Left anti-semitism: racism as anti-racism (1984)

Submitted by dalcassian on 13 February, 2017 - 7:49 Author: Clive Bradley and Martin Thomas

Both published in Socialist Organiser, summer 1984.

***

'That's funny, you don't look anti-Semitic', by Steve Cohen, an anti-racist analysis of Left anti-semitism (Beyond the Pale collective, £2)

This book should be read and re-read by everyone active on the left. For years, the left - revolutionary or otherwise - has glibly held up its hands in horror at the very idea that it might be anti-Semitic. Anti-semitism is rarely mentioned except as an afterthought to ward off criticism from Zionists.

Yet synagogues are attacked, even bombed; Jews continue to be persecuted in large parts of the world; and the left not only fails to mobilise people against the scourge of anti-semitism, but persists in using 'world conspiracy' arguments in its analyses of the Middle East conflict.

Whilst few men on the left would insist that they are not at all sexist, few white people would deny any anti-black racism whatsoever, and few heterosexuals would deny any trace of homophobia, rare indeed is the left-wing gentile who admits the possibility that s/he might have inherited any of the de-rooted anti-Semitism in western culture.

Steve Cohen's book confronts all these issues, and exposes the latent (or not so latent) anti-semitism in much of what the left says and does. He analyses in some detail the way in which anti-Semitism was institutionalised in Britain with the Aliens Act of 1905, and how the labour movement was instrumental in bringing this about.

Guilty

Instances of socialists taking a stand against blatantly anti-semitic immigration controls were the exception; well-known leading figures in the early history of British socialism like Tom Mann and Keit Hardie, were particularly guilty. Hyndman, founder of the Social Democratic Federation, was a notorious anti-Semite.

The widespread idea that the Labour Party has a history of sympathy for the Jews (and its pro-lsraeli position follows from that) is utterlv false.

Cohen demolishes the anti-Semitic assumptions behind much of what passes as 'antiZionist' propaganda. Take the example of 'Newsline' (April 9, 1983) which speaks of a Zionist power "stretching right through Downing Street channels right into the White House". As Cohen wryly comments:"Lenin was presumably wrong when he analyses imperialism as being the highest form of capitalism. Zionism is apparently even higher, as it is able to control the two main nerve-centres of imperialism."

Newsline

Newsline' is maybe the worst offender: but it is by no means the only one. Cohen deals with the way in which left propaganda.against the Israeli invasion of Lehanon was couched in quite clearly anti-Semitic terms

Beirut was compared to Belsen: "Jews are now expected to be on a higher level of morality than anyone else... if we act immorally or if any one Jew misbehaves, then we also have to apologise more than anyone else and make public penance."

Cohen also shows how the left has consistently played down the real significance of anti-semitic ideology, and of the experience of Jewish oppression; and how the main 'advice' from the left to the Jews historically has been to stop being Jewish and assimilate.

There is much more that could be said on Cohen's book: in particular some of his interesting comments by way of a critique of Abram Leon's classic "The Jewish Question", and a mass of detail condemning socialists through the years from their own mouths.

Its main point should be taken on board by all socialists: anti-semitism is a real and persistent problem' and the labour movement needs to be mobilised against it and in defence of the Jews. Antisemitic ideology is deeprooted in Western (Christian) culture, and has permeated many views on the left. In my opinion, this book should be basic reading.

Clive Bradley

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I think Clive Bradley (SO 188) overdid his praise for Steve Cohen's book, "That's funny, you don't look anti-Semitic".

I agree with Cohen's basic point that the left tends to refer to anti-semitism only in order to say (truly) that anti-Zionism does not imply anti-Semitism rather than considering anti-Semitism worthy of attention in its own right.

But Cohen swathes that thesis in some dubious arguments: Abram Leon's Marxist classic, 'The Jewish Queation' argued that the Jews retained a distinct identity because they became a 'people-class'' specialing in trading and money lending.

Cohen objects on several counts. In fact, he claims, Jews were not specialised in that way; on this I am not competent to judge. But he also seems to argue that any theory which explains anti-Semitism from what Jews do or have done is necessarily blaming Jews for anti-Semitism.

Not so; and Cohen's arguement leads him to a very mystical view of anti-Semitism. Polemicising against 'rigid determinism', he seems to end up opposing any attempt to root an explanation of anti-semitism in the social and economic situation of Jews. Anti-semitism becomes an eternal fact.

Cohen also argues against Leon that no special argument at all is needed to explein the persistence of a Jewish identity outside Palestine. Other nations - the Irish or the English, for example - don't merge into their surroundings and neither do the Jews. That is all there is to it.

Factually this must be wrong: the Irish in England assimilate pretty quickly, and so for centuries did the English in Ireland. Ideologically it seems to be linked to Cohen's sharp opposition of regarding assimilation of Jews into non-Jewish national majorities as progressive, as Marxists traditionally have done.

The link is not entirely logical: if assimilation will not happen anyway, then why worry about it? But what is clear is that Cohen resists any notion of Jewish identity as being based on special material conditions and therefore likely to fade if those conditions disappear.

Now assimilation does not mean forcible imposition of the majority culture on Jews, as Cohen seems to assume.

Marxists

Nathan Weinstock puts it well:

"Marxists defend the right of the Jewish masses to freely develop their cultural life as long as they wish to assert their specificity. Not only is this the only humane and democratic policy; it is also the only approach which will enable this so frequently oppressed minority to give full expression to the internationaiist and socialist currents with which the best of its children are deeply imbued. . .

"(But) only a reactionary in the full sense of the word could want to preserve artificially the specific Jewish identity . . . To stand opposed to assimilation which occurs naturally and voluntarily through the destruction of national divisions and the disappearance of distinctions between peoples, even under capitalism, is to be, in Lenin s words, 'a supporter of all that is outmoded and connected with caste among the Jewish people'
('Zionism, false messiah')

Cohen, I think, tends to make his opposition to anti-semitism into a sort of Jewish equivalent of black cultural nationalism or of radical feminism. He himself draws out the political conclusions of his attitude in trying to justify the Jewish-separatist policy of the Bund as against the Russian Marxists in the early years of this century.

Martin Thomas, Islington