Anti-Semitism and ‘The Left’

I left this comment in response to a post titled ‘Why is the Left so nonchalant about anti-Semitism?’ on Northern Ireland political website Slugger O’Toole.

Arthur Ruppin

Arthur Ruppin

It is a matter of fact that the accusation of anti-Semitism is used to deflect attention from Israel’s crimes. Nonetheless anti-Semitism as a phenomenon needs to be taken seriously because of its harmful social effects. The fact that some people make unjustifiable accusations of anti-Semitism does not mean it doesn’t exist or that it is nothing to be concerned about. It is therefore right to question the consequences of people using anti-Semitic imagery and language, and on occasion committing acts of physical violence motivated by anti-Semitism. Fine.

The problem I have with this piece is the way it treats the phenomenon of anti-Semitism that appears on the Left as a problem of the Left as such, and not a reflection of the broader social context in which such manifestations of anti-Semitism occur. ‘The Left’ is not a political organisation. Despite what many people claim, there is no ‘we’ of ‘The Left’, unless you think you can speak for characters of such diversity to the point of absurdity as Stalin, Tony Blair, Shining Path, Gerhard Schroeder, Dolores Ibarruri, Pol Pot and the Progressive Unionist Party. Despite all claims to the contrary, there is no ‘true’ Left, so to speak: it is merely an orientation.

There is a lot to be said for the old description of anti-Semitism as the ‘socialism of fools’. But who are the ‘fools’ in this case? In the main, people who believe that there would be nothing wrong with society if it were not for the malign influence of Jews. It is a belief in the fundamental soundness of the way things are, threatened by conspiratorial aliens who tell lies, manipulate people and the workings of the world. But this is only a particular instance of anti-Semitism, it isn’t anti-Semitism as such. Anti-Semitism can be better understood as the belief in the existence of race, of racial difference, and in Jews as constituting one such race. It follows from this that there is an essential difference between someone who is considered a Jew on the one hand and the rest of society on the other. As a political consequence, Jews, because they are considered different from everyone else in the societies they inhabit, must move somewhere where they can have their own political space.

Some people think this should be performed forcibly, others believe Jews should do so willingly. This means that there is common ground to the position of German racial theorists under Nazi rule and certain key figures in Zionism. Thus as historian Mark Mazower notes in Hitler’s Empire, ‘German-born Zionist Arthur Ruppin..was close in many of his theoretical views to Hans Gunther, the ‘Nordic race’ expert who acted as mentor to Himmler. Both men –they met in 1933 to discuss the ‘Jewish question’- believed the Jews were a racially distinct people who should not assimilate and did not belong in Europe.’ Ruppin, as Mazower notes, was the first head of the Palestine Bureau.

The point I am making is that anti-Semitism as a contemporary social phenomenon must be seen in terms of the way in which Jews are perceived in society more broadly than just on ‘the Left’. If it is common sense that the proper place for Jews is Israel, which is a central tenet of Zionism, and it is common sense that Israel is the representative State of the world’s Jews, and this is what the State of Israel claims, then this is a major cause of anti-Semitism. Is Northern Ireland –with its strong strain of Christian Zionism- equipped to question these issues, let alone address them politically? (I would note in passing that neither Brendan O’Neill nor Daniel Hannan, the commentators cited in this piece, seem particularly well equipped in this regard either. I would also note that David Cameron has proudly acknowledged he is a Zionist, but this rarely seems to give grounds for fear of anti-Semitism on ‘the Right’)

Finally, although the author feels as though he is in a category of his own on Twitter: ‘pro-Palestine, but likewise concerned about anti-Semitism and the wellbeing of our Jewish neighbours’, all the dedicated Palestinian solidarity campaigners I know are vehemently opposed to anti-Semitism, not merely because it is harmful to the Palestinian cause but also because it is wrong in itself. And many of them have Twitter accounts too.

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