Left Anti-Semitism

Anti-semitism on the Left is essentially identical to, and has the same methodology as, that of society at large. It is the expression of the conspiracy theory—but under the false guise of socialism. Usurping the language of class struggle it negates the very idea of class struggle and replaces it with anti-Jewish struggle.

Of course, socialist practice is not a monolith. Some of it has accorded with socialist theory and has not been anti-semitic. Inasmuch as that has any relevance to the present debate, however, it is relevant only to the weight of the anti-semitic tradition within socialist practice. It neither explains nor denies that tradition. Moreover, there is no balance sheet with any form of racism. It is hardly worthwhile to subtract the number of racist statements made from the number of non-racist statements to calculate how racist a movement is. Why bother? It is intolerable that socialist practice should contain any anti-semitism and it is equally intolerable that a wall of silence, often to the point of censorship, should have been thrown around its existence. Indeed, there is some hypocrisy present here. Many socialists, and many socialist organisations, will wish to distance themselves from any insinuations about their own anti-semitic practice, precisely by claiming that the Left tradition has not been monolithic. However, if it has not been so monolithic in their eyes, then it is perfectly legitimate to ask why they have consistently remained silent and complicit in the face of Left anti-semitism.

This book is primarily about socialist practice in the U.K. in general, and England in particular. However, this practice also comes out of a European tradition of socialism, so inevitably, references are made to other movements outside the U.K.—including those in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. The book says nothing about socialist or liberation movements in the third world, deliberately so, because countries in the third world have not historically been within the grip of Christianity, and thus have no tradition of conspiracy theories. For instance, within Islam both Jew and Christian were seen as infidels—and certainly there was no constant mythology of universal Jewish domination. If notions about Jewish power have entered the third world, then that is a product of imperialistic and Christian penetration.

Left anti-semitism has gone through two distinct, if related and overlapping, stages. The first coincided with the establishment of the modern socialist movement itself, at the end of the 19th century. Here, the particular mythology of Jew as finance capitalist took root within important sectors of the emergent socialist and industrial labour movement. This was crucial, as it meant that socialist practice had a tradition of anti-semitism almost from its birth. The second stage developed around the question of zionism—particularly after the war which created Israel in 1948. A significant feature of contemporary socialist practice is, on the one hand, the expansion of zionism to equate it with world imperialist domination and, on the other hand, the reduction of the entire Jewish experience to equate that with zionism. It is a combination of the conspiracy theory with that of collective guilt.

Quite clearly, anti-zionism is not in itself anti-semitic. However, much of what the Left poses as anti-zionism is transcendental: it relates neither to the struggle of the Palestinians nor to what the Israeli state is actually doing. Rather it is concerned with ascribing world power to zionism and holding all Jews in the world responsible for this. Left practice presents as anti-zionism something which is neither about zionism nor about Palestinian liberation, but is about some alleged responsibility of Jews on a global scale. This is anti-semitism. The fact that this book is written in full support of the Palestinian struggle is absolutely irrelevant. Left anti-semitism has to be condemned irrespective of one's position on zionism. However, socialist Jews who are committed equally to solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle and to the fight against anti-semitism, are put in an impossible "catch 22" situation by the Left. Any mention of anti-semitism is seen as a diversion from the struggle against zionism. Moreover, the merest suggestion that the Left can itself be anti-semitic is equated with an attack, both on communism, and on the Palestinian cause. An example, which is almost a caricature, occurred in an editorial in the journal Big Flame which stated that an "obsession" with anti-semitism detracted from the need to "focus" on zionism (October, 1982).

There is, manifestly, an ideological link between the anti-semitism present at the birth of a definitive socialist practice in the last century, and Left anti-semitism in relation to zionism in this century. It would be anti-dialectical to expect the disappearance of ideological deformations without their being consciously challenged. There is also a specific ideological linkage uniting the two historical periods and running like a chain between them. This is assimilationism. The general chauvinism which permeates the Left on matters of cultural and national identity has assumed such a form that an independent Jewish identity is seen as either conceptually impossible or hopelessly reactionary. The relationship between assimilationism and anti-semitism as ideology is a problematic one, and is looked at later. What is being emphasised here is the strength of assimilationism within socialist thought.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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