Racism, anti-semitism and the left

Submitted by cathy n on 14 November, 2017 - 12:01 Author: Carmen Basant

Workers’ Liberty has been debating theories of racism and their relationship to left anti-semitism. This contribution is by Carmen Basant. An alternative view is published here

I. Racism
Much of the British Left comprehends antisemitism 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. The aim of this article is to demystify left-wing antisemitism and to explain how it is a form of anti-Jewish racism.

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: 20) explains the early origins of European racism:

“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 […]. Trade, travel, and exploration were interdependent elements in an attempt by the feudal ruling classes to resolve a major economic crisis […] 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 […], 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’.”

From the late eighteenth century, with the secularisation of culture and the rising hegemony of science, a change 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 […].” (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).
Vis-à-vis anti-Jewish racism, the historical shift from Christian antisemitism (which was religious-based) to racial antisemitism 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 […] and Jews (Mosse 1978). This was sustained partly by claiming a biological superiority for the Nordic ‘race’.” 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)

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 […]”, evolved into a state policy and practice of genocide (Miles 1989: 59).
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.
II. Antisemitic anti-Zionism
In the USSR the period between 1949 and 1953 was marked by an officially-endorsed anti-Zionism that was antisemitic. This period concluded in a series of show trials which demonised the alleged collaborators of Zionism as bourgeois, cosmopolitan, Trotskyist, and conspiratorial enemies of the state. 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. Oschlies (1979: 161) illustrates its antisemitism by referencing a letter published in June 1968 in the Prague evening newspaper Vecerni praha:

“During the last few years a tacit, but persistent, antisemitism 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 antisemitic anti-Zionism becoming common currency in Stalinist Communist Parties worldwide, 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. 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. 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). The turning point was the outcome of the 1967 war:

“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 […].” (Golan 2001: 129)

III. Colonial model of racism
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 antisemitism […]; 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 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)

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 […]).” (Miles 1993: 13-14)
In sum, 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.
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 concurrent development of racism and nationalism, and their potential overlap:

“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 […].”

IV. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism
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.
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). The difference that racism signifies is related to what we might understand as ethnicity: to common geography, familial heritage, and socio-cultural constitution, such as language, food, and clothing. 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.

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.

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.”

Golan, A (2001) “European Imperialism and the Development of Modern Palestine: Was Zionism a Form of Colonialism?” Space & Polity 5(2), 127-143
Miles, R (1993) Race after ‘race relations’. London: Routledge
Miles, R (1989) Racism. London: Routledge
Oschlies, W (1979) “Neo-Stalinist Antisemitism in Czechoslovakia” in R Wistrich (Ed) The Left Against Zion: Communism, Israel and the Middle East. London: Vallentine, Mitchell and Co., 153-165
Rodinson, M (1983) Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question. London: Al Saqi Books
Rodinson, M (1968) Israel and the Arabs. Middlesex: Penguin Books