Left antisemitism is a form of racism

Submitted by AWL on 8 January, 2020 - 11:05 Author: Angela Driver

Left antisemitism has long used tropes popularised by Stalinist “anti-Zionist” campaigns against the Jews, where “Zionist” was a proxy for “Jewish”.

This commonly includes tropes about Jews being manipulative, powerful, and wealthy, saying Jewish people tend to be imperialist capitalists, and to associate and collaborate with Nazis and the far right. This language, these tropes, group Jewish people together as a group to be hated in the same way that other forms of racism do.

In our press we have examined whether the proposal for “one state” as a solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is also left antisemitism, and concluded that it is, as the only way to achieve it in reality is the forced destruction of the state of Israel, which most Jews have an affinity with. It is therefore a slogan that is implicitly hostile to most Jews.

In reality campaigns around Palestinian rights in general are now commonly bound up with the Stalinist “anti-Zionist” tropes outlined above.

The proposal for ending of the Israel state is one of a number of ways in which Israel, and Zionism as a nationalist idea are exceptionalised. Things are demanded of Israel that are not demanded of any other state. The left doesn’t call for any other state to be dismantled, and it does not call for wide ranging boycotts of everyone from any other state. The movement for boycotting and divestment frequently not only results in boycott of things from the Israeli state but of Jewish people in general.

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party there has been a large increase in discussion around antisemitism both within the left and in the broader mainstream media. A common response to accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party has been for the left to deny the accusations and assert that they are part of a right wing (or Jewish) smear against Jeremy Corbyn. The accusations of a smear campaign lead to accusations that the “Jewish” or “Israeli lobby” have too much power in the media and politics. The old Stalinist tropes quickly emerge.

The CST conducted research into twitter activity around these issues and found that twitter activity about antisemitism, smears, and lobbies were intertwined with twitter activity supporting the Labour Party in general. Many of the accounts that were tweeting frequently about antisemitism accusations being a smear also put out clear antisemitic messages including graphics featuring the star of David.

Left antisemitism as it actually exists on the left today enmeshes ideas about Israel and Palestine, with Stalinist antisemitic tropes. There is no clear separation between these “strands” of antisemitism. It is not possible to “sanitise” “left antisemitism” by separating out such strands, one leads to the other and draws from the other.

This left antisemitism groups Jews together on the basis of perceived shared unalterable characteristics – that Jews are wealthy, powerful, manipulative and controlling people who are or collaborate with imperialists and Nazis. They are hated and feared on the basis of these shared characteristics. There is an assumption that these Jews are all the same because they are Jews, their Jewishness is seen as a race. This is racism.

Two main counter-arguments have been made:

That antisemitism is different from racism as Jews can have varying ethnicity, that antisemitism assumes Jews are powerful, that antisemitism is older than racism. These are arguments that apply to antisemitism as a whole – not left antisemitism in particular. Yet it is widely acknowledged that some antisemitism is racist. If “far right” antisemitism is racist, despite ethnic diversity, the historical background et cetera, then why would these same features mean that left antisemitism cannot be racist?

The second argument is that by calling “left antisemitism” racist, the debate cut short as it is too polarised. People on the left do not tend to see themselves as racist even when they are being antisemitic, but neither do they see themselves as antisemitic. Recent history has shown that the label of antisemitism is also extremely polarising.

Similarly, there are people who may be racist that are worth debating and discussing things with, that does not mean that the issue is no longer racism. In either example it is the job of socialists to “call things by their right names” and be clear.

There are differing levels of racism, different types of racism, and different reasons why people are racist, or behave in racist ways. It is important and useful to be aware of the complex factors around racism to engage properly and fully in the debate.

Acknowledging these variations and identifying different things as racism does not stop us discussing these differences and how to deal with them.

Our press commonly repeats that “left antisemitism is not racism”. This has the effect of minimising or excusing this behaviour.

We do not normally minimise prejudice in this way. We are not being clear. Left antisemitism is a cause of real distress to Jewish people in the labour movement, causing division in the class and discrediting the Labour Party. It is not our job to minimise this.

We should be clear in our press: Left antisemitism is no better than antisemitism in general, and it is racist. We need to call things by their proper names even if it causes offence among the left!

Antisemitism as racism

By Eduardo Tovar

There is an ongoing debate in Workers’ Liberty on whether political antisemitism is a form of racism. By “political antisemitism”, comrades mean uncompromising hostility to any recognition of the Israeli Jews as bearers of national rights and to any Jewish communal or national sympathies with the nation state of Israel.

As Martin Thomas writes in Solidarity 454, “[m]modern political antisemitism consists in damning the very existence of the Israeli state (however modified) as inescapably racist and imperialist, and thus damning all Jews who fail to renounce connection to or sympathy with Israel (however critical) as agents of racism and imperialism”.

Many Workers’ Liberty comrades, including Thomas, argue that, whilst antisemitic, this is distinct from racist antisemitism in the sense of antipathy to Jews as a racialised ethnic group with supposedly hereditary characteristics: for example, the notion that Jews are inherently disruptive and manipulative.

To be clear, one should not take the statement that political antisemitism is not racist to mean that political antisemitism is “not as bad” as racism. After all, there are several systems or attitudes based on prejudice and discrimination that are not racism, such as homophobia and sexism, yet differentiating these from racism does not imply that they are less serious.

The main issue is conceptual: is it analytically correct or helpful to identify all forms of antisemitism as forms of racism? In other words, is antisemitism a subcategory of racism? At the risk of oversimplification, one side of the debate visualises the relationship between antisemitism and racism as a smaller circle (antisemitism) within a larger circle (racism), whilst the other side visualises the relationship as a Venn Diagram with two circles that overlap in part.

Underlying this debate is a disagreement over what racism is. Although all contributors to the debate seem to agree that the concept of racism has expanded considerably, such that it can include such phenomena as unconscious racial bias and institutional racism, some prefer not to extend it too far beyond the (scientifically false) notion that humanity is biologically divided into distinct, identifiable races.

In other words, some contributors to the debate believe that it is more analytically correct or helpful to identify as “racist” only those forms of antisemitism that posit or presuppose the existence of a Jewish “race” with hereditary traits.

Those arguing for conceptual separateness on grounds of accuracy and usefulness also point to the manners in which antisemitism operates differently from general racism. For instance, the Christian antisemitism that sees Jews as “Christ killers” not only predates “scientific” race theory, but (unlike the race-theoretical version of antisemitism) considers it possible for Jews to “save” themselves through conversion to Christianity.

Moreover, antisemitism has what the Marxist theorist Moishe Postone terms a “pseudo-emancipatory” quality. That is, instead of “punching down” at a less powerful group seen as needing to stay in their socially inferior position (as is the case with anti-black racism), antisemites typically view themselves as “punching up” at a group that is already powerful. In other words, the recurring motif in antisemitism is that of the Jews as the shadowy puppet masters behind the scenes.

Related to, but distinct from, this conceptual issue is the issue of the political implications of classifying all antisemitism as racism. Several comrades have expressed concern that to do so would counterproductively label all people who hold politically antisemitic views, but not conscious racist or religious antipathy towards Jews, as “racists”. This in turn would risk giving the impression that we are accusing them of a heinous crime and have the effect of closing down instead of opening conversations that could sway their views (or so the argument goes).

Increasingly, my view is that antisemitism, including its “political” version, is a form of racism, albeit a highly peculiar one, and that most issues people identify with this classification simply reflect the complexities of racism as a social phenomenon.

Firstly, there is the simple problem of becoming unduly and unhelpfully prescriptivist.

Whilst biological racism was what most people understood to be racism several decades ago, this is no longer the case in either lay or social-scientific circles. As such, continuing to insist that attitudes and behaviour that we view as antisemitic are “not racist” unless they, by express words or strong implication, rest on the acceptance of race theory risks sounding antiquated at best or outright confusing at worst.

Secondly, even when “scientific” racial classifications enjoyed their widest mainstream acceptance, the idea of “race” was never wholly about supposed biological differences: there was always a strong cultural component to the drawn lines of distinction. Indeed, much of the later theorising of biological races served to justify pre-existing notions of civilisational hierarchy by ascribing a “biological” basis to the supposed cultural inferiority of other peoples.

One sees this complex interplay between the “hereditary” and cultural aspects of racism in how those in the UK arguing against European free movement tend to single out Central and Eastern European migrants (e.g. Poles, Bulgarians) as a threat. Whilst most people who express such views probably do not adhere to the notion of biological race, it is significant that they disproportionately demonise migrants from Slavic nations.

For many years, Slavs were viewed as racially inferior, including by the Nazis, and this race-theoretical sheen stemmed from (and served to give “scientific” justification for) much older notions of Slavic cultural inferiority. Whilst only a conscious bigot would today argue that the Slavic nations are inferior civilisations and invoke “biological” explanations for this ostensible inferiority, people’s unconscious views of Slavic migrants are still bound to be shaped at least in part by the legacy of anti-Slav racism.

Moreover, wanting to introduce tighter border controls on such migrants inevitably means discriminating between people, often in a physically violent manner, based on their birthplace and descent. The position might not be racist in its intentions, but it is racist in its implications.

If in these circumstances we can accept in principle that a position has racist implications, even if the person who holds that position does not believe in biological “races”, then I believe it is perfectly possible to adopt a similar stance on political antisemitism.

Ultimately, what makes political antisemitism objectionable is that, in its implications and consequences, it discriminates against an ethnic-national group by characterising their national self-determination and their feelings of national-communal belonging as uniquely illegitimate and wholly undeserving of sympathy.

To me, this is a form of racism. Nevertheless, it does not follow that, as a matter of approach, we would simply denounce people with politically antisemitic views as “racists”.

Like with the example of border controls and Central and Eastern European migrants, we can patiently talk such people through the logical consequences of their lines of thought. If people already accept that they can have, for example, unconscious biases when dealing with black people despite a conscious moral-political commitment to black liberation, then in principle they can accept that they might have unconscious biases when dealing with matters pertaining to Israeli and/or Diaspora Jews even if they are sincere in their commitment to fighting antisemitism.

Likewise, I am ultimately not convinced that classifying antisemitism as a form of racism risks shutting down conversations prematurely because it means labelling people as “racists” when they would find such a label horrifying. After all, most people consider it no better to be labelled “an antisemite”.

All this brings me to the broader analytical point about whether it is correct or helpful to consider antisemitism a form of racism, given the ways in which antisemitism tends to manifest differently from general racism or to proceed from different underlying assumptions. Whilst I understand why there would be concerns about obscuring the distinctive characteristics of antisemitism, I worry that maintaining the conceptual gap between antisemitism and general racism means obscuring important links between them.

Our comrade Robert Fine, who sadly passed away in June 2018, dedicated a large part of his later academic career to reestablishing what he felt were lost connections between the study of racism and the study of antisemitism. For this purpose, he co-founded the European Sociological Association’s research network for “Ethnic Relations, Racism, and Antisemitism” in 2008.
In 2012, he and fellow sociologist Glyn Cousin co-authored an article in the scholarly journal European Societies called “A Common Cause”. [1] In this article, Fine outlined his belief that the tendency to keep the analysis of antisemitism and the analysis of racism separate (what he termed their “methodological separatism”) has inclined us to overlook how the rise of the modern nation-state simultaneously entailed a new drive to classify non-European peoples as racially inferior on a “scientific” basis and a renewed drive to exclude Jews from the polity.

In other words, (a) the emergence of race-theoretical justifications for colonialism in the early stages of the modern era and (b) a resumption of mass expulsions and forced conversions of Jews accompanied each other within the newly formed European nation states. In Fine’s view, this is because the modern-era project of constructing homogenous nation states in Europe gave rise to new conditions of vulnerability for “aliens” to these nation states, both within and beyond their borders; in both the “core” and the “periphery” of the ascendant colonial empires.

It has also led us to miss how several influential theorists of racism, including WEB Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, reassessed their understandings of racism in light of the deep ethical and experiential connections they perceived between the Jewish struggle against antisemitism and their own immediate struggle against anti-black racism.

Indeed, Du Bois’ visit to the Warsaw Ghetto directly prompted him “to deepen his understanding of racism as a form of ‘human hate’ capable of ‘reaching all sorts of people’ of all kinds of skin colours” (Cousin and Fine 2012: 170).

Lamentably, Fine passed away before he could come to anything resembling a complete standpoint on whether antisemitism is a particular form of racism or a distinct, but related, phenomenon. It would have been fascinating to hear him contribute to the current debate. Still, Fine’s writings have made me far more conscious of the levels of understanding we might inadvertently hinder if we fail to reflect seriously on the family resemblance between antisemitism and general racism.

In my view, characterising antisemitism as a subcategory of racism does not necessarily mean obliterating all differences between them. A diverse group of phenomena can possess traits in common that justify us grouping them together whilst remaining conscious of their significant variations. The fact that we recognise both Siberian Tigers and domestic cats as felines does not render us unable to notice or appreciate their distinct characteristics. Nor does it render the category of “feline” unhelpful.

What matters is whether the characteristics the varied phenomena in question share can help us comprehend them. In the case of antisemitism and general racism, I believe they do.

[1] Glynis Cousin and Robert Fine, “A Common Cause: Reconnecting the Study of Racism and Antisemitism”, European Societies, vol. 14(2), 2012, pp. 166-185

Unpicking “left antisemitism”

By Martin Thomas

Documentation such as that most recently collated by the Jewish Labour Movement shows that there is a lot of straightforward, old-fashioned, ethnic-prejudice antisemitism in the Labour Party, including in the left.

The substantive question in our debate here, though, is this: is there a strand of distinctively-left antisemitism generated from an “anti-imperialism of fools” rather than from ethnic prejudice? A distinctively-left antisemitism which ends up providing nourishment for ethnic prejudice, but is not the same thing?

My argument is that there is.

In previous writing I’ve said some of the trouble here is the meaning of the word “racism” becoming more and more diffuse. On reflection, that’s not quite right. Most people still use “racism” as defined, for example, in Merriam-Webster: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race... racial prejudice or discrimination”.

It is within the left that usage has changed. That has been by way of what was a fringe usage becoming more influential. The 1969 IS-USA dissection of the split in SDS recently dug out and republished on the Workers’ Liberty website, shows fifty years ago a workerist-Maoist faction in SDS being denounced by its rivals (different-Maoist) as “racist” because it had a sectarian attitude to black nationalism.

What’s changed on the British left is that sort of Maoist usage becoming widespread in our little corner of society, to the point where almost all evils or imagined evils are targeted as “racism” rather than capitalism.

We have a choice whether to adopt that niche usage. Not adopting it enables us to speak more precisely and also more comprehensibly to a broader public.

Some have argued that we should call left antisemitism “racism” but explain that left antisemites aren’t necessarily “racists”.

The model, I think, for this “racism without racists” is what has come to be called “institutional racism”. An institution can discriminate against ethnic groups through neglects, passive accommodation to inherited social biases, etc., even apart from or independently of those who run the institution being individually, “ideologically”, racist.

It’s something like the gender pay gap continuing for structural reasons even when employers are not individually, “ideologically”, misogynistic or even sexist. Or immigration controls being functionally racist even when explicitly designed to be non-racist, like Canada’s. Or Brexit having racist consequences even though many pro-Brexiters are not racist.

But that “racism without racists” cannot apply here. Left antisemitism is not about institutional mechanisms which deny Jews better-paid jobs, or get them disproportionately harassed by cops. It’s all about speeches, social-media posts, slogans — “ideological” stuff.

Gender pay gaps exist even where employers are not sexist, but someone who advocates, as an “ideological” stance, that women positively should be paid less than men for comparable work, is sexist.

To say “absolute anti-Zionism” or boycotting Israel, are flat-out “forms of racism”, is to apply the term “racism” to ideologies.

There is no meaningful distinction, however subtle, between “advocate of an ideology which is racism” and “racist”.

Our general approach in polemics should be, as Gramsci advised, to take our opponents at their strongest rather than their weakest.

Take an SWPer, for example, who is convinced that her or his “absolute anti-Zionism” is just militant anti-racist opposition to an imperialistic political creed. We try to explain that their form of “absolute anti-Zionism” leads, like it or not, into comprehensive hostility to Jews on grounds of their historically-determined reflex identification (however critical) with Israel. We don’t deny the sincerity of their anti-racism.

In one of the earlier texts in our Two Nations, Two States pamphlet, we argued that SWP-type leftists were deceiving themselves.

“We are not Nazi-style racists, or any sort of racists; we are not against Jews; some of us are Jews, and would be or are persecuted by Nazi-style racists; and we are not Christian bigots hostile to Jews — ergo, we can’t be anti-semites!

“But you are comprehensively hostile to almost all Jews! You want to destroy the Israeli Jewish state and the Israeli Jewish nation. A sizeable part of the left considers Israel to be imperialist-racist evil incarnate, deserving of nothing but fire and sword in a holy war! The left now is in the same moral position vis-a-vis individual Jews as the medieval Christians who could say honestly that they wanted to save the Jews from themselves. They wanted to convert them.

“They loved and tried to save the sinners, while hating the sin. The obdurate sinners in the dungeons and fires of the persecution probably didn’t find that much compensation.

“The ‘anti-Zionist’ left thinks of itself not as persecuting but as the opposite; not as hate-mongering, but as promoting love and solidarity with the oppressed; not as murderous but a protest against murder and a crusade to stop it.

“And yet... and yet... at its heart it proposes policies which amount to the murder of a nation, a nation which arose out of the ashes of the greatest mass murder in recorded history. And yet it does preach hate for a whole people, for a nation and for its diaspora of supporters around the world who will not ‘see reason’. And yet, it does side with the potential oppressors of that nation.

“Honest and uninhibited people, like Uri Davis [a fervently anti-Israeli Israeli, sometime resident in Britain, who has now converted to Islam and joined Fatah], face this straight: they say that antisemitism does not matter now. Implicitly they say, as you do, what one of the world’s biggest neo-Trotskyist groupings (the “Morenists”) says explicitly: ‘Today Arab racism against Israel is progressive’. Implicitly, you say the same”.

(Open letter by Sean Matgamna to Tony Cliff, 1988).

This argument does not say there is a Chinese wall between political left antisemitism and racism. It doesn’t say flat-out that left antisemitism is “not racism”. Rather, it tries to show the SWP-types by reason that the political position they adopt out of sincere and fervent anti-racism produces conclusions bordering on or indistinguishable from racism.

It doesn’t say to political left antisemites: we dislike your ideas, but they’re not that bad, they’re “not racism”. It says: we understand and accept your anti-racist commitment. But think about the logic…

It is possible to be sharp against left antisemitism while understanding the sincerity of the SWP-types’ anti-racism. Proof: we’ve done that for 35 years or more.

It’s odd that our polemics since the 1980s are now accused of being “soft” on left antisemitism. Over the decades, it’s been much more common for our people to complain that Sean Matgamna, in particular, who has written most on the issue, has been too harsh against the left antisemites. Weirdly, some of the comrades who now insist on a blanket label of “racism” for all left antisemitism have also objected to articles dissecting the “rights-through-genetic-inheritance” (or “racist-in-quote-marks”) logic of some core “absolute anti-Zionist” arguments as too harsh, exaggerated, etc.

It’s good that comrades are keen to be more argumentative against left antisemitism.

I worry, though, that the bland equation, left antisemitism is racism — especially when coupled with startled rejection of specific dissection of “racist” elements in standard “absolute anti-Zionist” arguments — will not lead to more assertive argument.
Instead it can lead to the opposite: us privately reassuring ourselves of our anti-racist virtue and telling ourselves that it’s hardly worth trying to argue with SWP-type left antisemites, that there’s no common ground or “good faith” to start from.

We deny the plain fact, that those SWP-types are sincere anti-racists, who will be shocked if we can convince them that the arguments on Israel which they thought to be anti-racist actually have antisemitic implications — as we ourselves were shocked when we realised the same thing back in the mid-1980s.

What would make sense of the “left antisemitism is racism” argument, and make it more than a quarrel about words, is the view argued by some that the left-wing “absolute anti-Zionists” derive their hostility to Israel from an “ethnic” hostility to Jews, rather than vice versa.

History tells otherwise. Old-fashioned “ethnic” antisemitism still exists (including among people who think themselves “left”), but it has diminished since the 1940s. The recent surveys show antisemitism is stronger among the old than among the young. Recently I talked with Dave Rich, an expert on antisemitism in Britain, after interviewing him for the paper. His picture was that until recently Jews in Britain had assumed that antisemitism was gradually becoming a marginal phenomenon of the far right (and some sections of the far left): what alarmed them was its apparent sudden re-emergence near the “top” of politics.

In the 1950s, 60s, and even 70s, being against antisemitism was a constitutive, elemental part of being “broadly” left-wing. It was taken for granted that “Zionist” groups like the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen were an important part of anti-fascist activity. From 1945 through to 1974, there were between 20 and 35 Jews among Labour MPs, and until 1970 none or almost none among Tory MPs.

Far-left root-and-branch hostility to Israel started to become a force in the 1970s, and escalated in the 1980s, at the same time as old-fashioned “ethnic” antisemitism was declining. The story is told in our book The Left in Disarray, pp.158-161 and pp.231-244.
Among the “returner” (from the 1980s) layer in the Labour Party, the antisemitic implications of that absolute anti-Zionism have worked themselves through and given new life to remnants of the old “ethnic” antisemitism.

That has been the sequence, historically. Not the other way round, with the old-fashioned, “domestic”, mostly-Tory ethnic prejudice against Jews surging within the British left and bit-by-bit spilling over into hostility to Israel.

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