While the Left’s tendency to single Israel out is, in my opinion, the combination of misunderstood and misused post-Zionism, and a crude anti-colonialism, this does not mean that the Left is innocent of all charges of anti-Semitism. There is a style of thought and argument that is common on today’s Left that seems to betray, if not anti-Semitism, then a certain laziness that can lead to good people standing a little too close to positions they would otherwise reject.
‘Should know better’
The first argument goes like this: given the fact that Jews suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis, then surely they should know better than to persecute the Palestinians. On one level this is an understandable statement. It seems in keeping with our general assumption that humans as a whole learn from the past and are able to draw clear, uncomplicated moral lessons from it. Those making the argument also often feel that it is a fair assertion because, despite Zionism being a late 19th century movement, the Holocaust was (and is) very much the rationale behind Jewish nationalism.
However, there is a problematic side to the argument that, while not being anti-Semitic, still rests on an assumption that is shared by anti-Semites and Right-wing Zionists alike. It seems to suggest that Jews are a homogenous grouping that think and act as one rather than just a group of individuals that share a particular cultural and religious heritage. This is obviously nonsense.
Furthermore, it seems to hold Jews to a higher moral standard than everyone else. With this kind of logic – what could be termed, “the mild racism of high expectations” – then Israel deserves to be condemned more than other states that act in the same or an even worse manner because Jews should know better. In reality, people are all the same, regardless of different historical experiences, and all states are violent towards those they perceive to be a threat, whatever adversities their population has faced in the past.The Nazi analogy
A second problematic (and far more serious) argument that is regularly deployed amongst some on the Left is the Nazi analogy. In recent years (particularly since the Second Intifada and the triumph of the Israeli Right) comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany have become common currency.
Sometimes this is just somebody being snide and thinking they are saying something risky and original. However, there are more serious cases that are worth looking at. Let’s just take one example that was flagged up by Engage: the use by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) of a cartoon that showed an Israeli crane building what Israelis call the “Security Barrier” and Palestinians call the “Apartheid Wall”.
Covering the Wall is the famous image of the railway tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a not so subtle insinuation that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians can be equated to the Nazi’s treatment of Jews. There are a number of serious problems with this but before we look at the image itself we must first consider its origins.
The cartoon was the winning entry of the 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Contest, a competition organised by the Iranian paper, Hamshahri, to highlight what it described as “Western hypocrisy on freedom of speech” after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy. Apparently, it is hypocritical to have more of a problem with genocide denial than with an offensive cartoon of a religious figure.
A more complex history
This contest was held at a moment when Iran is under the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a right-wing demagogue who is renowned for calling for the destruction of Israel and who thinks that the Holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy designed to legitimise Israel’s existence.
What is more, it is worth noting, as Kasra Naji does in Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader (2008), that there seems to be a close correlation between Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitism and the thought of the Iranian philosopher Ahmad Fardid who blended the anti-democratic elements of Plato (‘philosopher-king’) and Heidegger (‘fuehrer’), to come up with the concept of a ‘strong leader’ that could be imported into the notion of government through Islamic jurisprudence. It is also not inconsequential that, according to Naji, “Fardid and his followers propagated the European idea of anti-Semitism in a country that had no history of it.”
This interpretation of Fardid’s thought (it is that of the Islamic philosopher and reformist, Abdulkarim Soroush) could no doubt be contested. However, if it is accurate it would explain the increasing levels of anti-Semitism that come from major figures in the present Iranian government (although this is probably also related to increasing tensions between Iran and Israel in the international realm). Historically, while Iranians have often been against Zionism, they have had very little tolerance for anti-Semitism, even after the 1979 Revolution, so it would make sense that Ahmadinejad’s prejudices stem more from the thought of this modern philosopher (he died in 1994) rather than Iranian tradition.
This is the general intellectual and political context of the Holocaust cartoon competition. I offer it not because I think the SPSC are Nazis. That would be as crass as their suggestion that there is a moral equivalence between Israel and Hitler’s Germany. I am highlighting it because it is crucial for understanding the structural conditions under which the contest emerged and the intellectual milieu within which the cartoons it produced are considered acceptable.
It also shows how through the slow process of ‘intellectual osmosis’ elements on the Left seem to find themselves allied to the far Right and, sometimes, regurgitating its propaganda. This is a process documented in Nick Cohen’s, admittedly hit-and-miss, What’s Left? (2007). Intellectual osmosis sometimes arises as the result of “anti-imperialist” realpolitik – think Hugo Chavez’s support of Iran largely because of its anti-American positions or George Galloway’s Islamist sympathies (for an excellent piece on the Left and Islamism see here). However, sometimes it is the product of mere lazy thinking, which, as I mentioned earlier, can lead otherwise good people to hold bad positions.
So, what of the image itself? Firstly, it seems to betray a serious lack of historical understanding.Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is brutal and oppressive. Its occupation of the West Bank, its slow strangulation of Gaza, its colonisation of occupied territory, as well as the theft of land that is being carried out using the Wall, is criminal. This is, however, not remotely comparable to the mass extermination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and everyone else who did not fit neatly into the Nazi’s conception of the “superior race”.
Furthermore, it is a mystery why some people feel that in order for the Palestinians to have a legitimate claim to self-determination it is necessary that the Israelis be Nazis. The sort of brutal actions carried out by Israel should be enough to justify opposition in their own right without the resort to inaccurate comparisons.
An underlying anti-Semitism?
Is this analogy anti-Semitic? I think this largely depends on who is making the comparison and what their intentions are. It often seems though that there is something deeply unattractive underlying the Nazi analogy when it is being (mis)applied to Israel. It is often accompanied by a viciousness that hovers just below the surface. When people make the comparison it feels like they are revelling in the frisson of sailing close to a particularly nasty wind. As though they are saying what they have wanted to say for some time.
It almost seems as though – and here I realise I am on rather shaky, psychoanalytical grounds – the collective European unconscious is breathing a sigh of relief and exclaiming, “Look the Jews have made us feel guilty for 2000 years of anti-Semitism, but it turns out they are no better!” Or, as the philosopher John Gray put it in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002),
“It has long been known that those who perform great acts of kindness are rarely forgiven. The same is true of those who suffer irreparable wrongs. When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?”
This may be an overstatement, and psychoanalysis of an entire continent is generally not a sound idea. But perhaps there is more truth to these suggestions than most would like to admit.
So, to recap. There is a tendency in left wing circles to single Israel out for criticism, when its actions, while often cruel, are hardly exceptional. While many have seen this bias as a sign of anti-Semitism, I believe it really stems from a one-dimensional understanding of post-Zionism and anti-colonial thought. This does not, however, mean that the left is innocent of anti-Jewish prejudice. The crass and ahistorical propensity to make comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, seems to show a certain vindictiveness, a spiteful lashing out that, I think, has much more to do with European history than anything that is happening in the Middle East.