Anti-Semitism, Israel, and the Left

Palestine calling: Jews are not tolerated in Norway

Until the end of the Second World War, anti-Semitism was primarily a reactionary phenomenon, espoused by the political and religious Right. This has changed. Now anti-Semitic prejudices are just as common on the Left and are often excused by moderates as well as radicals.

Usually today’s anti-Semites point to Israeli policy as their main argument, but too often they vilify the Jewish state and Zionism far beyond legitimate criticism.

Obviously, to be anti-Israel means more than to criticize some or many actions of the Israeli army, the Mossad, and the Knesset. Too often people judge Jews, Israel, and Israeli citizens according to extremely different criteria than when they are judging any other “nation.” Frankly I find this double standard puzzling.

Inexplicably, for whatever the state of Israel chooses to do, whether in war or in peace, Jews are always held accountable. No other state or population faces the same charges of complicity and culpability. Absurdly, blame is placed not only on every Jewish citizen of Israel but on every single Jew on this planet! Unfortunately, this is not just a fringe phenomenon but is highly symptomatic of “radical” condemnations of Israel and justifications for anti-Zionism.

Poisoned by stereotypes of the “eternal Jew,” justifiable critiques of Israeli policy often spill over into outright condemnations of Israel as such. I have huge problems understanding how Zionism can be interpreted as a synonym for racism, imperialism, and fascism; and I strongly object to popular misconceptions that Israel is based on “apartheid” or even practices a “Holocaust.” Such malevolent accusations are alarmingly deceptive.

I am not saying that we must refrain from criticizing Israel or its leaders—indeed, criticism of Israeli policies and actions is often warranted. Nor should we presuppose that all criticism of Israel is anti-Zionist or based on anti-Semitic prejudice. As with any country, we should subject Israel’s politicians and officials to close scrutiny and critique. Often its political leadership makes mistakes that have terrible consequences. Does the Israeli Defense Force commit war crimes? Yes, sometimes, and the IDF should be held responsible for them. But to work from the premise that Israel itself is illegitimate, and that the very existence of its powerful army is a war crime, passes from normal criticism to the realm of prejudice.

Similarly, we may legitimately scrutinize and criticize Palestinian governance and oppositional movements—something the Left today too often fails to do. In my view, it is not the responsibility of leftists to support either Zionism or Palestinian nationalism; nationalism is, as Oscar Wilde put it, “the virtue of the vicious.” But what makes no sense is to seek to eradicate only one form of nationalism, namely the Israeli. Those who seek alternatives that are cosmopolitan and internationalist—indeed antinationalist—have no alternative but to expose and oppose both Zionism and anti-Zionism, as well as all oppression and discrimination along religious, cultural, and ethnic lines. But to presume that primarily Jewish nationalism and Israel must disappear to achieve a free society is dangerously wrong.

I deplore the historical conditions that have brought about today’s bloody deadlock in the Middle East. But the “anti-imperialist” Left is mistaken in its belief that the solution lies in a further polarization and escalation of the conflict: it is far too enmeshed in national and religious delusions.

In this context any step taken to advance democracy, civil liberties, social equality, and secularism is progressive, because it makes possible finding a necessary common ground. Left-libertarians should support political solutions and peace initiatives that seek to bring stability and security to the region—for all Israelis and Palestinians—which in turn can ultimately be transcended by more progressive forms of social organization. What counts is that Israelis, Palestinians, and their neighbors end up having the leeway to later reorganize society. Today they don’t.

How should left-libertarians relate to questions of Israel and anti-Semitism? As a point of departure, here are some basic principles.

First: Anti-Semitism is a despicable and sinister cultural prejudice, with a long and extraordinarily brutal pedigree. It has historically taken a variety of religious, racist, and political forms. It did not emerge with the establishment of Israel or the emergence of Zionism, and linking it to specific Israeli policies or even the existence of Israel helps us neither to understand nor to overcome it. Equally ancient, and equally wrong, is the tendency to put the blame for anti-Semitism on Jews themselves. Neither Israel, Zionism, Judaism, nor Jews are the causes of anti- Semitism or anti-Judaism.

Second: Regardless of the actions of one, some, many, or even all Jews, the Left, particularly libertarian socialists, must expose and counter anti-Semitism and Judeophobia. Our humanism and our opposition to hierarchy demand that we soberly reject all forms of racism, nationalism, and ethnic prejudice, as well as exploitation or oppression. No biological or cultural essentialism can account for the actions of a given social group or “people.” Anti-Semitism is not to be justified or rationalized: it is to be fought.

Third: Israel is not immune to criticism, and much legitimate criticism is in no sense anti-Semitic. Yet strong traditions of anti-Jewish hatred should make us cautious about falling into the more sinister patterns of “criticism.” We should demand that Israel be judged by to the same criteria as other nation-states. Whatever our standards are, we should apply them equally to all countries, in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.

Fourth: When a given nation-state commits reprehensible actions, that state’s particular citizens or subjects are not to be blamed. During the Second World War it was Nazism and fascism that we fought, not the Germans. Some Germans fought fascism too; and right-wing, nationalistic, and outright fascist movements emerged in many countries before, during, and even after the war. Anti-German attitudes were as despicable in 1945 as they are today. What must be criticized and fought is right-wing policies and ideologies, racism, fascism, and totalitarianism, not particular “nations” or “peoples.” Not only is this the correct humanist position; it is the only way to prevent fascism from re-emerging, in new forms and from new places. We must not jeopardize our very capacity to stay alert, to comprehend, and offer resistance.

Fifth: We must seek the fullest understanding of political concepts and use them appropriately. Fascism is not a word to be tossed around wantonly. Likewise, anti-Semitism must be understood and used carefully. Above all, we should be extremely careful today about making comparisons to the Third Reich, Nazism, and genocide, particularly to the Holocaust.

Sixth: Anyone can hold anti-Semitic views, including people on the Left and others seemingly “immune” to such prejudices. Even people who are ethnically or culturally Jewish can express anti-Semitic sentiments or viewpoints. Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” is but one striking example. It is actually not uncommon for Jews to express anti-Jewish sentiments. Our obligation is to look at the content of the ideas expressed, not at the skin color, the nationality, or even necessarily the political label of the messenger.

Seventh: The term anti-Semitism specifically refers to a fear and hatred of Jews. Arguments about the definition of “Semitic” peoples and languages are irresponsible and an intellectual cul-de-sac. However imprecise etymologically, the word anti-Semitism was coined by Wilhelm Marr in the 1870s precisely to present anti-Jewish sentiments in a modern, scientific disguise. At the time, traditional anti-Judaism had fallen into disrepute as a form religious intolerance, and a new word was needed to give it credibility. After the Second World War, the word anti-Semitism itself fell into disrepute, and new words again had to be coined to present old ideas to new audiences.

Eighth: Anti-Semitism is in no sense the cultural essence of any “nation” or a defining feature of Gentile culture. It is a set of fallacious and irrational delusions. As such, anti-Semitism can be understood, confronted, and hopefully uprooted.

Ninth: Every “nation” contains not only class and hierarchical social stratifications but also political differences. Like all other peoples, Israelis are split between a Left and a Right, and like all other governments and ministers, theirs can be judged for their political views. To blame Israelis as such for, say, the often extremely reactionary (and deeply religious) sections of the settlers’ movement is as dangerous as, say, blaming Lebanese as such for the religious reactionaries in Hezbollah. We must look at the political and cultural influence of the ultra- Orthodox as well as at the Islamists, the general level of secularization and of rights and liberties, when trying to understand political trends and developments in Israel, Palestine and other countries in the region, just as we would expect in “our own” countries.

Tenth: Support for national liberation can only be blind. No national liberation movement demands our unconditional support: the extent to which any such movement is also struggling for social liberation is what conditions our recognition and possible support. Our responsibility should be to support—practically, politically, and ideologically—social liberation movements. Most often, struggles for national liberation replace struggles for social liberation, and too often the so-called Left watches silently or even applauds. Movements for social liberation are sometimes framed in national terms, or given a national form, but the focus, content, and totality of their expressed program are what counts.

Eleventh: Political resistance to policies of the United States, the European Union, NATO, Germany, Israel, Norway – and even countries like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran—must not lead us to support appalling anti-social actions like suicide bombings or arbitrary terror against civilians (of a different “nation” as in Israel, or the same “nation” as in Iraq). Even when allegedly used for progressive ends, terrorism is always a substitute for more radical educational and mobilizing efforts. Much of today’s Left (apart from the sectors that are entirely liberal or pacifist) has no criteria whatsoever by which to evaluate struggles for social liberation and the means employed in fighting what has been (quite problematically) termed the “Empire,” the “New World Order,” or the “transnational elite,” or their various regional manifestations.

Finally: We must never abandon the prospects for a common human future. There is no “clash of civilizations”; dividing lines run through every culture, community, and nation. Despite tempting parochialisms, we must keep our eyes fixed on the potentiality for human recognition beyond all national boundaries, and on universal emancipation beyond all borders—in a libertarian socialist order based on secular standards and an expansive democracy.

A principled Left, rejuvenated by reaffirming Enlightenment universalism and democracy, holds the key to the future, both in the Middle East and elsewhere.


Editorial Comment

This article was originally published as an appendix to The Anti-Jewish Riots in Oslo (Communalism Press, pp. 91–98), published January 2010, available from New Compass Press.

Check out the book The Anti-Jewish Riots in Oslo.