This is one of four pieces about Anti-Semitism and the Left. The remaining parts will be posted over the next few weeks, starting with the second here: 2.
In any debate it is not just what is said that deserves attention – though this should certainly be the main point of focus – but what is left unsaid, what the speaker’s motives may be, or, to put it another way, what the subtext of the argument is. This is, of course, by definition a very difficult area, one fraught with bad faith and false accusations. But it is still one that requires attention. This is certainly the case where left-wing anti-Semitism, or the accusation of it, is concerned.
This issue became particularly pertinent when in 2005, prompted by a call from Palestinian academics, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) Council voted to boycott two Israeli universities. This decision provoked an outcry and has led to the AUT being accused of anti-Semitism. In response to the AUT’s decision, a group of left-leaning academics and writers who oppose the boycott founded Engage, a website committed to combating “anti-Jewish racism in the left and liberal public sphere.”
At the centre of their critique (and others who warn of ‘new’ or resurgent anti-Semitism) is the accusation that many on the left single Israel out for special treatment and portrayIsrael as the centre of the entire world’s ills. In my next four posts I intend to explore this allegation, beginning here with a quick look at the accusation itself.
Singling Out Israel
The accusation that Israel is singled out by the left for special treatment does seem to me to hold some water. Often this is invoked in order to deflect criticisms of particular Israeli policies, but David Hirsh, the editor of Engage, makes a compelling case that goes beyond such rhetorical ploys. His argument is worth quoting at length.
“A question which is often the first one to occur to somebody when they learn that there is a campaign to boycott Israel, is ‘Why Israel?’ There is genocide going on in Darfur and it has killed hundreds of thousands of people and caused the death of hundreds of thousands more of the millions who have been displaced. There is a dictatorship ruling Zimbabwe which fails to feed its population and which has organized hundreds of thousands of house demolitions in the last few years.
“China has been running a bloody and repressive occupation of Tibet for decades, has moved millions of its own settlers into Tibet and has deported hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to the Laogai camps, the Chinese version of the Gulag. Russia is running an occupation of Chechnya which has resulted in the deaths of countless thousands of Chechens, particularly during its re-conquest of Grozny, the capital city, in the mid-1990s.
“There are very many states in the world where there are ethnic or gendered exclusions from citizenship, or systems of two-class citizenship, or systems whereby many of the people who do the work are defined as non-citizens or guest-workers. There are very many states in the world which came into being following ethnic struggles over territory and the forced movement of populations. There are many states in the world which are still fighting over pieces of territory with their neighbours. There are many states in the world where there is no freedom of the press, freedom of speech, no functioning legal system. There are many places where trade unions and political parties are illegal and repressed. There are many places where there is no democracy.
“So why, in British trade unions and on British campuses, are there campaigns only to punish Israel? There are many answers to this question, but none of them is satisfactory. It is true that any individual has every right to be concerned about whatever particular cause happens to engage them, but a trade union should be concerned with human rights abuses in general, not only with human rights abuses that are committed by Jews.” (David Hirsch).
‘New’ or Resurgent Anti-Semitism
Why this inconsistency on the Left? For Hirsh, it is the result of anti-Semitism. The Left’s tendency to focus on Israel, so the argument goes, bares many similarities to classic European anti-Semitism. Furthermore other arguments, such as the suggestion that a powerful “Jewish lobby” manipulates US policy or that the Jewish state is a “fifth column” acting on behalf of Western imperialism, that regularly emanate from Left and Liberal corners, are not too dissimilar to those found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic piece of Tsarist propaganda that purports to expose an elaborate Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.
This accusation is hard to accept for most people on the Left. After all it is, historically, the Right that is closely associated with racism, nationalism, xenophobia and other such tendencies. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the Left is somehow immune to all forms of prejudice (just as it would be wrong to suggest that the Right is essentially racist). As Gary Young writes, “It is a common view on the left that political will alone can insulate you from prejudice. It stems, among some, from a mixture of optimism and arrogance which aspires to elevate oneself above the society one is trying to transform.”
However, while the Left is far from perfect on this matter (see upcoming Part IIII) I am not convinced that the obsession withIsrael is the result of anti-Semitism. I think the source of this peculiar phenomenon can be located in two alternative places: the emergence of post-Zionism (see Part II) and its convergence with particular interpretations of anti- and post-colonial thought (see Part III).
This is one of four pieces about Anti-Semitism and the Left. The remaining parts will be posted over the next few weeks.