David Hirsh: Fighting anti-Semitism on the left from the left

A recently published book on “Contemporary Left Antisemitism” is an arguably long overdue study of “antisemitism amongst people who believe that they strongly oppose antisemitism.” That’s how the author David Hirsh, a sociologist at London’s Goldsmiths University, puts it in his Introduction, acknowledging that he is examining “a phenomenon whose very existence is angrily contested.” One reason Hirsh’s book is special is that he – a man of the left for all his life, and a veteran opponent of anti-Semitism – has experienced up close and personal just how angry reactions can get when a leftist insists on calling out left-wing anti-Semitism. Yet Hirsh’s analysis remains remarkably dispassionate, and the book has drawn well-deserved praise from leading intellectuals and scholars.

Israelis interested in contemporary anti-Semitism will have a chance to meet David Hirsh at a series of events in Haifa, Jerusalem, Netanya and Tel Aviv between November 5-8. On the evening of November 8, The Times of Israel will host Hirsh for a screening of the documentary “Whitewashed” that examines the efforts to ignore and downplay anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. (Ticket info for this event at the end of this post.)

While this documentary and much of the book focuses on anti-Semitism propagated by the British left, it is striking to see how easily Hirsh’s analysis can be applied to examples elsewhere.

Consider this observation that Hirsh offers at the very beginning of his book:

“If the Palestinians stand, in the antizionist imagination, as symbolic of all the victims of ‘the west’ or ‘imperialism’, then Israel is thrust into the centre of the world as being symbolic of oppression everywhere. Like antisemitism, antizionism imagines Jews as being central to all that is bad in the world.” (Kindle 395-398).

This statement could have been written in response to a recent report about a controversy at Cornell University at Ithaca, NY. The controversy erupted after Russell Rickford, a Cornell professor who teaches black American history, used a demonstration for solidarity with black Americans to lead the chant “Free Palestine.” The professor justified what many considered a hijacking of the event by asserting:

“The colonial occupation of Palestine remains one of the world’s most visible campaigns of white supremacist violence […] All the great structures of U.S. violence — mass incarceration, militarism, police terror, racism, etc. — converge in the occupation of Palestine.”

Of course, all the “great structures of U.S. violence” that Professor Rickford denounced developed well before Israel even existed – as he surely knows given that he is an expert on black American history.

Another example of the broader relevance of the British examples cited by Hirsh can be found right at the beginning of the documentary “Whitewashed,” which opens with Jeremy Corbyn praising the Islamist terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas. Corbyn asserts that Hamas is “dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.” A similar view was expressed by the influential US academic Judith Butler, who once explained in response to a question that “[u]nderstanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.” To be sure, Butler noted that embracing Hamas and Hezbollah as “part of a global left” should not necessarily “stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence.” Quite obviously, this was not exactly a forceful condemnation of terrorism, and it left anyone not particularly interested in “non-violent politics” free to cheer Hezbollah and Hamas without reservations – as prominent anti-Israel activists like Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal do.

But while people like Corbyn and Butler embrace Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas as part of a supposedly “progressive” global left, Hirsh considers his book “as much a manifestation of a democratic left tradition as it is a critique of a totalitarian left tradition.” There are some indications that point to an increasing willingness on part of the democratic left to take evidence of anti-Semitism seriously – even if it comes from the ranks of the left, and even if the purveyors of contemporary anti-Semitism loudly protest that they are merely “criticizing” Israel and “opposing” Zionism. It is also clear that there is currently much interest in the subject matter of Hirsh’s book; one example is a recently published German article on “educated anti-Semitism,” which is described as a relatively new form of Jew-hatred that targets the world’s only Jewish state and which is proudly practiced by academics, teachers, journalists, bankers and doctors who seem utterly oblivious to the fact that their Israel “criticism” echoes pretty much every anti-Jewish calumny invented over the past 2000 years.

In his book, Hirsh also addresses the echoes of familiar anti-Jewish tropes in contemporary anti-Semitism:

“Antisemitism thinks of Jews as cunning, powerful and immoral – being both behind the powerful and in control of them. Antisemitism saw Jews behind revolutions and wars, behind Bolshevism, behind capitalism, behind imperialism, bankers, money lenders, landlords, pornographers, freemasons; today some people see Jews (or Zionists) behind the neo-cons and neo-liberalism, behind the Iraq war, as saboteurs of Middle East peace, as over-influential in academia, Hollywood, the media, the professions; Jews are the comfortable, the hypocrites, they have become ‘white folk’ […] For some, antizionism, anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism and antisemitism close in on each other; they share the same resonances, the same feelings, the same enemies, the same images and the same discourses.” (Kindle 4691-4697)

It is obviously very disheartening to contemplate the fact that it was too optimistic to hope that Nazi Jew-hatred might once and for all discredit the anti-Jewish tropes that had mutated over centuries to sustain what is sometimes called “the oldest hatred.” But while hardly anybody today would repeat the Nazi slogan “The Jews are our misfortune,” lots of supposedly “progressive” activists seem comfortable with campaigns that could be summed up with the slogan “The Jewish state is our misfortune.”

So it is hardly surprising that towards the end of his book, when Hirsh offers some moving personal reflections on his own experiences fighting anti-Semitism, he comes to a deeply pessimistic conclusion:

“there is a sense in which people fighting other forms of bigotry have had the feeling that history is on their side […] I do not feel like that with antisemitism. I feel that things are moving away from us, slowly but consistently, one step at a time. Things that are possible today, one keeps feeling, would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago. There is no catastrophe, no falling over the cliff; it is not 1939 again, but neither is there a feeling that we are heading, in the end, to a better place.” (Kindle 4876-4880)

David Hirsh will be screening the film ‘Whitewashed’ and talking about his new book ‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism’ at a special evening for Times of Israel readers at Beit Avi Chai on Nov. 8. Tickets 40 NIS (38 NIS advance) HERE

About the Author
Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a politically homeless lapsed leftist who can’t get used to living in a time when the Nazi slogan “The Jews are our misfortune” is considered quite acceptable in its 21st century version “The Jewish state is our misfortune.” She therefore writes mostly about antisemitism, anti-Israel activism and BDS, i.e. Bigoted Double Standards. She grew up in Germany and has a Ph.D. in contemporary history.
Related Topics
Related Posts