had displaced the aristocracy as the ruling class. By the early nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie, conscious of its material achievements and more firmly in political control in at least certain parts of Europe, began to assert that its values and manners were more a matter of inheritance than a social construction. In these circumstances the notion of civilisation (Elias 1978: 50): “serves at least those nations which have become colonial conquerors, and therefore a kind of upper class to large sections of the non-European world, as a justification of their rule, to the same degree that earlier the ancestors of the concept of civilisation, politesse and civilité, had served the courtly-aristocratic upper class as a justification of theirs.”” (Miles, 1993)
Depending on conjuncture and interests, the boundaries of blood have been mapped and remapped:
“Hence, during the nineteenth century, in certain circumstances the English working class, or fractions thereof, were signified by the dominant class as ‘a different breed’, an uncivilised ‘race’, but in other circumstances, as a constituent part of the English (or British) ‘race’, a ‘breed’ which contains ‘in its blood’ civilised and democratic values. […] The result was a racialised nationalism or a nationalist racism, a mercurial ideological bloc that was manipulated by the ruling class (or rather by different fractions of it) to legitimate the exploitation of inferior ‘races’ in the colonies, to explain economic and political struggles with other European nation states, and to signify (for example) Irish and Jewish migrants as an undesirable ‘racial’ presence within Britain.” (Miles, 1993)
This 1862 song, “No Irish Need Apply”, was inspired by No Irish Need Apply [NINA] signs in London (source: Wikipedia)
Thus for over two centuries the signification of racial difference has been a central aspect of class relations and class struggle both inside and beyond Europe. To maintain domination:
“Europeans in different class positions have racialised each other, as well as inward migrants and those populations that they colonised beyond Europe. During the twentieth century, there have been further examples of the racialisation of the interior of European nation states (as in the case of the Jews), as well as a racialisation of larger-scale inward migrations, including colonial and non-colonial migrations, since 1945.” (Miles, 1993)
We might productively consider the present period in Britain as an extension and evolution of this history, in which racism vilifies an internal European Other and an Other from outside Europe.
It was by the close of the nineteenth century that the political economic domination of the global capitalist system by Britain came under threat from sources inside and beyond Europe, and as such, by the final quarter of the nineteenth century:
“a new, right-wing English patriotism, which was simultaneously royalist and racist, was created […] the whole world was racialised, including Europe, in an attempt to comprehend the rise of competing European capitalisms, each embodied in a separate national shell, and each seeking its ‘destiny’ on the world stage” (Miles, 1993)
A nineteenth century British cartoon (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Irish immigration into Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was racialised, as was immigration from Eastern Europe and Germany. There was widely perceived to be an ‘alien’ problem in the country:
“Commencing halfway through the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century, a political campaign against the settlement of immigrants from eastern Europe achieved prominence […] Those involved in the campaign consistently exaggerated the scale of immigration […] and demanded the introduction of an immigration law which would permit the state to control and limit the entry of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe. […] the notions of ‘immigrant’ and ‘alien’ became synonymous in everyday life with that of Jew […]legislation regulating the entry of aliens into Britain was introduced immediately preceding and after the First World War. […] Assertions about the existence of a German conspiracy multiplied, and myths about the German ‘national character’ which signified Germans as having certain (negatively evaluated) natural attributes were widely articulated […] The categories of ‘German’ and ‘Jew’ were often used synonymously” (Miles, 1993)
The Daily Mail, 1938 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
The political debate surrounding the Aliens Act of 1905, and the subsequent Aliens Restriction Act of 1914 and Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Bill and Act of 1919, identified the problematic presence of three population groups:
“First, there was a lingering desire to find additional ways of punishing the defeated foe, the ‘Hun’. In addition, two ‘new’ enemies were found. These were trade union radicals or ‘Bolshevik sympathisers’, and Jews, including those who had arrived as refugees in the late nineteenth century as well as the longer-established Jewish community, a proportion of which formed part of the British bourgeoisie […] Collectively, this Other constituted the quintessential ‘alien’” (Miles, 1993)
An anti-immigration poster from 1902 (source: Wikipedia)
Nonetheless, confronting major shortages of labour, the Labour government reluctantly opted for large-scale foreign-sourced labour. By the close of 1946 a system was in place for the resettlement of Polish people and the European Volunteer Scheme (EVW) came into being. The political discourse underpinning this immigration was one of ‘assimilation’ and (as it later transpired) a problem of lack of ‘integration’:
“the concern was to find the most suitable ‘races and nationalities’ that would not only provide labour power but also possess the kind of ‘vigorous blood’ that could be expected to benefit ‘our stock’. […] As evidence accumulated showing that the Poles and the EVWs were not learning the English language, that they continued to identify themselves with the nation states from which they originated, and that they were forming ‘exclusive communities’, official concern increased.” (Miles, 1993)
A stark comparison can be made here with the present-day racism against Polish people, who are accused of failing to integrate and assimilate to the so-called British way of life. Across Europe, including Britain, integration has become a state objective: “‘they’ are expected to learn to behave like ‘us’ because cultural homogeneity is considered to be a necessary precondition for the survival of the nation” (Miles, 1993).
Miles identifies a shift vis-à-vis immigration to Britain during the years 1945-1951, from Europe as the major source of labour migration to that of the British colonies and ex-colonies:
“because the British state proved unwilling to realise its racism in law at this time, the rights of British colonial and ex-colonial subjects to enter and settle in Britain were not withdrawn. Migration from the Caribbean (as well as from Ireland) continued and increased through the 1950s, and was paralleled by migration from India and Pakistan. It was not until 1962 that the British state imposed controls on the entry of British subjects from what had become known as the New Commonwealth.” (Miles, 1993)
Decisively, “by removing the right of entry to, and settlement in, the United Kingdom from certain categories of British subject, the state established new (racist) criteria by which to determine membership of the ‘imagined community’ of nation” (Miles, 1993). A critical aspect of this post-1945 era has been the response of the British state to political agitation for immigration controls against ‘coloureds’: such immigrants have been “simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’” (Miles, 1993). Similarly, in recent times, both European and non-European migrants to Britain have been racialised and signified as the cause of the social and economic problems of the British people; it has become (racist) common sense that immigration is a problem and must be severely controlled.
The development of the European Union has brought with it a new specificity of tensions vis-à-vis immigration, nationalism and racism. What isn’t new is the political debate about immigration – framed as alien populations flooding in to threaten the identity and existence of the nation. However, what is distinct is that:
“the effects are refracted through a novel international conjuncture, one in which the reality of the nation state, and the power of the individual state to regulate social relations within its ‘sovereign territory’, is being transformed in Europe as a result of the interplay between the power of international capital and the political reorganisation embodied in the evolution of the EC as a supranational political unit.” (Miles, 1993)
From the early 1950s through to the early 1970s there was large-scale labour migration into Western Europe which (with some exceptions) the state promoted as an economic necessity. But since then this political discourse has been replaced by one of the need for stricter and stricter immigration controls. And so:
“Every official statement expressing support for the ‘principle’ of increased [immigration] control […] legitimates political opposition to immigration within the electorate in circumstances where the state faces structural constraints on its ability to deliver what it promises: this contradiction will ensure that immigration remains at the centre of political conflict within most European nation states and within the European Commission during the 1990s and beyond. The contradiction is overdetermined by the reality of the EC as a political entity: because of the attempt to create a European immigration policy, the politicisation of immigration as a problem in one member state can have immediate repercussions in the others. Moreover, in so far as a consequence of continuing immigration is a magnification of political opposition to it, and in so far as that opposition is grounded in, or expressive of, racism, the intervention of the state reinforces that racism.” (Miles, 1993)
One response that has emerged on the Left defines the European Union as a ‘Fortress Europe’, which “prevent[s] ‘black’ people from entering its borders and […] sustain[s] a common ‘white’, Judaeo-Christian heritage by repelling or subordinating alien (non-European) cultural influences (such as Islam)” (Miles, 1993). During the EU referendum, this was what Lexit campaigners such as the SWP raised in their incoherent arguments. What is indeed rampant in the contemporary era surrounding Brexit is a pan-European racism – reflected in the growth of far Right parties across the continent – against, for example, an African Other, an Islamic Other, a Syrian Other, et cetera. That said, Fortress Europe racism is not the whole picture. As observed by Miles of the late twentieth century:
“For geo-spatial and ideological reasons, the greatest apprehension originally concerned migration from the southern edge of the EC. The fear was, and is, that the Mediterranean Sea will become Europe’s Rio Grande, no more than a minor obstacle for the ‘millions’ of Africans seeking to enter the EC illegally […] Since 1989, new fears have been articulated: speculation has increased about a large-scale migration from eastern Europe, one that places Germany (and Austria) in the front line against an ‘invasion’ from the east.” (Miles, 1993)
Alongside then a Fortress Europe which negatively racialises an external (non-white and/or non-Christian) Other, what has also become prevalent is a negative racialisation of an internal (white) Other, most notably, Eastern Europeans. These racialisations and their associated racial hatreds have historical origins in capitalist (and pre-capitalist) social relations and the nation state, with colonialism one integral moment within this; in this context, “theories of racism which are grounded solely in the analysis of colonial history and which prioritise the single somatic characteristic of skin colour have a specific and limited explanatory power” (Miles, 1993).
“‘History’ has to be renegotiated and resignified in order to (re)create a sense of the past appropriate to the particular conjuncture and the political project for the future. […] in the case of English nationalism, the events selected include those which evince a sense of external threat over which ‘the English people’ triumph, especially events concerning war and imperialism […]. The continually reconstructed sense of the English past, in which ‘race’ is an ever present reification, signifies the English ‘nation’ (and therefore the idea of ‘race’) as an ever present collective subject” (Miles 1993: 76-77)
In one significant sense, the EU referendum wasn’t a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, rather it was a referendum on immigration and English/British national identity in which the idea of ‘race’ was infused. The referendum’s outcome, its narrow margin, was critically determined by the sociological white working class in England (and Wales), the former Labour Party heartlands. The dominant slogan of the Leave campaign, “Take back control”, as vacuous as it was, nevertheless translated as take back control of ‘our national borders’ and of ‘our nation’. It resonated as a slogan because large and indeed broader sections of the public have become convinced that their country is being invaded – that ‘we are under threat’.
Anti-immigration discourse has become mainstream, as (New) Labour joined the Conservative Party in its propagation alongside much of the media (all with various shades, nuances, and guises). Once the Labour Party explicitly bought into an anti-immigration discourse, along with the austerity politics post the 2007 -2008 global capitalist crisis – albeit a softer anti-immigration and a softer austerity – then the far Right, including UKIP, were on course to gain, as dramatically confirmed by Brexit.
The Labour Party’s “Controls on immigration” mug from 2015: representing one of its election pledges. This was criticised at the time as pandering to UKIP.
It is also crucial to recognise that this contemporary moment is not altogether new:
“An important dimension of the post-1945 period has been the way in which successive British governments have responded to political agitation to impose immigration controls on the entry of those who used to be called ‘coloured’ Commonwealth citizens […]. The political discourse employed has been overtly and covertly racist, although within the formal political arena, references to inherent biological inferiority to legitimate the demand for such exclusion have been rare. Rather, the migrants have been simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’ […] The post-1945 Caribbean and Asian presence in Britain has been signified as a previously external threat that is now ‘within’, so that the ‘old order’ is threatened by its presence. As a result, because ‘our’ collective existence is supposedly challenged, resistance (even a new war) must be organised. The prominent and desirable features of ‘our culture’ are spotlighted and reified by the assertion that they are in danger of being negated by the consequences of the presence of an Other […]” (Miles 1993: 73-77)
If we replace “‘coloured’ Commonwealth citizens” with Eastern European migrants and Syrian refugees (although the former are still scapegoated), then what we have today is a situation in which the Other is racialised and signified as the cause of the social and economic ills of ‘ordinary English/British people’. What’s more, the contemporary external threat has a more fluid geography that includes Europe, against which one’s own cultural identity must seemingly be defended and preserved. All the while, a neoliberal politics of austerity, with its driving conditions of poverty and inequality, escapes critique.
“migrants have been simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’” (Miles)
We have a constructed fantasy of a country at war, of a country being invaded, and of an enemy within. With anti-immigration discourse becoming conventional, it is not surprising that during the EU referendum the Leave campaign’s dominant slogan, “Take back control”, won ideologically.
A country at war, a country invaded
Leave voters talked of: ‘wanting our country back’; it being ‘time to stand on our own two feet’; and that ‘we’re British, so come what may, we’ll be okay’. Such statements of faith illustrate a belief in a fabricated past and present and an impossible future, counter to all credible evidence and empirical reality. Amidst an anti-intellectual culture of ‘don’t trust the experts’ (with a leading Leave campaigner and former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove saying, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts”), “Take back control” reflected a quasi-religious English/British nationalism and patriotism saturated with the idea of ‘race’. The results of Lord Ashcroft’s Poll on how people voted in the EU referendum are startling in this respect:
“One third (33%) [of leave voters] said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” […] In England, leave voters (39%) were more than twice as likely as remain voters (18%) to describe themselves either as “English not British” or “more English than British”. Remain voters were twice as likely as leavers to see themselves as more British than English. Two thirds of those who considered themselves more English than British voted to leave; two thirds of those who considered themselves more British than English voted to remain. […] By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.”
During the 1980s the Thatcher-led Conservative government created a populist unity though nationalism and patriotism, including ‘a Great Britain at war’. Take Thatcher’s speech in July 1982, after the Falklands War, in which she constructs a discourse remarkably similar to that of the Leave campaign:
“When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthearts, the people who thought that Britain could no longer seize the initiative for herself … that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well they were wrong. The lesson of the Falklands is that this nation still has those sterling qualities which shine through our history.” (Cited in Miles 1993: 75)
During the EU referendum campaign, Leave spokespeople teased the Remain camp for not believing in Britain: the Remainers were ridiculed as the waverers and the fainthearted.
Nationalism, patriotism, and faith in the implicit idea of (racial) superiority
Back to the 1980s:
“The Conservative government reinforced this notion of Englishness or Britishness, which is shaped by the idea of ‘race’, in its British Nationality Act, 1981. The Act brought nationality law into line with the racist categories constructed in earlier immigration law and immigration rules (Dixon 1983: 173): “The crucial irony of the 1981 Act is that it is designed to define a sense of belonging and nationhood which is itself a manifestation of the sense of racial superiority created along with the Empire, while simultaneously it cuts the ties of citizenship established in the same historical process. The ideology of Empire is reconstructed: while Thatcherism rejects the essential expansionism of Empire in favour of ‘isolationism’, its supremacism, chauvinism and racism are preserved.”” (Miles 1993: 76)
In 1950 UNESCO issued a statement declaring the so-called biological phenomenon of ‘race’ as a social myth. Before this, the British Empire had a specific relationship to nineteenth century racial science. To help justify colonial domination, ideas developed by racial science were incorporated into arguments to naturalise capitalist exploitation: ‘it is the white man’s burden to civilise the black and brown races’. What survives from this history is a pseudo-biological cultural racism: in which the idea of ‘race’ feeds into nation, and biology into culture. English/British nationalism echoes nineteenth and early twentieth century imperial nationalism. Embedded in this nationalism and patriotism, disguised within, is the idea of ‘race’:
“Phrases like “the Island Race” and “the Bulldog Breed” vividly convey the manner in which this nation is represented in terms which are simultaneously biological and cultural.” (Gilroy 1987: 45)
Brexit Great Britain: an island race of bulldog breed
A dangerous outcome of the EU referendum is echoed in the words of Sivanandan (1990: 150) on 1980s Britain: “Shame…has gone out of Thatcherite Britain – the shame of being a racist…” Take, for example, the upfront honesty of some Leave voters from the north and south of England as reported on television news shortly after the result:
What Brexit has done is legitimise racism from which the fascist far Right will continue to grow (and it will grow most vigorously if a Labour Party coup succeeds in ousting the socialist leader, pro-immigration and anti-austerity, Jeremy Corbyn, in order to shift the party rightwards once again to a soft anti-immigration and a soft austerity politics).
The Labour Party ‘on the back foot’ with a former Labour voter on the question of immigration during the 2010 election.
The question of Scotland is an important one, with both the SNP a vocally pro-immigration (and anti-austerity) party and Scottish voters, in the main, pro-Europe. The question being: why? The following astute historical analysis of the distinct nature of Scottish nationalism, vis-à-vis racism, offers an answer:
“post-1945 Asian migrants to Scotland have not been the object of a systematic and hostile political agitation as happened in England (although this is not to deny that racist images of these migrants are commonly expressed in everyday life in Scotland). Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that the particular political compromise embodied in the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland ensured the reproduction of a distinct proto-state apparatus and national identity. In this context, political nationalism in Scotland during the twentieth century has tended to focus on the perceived economic and political disadvantages of the Union. Nationalism in Scotland during the 1960s and 1970s therefore identified an external cause of economic disadvantage/decline, without reference to ‘race’, while in England the idea of ‘race’ was employed to identify an internal cause of crisis, the presence of a ‘coloured’ population which was not ‘truly’ British.” (Miles 1993: 77-78)
In the context of Brexit, the accusation of racism is a contentious one. One narrative emerging after the Leave campaign victory, from many of its voters, is an offended and defensive ‘I’m not a racist…’ One needs to understand what racism actually is (see my blog post Racism 101). While not all Leave voters (including the highly irresponsible fool-heads of Lexit) were and are racists, without doubt, the Leave campaign pushed and unleashed a reconstructed ideology of British Empire soaked with supremacism, chauvinism, and racism. Deeply worrying and perilous times lie ahead.
Post EU referendum: a continued discourse of a Great Britain under attack that requires a tough Army General to lead against.
Reference: Miles, Robert (1993) Racism after ‘race relations’. London: Routledge.
[I dedicate this post to Lee Claydon, with love and solidarity.]
Below is a timeline of key events and forces in this debate. Conclude for yourselves on whether this story is one of a cultural victory over the far-right in Europe, who foster anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, or a cultural victory of religion over children’s human rights fought for by medical professionals, children’s rights advocates, and secularists.
Norway, May 2012: a two-week old baby boy dies in Oslo after complications arising from circumcision, fuelling a debate on the practice.
Germany, May 2012: in response to a case of ritual circumcision in which the male child had to be hospitalised, a Cologne district court ruled the circumcision as “grievous bodily harm”.
Germany, 2012: a number of children’s rights organisations and doctors petitioned for a consideration of the law on this issue, questioning the interference of a child’s bodily integrity.
Germany, December 2012: a national law was passed that legitimates the parents’ right to ritually circumcise their male children.
Norway, September 2013: a statement was released titled “Let the boys decide on circumcision” signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, and eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. An interview in 2012 with the Children’s Ombudsman of Norway, Dr Anne Lindboe, explains her position:
Finland, October 2013: the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology released “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys” supporting a ban.
October 2013: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution against the non-medical circumcision of boys as “violation of the physical integrity of children.”
Norway, 2014: 72 per cent of a public opinion survey state that they are against the practice of the ritual circumcision of male minors.
Norway, February 2014: the Norwegian Nurses Organisation joined the call for a ban on non-medical circumcision of boys under the age of 15-16. Its director, Astrid Grydeland Ersvik, stressed the need for boys to be able to decide for themselves, and drew parallel to female genital mutilation.
Norway, June 2014: the parliament passed Act on Ritual Circumcision of Boys, by the ruling right-wing Conservative-Progress coalition, which permits non-medical circumcision of male minors in the presence of a medical supervisor although the procedure itself can be carried out by someone else.
On the 1st May 2014 (International Workers’ Day) I attended a session titled “Intersectionality” at the launch event of the Free University of Sheffield. The strap line to the session – “checking our own privilege” – was a more accurate descriptor, since the session itself advanced privilege theory rather than explored intersectionality. Ideas on intersectionality seem to me to offer a potentially creative political exchange, whereas the current popularity of privilege theory, bound up with intersectionality discussion, appears to lead activist milieus into a political impasse (see also my post On privilege theory and intersectionality). The (black) woman leading the session problematized an image used by the (white) organisers of the Free University of Sheffield to advertise the event, an image which she described as black African children holding a free education poster (the actual image is below). She deemed this as an ignorant appropriation.
I spoke up: while we must be sensitive to the temporal and spatial specificities of such images (social, cultural, economic, and political), there is something universal here. She replied: what could I possibility think I had in common with the people in the image? I suggested: the universal struggle for free education, for starters, also, the universal struggle for free health care, the universal struggle for independent trade unions…
Nothing concrete in terms of political activity came out of this session, unless the well-meaning musing and ultimate entanglement on the part of the predominantly white audience count. Some looked pretty concerned by their accidental but privileged appropriation of an image of the unprivileged. I, by the way, was one of two non-white participants, the other, of course, was the session leader. I sensed that my outspokenness might have been less tolerated had I been white, in which case I might have been expected to look pretty concerned too.
“Through work to bring materials from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials, which amount to taboos, surround the subject of advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended. Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege, which was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage. […] the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as a privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the U.S. consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.”
Privilege theory views society as a seesaw: you are up there because I am down here, and you are up there because you weigh me down. It is a personalised dual camp – us versus them, me versus you – perspective on social relations that is devoid of independent class politics, and is prone (dare I say it?) to unproductive anger.
Mia McKenzie, writing about ways to push back against privilege, declares: “The truth is that acknowledging your privilege means a whole lot of nothing much if you don’t do anything to actively push back against it.” Speaking from the vantage point of a black woman, her advice to the privileged is:
1. Relinquish power – “If you are in a position of power and you are able to recognize and acknowledge that at least part of the reason you are there is your (white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, class, etc.) privilege, then pushing back against that privilege means sharing that power with, or sometimes relinquishing it to, the folks around you who have less privilege and therefore less power.”
2. Just don’t go – “If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it. […] Pushing back against your privilege often requires sacrifice.”
3. Shut up – “This one is so, so important. If you are a person with a lot of privilege (i.e. a white, straight, able-bodied, class-privileged, cisgender male or any combination of two or more of those) and you call yourself being against oppression, then it should be part of your regular routine to sit the hell down and shut the eff up.”
4. Be careful what identities you claim – “If you’re a cis dude who is only into women but you call yourself ‘queer’ because all your friends are queer and plus you kissed a guy once and also you feel more politically aligned with queer folks…rethink that. Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. […] Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience.”
As a blueprint for political action, it is the gist here that troubles me. For instance, in terms of anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, it is harmful to naturalise the idea of ‘race’ (see my post Racism 101: what is it?) and with that invert the seesaw of privilege theory. There is a passivity and political impasse to privilege theory that Mia McKenzie ironically demonstrates. She says, it is not enough to be aware of your privilege, you must push back; yet her four points for pushing back entail little to nothing that is actively or proactively political. Given that we are all, in one way or another, according to this theory, privileged and unprivileged, advantaged and disadvantaged, we are all left naval gazing.
The independent Marxist and Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson is praised by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) for his “extraordinary achievements” and his “methodological self-consciousness”. For Said, Rodinson was one of an exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines.
Rodinson wrote the following books: Mohammed (1974), Islam and Capitalism (1977), Marxism and the Muslim world (1979), Israel and the Arabs (1982), The Arabs (1985), Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1988), Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (2001), and Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (2001).
This is what Rodinson states, in the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), of Said’s Orientalism:
“Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.”