The European Left is struggling to combat anti-Semitism in its midst. If history is any guide, it may be a long time before their solidarity extends to Jews and Israelis.
Alex Chalmers, the co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, resigned on February 17, citing widespread anti-Semitism and hostility to Jews among its members. His statement and a subsequent press release by the Oxford University Jewish Society make for sobering reading, not least because this is not an isolated case.
In early March, the British Labour Party was forced to explain why it allowed Gerry Downing, who had written about the need to “address the Jewish Question,” and Vicki Kirby, who once tweeted that Adolf Hitler might be the “Zionist God,” to be readmitted to the party following their suspension for anti-Semitism. Kirby had been nothing less than a parliamentary candidate, and upon her return was appointed vice-chair of her local party executive committee.
Over the past few years, a palpable sense of alarm has been quietly growing amongst Jews on the European Left. At the heart of an often-fraught relationship lies the following dilemma: The vast majority of Jews are Zionist, and the vast majority of Left-wing opinion is not.
But the problem goes beyond the question of Israel itself. It also involves a general sense that the Left is unconcerned with Jewish interests and unwilling to take the matter of rising anti-Semitism seriously, preferring instead to dismiss it as a consequence of Israeli policies or a censorious attempt to close down discussion of the same. The horror with which many Jews greeted the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party was outstripped only by the realization that his supporters felt that his fondness for the company of anti-Semites was unworthy of their concern.
This is a complex subject, with roots that stretch back to the beginning of the last century. I have attempted to outline in necessarily broad fashion some of the trends of thought that have informed the relationship between Jews and the Left, as well as the shifting attitudes towards Israel in particular. In doing so, I hope to shed some light on their implications.
The key question facing the European Left is whether or not it can change in such a way that Jews can once again feel part of the Left’s political family. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future the answer to that question appears to be no.
Jews and Europeans drew different lessons about nationalism from the experience of World War II. On a continent disfigured by the mayhem of conquest, occupation, collaboration, and genocide, Nazism and fascism were perceived to have been nationalism’s logical endgame. As chauvinism and self-glorification gave way to introspection and self-doubt, a new universalism and internationalism emerged from the rubble—the establishment of the United Nations, the adoption by its General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a rise in anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist feeling that eventually led Western democracies to dismantle their empires.
But for European Jews, nationalism, in this case Zionism, was now a matter of liberation and a guarantor of survival. So they moved in the opposite direction. Before the war, the Zionist question had been controversial. Disproportionately radical, many Jews preferred to commit themselves to the international struggle for world socialism. Many more preferred to assimilate as loyal members of their societies. The war changed all that. Jewish communists had already been betrayed by the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which created the temporary alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The pact required bewildered communists to defend an agreement with genocidal anti-Semites. Neutral countries blocked Jewish immigration and turned away refugees. Neither the capitalist West nor the Soviet Union took steps to target the infrastructure of the Final Solution once word of it reached them. And when the war ended, the proletariat failed to rise up and Sovietize Western Europe as Stalin had foretold. Instead, a wave of pogroms swept the occupied East. Concluding that neither Western assimilation nor Soviet utopianism offered much in the way of security or salvation, Europe’s forsaken threw in their lot with Zionism.
The key question facing the European Left is whether or not it can change in such a way that Jews can once again feel part of the Left’s political family. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future the answer to that question appears to be no.
In spite of the horrors of the Shoah, the Zionist question divided the post-war British Left. Unlike the Nazi-occupied countries on the European continent, Britain did not have a legacy of collaboration to contend with. As the ruler of Mandatory Palestine, however, Britain was responsible for the 1939 White Paper that restricted Jewish immigration at the behest of the Arab nationalist leadership, thus consigning countless Jews to deaths they might otherwise have escaped. The leadership of the post-war Labour government—prime minister Clement Attlee and foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, in particular—were unenthused by the prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine. Bevin went so far as to deport Jewish immigrants from Palestine, many of them survivors of the Holocaust, and sought to sabotage the creation of a Jewish state at the UN. But in response to public and party pressure and the escalating violence in Palestine, the government finally opted to turn the mess over to the UN.
While the Labour Party sought to separate anti-Semitism from the question of Palestine for reasons of politics, European communist parties did the same for reasons of ideology, despite anguished protests from their Jewish members. In April 1947, the Communist Party of Great Britain’s theorist Rajani Palme Dutt published a statement entitled Declaration on Palestine in which he wrote,
We warn all Jewish people that Zionism, which seeks to make Palestine or part of Palestine a Jewish state as an ally of the imperialist powers and their base in the Middle East, diverts Jewish people from the real solution of the problem of anti-Semitism, which is along the lines of democratic development and full equality of rights within the countries where they live.
In response to sentiments such as these, Moshe Sneh, a member of the Knesset from the Israeli Communist Party, later reflected,
Every Jew who remained alive knows and feels that he is alive only by chance – either because he was outside the Third Reich or because there wasn’t enough time to put him into a gas chamber and furnace.…To come to this people now and advise them: “Assimilate please, forget that you are Jews, free yourself from your Jewishness so that you will be free”—can anything more cynical and cruel be imagined?
For many on the Left today, the Holocaust is a curiously uncomfortable topic. At the far-Left fringes, one can find serious attempts at Holocaust denial. But in polite and acceptable Left-wing opinion, it is not uncommon to hear well-meaning people demand to know why Israelis insist on persecuting others just as they were once persecuted.
The analogizing of Israel to Nazi Germany is sometimes referred to as either a form of Holocaust denial (the claim that the Nazis were no worse than the Israelis) or a blood libel (the claim that the Israelis are no better than the Nazis), but it is rarely intended as either. The intention is to refashion the Jews’ own history of persecution into an instrument of shame. Every Holocaust Memorial Day, indignant voices are raised on the Left out of ostensible concern for the plight of the Palestinians, but which pointedly refuse to acknowledge anti-Semitism or the extermination of European Jewry at all. The late political theorist Norman Geras argued that this was like telling a woman who has just smacked her child on the legs that she is no better than the father who repeatedly beat and raped her.
In a recent interview with Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute, the Israeli-Arab diplomat George Deek posited an explanation for the peculiar cruelty and vindictiveness with which the Holocaust is used to attack Israel. The problem, he argued, is that Israel’s existence is widely misunderstood. It is seen not as the realization of a stateless people’s national rights, but as a project of European atonement, magnanimity, and compassion. And because the creation of Israel is perceived as a consequence of European generosity, Israel’s legitimacy will always be conditional on European approval. He summarized the prevailing attitude:
Just like I showed compassion to you, you have to show compassion towards others. And if you fail to show compassion—or what I perceive to be compassion—towards others, then I will not be obliged to show any more compassion towards you and then your right to be there or to behave in a certain way is taken away from you.
There was one major exception to the far-Left’s historical opposition to Zionism: The Soviet vote in favor of partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. On November 26, 1947, Andrei Gromyko, Stalin’s representative on the UN Security Council, explained this by noting the deteriorating situation in Palestine and the absence of a practical alternative before adding,
[This decision] is in keeping with the principle of the national self-determination of people…[and] will meet the legitimate demands of the Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of whom, as you know, are still without a country, without homes, having found temporary shelter only in special camps in some Western European countries.
This was all news to European communists like Dutt, who had spent the post-war years obediently attacking such claims. But Stalin’s capricious reversal of Soviet policy had nothing whatever to do with communist ideology or concern for Jewish welfare. It was pure realpolitik, expressing Stalin’s desire to eject the British from the Middle East and, if possible, keep the Americans out as well, thus enhancing Soviet power and influence. To this end, he supplied Israel with Messerschmitt planes and other materiel, in defiance of a British-American embargo, as the newborn Jewish state fought for its life against invading Arab armies.
This experiment in philo-Semitism did not last. Instead of gratefully surrendering itself to Soviet control, Israel opted for a cautious policy of non-alignment. More importantly, Stalin failed to anticipate the electrifying effect that Israel’s victory in its War of Independence would have on Soviet Jewry. When Israel’s ambassador Golda Meir visited the USSR in late 1948, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews thronged the streets of Moscow. “They had come,” Meir later wrote, “those good, brave Jews—in order to demonstrate their sense of kinship and to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel.”
That was Stalin’s impression as well, only he was altogether less thrilled. He saw this spontaneous expression of joy and pride as the disloyalty of “bourgeois nationalists” whom he believed to be agents of an imperialist fifth column.
In fact, Stalin’s turn against the Jews had already begun. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, had been murdered by the Soviet secret police in Minsk. Following Meir’s Moscow trip, a paranoid anti-Semitic state terror began in earnest.
Thousands of Jews had fought for the Russian motherland and the Soviet government in World War II. But now, the regime under which they lived turned against them. In November 1948, the surviving members of the JAFC were arrested for supposedly conspiring with American intelligence to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea. In January of the following year, the Soviet state media began a major campaign against the supposed threat of Jewish “rootless cosmopolitanism.” Yiddish theaters, schools, libraries, and printing presses were shut down, and large numbers of Jews were arrested and tortured before being shot or carted off to the gulags. Viktor Komarov, described by Simon Sebag Montefiore as “a diabolical sadist” and “a vicious anti-Semitic psychopath,” supervised the brutal interrogations. “Defendants trembled before me,” he was pleased to report in a letter to Stalin. “I especially hated and was pitiless towards Jewish nationalists whom I saw as the most dangerous and evil enemies.” State-controlled media in Eastern European countries, which during the war had been swamped by Nazi anti-Semitism, was now swamped by its Soviet equivalent.
This was the case even though anti-Semitism was, theoretically, contrary to Soviet internationalist doctrine. In 1931, Stalin himself had referred to it as “the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism” and “Under USSR law active antisemites are liable to the death penalty.” This contradiction was addressed by simply conflating Jews and Zionists. In 1952, Stalin declared, “Every Jewish nationalist is the agent of the American intelligence service.”
That same year saw further persecutions, such as the Night of the Murdered Poets, the Slansky Trial in Czechoslovakia, and the Doctors Plot—show trials in which the vast majority of defendants were allegedly treasonous Jews. The historian Colin Shindler has written that, “In terms of overt anti-Semitism, the Slansky Trial far exceeded the show trials of the 1930s. Even non-Jews were being accused of ‘Jewishness,’ since they were entrapped, according to investigators, through their Jewish wives.…They were accused of ‘Zionism,’ of being in contact with the Israeli embassy, causing harm to the state, and being part of a worldwide conspiratorial network.”
Anti-Semitism was, theoretically, contrary to Soviet doctrine, but state-controlled media in Eastern Europe—and sympathetic media in the West—began turning against Jews and Zionists.
Stalin’s death in 1953 led to a brief respite, but his successors were scarcely better. A major Soviet campaign from 1961-64 dedicated to rooting out “economic crimes” saw a disproportionate number of Jews executed, with all the usual anti-Semitic tropes present and correct in the press and accompanying cartoons. And in 1975, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 3379 declaring Zionism to be “a form of racism.” Whether or not this resolution was tabled at the behest of the Soviet Union, as some historians have alleged, the Soviets voted for it.
All of which would have been bad enough had it been confined to the Soviet sphere. But in the democratic West, Soviet anti-Semitism was diligently and uncritically reproduced in the communist press and thus made its way into the ideological bloodstream of the Left. Writers for L’Humanité in France, Öesterreichische Volkstimme in Austria, Drapeau Rouge in Belgium, Vorwärts in Switzerland, L’Unità in Italy, and the Daily Worker in Britain repeated sedition charges against Soviet Jews. Anyone on the Left who objected was attacked and defamed as a Zionist shill. And a series of claims about Zionism and the true nature of the State of Israel began their slow, patient journey from the radical fringe to the mainstream.
The claims that Zionism is racism, the instrument or puppeteer of Jewish and American imperialists, a project of Western colonialism, or a template for Jewish world domination; that Zionists were co-conspirators and ideological ancestors of Nazi Germany who control markets, industry, and media; and that Israel is a “terrorist regime”—all such claims originated in Soviet propaganda and are widespread on today’s activist Left. And just as Jewish communists were mobilized by their local parties to circulate anti-Semitic propaganda in the West, so today Jewish activists are at the forefront of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Today’s anti-Zionists invariably remind their critics that anti-Zionism was once a widely held position among Jews. But the calumnies they thoughtlessly circulate have no connection to the theoretical debates of the pre-war years. They are the poisonous legacy of Soviet anti-Semitism, appropriated wholesale by those who seek to destroy a flourishing UN member state. Perhaps most telling of all is the survival of a rhetorical move that the academic David Hirsh has termed the Livingstone Formulation, named for the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who claimed that accusations of anti-Semitism are used to silence criticism of Israel and Zionism. This claim is deeply rooted in Soviet anti-Semitism. During his show trial for treason, for example, Rudolf Slansky “confessed” to enforcing a conspiracy of silence:
I deliberately shielded Zionism by publicly speaking out against the people who pointed to the hostile activities of Zionists and by describing these people as antisemites so that these people were in the end prosecuted and persecuted. I thus created an atmosphere in which people were afraid to oppose Zionism.
The new regional realities created by Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War had two important effects on the European Left’s understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The first was that Israel’s swift humiliation of its enemies convinced many people that Israel—and, by extension, Jews—no longer required the special protections afforded to victims of racism. Jews had demonstrated that they could now take care of themselves. The second effect was to capsize the perception of who was threatening and oppressing whom. When the conflict began, Israel was mostly perceived as a vulnerable and threatened nation. Six days later, it was an occupying power.
This development coincided with the growing popularity of Third Worldism on the European Left. Third Worldism was a loosely conceived ideology based on a combination of Marxist anti-imperialism and a paternalistic romantic primitivism—the tendency to sentimentalize man’s natural state and denigrate modernity, industrialization, and progress as responsible for the corruption of man’s Edenic innocence and the vandalism of the planet.
The convergence of these ideas exerted a huge influence on radical thought during the post-war era of anti-colonial agitation and protest. Frantz Fanon’s 1961 polemic The Wretched of the Earth was seized upon by the European New Left’s middle-class revolutionaries for its strident justification of violent resistance to colonial oppression. Later, Edward W. Said’s postcolonial writing, in particular his turgid 1978 monograph Orientalism, sought to ascribe a necessarily racist, cynical, and duplicitous character to whatever the West did with respect to the East. But the book’s thesis, Said later revealed, was really about Palestine.
Against the backdrop of the Algerian war for independence, the escalation of American involvement in Southeast Asia, and the proliferation of revolutionary Marxist insurgencies across Latin America, Third Worldism helped to embed a number of ideas in the thinking and discourse of the European Left, of which Palestinians would later be the most significant beneficiaries:
• The uncritical valorization of any indigenous movement that positioned itself as hostile to Western aims and interests;
• A corresponding determination to impute the most reprehensible motives to whatever the West did (or did not do);
• Indulgence in the vicarious pleasures afforded by the glorification of transgressive revolutionary violence, even—or, perversely, especially—when it was used to target civilians. In other words, support for terrorism.
Having seen the French successfully ejected from Algeria and the Americans humiliated in Vietnam, the New Left turned its attention to Palestine and the PLO. Yasser Arafat became Che Guevara in a keffiyeh. Throughout the 1970s, the PLO galvanized radical European supporters and terrified their governments with a campaign of assassination, terrorism, and air piracy, mostly targeting Jews and Israeli citizens and interests. Meanwhile, Radical New Left groups like Germany’s Red Army Faction not only applauded such acts of terror, they received training with Palestinian militants in the Middle East and actively participated in terrorism.
But the operating assumption that the West bore responsibility not just for the problems in its own societies, but the problems of everyone else’s as well, discouraged any meaningful scrutiny of the guerilla movements to which radicals lent such uncritical support. What were the motivating beliefs of Algeria’s FLN? What was the attitude of the Sandinistas to democracy? What did the PLO actually have to say about Jews? Such questions were a matter of studied indifference.
Third Worldist and postcolonial theorists helped solidify the Soviet claim that Israel is a Western neocolonial project of which the Palestinians are the victims. Europeans are held morally responsible for Israel’s existence. Americans are held morally responsible for their country’s ongoing support of Israel. Israelis are held morally responsible for being instruments and agents of oppression. But as the oppressed party, Palestinians are believed to be incapable of moral responsibility.
Writers on the Left have spilled an ocean of ink in support of the Palestinian cause, but it is striking just how little of it bothers to concern itself with Palestinian ideology and politics. Israeli crimes are picked over obsessively (not least in Israel’s own press), but Palestinian corruption, oppression, and rejectionism are either blamed on the Israelis or—more frequently—simply ignored.
The degree to which this myopic perspective on the conflict has become received wisdom on the Left was demonstrated by the European reaction to and media coverage of the 2014 Gaza war. Accusations of Israeli war crimes and the deliberate targeting of children were made by normally-respected news outlets and NGOs; celebrities advertised their virtue by tweeting in support of Gaza; grotesque cartoons depicting the supposed bloodlust of Israeli soldiers and politicians circulated on social media; reports of anti-Semitism spiked; protestors on European streets filled the air with eliminationist slogans and calls for the gassing of Jews; a French demonstration turned into an impromptu pogrom.
And who on the Left spoke up for the right of a democracy to defend its citizens from terrorism and rockets fired by genocidal anti-Semites? Not many. For example, Israeli attempts to draw attention to the Palestinians’ use of human shields, designed to maximize their own civilian casualties, were met with a bored shrug. For European Jews, many of whom have relatives living in Israel, it was a reminder that only one party to the conflict is considered a moral actor.
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks showed that large sections of the Western Left have difficulty comprehending the sincerity of irrational doctrines. If the attacks could not be explained as a rational and desperate response to some kind of monstrous injustice, then they were just acts of mindless slaughter. As a result, various explanations were offered for why terrorists might kill themselves and murder nearly 3,000 American civilians in a single morning, most of which concluded that America must have somehow brought this disaster on itself. For many, this was the only intelligible explanation for the atrocity.
This was a profound failure of imagination on the part of people clinging to a belief that, deep down, everybody wants basically the same thing that broadminded Western liberals do. In the intervening years, observable reality has called this belief into serious question. The savageries released by the Arab Spring and the Islamist surge across the Middle East and Africa will no longer submit to the liberal demand for rationality.
One might have expected that the escalation of regional barbarism would directly correlate with an increase in sympathy for Israel’s predicament. But curiously, antipathy toward Israel has only intensified. Boycotts are demanded and lurid condemnations continue to mount. The assumption seems to be that, as an open society, Israel must be judged like other open societies, such as those in Scandinavia, that do not find it necessary to occupy land or go to war every two or three years. But Israelis live in the Middle East, and the politicians they elect to protect them calibrate their threat assessments and behavior accordingly. This distinction manages to pass by some otherwise highly intelligent people.
The Left’s operating assumption that the West bore responsibility not just for the problems in its own societies, but the problems of everyone else’s as well, has discouraged any meaningful scrutiny of the guerillas and terrorists to which radicals lend uncritical support.
A prominent example of this tendency appeared in 2003, when the late British historian Tony Judt took to the New York Review of Books to recommend a one-state outcome to the conflict. His essay, which was not terribly well-received at the time, has not dated well. The whole idea of a Jewish state, he sighed, is “an anachronism.” Judt would likely be untroubled by today’s alarming uptick in anti-Semitic violence that is causing European Jews to seek sanctuary in Israel in unprecedented numbers, since he claimed it was the hateful behavior of Israel, not Arab and Muslim pogromists, that was responsible for endangering the lives of Europe’s Jews.
But it was Judt’s apparent inability to imagine a reality different to the one he enjoyed in the West that was most astonishing. “What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome?” he mused. “Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural. [Israel] has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.”
Recent events in Brussels and Paris have provided a bloody reminder that European democracies are not the picture of happy multicultural harmony that Judt may have had in mind as an instructive template. And open frontiers in the Middle East? Individual rights? International law? Were Judt alive today, would he be delivering this solemn lecture on the anachronism of nationalist aspirations to the Kurds of northern Iraq? Or might he wonder if he had not confused “the world” with the NYU campus outside his office window?
Nonetheless, since 2001 a substantial body of literature has accumulated demanding the replacement of Israel with another Arab-majority state that reunites the territory of British Mandatory Palestine. The most recent example of this dismal trend was Perry Anderson’s lengthy editorial in the November-December 2015 issue of the New Left Review. The idea that the Jews, uniquely among peoples, should be stripped of their national home and made to live at the sufferance of others in the most dangerous and anti-Semitic part of the world is intellectually unserious, unworkable, and morally reprehensible. That this has done little to diminish its popularity among academics and activists in the West, many of whom elevate such a plan to the status of a categorical imperative, is a telling indication of the Left’s attitude toward Jewish rights, interests, and security.
A lot has been written in recent months about the unwelcome resurgence of political correctness and identity politics and the exasperating doctrines of the social justice Left. I will simply make the curt observation that the progressive stack—an organizing principle designed to foreground the voices of those deemed to be “marginalized”—has not been kind to Jews.
This is partly because those in charge of arranging ethnicities into a hierarchy of oppression are still trying to decide whether or not Jews should to be considered “white” and therefore “privileged,” and, as such, undeserving of the social protections from racism afforded to other minority groups (as though it were within their rights to define the Jews in the first place). This problem is, of course, exacerbated by the Livingstone Formulation.
But there is a further problem with the way racism is conceived and understood as a structural problem by social justice activists. According to the precepts of critical race theory, racism only results from a combination of prejudice and power. Since anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory about the malign influence of a powerful and mendacious world Jewry, it essentially holds that the Jews are experiencing hatred on account of the power they hold. Anti-Semitism, therefore, is not racism at all, but something more akin to resistance.
For most of this essay I have concentrated on the situation Jews face in Europe. But consider a recent Facebook status posted by a young Jewish alumna of Oberlin College—reproduced by David Bernstein for The Washington Post’s website—in which she details the attitudes toward Jews she routinely encountered amongst liberal people ostensibly committed to anti-racism. Or take a look at the recent series of essays in Mosaic about the alarming rise of anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses.
Support for Israel among the American public remains stable at around 70 percent—higher than anywhere else on Earth. But the striking similarities between the Oberlin post and the Oxford University statement with which I opened this essay are a worrying harbinger of things to come. Unless the American Left addresses the low-intensity spread of anti-Semitism as a matter of urgency, then the Oberlin post and the Mosaic debate will start to resemble very dead canaries in an increasingly toxic coalmine.
The Left’s willingness to critique the assumed nobility of Western motives and actions, and point out the imperfections of its own societies, has been a valuable check on chauvinism and an engine of progressive domestic reform. But this impulse exists alongside an insufferable belief in the Left’s own moral superiority, an article of faith the Left is extremely reluctant to question. To be on the Left, it is held, is to care about others; to be on the Right is to care about nobody but oneself. This assumed monopoly of truth and virtue carries the assumption that those who contest Left-wing axioms harbor debased motives. Meanwhile, organizations on the Left—particularly those in the NGO sector—are held to be above reproach and are consequently excused from any meaningful scrutiny.
This tribal reflex has sometimes prevented the Left from making the most important and elementary moral distinction of all, which is not between the political Right and Left, but between democrats and authoritarians. It has often given Left-wing dictators the benefit of the doubt while expressing furious indignation against those on the democratic Right who point out those dictators’ shortcomings. If the Right turns out to have been correct about something, then one frequently hears the objection that this is “for the wrong reasons.”
This tendency has placed Israel at an additional disadvantage in its relations with the European Left and, increasingly, the American Left. Israel has long ceased to be the Labor Zionist experiment of its formative years, which attracted the sympathy and support of many European social democrats. Since 1977, Israeli democracy has been dominated by Right-wing parties, and since 2009, Israel has been led by Benjamin Netanyahu—a figure whose every statement, no matter how reasonable, throws the Left into a frenzy of disgust and loathing.
During the last Israeli election, Netanyahu stated that there was no possibility of a Palestinian state being established “today,” and the Western Left, up to and including the president of the United States, rose as one to denounce him. In early February of this year, however, Isaac Herzog, leader of the Left-wing Zionist Union party, sheepishly agreed and, a few grumbles notwithstanding, the reaction was one of widespread indifference.
The result is that even the Zionist Left has often been content to stand by and allow Netanyahu’s government to be vilified and defamed by Israel’s enemies. Perhaps they hope that a critical mass of anti-Israeli hostility will persuade Israeli voters to return a government more to their liking, or will pressure Netanyahu into making the concessions they desire. But if they think they can save themselves or win acceptance by feeding Likudniks and West Bank settlers to the anti-Zionist crocodile, then they have misunderstood the insatiable nature of its appetite. This is a self-defeating strategy, and only makes it more difficult to distinguish legitimate opposition to Israeli policy from the anti-Zionism of the wider Left.
In the immediate aftermath of the Oxford Labour Club row, the former president of the university’s Jewish society wrote an op-ed for The Guardian in which he stated, “I hate that my Jewishness and my progressive politics are currently incompatible.” So why can’t the European Left change in such a way that European Jewish socialists and social democratic Zionists are made to feel welcome again? A number of recommendations suggest themselves:
1. Stop seeing the partition of Mandatory Palestine as some kind of act of paternalistic expiation for European sins rather than the realization of a persecuted people’s legitimate quest for self-determination.
2. Banish the term “anti-Zionism” from the realm of permissible discourse and reframe criticism of Israel—no matter how vehement—in political and not existential terms.
3. Respect the fact that for the vast majority of Jews, Israel represents an expression and final guarantor of Jewish security and identity.
4. Stigmatize anti-Semitism in the same way as any other kind of racism, including when it issues from the mouths and pens of other minority groups.
5. Stop treating Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular like children whose pathologies are to be patiently indulged.
6. Reject moral and cultural relativism, and hold all people to the same moral standards you would expect of yourself in the same circumstances.
7. Understand that differences of opinion with most democrats, of whatever political persuasion, ought to fall within the boundaries of respectable disagreement.
8. Appreciate the value of liberal democracy and learn to take seriously the threats of those who declare their intention to destroy it.
But the reality is that the Left is in no mood to do much, if any, of the above. On the contrary, it is moving in exactly the opposite direction. In Britain, the Labour Party has elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader—an unrepentant hard-Left anti-Zionist who has shared platforms with genocidal terrorists, blood libelers, and Holocaust deniers in order to supposedly demonstrate his solidarity with the oppressed denizens of Palestine, even as he signed petitions calling upon a centrist Israeli MK to be arrested on arrival in the UK.
Supporters of the policies of pro-Israel former British prime minister Tony Blair and the European Zionist Left are embattled, diminished, and in disarray. The signs are that things are going to get worse. Blairism has not survived because its centrist values were never accepted by the Labour rank-and-file, who preferred to gripe and pine for the day that they would get “a real Labour government.” The Iraq catastrophe was used to discredit and denigrate wholesale a political project they never particularly liked in the first place. But by Blair’s own assessment, it was his firm support for Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War that finished him off. “[That] probably did me more damage than anything since Iraq,” he wrote. “It showed how far I had swung from the mainstream of conventional Western media wisdom and from my own people.”
At times, however, the Left has proven capable of self-criticism with respect to Israel, the Jews, and the question of Palestine. For some, this occurred during the ferocious onslaught of the second intifada, a campaign of self-lacerating violence that not only destroyed Palestinian civil society, but also smashed the Israeli peace movement. In 2002, the hitherto dovish Israeli historian Benny Morris said that he felt like he was watching the Russian tanks roll into Budapest in 1956.
The American critic Paul Berman identified the 1976 Entebbe hijacking, along with the earlier Munich massacre, as the moment at which a section of the New Left awoke to “a suspicion that, out of some horrible dialectic of history, [they] had ended up imitating instead of opposing the Nazis—had ended up intoxicating themselves with dreams of a better world to come, while doing nothing more than setting out to murder Jews on a random basis.”
And before that, Stalin’s 1952 Doctors Plot, in which hundreds of Jewish doctors were accused of planning to murder top Soviet officials, forced previously ardent Stalinists to confront the painful fact that they had allowed themselves to be deceived into defending a murderous political pogrom.
But such moments are hard to come by these days. As the recent wave of stabbings and car-rammings have demonstrated, the Left is simply unmoved by Palestinian terror. Anti-Zionist Jews or (better still) those prepared to renounce every last vestige of their Jewish identity will of course continue to be warmly welcomed and invited to join the Left’s tireless struggle against the baleful power of the Zionist entity and Jewish capital. For anyone and everyone else, unconditional support for the Palestinians and hostility to the State of Israel—not just for what it does, but for what it is—are now the sine qua non of authentic European Leftism. These are positions informed by convictions so fundamental to the idea of what it means to be Left-wing that they are adopted with hardly a second thought. For this to change will require a stark reappraisal of what the Left values as well as what it despises, and the courage to interrogate some of its most sacred articles of faith. Regrettably, at present the appetite for this kind of painful self-criticism remains negligible.
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