Review of Contemporary left antisemitism by David Hirsh
Why Is This Country Different From all Other Countries? All The Rest Have The Right To Exist...
ByMarc Lichtmanon September 13, 2017
One of the definitions of “left” given by Merriam-Webster is “those professing views usually characterized by desire to reform or overthrow the established order especially in politics and usually advocating change in the name of the greater freedom or well-being of the common man.” This has some value, but today I think that “left” and “right” are best used in politics as relative terms, and even there the limitations are extreme, when both become characterized by conspiracy theories, which anti-Semitism has proved the most lasting and most effective of. And we see supposed antifascist (antifa) thugs, who are anti-working class, attack workers who simply voted for Trump. “Left” or “right” tends to become more abstract, and the party I support, the Socialist Workers Party (not to be confused with the British SWP—our sister organization in the UK is the Communist League) doesn’t define itself as part of the “left,” but as part of the working class.
David Hirsh is a member of the British Labour Party, and much of what he writes about is taken from debates and incidents in that party, which has seen the rise of anti-Semite Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. One can find much the same phenomena in US politics, although the anti-Semitism hasn’t gained as much mainstream acceptance. I don’t view the Labour Party as a workers’ party in any sense anymore, although a lot of workers still vote for it. To me it has become more like the Democratic Party in the US, which a lot of workers vote for too.
The Labour Party is full of anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Zionism. Hirsh analyses the crooked denials of anti-Semitism, like what he has labeled “the Livingstone formulation.” “In 2006 after Ken Livingstone has been accused of antisemitism, he responded with a counter-accusation that he was being accused in this way only to silence his criticism of Israel.” This swindle has proved quite popular, and is used widely to intimidate Jews and others who oppose their politics.
Hirsh introduces us to people like Gilad Alzmon, an Israeli Jew living in the UK who has disavowed his own Judaism in any sense, and who specifically thinks the supporters of Palestine should adopt anti-Jewish positions! And he has been welcomed by some of the British “left,” which is frightening.
Hirsch’s framework is essentially that of a bourgeois liberal, although one who still has a fondness for Marx. After quoting one person calling himself a “Marxist.” who is clearly an anti-Semite he writes: “Robert Fine and Philip Spencer trace the long history of how the so-called ‘Jewish Question’ has always in fact been an ‘anti-Semitism’; there has never been a Jewish problem which requires solving; rather the raising of the ‘Jewish problem’ has itself always constituted an antisemitism problem.”
But besides intentionally confusing the words “question” and “problem,” which sometimes but not always mean the same thing, our Merriam-Webster defines “question” as in part “a subject or aspect in dispute or open for discussion.” Marxists have a long history of using the term “question” in this way; the national question, the Jewish question, the woman question… And Hirsh himself cites Marx’s On the Jewish Question favorably, although there is a long history of “scholars” quoting it selectively to “prove” Marx’s alleged anti-Semitism. I don’t know anything about the people he quotes, but Hirsh is aware that there are conservative Jews who are trying to prove that anti-Semitism has always come from the “left” through the sleight of hand of pretending that fascism is a form of socialism. (For who financed the fascist movements in both Italy and Germany and the similarities and differences between fascism in these countries, see Fascism and Big Business, a well-researched comparative study). How these conservative Jews attempt to show Tsarism as a “left” movement is another “question.” Some of these are the same people who still claim any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, lending a helping hand to the Jew-haters described in this book.
Hirsh cites the quotation from August Bebel that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” which is the Marxist position, but he doesn’t discuss the rise of anti-Semitism (always there beneath the surface) in reference to the current world economic crisis, which the capitalists have no solution to. The best exposition of the Marxist position is The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation written by the Belgian Jewish Trotskyist Abram Leon who died in Auschwitz soon after its completion. Hirsh has read it, but doesn’t comment on it.
Some of today’s Jew-hatred is upfront, but much of it poses as a movement in solidarity with the Palestinians, particularly the movement known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. But BDS also attracts people who aren’t “leftists,” just anti-Semites looking for cover. It’s not just that BDS was formed in Britain, rather than Palestine, which Hirsh documents (one of these discussions he mentions is also available to watch on YouTube). But an international boycott in support of a national liberation movement that has been on the decline? At a time when Israel/Palestine is not the center of politics in the Mideast? When the Arab revolution has been about democratic rights, not about solidarity with Palestine? When Jews, as always, make a convenient scapegoat for the crisis of capitalism?
And where is the solidarity movement for the Kurds; the largest nationality in the world without a state, and currently playing a big role in world politics?
There are still people attracted to BDS who don’t hate Jews, but perhaps one has to add “yet.”
Unlike David Hirsh, I view the formation of Israel as being more akin to a colonial-settler state than a national liberation movement (see Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?), but as Rodinson suggests, countries don’t stay colonial-settler states forever, or one could make the same claim of the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, none of which are being boycotted. And not all colonial-settler states are alike; the charge of Israeli apartheid simply doesn’t mesh with the facts. And even settler-colonial states have a working class with different interests than the rulers. So, the Socialist Workers Party, which I used to belong to and remain a supporter of, used to have Israeli comrades, both in Israel and in the US. We never blamed the Jewish refugees for going to Palestine or anywhere else they could get to. We never called it “occupied Palestine.”
I don’t support the US government, but I call for a workers and farmers government, not for the destruction of the North American imperialist entity.
As Marxists, it is most fundamental to be able to distinguish between classes, and not blame the workers for what the rulers do. We didn’t blame German workers for Nazism (see The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (Merit),Swimming Against the Tide: Trotskyists in German Occupied France, and Socialism on Trial: Testimony at Minneapolis Sedition Trial), so how could we blame Jewish workers and farmers for crimes of the Israeli government? Those of “the left” who live in racist, imperialist countries would do well to remember the words of a famous Jewish revolutionary: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
I used to call myself an “anti-Zionist Jew,” but today “Zionist” has become a code word for Jew, while at the same time, there is no longer a mass Zionist movement as there once was; what there is, is simply Israel. I used to call for a democratic secular Palestine (see Israel and the Arab Revolution), but today anything remotely suggesting that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist is seen as saying that the Jews don’t have the right to exist, at least not in Israel/Palestine.
“I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews,” Fidel Castro told Jeffrey Goldberg (at the time a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine; now editor-in-chief), in a September 2010 interview. (Castro was no longer head of state at the time, but obviously still widely respected around the world). “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.”
In the interview, Goldberg wrote, Castro criticized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then-president of Iran, for denying the Holocaust and “explained why the Iranian government would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the ‘unique’ history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.”
Cuba’s revolutionary government has strongly opposed Tel Aviv’s assaults and discrimination against Palestinians. But Castro responded, “Yes, without a doubt,” when Goldberg asked if he thought Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.
And this despite the fact that Israel (which actually has limited trade relations with Cuba), was the one country that consistently voted with the US against condemning the US embargo against Cuba!
Some of the pro-BDS “left” hates revolutionary Cuba, and much of the rest gives it lip service, but lumps it together with “radical” countries that haven’t had socialist revolutions. The problem isn’t “Marxists,” the problem is that most of those who use the term today have totally forgotten the central issue of social class. Engels wrote: “Communism, insofar as it is a theory, is the theoretical expression of the position of the proletariat in this struggle and the theoretical summation of the conditions for liberation of the proletariat.”
Hirsh, who has read this interview with Castro, is right that the boycott was not the only factor in the end of apartheid in South Africa. But in place of “the end of the cold war,” he should put the victory of the combined Cuban, Angolan, and Namibian forces against the South African forces in Angola. (Cuba wasn’t a “proxy” for the Soviet Union; not even Henry Kissinger makes that claim today—see Piero Gleijeses' two books, Conflicting Missions and Visions of Freedom). But I suppose Hirsh would still see it a “totalitarian” state.
Hirsh frequently makes references to “totalitarians,” but the fundamental problem isn’t the large variety of ex-Stalinists floating around. Today in the US the threats to democratic rights are coming largely from liberals. It’s liberals who are blocking conservatives like Charles Murray from speaking at colleges, instead of debating them. It’s liberals who are demanding that art museums not display works they accuse of “cultural appropriation,” as if all art doesn’t involve cultural appropriation. It’s liberals who push “identity politics,” which leads to students saying things like “I can’t comment on that because I’m not black.” And for several weeks after the events in Charlottesville, most liberal newspapers didn’t criticize the antifa thugs. US liberals are hysterical, thinking that Trump is a fascist. Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, any more than everyone who supports Jeremy Corbyn hates Jews. While of course the Democratic Party, as representatives of US imperialism is still strongly pro-Israel, the Democratic Socialists of America, the most moderate group that calls itself “socialist,” and which is entrenched in the Democratic Party, has recently adopted BDS!
Many workers are supporting anyone who sounds “radical,” because of the economic crisis and the absence of major working class resistance through their unions, which is far more important than what happens in bourgeois elections.
The crisis of capitalism, including the fate of the Jews, will not be solved by middle class liberals or “leftists.” Many of them hate the working class far more than they hate bigotry (and they refuse to see being anti-working class as being a form of bigotry, because they’re convinced that workers really are stupid). Liberalism in the US today, and “the left” which trails behind it, is primarily characterized by its elitism. The goal of equality has been replaced by “diversity,” which means making sure their liberal bubbles are populated by every skin color, every sexual orientation, every gender(?). A good book on the direction the Democratic Party is going in and the significance of the last election is The Clintons' Anti-Working-Class Record (Why Washington fears working people?). As for an analysis of “the left,” I suggest Is Socialist Revolution in the Us Possible?: A Necessary Debate Among Working People.
Hirsh is correct to support democratic rights (they’re key for the working class to be able to organize!), but seems to forget the democratic right of self-determination, and is hostile to “anti-imperialism” simply because many “leftists” can’t tell the difference between a national liberation movement and a reactionary Islamist current. They also can’t tell the difference between defending an oppressed nation against imperialism and supporting its government. Or the difference between saying a country has the right to exist and giving its government political support. They view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” supporting reactionary figures like Putin and Assad. But imperialism is quite capable of reaching agreements with such figures, and then these “leftists” will simply find other reactionary leaders who may have a temporary disagreement with imperialism. Or perhaps they’ll support some imperialist countries against others when inter-imperialist conflict steps up?
But Lenin was clear on this: “we will only support the bourgeois freedom movements in the colonial countries if these movements are genuinely revolutionary.”
Hirsh talks about Isaac Deutscher’s writings on Israel and the Jews, and I definitely recommend The Non-Jewish Jew: And Other Essays (Radical Thinkers). George Novack’s review of the book in the Militant has been kept in print in pamphlet form since 1969: How Can The Jews Survive? A Socialist Answer to Zionism. Deutscher said he abandoned his anti-Zionism, but refused to call himself a Zionist. He uses as an analogy people jumping onto a raft from a burning or sinking ship and asks “But does it follow that the jumping should be made into a program…?
The chapter on Jewish anti-Zionism contains one really useful thing that I wish I had thought about more when I had holocaust survivors as coworkers: “…the frequently repeated idea that the Jews should know better after the Holocaust is mortifying. Auschwitz was not a positive learning experience.” But not grasping this was my personal failing, not reflected in my party’s political line.
Hirsh discusses people indicted for racist speech or actions. If these laws had existed we could be sure they would have been used against people like Malcolm X. The state is not neutral; they will continue to let the cops get away with racist actions, and will find a way to use the laws against people fighting for social change. In the U.S. these are usually “hate speech” laws, where language used against scabs or against capitalists can easily be defined as hate speech.
I like David Hirsh from what I’ve seen of him on Facebook, and in videos. We may not share too much more in common politically than a support for a Palestinian state and an opposition to BDS and all forms of anti-Semitism. As he has indicated, there are many with these points of view. But sometimes it appears that we’re not being heard, and that’s the value of this book.
From his comments on Facebook, I know that Hirsh dislikes the statement by Trotsky in 1940 that “Never was it so clear as it is today that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system.” (see On the Jewish Question). But while Israel is currently a place where Jews in danger can emigrate to, it hasn’t ended the problem of anti-Semitism, nor can it. To me, the statement is as true today as it was then.
Note: I have a limit of ten links, and had to make some hard choices of relevant books.