Dale Street reviews Contemporary Left Antisemitism by Dave Hirsh (Routledge).
This is the third book on the theme of left antisemitism to have been published in less than twelve months. It follows Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem – Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (published in September 2016) and Antisemitism and the Left – On the Return of the Jewish Question by Bob Fine and Phil Spencer (published in February 2017).
Different aspects of left antisemitism and how it manifests itself today are covered in different chapters of Hirsh’s book: The “Livingstone Formulation”; the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election as party leader; the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel; conflicts over definitions of antisemitism; the nature of contemporary antizionism; and antizionism within the Jewish community. (Hirsh’s orthography is deliberate. He uses the terms “antizionism”, not “anti-Zionism”, to make a political point. What passes itself off today as a critique of Zionism has got nothing to do with real-world Zionism. As such, it is not anti-Zionism, nor even a form of anti-Zionism.)
Although discreet aspects of contemporary left antisemitism are covered in the different chapters of the book, a number of common themes run through all of them. Hirsh locates today’s left antisemitism within the broader context of the political degeneration and ossification of (broad layers of) the left. That left exists in a binary political universe: good nations and bad nations; oppressor and oppressed nations; imperialism and “anti-imperialism”; white people and people of colour. The universality of class politics has been replaced by the politics of “campism”. Rational political argument has been replaced by a “politics of position”.
Anyone positioned in the wrong “camp” is to be denounced rather than reasoned with. This, argues Hirsh, represents a reversion to the political practices of early-twentieth-century totalitarian movements. Such a world view is conducive to a particular interpretation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which, in turn, is conducive to antisemitic ways of thinking and antisemitic consequences.
Israel is in the camp of bad, white, imperialist, oppressor nations. Palestinians constitute the antithesis of Israel. To be “of the left” is to be on the side of the Palestinians and against Israel — not just the policies pursued by its government but its very existence. This demonisation of Israel — which itself constitutes an expression of left antisemitism — opens the door to traditional antisemitic tropes. Jews are uniquely cruel — they murder children in particular and are committing genocide of the Palestinians. They are uniquely powerful — they control US foreign policy and the global media. And they are uniquely dishonest — they cry “antisemitism” to avoid being called to account for their crimes. Indeed, they are so uniquely evil that they alone of all the peoples of the world cannot be allowed to exercise national self-determination.
Of all the states in the world, the Jewish one alone is singled out for (the traditional antisemitic “strategy” of) boycott and ghettoisation. Similarly, of all of the nationalisms in the world, the Jewish one — Zionism — is uniquely evil. It is racist, genocidal and akin to Nazism. Hirsh uses the expression “flattening”: The different currents within Zionism, the historical context of the emergence and development of Zionism, and the distinction which socialists otherwise make between state and people are all “flattened” in order to create an essentialist interpretation of Zionism and “the Zionist state”.
But the result is not a critique of real-world Zionism. It is an ideology of antizionism which justifies its politics by reference to a “Zionism” of its creation. Hirsh also makes the point that there is a world of difference between opposition to Zionism before and after the creation of Israel. The former was opposition to a political idea. The latter entails opposition to the existence of the state in which the Zionist project has been realised.
Arguments that such an approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict are antisemitic in substance and in consequence are brushed aside by their opponents through invocation of the “Livingstone Formulation”, to which Hirsh devotes an entire chapter. (Named after Ken Livingstone. Not because he invented it — he did not — but because of the level of egregiousness and notoriety which his use of the Formulation has achieved.) The “Livingstone Formulation” can be summed up as “I am not antisemitic and have not done or said anything antisemitic. You are accusing me of such things only because of my entirely legitimate criticisms of Israel.”
This is not simply a modern manifestation of an antisemitic trope (that Jews raise accusations of antisemitism in bad faith). It also shuts down any space for rational argument — because it rules out a priori any need to assess the validity of this “bad-faith” claim of antisemitism.
Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader makes this left antizionist antisemitism a contemporary issue, not in some general sense but in a very immediate sense, for three particular reasons. Corbyn himself belongs, at least in part, to that tradition, as is evidenced by his support for the “anti-imperialist” Stop the War Coalition, his involvement in the “Deir Yassin Remembered” campaign, his defence of Raed Salah and Steven Sizer, and his attitude to Hamas and Hizbollah. A broad layer of Corbyn’s rank-and-file supporters share to some degree the left antizionist approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict and its antisemitic consequences. Some of them do more than just share that approach. They energetically promote it. And the Labour Party under Corbyn has to date failed to politically confront the issue, as is exemplified in particular by the Chakrabarti Inquiry of 2016.
Chakrabarti’s superficial conclusion was that manifestations of antisemitism in the Labour Party were just the classic case of a few bad apples, rather than something rooted in a widely shared set of political assumptions.
Hirsh describes his book as “among other things, a gathering together and a distillation of the work I have been doing over the last decade.” The fact that some readers will already be familiar with the book’s arguments from earlier articles by its author does not reduce its political value. In fact, some of the most damning material in the book is not Hirsh’s general political analysis of left antisemitism but the “micro-descriptions” of the abuse and harassment meted out to members of the UCU trade union who argued against an academic boycott of Israel. But there are some issues in the book which are either open to challenge or would have merited further exploration and explanation.
Hirsh rightly points to the prevalence of left antisemitism on the British left and in the broader labour movement. But he goes a lot further: “It is not accidental that the issue of antisemitism has become pivotal to this process of defining who is inside (‘the community of the good’, to use Hirsh’s expression) and who is not.” Hirsh seems to be saying that an acceptance of antizionism has become the decisive test for membership of the left. But this claim does not stand up to scrutiny.
Just as antizionism essentialises Zionism, so too Hirsh seems to be essentialising the contemporary left. Hirsh hints at a dystopic future for the Labour left and the Labour Party. The Corbyn phenomenon is “not currently a physically violent movement.” Opponents of antizionism are “not yet, in the Corbyn Labour Party, (dealt with) by physical violence.” Corbyn’s election as Prime Minister “might” see an increase in “the denouncing of most Jews as pro-apartheid or as defenders of racism and neoliberalism.” If these sibylline musings are meant seriously, they should surely have been substantially expanded upon. As they stand, they merely provide an easy target for those who want to condemn the book without engaging with its core arguments.
These momentary visions of the use of totalitarian physical violence to crush political dissent and the unleashing of government-sanctioned antisemitic campaigns also sit uneasily with Hirsh’s lesser-evilist approach to the election of a Labour or a Tory government: “In this context (of a choice between two variants of populism), of course, it is quite legitimate to prefer Labour populism to Tory populism.”
In dealing with antizionism within the Jewish community Hirsh tends to focus on individuals who have been prominent in debates in academia. Antizionist Jews with a high profile in promoting left antisemitism in the labour movement are hardly mentioned (save in relation to the UCU). Tony Greenstein, for example, escapes scrutiny entirely, even if he makes an anonymous appearance at page 113 of the book: “Some of those activists who had already been making the same speeches about Israel for thirty years suddenly found themselves being given huge standing ovations at union conferences for speeches in favour of boycotting Israel.” And while it is understandable that a senior lecturer in sociology might want to sing the praises of sociology, the chapter which portrays sociology as a key to understanding antisemitism (“Sociological Method and Antisemitism”) really makes little contribution to an understanding. (In any case, it would have been more appropriately entitled: “I Used To Be a Trotskyist. But Then I Discovered Sociology.”)
Like any other writer, Hirsh could use only the material available to him at the time of writing his book. Thus, the Ken Livingstone of his book is simply someone who thinks that Hitler supported Zionism (until he went mad). Jackie Walker did no more than use some unfortunate turns of phrase in a Facebook post and in an intervention at a Labour Party fringe meeting. And Bongani Masuku is a heroic South African trade unionist unjustly accused of antisemitism. But by the time of the book’s publication earlier this month, things had moved on.
Livingstone was alleging “real collaboration” between Nazis and Zionists, with the big-hearted Nazis supposedly acceding to Zionist requests for help with training camps, weapons and banning sermons in Yiddish. Walker was likening her treatment to that of a black lynching in the Jim Crow states, claiming that she had been targeted (by Zionists, of course) in “an attempt to destroy Jeremy Corbyn and an entire political movement.” And Bongani Masuku had been found guilty of antisemitic hate speech by the South African Equality Court, while the trade union federation of which he was an employee surreally denounced the verdict as an attack on “workers’ rights to offer solidarity.”
That’s sums up the problem with writing a book about contemporary left antisemitism: By the time of its publication, the examples which it cites have become examples of yesterday’s left antisemitism. Hirsh’s book is a valuable contribution to understanding the forms and nature of left antisemitism. It provides not just a better understanding of the phenomenon but also a political challenge to its influence. His book is the third book on the same theme in less than a year. It would be surprising if it was not followed by at least another three over the next twelve months.