“Left” anti-semitism is no myth

Submitted by Anon on 11 March, 2006 - 2:50 Author: Sean Matgamna

The charge of “anti-semitism” is thrown at critics of Israel by the crassest of the uncritical, and sometimes paranoid, apologists for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians?

This is true.

And therefore? Therefore, there is no anti-semitism; where just and valid criticisms are made of Israel, there can be no anti-semitism, even if the conclusion from the criticism is that the Israeli Jewish nation should be destroyed; and therefore, there is no anti-semitism in the stark root-and-branch antagonism to Israel which dominates the hard left, and is now spreading rapidly through the rest of the left.

That is what David Clark argued in the Guardian (6 March), under the headline: “Accusations of anti-semitic chic are poisonous intellectual thuggery”. He is a former Blair government adviser — and what did he do in that capacity to help the Palestinians? But he is hot and strong now against Israel.

His core argument is that what is denounced as left-wing anti-semitism is not anti-semitism, because it is thoroughly justified. It is not a self-betrayal by the left, but the result of a proper application of its good, basic, traditional instincts.

Hostility to Israel, Clark says, is the natural consequence of Israel, after 1967, becoming a “power determined to annex territory beyond its legally recognised borders”. Hostility to Israel is only the typical leftist’s “instinctive sympathy for the underdog” — the Palestinians.

And those – “the few”, he says – still calling for Israel to be dissolved into a “secular democratic state” covering all of pre-1948 Palestine? They are “idealistic” ... “universalists” “making a statement” against “defining statehood according to religious or ethnic criteria” who deny “Israel’s right to be a Jewish state”.

“Impractical” they are, but their view is “not anti-semitic”. It is, he says, “plainly dishonest to suggest it is”.

Israel “is singled out to an extent that reveals an underlying anti-Jewish prejudice”? It is indeed singled out, Clark admits, but to object to that is no more than a “cynical” way of saying: “Others get away with it, so why can’t Israel?”

Israel is a democracy, and should “uphold the democratic values we share in common... Far from being held to a higher standard... Israel seems to operate with a greater impunity” and “with Western acquiescence”. That, he thinks, is “the real reason” why the issue “is felt so deeply on the left”.

The left is anti-Israel for the same reason that it was once pro-Israel. Now as then, it is siding with the underdog.

Clark’s article is a soft-mannered, hard-faced, full-scale apologia for left-wing “absolute anti-Zionist” anti-semitism. Everything in that doctrine is, he thinks, either just, or a well-meaning, if mistaken, application of good principles (like universalism).

The article is itself a crass piece of “left-wing” anti-semitism.

It is true that Israel’s occupation, since 1967, of large Arab-majority areas, the West Bank and Gaza, and its behaviour there, has been central to the growth and spread of anti-semitism on the left. True also, that a just Israeli settlement with the Palestinians, recognising their right to an independent state of their own, alongside Israel, would cut the roots of much “left” anti-semitism.

But, in discussing left-wing anti-semitism, those facts are only part of the truth. Most of Clark’s case consists of part-truths, plain mis-statements of facts (for instance: who recognises Israel’s “legally recognised borders”? Most Arab countries do not) — and brass-faced explaining-away of things he implicitly admits would be intolerable if he did not explain them away — that is, justify them.

Essentially, he justifies “left” anti-semitism while denying that there is such a thing and while himself displaying it in all its dumb, albeit smart-ass, incomprehension. If there is “left” anti-semitism, he says, it is amply justified. It is rooted in the best values of the left, properly applied; and because it is justified, it is not anti-semitism.

The crux of the political argument is in what Clark “explains away” as “idealistic” though “impractical” “universalism” — the denial that Israel has a right to exist. That, for most of the would-be revolutionary left, translates into support for those actively trying to destroy Israel or just to kill Israeli Jews.

There is a great deal to criticise in Israeli government policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. For a socialist not to criticise, condemn and loathe certain Israeli policies is to have something missing. To adopt or adapt to Arab or Islamic chauvinism vis-a-vis Israel is also to have something - and something fundamental - missing.

Not to distinguish between Israeli government policies — to which a lot of Israeli Jews also object — and Israel, the Jewish nation, the right of Israel and of that nation to exist, is one of the basic defining characteristics of a left which has succumbed to Arab and Islamic chauvinism.

Are leftists who deny Israel’s right to exist, and those of them who support military action to put it out of existence (or just the killing of Israeli civilians at random) subjectively anti-semitic?

There is no precise way to measure that. Their impulses, feelings, the ratio of prejudice to necessary and valid criticism of Israel, can not be measured.

Though the anti-Jewish animus is often blatant, arguments about such things are necessarily inconclusive.

They are also used by the “absolute anti-Zionist” left to derail discussions about the left anti-semitism that can be “objectively” measured (“Who, me?”)

Let us grant that they do not want to be anti-semitic — that they loathe the Tsarist, Nazi, and Christian anti-semitisms of the past. Anti-semitism is nonetheless there in what they advocate — the destruction of Israel.

The benign, but stupid (and the more benignly intended, the more stupid), version of the “get rid of Israel” mindset says “oh, a single secular-democratic state would be much better”, or “a binational state would be better” — proposing things which are inconceivable, now, without the prior conquest and destruction of Israel, and which would be impossible, or a sham, after that destruction.

It is anti-semitism because it proposes to destroy the Israeli Jewish nation, and because it involves those who advocate it in a comprehensive “political” hostility to Jews everywhere, the big majority of whom — actively or vaguely, critically or uncritically, enthusiastically or reluctantly, but in any case instinctively and more or less inevitably — identify with Israel.

We repeat: this anti-semitism can be identified and measured objectively — in what they propose. It doesn’t matter whether or not someone supporting the destruction of Israel is subjectively hostile to Jews. The anti-semitism is in what they propose.

In fact, however, the feelings involved in support for the destruction of Israel are usually feelings of intense and unreasoning hostility. The idea that the “feelings” of the anti-Israel left are not intensely hostile to Israel is not only “plainly dishonest” but plainly silly.

But, Clark would insist, such feelings are justified. They are political. Their root is not anti-Jewish feeling but the impulse to side with the oppressed.

Here Clark mixes things together which, in the interests of making sense, should be separated. Yes, the impulse to side with the Palestinians, the demand for justice for them, the criticism and denunciation of Israel for its treatment of them in the Occupied Territories - all that is consonant with the basic stuff of the left. All that is not only “justified” but necessary for any decent socialist.

The conclusion from it? The only conclusion consonant with the authentic left is to seek justice for both sides, to promote mutual accommodation and the unity of the workers on both sides; to propose mutual recognition of both peoples’ rights. The only possible programme for doing that now is two states — an independent Palestinian state side-by side with Israel (which Clark supports).

The objective anti-semitism of the “absolute anti-Zionist” left is defined by its rejection of accommodation, its opposition to two states, and its self-identification with the chauvinist Arab or Islamic proposal to destroy Israel and, at the very least, deprive the Israeli Jewish nation of self-determination.

It is defined by its support for such “universalists” and “honorary leftists” as Hamas or Ahmedinejad or Saddam Hussein.

It is defined by gross hostility and unfairness in its treatment of the history of Israel, and the Jews in the 20th century.

According to that historiography, everything in the mid-20th century history of Zionism and Israel is damnable. The Jews of Palestine — not to speak of the Jewish refugees, fleeing for their lives, who massively augmented the old Jewish minority in Palestine — did not have the right to exist. Or, at any rate, the right to exist in Palestine. It would have been better if the Jewish refugees of the 30s and 40s had stayed in Europe, even if they would have died there.

The kitsch-left equation of “Zionism” and “Nazism” is not, as Clark says it is, only a matter of rhetorical shock-tactics. It is an important part of the demonising pseudo-history of the “anti-Zionists”, who assert that “the Zionists” collaborated with the Nazis, not at gunpoint here and there as some of them did, but as an expression of their “nationalist” and “racist” kinship with them. See for instance Jim Allen’s play Perdition or Lenni Brenner’s influential book Zionism in The Age of the Dictators.

Nor is it true that extreme hostility to Israel on the left emerged only after the 1967 war and what followed.

ALL the elements of the present day left-wing “absolute anti-Zionism” were disseminated by the Stalinist movement from the late 1940s. Trials were held in a number of East European countries in which the victims were denounced as “Zionists”, “Jewish nationalists”, “rootless cosmopolitans”, etc. There was a full-scale international Stalinist campaign against “Zionism” for five years; and afterwards the political terrain of much of the left was poisoned. It is still poisoned.

At the point of his death Stalin was preparing the trial of five Jewish doctors employed in the Kremlin, accused of plotting to poison Stalin and other leaders. The trial, abandoned by Stalin’s successors, would have been the signal for an onslaught on Russia’s Jews. It would probably have led to large numbers of them being rounded up and put in slave-labour camps, or worse.

The Stalinists’ “anti-Zionist” campaign of the 1950s laid out all the “arguments” and all the substance of today’s left anti-semitism — including the equation of Zionism and Nazism.

Is it true (if your definition of the left is broad enough to include Clark) that the “universalists” who deny Israel’s right to exist and — Clark doesn’t mention this part of it — support Arab governments and Islamist movements in their efforts to put it out of existence, are only a “few” on the left?

In the big anti-war demonstrations in London three years ago, large numbers of stickers were worn showing a Star of David being dropped in a bin (based on the “Keep Britain Tidy” graphic), apparently distributed by the Muslim Association of Britain, British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the end of one such demonstration, the people on an SWP stall advertised themselves to the crowd by yelling – repeatedly, over some time, as the march dispersed – “Read Socialist Worker, the only paper which supports the suicide-bombers in Palestine”.

If such people are a minority, they are not — and that is what Clark implies, with “few” — a negligible minority. To describe them as a “few”, Mr Clark, is either “plainly dishonest” (and plainly silly), or not to know what you are talking about.

Clark’s assertion that opposition to the existence of the Jewish state is only opposition to a state defined by “religious or ethnic criteria”, that it is only the application of “universalist” principle, is specious evasion. The Israeli Jews are a nation, of very diverse ethnic backgrounds, and many of them non-religious. To which other state, however self-defined, a big majority of whose citizens want it and will defend it, has the “absolute anti-Zionist” left the same attitude as to Israel — to want it wiped out, and those of its people who will survive the necessary conflict forcibly incorporated into an Arab-Islamic state where they will have lost all rights as a nation or as a national minority?

In sum, Clark’s case is that what others see as left-wing anti-semitism, or “absolute anti-Zionism”, is politically justified. The article is itself part of the foul thing it excuses and defends, when it asserts that a violent hostility to the existence of Israel, and to the generality of Jews who identify with Israel, cannot, when it includes just criticism of Israel, be anti-semitic.

Clark’s bare-faced justification of the growing anti-semitism in the broad left is too flaccid and too slippery to be called “intellectual thuggery”. It is, however, poisonous — insidiously poisonous.

Sean Matgamna

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