This is adapted from a paper delivered at the 2019 Conference of the Association for Israel Studies, at Kinneret Academic College, on 25 June.
Is the term “antisemitic anti-Zionism” tautological? Is anti-Zionism expressly and always antisemitic? And what can we learn from the example of left-wing antisemitism, specifically what has happened in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party?
I’ll first briefly define what I mean by anti-Zionism. It’s important because so often it is willfully misrepresented. Anti-Zionism is the hatred of Israel as the Jewish state, and/or a wish for it to disappear or be destroyed. It is not mere criticism of the Israeli government or particular policies.
So, in the first instance, anti-Zionism is a gateway drug. Rather than, as one might assume, a hatred of Jews leading to a hatred of the Jewish state, we see the reverse. We have the anti-imperialist left seizing on Israel’s establishment as the ultimate example of continued western subjugation of non-western peoples. And then, from that anti-Israel sentiment, antisemitism blossoms, in all its myriad guises.
What Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party provides is a highly revealing test case: What happens when an ideological anti-Zionist and his fellow travelers take over a mainstream, hitherto politically moderate institution? Specifically, what is the effect on how that institution treats Jews?
David Hirsh, author of the recent Contemporary Left Antisemitism, gives an excellent concise description of Corbyn’s worldview:
His political tradition understands the key evils on the planet to be American, British and Israeli imperialism. He thinks that forces which oppose imperialism, including the Iranian state… Iraqi Islamist militias, Bin Laden, the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah, are fundamentally defensive. He supports them insofar as they are ‘anti-imperialist’.
So, what happens when such a man takes the reins of the Labour Party? We have the answer: an epidemic of antisemitism. It is now a political party labeled institutionally antisemitic in an authoritative report and under investigation by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. (It’s worth noting that the only previous occasion that a political party in the UK was subjected to this kind of investigation, the party in question was the British National Party, a far-right outfit run by men who spent their shaved-headed adolescence chasing after Jews and blacks with baseball bats.)
The Twitter and Facebook accounts of ordinary Labour Party members and even some elected officials have become forums of antisemitic conspiracy theory, Holocaust denial, and innuendo about wealthy Jewish bankers. When Israel is brought into the discussion it is usually as an avatar for malevolent Jewish power. Jewish Labour MPs critical of the party leadership are accused of being Mossad agents, or receiving their orders from the Israeli Embassy.
That the Party has an antisemitism problem is not in doubt. Neither is the fact that this problem started – or at least became too big a problem to ignore – within a few months of Corbyn’s election as party leader. The effect of his anti-Zionism is clear: Once singling out and demonizing the Jewish state became legitimate; those with the inclination to do the same to Jewish people were encouraged and empowered.
But there’s another aspect to the ‘gateway drug’ analogy. There also appears to be a graduation into the ‘harder stuff’ by individuals themselves; Corbyn himself above all. This is a man with no obvious animus towards the Jewish religion or to the Jews as a historic people, whose obsessive hostility towards Israel has created an extraordinary blind-spot with regards to antisemitism. Not only do we have his long record of support for individuals who he has defined as merely “critics of Israel’ – in reality a collection of Holocaust deniers, Blood Libelers and actual Jew-murdering terrorists; he also defended a mural featuring big-nosed bankers playing monopoly on the backs of the poor, and wrote a glowing foreword to a reprint of Imperialism: A Study, a screed against “the house of Rothschild” and Jewish control over global finance written by one John Atkinson Hobson in 1902.
Now, one theory is that Corbyn is a genuine believer in Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don’t think so. Corbyn simply does not see antisemitism. Jews are not on his radar as a discriminated minority. They are – at least in his limited imagination – white and western and so cannot possibly be victims. When antisemitism is alleged at him or one of his friends it does not compute. It cannot be. The antisemitism accusation must be in bad faith, and must be an attempt to shut down criticism of Israel.
Take for example Corbyn’s friendship with, and defense of, Reverend Stephen Sizer, an Anglican clergyman who likes to hang out with Holocaust deniers and has publicly inquired as to whether Israel was responsible for 9/11. In 2012, Jeremy Corbyn wrote a letter to the Church of England defending his friend from accusations of antisemitism. Sizer was, he wrote, simply “highlighting the injustices of the Palestinian Israeli situation”. Corbyn requested that any judgement of Sizer note “just how much distance exists between antisemitism [and] anti Zionism”.
So, to the real question: Is anti-Zionism itself a form of antisemitism?
We can identify three stages of anti-Zionism, three developments over time. The first stage pre-dates Israel, and is the belief that Zionism was the wrong answer to the “Jewish question” in Europe. This was a belief held, of course, by a majority of Jews until the 1930s. Better to trust in the promise of further emancipation, or to support Bundist socialism or the utopian vision offered by Soviet communism, than pursue Herzl’s fantasy. It can be understood, even justified, in the context of the time – although history proved it tragically, catastrophically wrong. It would not be fair to regard this phase of anti-Zionism as antisemitic. The second phase, the movement to destroy Israel in the years following its creation was primarily an Arab undertaking; perhaps functionally antisemitic but motivated not only, perhaps not primarily, by the Jewish character of the state. But then we get to the third phase. This posits not only that Israel should be removed, but that Israel is a uniquely malign force in the world.
This particular expression of anti-Zionism became a mainstream, even respectable, position to hold following the 1975 UN General Assembly vote on Resolution 3379, determining that Zionism is a form of racism. An initiative of the Soviet Union, it would become the inspiration for what would develop into an essential position of parts of the European left.
I could quote here any number of poignant passages from the two magnificent ripostes to the vote by Israeli Ambassador Chaim Herzog or US Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but here’s something from a more neutral source. This is the British writer and academic Goronwy Rees, an observer of the debate on Resolution 3379 in the Third Committee of the General Assembly. He wrote:
There were ghosts haunting the Third Committee that day; the ghosts of Hitler and Goebbels and Julius Streicher, grinning with delight to hear, not only Israel, but Jews as such denounced in language which would have provoked hysterical applause at any Nuremberg rally…
From its inception, this attack on Zionism, the claim that Israel was born in irredeemable sin, was felt to be about something more than just geopolitics. Rees and others could not help but note that the Jewish right to national self-determination – something that had been lauded as a sign of progress and justice in the years following the Holocaust – was now being defined as racism. And curiously, only the Jewish right to self-determination was defined as such.
Much of the European left’s critique of Israel is bound up with sympathy for Arabs and Muslims – regarded as the primary targets of racism – and often given a pass by self-defined progressives to be as anti-progressive (misogynistic, homophobic, antisemitic) as they like. So here’s an oddity. Muslims have been the victims of genuine atrocities in recent months. The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are being brutally ethnically cleansed. And the more we hear about the horrific ‘reeducation’ camps for over a million Muslims in western China the more appalled we should be. Yet, the left-wing organizations and public figures who are so skilled at organizing mass demonstrations against Israel have uttered not a word against either.
It’s impossible to ignore that there seems to be something uniquely thrilling about protesting Israel, and only Israel. At the end of the day, only one thing makes Israel truly unique. It is the world’s only Jewish state. And that speaks to something pathological in western society – in European society first and foremost.
Antisemitism is quite unlike other forms of racism and prejudice. It is protean and it is pathological. Antisemitism has never required intellectually coherent rationales. George Orwell wrote: “one of the marks of antisemitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true”. Jews were the purveyors of international communism, and the hidden puppet-masters orchestrating global capitalism. They were to be vilified as wandering, stateless “rootless cosmopolitans”, and are the only people whose sovereign state is inherently illegitimate. The discourse around Israel in the Labour Party is as irrational, obsessive and conspiracy theory-laden as antisemitism has always been.
Not all anti-Zionists today hate Jews. But they all participate in a discourse contaminated by antisemitism. Again, it’s not rational, but it is the case that anti-Zionist forums and chatrooms also include an awful lot of discussion about how Jews ran the slave trade. And what is it about Jewish statehood that they find so uniquely objectionable? What is it about Israel’s policies or actions that make the state itself – not simply this or that government – illegitimate, when other countries can be guilty of far worse without forfeiting their very right to be? What, do they think, will be the fate of Israel’s seven million or so Jews in today’s Middle East, once their beloved ‘binational state’ is established? Will they be equal citizens in an Arab-led liberal democracy? The chances are not great let’s be honest.
I’ll end where I began, with Jeremy Corbyn, who would furiously deny that his obsessive animus towards Israel has led him into the fetid waters of antisemitism. But listen carefully to his protestations and you’ll hear what has become a standard anti-Zionist method of responding to this accusation: disingenuous assertions, stupid questions, and increasingly contemptible answers.