Leo Fischer argues the best response to accusations of antisemitism is to educate, organise and emphasise the continuing human rights abuses committed in Palestine
Something strange is happening in Europe lately. Amidst the crisis, neo-fascist parties claiming a direct ideological lineage to the anti-Semitic perpetrators of the Holocaust have in recent years made significant gains in countries such as Hungary, France, Slovakia, Austria and Greece. In the Ukraine, these forces are even openly backed by the West. Yet if one reads the Guardian or the Spiegel, she or he would get the impression that the greatest source of antisemitism in Europe is to be found not on the far right but on the radical left, due to the latter´s alleged “singling out” or “demonization” of Israel.
The Labour Party is currently embroiled in a manufactured antisemitism scandal, involving a witch-hunt against members that have occasionally voiced support for Palestinians. A minority of the incidents listed can indeed be classified as anti-Semitic. Given that antisemitism like all forms of racism constitutes a social problem, it should come as no surprise that it would also exist within one of Britain´s two great parties. But the overwhelming majority of the supposedly incriminating evidence, like Naz Shah´s map featuring Israel as the US´s 51st state or Ken Livingstone´s allusions to Nazi-Zionist-collaboration in the early thirties, can be best described as clumsy, ill-informed or unsophisticated, while others are merely expressions of solidarity with an oppressed people enduring the twin evils of occupation and apartheid on a daily basis. A thorough deconstruction of these allegations can be found here and here.
It has become quite obvious that the target of this witch-hunt is none other than Jeremy Corbyn. It´s not so much that the accused are close political associates of his. Some have not the slightest connection to the Labour left. But by claiming antisemitism in the guise of Palestine solidarity activism is rampant within the party, the Blairites seek on the one hand to present Corbyn as an incompetent leader not in control of his party, and on the other hand to delegitimise the kind of Palestine solidarity activism Corbyn has actively embraced before his rise to the Labour leadership. The first objective has been averted for the foreseeable future thanks to Sadiq Khan´s election as mayor of London as well as Labour´s election results elsewhere, which confirm the view that Labour under Corbyn has become more, not less attractive for large segments of the electorate.
The witch-hunt within Labour in historical context
The second objective has not been achieved, but still remains a field of contention. For in the current debate, the Blairites and their allies within the mainstream media have sought to redefine the very notion of antisemitism, as a prejudice no longer directed towards Jews but against the state of Israel. This is in itself not something new. Ever since Israel´s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, Zionist ideologues have tended to label criticism of Israeli policies against Palestinian and other Arabs as motivated by antisemitism (and thus irrational and illegitimate).
According to Ilan Pappe, there was always an inherent “Nazification of the Arabs” embedded in the Zionist narrative of the conflict, whereas Peter Novick, in his seminal work The Holocaust in American Life, has demonstrated how the placing of the tangled Israel-Palestine conflict in a Holocaust frame of reference by major Zionist organisations in the US (by claiming that Arabs merely wanted “to finish Hitler´s work”), helped seemingly provide it with the moral clarity of World War II in the eyes of American public opinion. All in all, one can easily observe the biggest hike in accusations of antisemitism levelled against the left and/or critical journalists occurring at times when Israel´s image in the West hits an all-time low.
Robert Fisk´s excellent personal account of the Lebanese civil war is a case in point. Within it, he dedicates an entire chapter focused on the hostile reactions and abuse that he other journalists reporting from Beirut received for their coverage of the massacre of Sabra and Shattila, carried out by Lebanese militiamen operating under Israeli cover and backing. Those attacks tended to increase in proportion to the coming to light of indisputable evidence of Israeli complicity in war crimes in Lebanon. In retrospect, the 1982 siege of Beirut presents something of a turning point in Western perceptions of the conflict, for it was the first major event in the Middle East warzone that was fully televised from both sides of the frontline.
The proliferation of satellite television, the internet and social media in the last twenty years has further undermined Israel´s monopoly on the flow of information emanating from the Middle East to the West. As the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by “salami-tactics”, the occasional massacre on Gaza, as well as the arbitrary arrest and abuse of children continue in plain sight, it should come as no surprise that Palestinians and their allies abroad - in the absence of any compelling counter-arguments -are increasingly being subjected to the smear of antisemitism.
In a way this is good news. It shows that Palestine solidarity is increasingly gaining the moral high ground in discourses related to the conflict, while it also serves as proof of the complete failure of the “Brand Israel” campaign to market the state as an LGBTQ-friendly and innovative “start-up country” to Western liberal audiences. Indeed, trends among so-called “millennials” in the United States show a growing erosion of sympathies for Israel, especially among young Democrats. The failure of this strategy and the turn to a policy of outright attack has given birth to all sorts of bizarre phenomena, like Benjamin Netanyahu´s obscene claim that “Hitler only wanted to expel the Jews” but ended up exterminating them under the influence, of course, of Palestinian incitement.
But the conquest of the moral high ground by the Palestine solidarity movement is not a lineal process. Indeed, there will be (and already are) moments where it will be in the defensive, where it will have to re-evaluate tactics and strategies. In this sense, it is a pleasant occurrence that the current smears against the Labour left have been widely met on the British radical left with a sophisticated discussion about the subtleties involved on the level of discourse, specifically the fine line between a universalist opposition to Zionism on the one hand, and one motivated by antisemitism on the other. It is a process of self-reflection in the framework of solidarity, and one that conforms to the opposition of the global solidarity movement with Palestine to all forms of racism, including antisemitism.
The case of Die Linke
But there are other ways to cope with such a crisis that can be extremely counterproductive. One such example involves the main party of the German left, Die Linke. Formed as a fusion of the former East German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and a left-wing social democratic split in the mid-2000s, the party drew support from wide strata of the anti-war movement, including individuals and groups involved in Palestine solidarity. Some of those individuals participated on board the Free Gaza Flotilla in 2010, while others, like the party´s mayoral candidate in the western city of Duisburg, proclaimed support for the BDS movement.
On the other hand in 2008, one of the party´s leading figures, Gregor Gysi, openly drew a connection between the prospect of Die Linke joining a federal government in the future, and accepting the German Staatsräson, loosely translated as the “national interest”, which also includes the German state´s “special relationship” to Israel. It is truly a special relationship and one that sees the German government providing nuclear-capable submarines to Israel, thus violating its own guidelines that supposedly prohibit the sale of arms to conflict-ridden regions.
These conflicting dynamics reached a crescendo in 2011 that took the form of a manufactured scandal eerily similar to the current Labour with-hunt. In the best traditions of what Edward Said described as “spurious scholarship” around the Palestine question, two academics close to a Zionist pressure group within Die Linke, published a “study” detailing the extent of a supposedly virulent “anti-Semitic anti-Zionism” within the party. The paper named the “good” and “bad” guys. The good guys were of course the reformers of the party´s right wing as well the left-libertarians, which sought to bring the party closer to the pro-Israel consensus of German establishment politics. The bad guys were the left within the party that supported boycotts of Israel and openly fraternized with “anti-Semitic” Islamist forces.
Like the current Labour affair, the scandal involved big chunks of the media that constantly ran stories about Die Linke´s “problem” with antisemitism in the aftermath of the publication of the “study”. Just like in the case of Labour, there was some degree of sloppiness and hyperbole by some of the individuals accused, but certainly none that warranted the accusation of antisemitism. Within a climate of fear and denunciation, Gysi, then head of the party´s caucus in the Bundestag, effectively blackmailed his fellow MPs by threatening to resign if they didn´t endorse a resolution stating that the party will not involve itself in any boycott campaign against Israel, discussions about a one-state-solution, or a second Free Gaza flotilla.
While Die Linke does occasionally raise the question of human rights abuses by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, its official position on the matter since then is confined to repeating ad nauseam its commitment to the two-state-solution, as well as some generalized statements about opposing all arms exports to the Middle East. The party has in effect censored the important debates, which the global solidarity movement has ignited in light of the evident failure of the other two tried-and-tested Palestinian liberation strategies: armed struggle and US-(dishonestly)brokered negotiations with Israel.
The accusation of antisemitism as a weapon against the left
One could claim that this is a typically German phenomenon, involving things such as guilt for the Holocaust or the influence of the initially radical left Antideutsch movement, which today combines a radical libertarian posture with racism against Muslims and support of Israeli war crimes. But guilt is hardly an adequate term for a situation where German leftists accuse Jewish critics of Israel of inciting antisemitism. The events in Labour also point to a wider European pattern. So does the case France, where advocating for a boycott of Israel can lead to a fine or imprisonment. The German case is exceptional indeed, but only in quantity, not quality.
All these accusations of antisemitism are typically directed against the left, not the right. How else can one explain the grovelling of mainstream French politics at the feet of Marine Le Pen by way of imitation, or the absence of EU sanctions against Hungary, Austria or the Ukraine, where forces with a long history of real antisemitism are either in power, or poised to seize it or share it with mainstream forces of the right in the near future? Clearly, combating real-existing antisemitism is not the real issue here.
Yet why is the accusation of antisemitism against the left so potent and disorienting? In the eyes of the accusers, antisemitism “proves the “hypocrisy of the left”: “Yes, the left is all about equality and justice, but when it comes to the Jews it has a problem. It won´t even allow them a thin strip of land among millions of Arabs. And its promises of equality could not prevent the Holocaust. It even defends those Muslims that do nothing but import their antisemitism into Europe”. Out of this narrative emerges a pessimist worldview: It´s nice to be proclaim social justice, anti-racism and all those nice things, but in the end of the day we live in Hobbesian world where everybody must ultimately fend for themselves, even if it is at the expense of others. The best we can hope for, it seems, are small cosmetic changes.
Accusing the left of antisemitism amounts to negating the very existence of the idea of the left, in order to discredit it altogether. Conservatives and liberals accuse the left of a lot things; of being economically reductionist, of being averse to the idea of freedom in the entrepreneurial sense, of being “too politically correct”, too “soft” on crime, drugs or immigration. But rarely do they pose as defenders of subaltern groups against the left, the way they do in the case of Israel (the attacks on Bernie Sanders supporters as sexist or racist by the Clinton campaign may however signal the start of a new pattern here).
Using axioms and styles traditionally associated with the left in order to defeat it was always one of the most effective strategies of the neoliberal counter-revolution on the ideological level. The struggle against the “collectivism” associated with the welfare state that was pioneered by the ex-Maoist “New Philosophers” in France was conducted in the name of “freedom”. It went hand in hand with an aggressive embrace of neo-colonialism and militarism, now dubbed “humanitarian intervention”. This Orwellian inversion of form and substance is typical for all aspects of life in the era of neoliberal capitalism; surveillance is practiced in the name of protecting freedom, the oppressive nature of precarity is portrayed as a liberating experience in popular culture, to name a just few examples. The accusations of antisemitism against the anti-racist left within Labour are thus simply part of the wider ideological warfare against normative conceptions of justice and equality, in this case against the idea that Palestinians are a people with human rights, including the right to practice self-determination in their homeland.
Another form of TINA
This must not be seen as an isolated incident. For in the Zionist narrative of the omnipotent persistence of antisemitism that necessitates the perpetuation of the colonization of Palestinian land, one can easily recognize similarities with the neoliberal standard dogma of TINA (“There is no alternative”). Both ideas are thoroughly reactionary, in the sense that they effectively amount to an ideological justification of the status quo. But as the recent example of Greece under Tsipras shows, numerous forces on the left have been all too keen in making peace with TINA on supposedly pragmatic grounds, and in the name of some abstract need to be “flexible” or prevent potentially worse outcomes.
It´s not surprising then that among social democratic parties and even those standing further to the left, those elements closer to the Zionist point of view of the conflict between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea tend to hold views on socioeconomic issues that are either indistinguishable from those of the right (like Manuel Valls in France and the Blairites in Britain) or timid and anaemic as in the case of the reformers of Die Linke and the current SYRIZA-led government (which, incidentally, chose to be “pragmatic” on grounds of “national interest” by expanding the Greek state´s military cooperation with Israel). If there are forces that do not reflect this correlation like the famous PEOPs – “progressives except on Palestine” - then these are merely living within contradictions that will either have to unravel at some point, or will forever remain hidden under the warm embrace of a general ignorance about the history and dynamics of this conflict.
“Being pragmatic” is also the underlying creed behind the various proposals for a two-state-solution, which according to Israeli socialist Moshe Machover amounts in reality to a “one and a half state-solution”. The plea for pragmatism is of course not directed to an ever-expanding Israel but to the Palestinians. No wonder then that those centre-left forces more willing to succumb to the neoliberal logic of no alternatives at home by constantly demanding sacrifices by the less well-off, are also the ones putting forward ideas of a “constructive engagement with Israel”, who implore the Palestinians to be “realistic”, or who reject boycotts out of “concern” for Palestinian workers.
There is no direct causality between both phenomena, other than perhaps the fact that Israel is a key link of neoliberal capital accumulation in the Middle East, but the mind-set employed is similar to TINA: acceptance of the idea that Israel should be basically allowed to have its way with the millions of Palestinians under its rule, accompanied by limited freedoms “to express concern”, exemplified by the “concession” of those accusing the Labour left of antisemitism, “that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic”.
The role of Islamophobia
Finally, besides functioning as a potent weapon against the left, the accusation of antisemitism serves as a means of constructing a colour-blind European subjectivity against the Arab or Muslim Other. In Germany, the effective transfer of the stigma of antisemitism to people of colour, especially youths of Arab and Turkish origin and more recently refugees from Syria, helps in providing a previously unthinkable resurgent German role in world affairs with a much-needed moral self-justification, since only “real Germans” are capable of feeling the kind of Holocaust-related guilt that translates into militant partisanship for Israel.
A citizenship test in the state of Hessen, for example, asks those applying to define “Israel´s right to exist”, whereas leading figures of the right-wing populist AfD counter plausible accusations of neo-fascism by citing their commitment to Israel. This is not only about destroying the left; it´s about drawing lines of division along ethnic and religious lines in the backdrop of a protracted structural crisis of capitalism, by culturalising discourses and drawing attention away from the social root causes of numerous problems related to income inequality and precarity, as well as decreasing social mobility.
The case of France is even more dramatic, symbolized by the near-totalitarian rallying behind a magazine specialized in insulting Muslims in the name of “free speech”, at the same time pro-Palestinian demonstrations are banned on “anti-racist” grounds. Britain seems to fare much better in this respect, largely thanks to a vibrant anti-war movement in the early 2000s that also raised awareness on Islamophobia. It is this movement that contributed to the eventual rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of Labour.
It´s no surprise then that the prospect a successful Corbyn leadership attracting young voters to the party on an anti-austerity, anti-war and anti-racist platform should constitute a living nightmare for those elements that for two decades oriented the party to the “New Democrats” in the US.
Some basic guidelines
The left should not be intimidated by accusations of antisemitism. This is not to say that people describing themselves as leftists cannot by definition hold anti-Semitic or any other racist views. But such views run contrary to everything the left stands for. The strategy of those accusing the left of antisemitism is based on the intentional conflation of a real-existing wider social problem with a political position in favour of the oppressed in Palestine. Furthermore, those Blairites launching a full-scale attack on the left usually have no moral qualms about justifying ethnic cleansing and other crimes committed by Israel and the West. Their main concern is not fighting racism but the dehumanisation of the Palestinians. The left has no other choice but to hit back and become the accuser.
Given the intense and polemical nature of debates revolving around the question if “anti-Zionism is racist”, there will likely be some forces claiming to hold some imaginary middle ground in the name of unity, and that will propose avoiding adjectives such as “Zionist”. Using language properly is certainly a must in this case, but this can only happen from a principled and strategic point of view and cannot be the result of intimidation. The left´s best response is to fight the current smokescreen by emphasising the continuing human rights abuses committed in Palestine and do what the left ought to do in complex situations: educate, organise and activate.
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