Kenneth Waltzer

Some Takeaways from David Hirsh’s Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism

British sociologist David Hirsh has made a huge contribution to the discussion about contemporary anti-Semitism with his new book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (Routledge, 2017).   In it, he explores the kind of anti-Semitism that inhabits the hard left where people consider themselves, basically, antiracists, and so reject any notion that they participate themselves in anti-Semitism. They are the community of the good, and so they respond with counter-charges that the claim that they are anti-Semitic is made in bad faith.

Indeed, such people respond even to mainstream scholarship about the new anti-Semitism as part of a conspiracy by pro-Israel forces to blunt any criticism whatsoever by high minded radicals of the Jewish state. There is no anti-Semitism on their side, they insist; there is only mobilization and false identification by those who are enemies of the left on behalf of Israel.

In making this claim, those on the hard-left refuse to take anti-Semitism seriously.  They refuse to consider it an objective social phenomenon that is vital to be studied and important to be discussed. They reject out of hand they may have an anti-Semitism problem; indeed, they refuse absolutely even to consider it. They count everything they say about Israel to be, simply, appropriate criticism of Israel, nearly by definition.

Hirsh insists from a position himself on the left that an increasingly mainstream aspect of progressive left culture is this sharp rejection out of hand of people studying or claiming the reality of anti-Semitism.  Such rejection works to place those who are concerned about anti-Semitism outside the community of the good.  In a word, those who raise the issue are quickly treated or seen as “other,” and progressive left culture is relieved of ever having to deal with the issue of anti-Semitism seriously at all.

But David Hirsh takes anti-Semitism seriously indeed and probes the phenomenon energetically as someone who has felt the increasingly nasty bite of such exclusion,first in the unions, then in the labour party.  He sees it as a sign of an increasingly authoritarian and essentialist strain in the left which practices a politics of position rather than of reason, i.e., which embraces a rigid and binary campist anti-imperialist politics, that puts Jews and Israel on the side of the imperialist camp and progressives on the side opposed to imperialism. Such a worldview is coming to predominate, Hirsh laments surely accurately, in the labour unions, the Labour Party, and many universities.  It is spreading too across the pond to the United States. Remarkably it is accompanied by the championing of explicitly anti-Semitic organizations, like Hamas, who are accounted part of the anti-imperialist resistance, and it is occurring about the same time as the serious uptick of violence occurring against Jews on the continent.

Such selectivity in outlook is not the only selectivity in the face of complexity that infects the hard left, says Hirsh. Those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement position their movement as heir to the anti-apartheid movement aiding South Africa. They acknowledge no similarity between their efforts to isolate and shun Israeli academics and their institutions or those who support them and the numerous earlier efforts in history to mark and isolate Jews as others; they acknowledge no linkage between their own boycott and anti-Jewish boycotts of varying kinds in history.  They assert instead that they are passive responders to the call of Palestinian civil society organizations, they are answering a call from the oppressed for involvement.  But, in fact, this assertion is untrue.  The boycott was organized first from a call outside of Palestinian civil society, and the effort by BDS supporters to present the movement as a call from the oppressed themselves is a false statement of actual history.  The gambit is that It permits BDS supporters to claim a legitimacy for BDS which does not warrant it, and to put the call to boycott Israeli academics to supporters as an obligation rather than a strategy to be critically evaluated.

Similarly, the insistence that the academic boycott is not a campaign against individual Israelis, only institutions, amounts to an additional form of self-deception. Institutions are communities of scholars, and institutions are the guarantors of academic freedom.  The action of boycott means formal exclusion, rejection, shunning, proscription. It means drawing a red line and creating an “other.” When it comes as a consequence of being called to the cause by the moral legacy of South Africa, for example, it also narrows reality considerably. The Israel-South Africa analogy works as a moral equation that pressures participants to include themselves, at the same time indicting what is thought to be an extreme evil. We have here a clear picture of the politics of position which distinguishes between those interested in peace and compromise and, say, a two-state solution, with those interested to side with Palestinians against Israelis in what is presented as a simplified one-sided good vs. evil liberation struggle.

In Britain, the result of these new emphases on the hard left by 2009 was disaster in the newly merged teachers’ union, the University and College Union (UCU,) which formally embraced the academic boycott on the South African model and simultaneously drove most Jewish members from membership. Increasingly, actual mobilization, too, was carried out as an aggressive movement against “Zionist Power” which was seen to infect the union, and partisans repeated the claims that they were not by boycotting individuals or  violating academic freedom. One partisan put it to novelist Howard Jacobsen about the boycott that he and others were simply not boycotting Israelis, there were just refusing to listen to any of them. Jacobsen, in a memorable speech, responded that no longer to listen was to withdraw from thought, and universities and colleges that committed to do so would hurt themselves far more than the targets they proscribed.

As Hirsh observes, such anti-Zionist politics is concerned more and more today with labeling and making simple misleading analogies, “trivial analogy politics”, he calls it, e.g., highlighting alleged Israeli apartheid, alleged Israeli Nazism, and so forth, which sadly has  significant effects. Such efforts center all evil on Israel and the Jews, and seek to disestablish the Jewish state.  Further, in the politicized unions, especially the UCU, leadership adopted declarative statements that criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy were not anti-Semitic blocking any serious discussion of the subject. Many Jewish members were pushed to withdraw from the community, which came to host a threatening hostile culture of disparagement and anti-Semitism. The boycott strategy, as one Jewish member testified, resonated with the history of anti-Semitism, was based on false facts, and promoted a discourse with anti-Semitic tropes.

The greatest takeaway from David Hirsh’s sobering exploration is that anti-Semitism must be seen as a social phenomenon, not just a social attitude of hostility or hatred. Like other forms of racism, it is embodied in ways of thinking; it is also supported in discursive and institutional forms and expressed in  purposive actions and in the deployment of classic themes and memes, including the claim of Jewish conspiracy. Such themes and memes are easily identified.  An especially classic theme after all is attributing to Jews who raise concerns about anti-Semitism dishonesty and bad faith.  An especially classic action is pushing them beyond the boundaries of the community of the good.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.