A convenient alibi for the trendy left

The JC Essay

By Norman Geras, August 21, 2012

It is not difficult to understand the long affinity that has existed between Jews and the left. Common traditions of opposition to injustice, the commitment within liberal and socialist thought to ideals of some sort of equality, opposition to racist and other similar types of prejudice - these things have long served to attract Jewish people to organisations and movements of the left, and they continue to do so.

However, that affinity has lately been compromised by the existence of a new climate of antisemitic opinion within the left. This climate of opinion affects a section of the left only, not all of it. But it is a substantial section. Its convenient alibi is the state of Israel: by which I mean that Israel is habitually invoked to deflect the charge of antisemitism.

Israel, so the story goes, is a delinquent state and, for many of those who think this, a non-legitimate one - colonialist, imperialist, an instrument of oppression. Similarly, diaspora Jews who defend Israel within their home countries are not seen as a regular conduit of opinion. They are treated, rather, as a dubious force - the notorious "Jewish lobby" - as if their organised existence were improper.

Could it be, though, that there is no such climate of antisemitic opinion - that Israel's critics are exactly what they say they are: critics of the policies of successive Israeli governments, just as there are critics of the governments of every country?

Well, it could be. There has been enough to criticise - from the long occupation of Palestinian territory to the policy of permitting Jewish settlements there. Indeed, there are certainly critics and criticisms of Israel that are not antisemitic - such as the two criticisms I have just made. Yet, if it both could be and is, it also in many cases is not. Much of the animus directed at Israel today is of a plainly antisemitic character, as I shall go on to illustrate.

You do not have to go far to find activists of the left playing down antisemitic elements within Hamas or Hizbollah

A first form of the Israel alibi for contemporary antisemitism is the impulse to treat such antisemitism as there is acknowledged to be - in Europe, in the Arab world - as merely an expression of the Israel-Palestine conflict. One instance of this was the statement by film director Ken Loach in March 2009 that, if there was a rise of antisemitism in Europe, this was not surprising: "It is perfectly understandable," he said, "because Israel feeds feelings of antisemitism".

The key word that he used is "understandable". This might just mean capable of being understood; but since more or less everything can be understood, it would be pointless to use the word in that sense about the specific phenomenon of a rise in antisemitism in Europe.

"Understandable" also means something along the lines of "excusable" or, at any rate, not an issue to get excited about. To see plainly the way in which Israel acts as an exonerating alibi here, one need only imagine Loach, or anyone else on the Left, delivering themselves of the opinion that a growth of hostility towards black people or immigrants from South Asia was "understandable".

Another instance of this first form of the Israel alibi is provided by a thesis of Gilbert Achcar's concerning Holocaust-denial in the Arab world. Holocaust-denial is a prominent trope of contemporary antisemitism, continuous, indeed, with a practice of the Nazi period itself, when camp guards and the like would mock their Jewish victims by telling them that not only were they doomed to die, but also all knowledge of their fate would be erased. They would be forgotten.

Achcar, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a longtime leftist, accepts that Western Holocaust-denial is an expression of antisemitism. Much Arab Holocaust-denial, on the other hand, he puts down to such factors as impatience in the Arab world with Western favouritism towards Israel, a suspicion that the Holocaust has been "amplified" for pro-Zionist purposes, and exasperation with the cruelty of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Whether or not these explanations are valid, a racist belief does not cease to be one on account of its having context-specific causes. No one on the Left would suggest that a belief that black people were lazy, feckless or simple-minded, was less racist for being held by a certain group of white people for motives which eased their way towards that belief.

A second form of the Israel alibi for antisemitism is the plea that antisemitism should not be ascribed to anyone without evidence of active hatred of Jews on their part; without a clear sign of antisemitic intent. A well-known case of this second form arose with Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children, following Israel's invasion of Gaza in the winter of 2008 to 2009.

This play puts into Jewish mouths the view that Palestinians are "animals" and that "they want their children killed to make people sorry for them"; but that there is no need to feel sorry for them; that we - the Jews - are the chosen people and that it is our safety and our children that matter; in sum, that "I wouldn't care if we wiped them out". Apart from this echoing the Mediaeval blood libel, Churchill ascribes to the Jews murderous racist attitudes bordering on the genocidal. On the face of it, her play is a clear candidate for antisemitic discourse.

Churchill, however, disavowed that charge against her by critics. She did so on the grounds of an innocent mind. No antisemitism had been intended by her: the blood libel analogy was not part of her thinking in writing the play, and those speaking the offending lines in it were not meant to be Jews in general, merely individual Israelis. Churchill is evidently innocent of any memory of the figure of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, long thought of, despite being only one character, as putting Jews in a bad light. She is innocent, too, of her own generalizing tendencies in naming her play Seven Jewish Children and linking the broad themes of Jews as the victims of genocide and then, in turn, potential perpetrators of it.

Consider the idea of a sociology of racism in which racism was held to be only about mental attitudes, about what people had in their minds, hatreds explicitly formulated; and not also about a language embodying negative stereotypes, unconscious prejudicial assumptions or discriminatory practices. For no other kind of racism would so narrow a definition of it be taken seriously even for a moment.

German poet Günter Grass's recent verse, What Must Be Said, which imputed to Israel on the basis of no evidence a genocidal ambition against the Iranian people, may serve to introduce a third form of alibi antisemitism. The poem, which made headlines around the world, contains a reference to the "loudmouth" president of Iran - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - at once Holocaust-denier and lead spokesman for removing Israel from the pages of the history books. Like others for whom this is a central goal, the loudmouth president sometimes gets the benefit of the consideration that such talk is mere rhetoric, so not to be treated as in earnest.

And you do not have to go far to find journalists and activists of the left similarly playing down antisemitic elements within the programmatic objectives of terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hizbollah: not only their commitment to getting rid of Israel, but also openly Jew-hating statements, as can be seen for example in the Hamas Charter. This document cites the famous antisemitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as authoritative and as establishing a Zionist ambition to dominate the world. It has Jews hiding behind rocks and trees against the threat (which it celebrates) that Jews will in due course be killed.

Leftists and liberals of a would-be pragmatist turn of mind can appear remarkably untroubled by this sort of thing. Either the offending contents of the Hamas Charter are consigned by them to a receding past, not to be worried about today, or they are said not to represent the thinking of Hamas moderates willing to contemplate a long-term (though not unlimited) truce with Israel. It is never explained by such pragmatists why, if the anti-Jewish components of the document are a thing of the past or merely rhetorical, they have not been taken out.

Try, once again, to imagine a person of the Left able to adopt so indulgent an attitude to other openly racist discourses, or to be able to treat them as merely rhetorical racism while continuing to be held in respect within the leftist political milieu to which he or she belongs. It doesn't happen. Only Israel provides a pretext in that milieu for the mere-rhetoric plea. By a convenient substitution, people using the term "Jews" may be taken to mean "Israel", and Israel today is fair game for being hated.

The fourth and final alibi phenomenon that I shall deal with is more oblique. It consists neither of the direct expression of antisemitic themes nor of attempts to explain these away, but rather of turning a blind eye. It is relevant, nonetheless, since prejudice makes its way more successfully when there is a tolerance of it by others.

I will take as my example of this the Guardian newspaper. This once great paper of British liberalism now provides space on its opinion pages for the spokesmen of Hamas, despite the contents of Hamas's programmatic charter; and on its letters page, for philosophers justifying the murder of Jews; and on its website, for people who deploy well-known antisemitic themes even while professing that they have nothing whatever against Jews.

The Guardian is, as one would expect, on record as being vigorously opposed to racism: as, for example, when it referred in a leader of November 2011 to "a message that is not heard often enough…that racism is never acceptable, wherever it takes place".

Instructive, in the light of that, is to examine how the paper reacted to the Toulouse killings. On March 20 of this year, before the identity of the killer was known and when it was assumed he was from the French far right, the Guardian echoed the sentiment I have just quoted from its November leader, saying that "the [French] republic will come together in the face of such an assault on its minorities". Cautioning against speculation about the killer's motives, it nonetheless allowed itself to allude to Sarkozy's lurch to the right, his claims of "there being too many immigrants in France", and other such expressions of xenophobia.

Two days later, however, once it was known that the killer was Mohammed Merah, an Islamist jihadist who had said he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children, a second editorial endorsed Sarkozy in "condemn[ing] any attempt to denigrate the French Muslim community by associating it with the mad crimes of a terrorist", and then added precisely nothing about the kind of ideas which might have been influential in Merah's willingness - not as a Muslim but as an Islamist and jihadist - to slaughter three Jewish children. "Mad crimes of a terrorist" was all, and not so much as a breath about antisemitism. But the killing of Jewish children is antisemitism of the most unadulterated kind. Those children were guilty of nothing and were killed by Merah because they were Jewish.

A liberal newspaper, committed to the fact that racism is never acceptable anywhere, can find the words to name the poison that is rightwing anti-immigrant xenophobia, but not the word for hatred of Jews.

It is a moral scandal that some few decades after the unmeasurable catastrophe that overtook the Jewish people in Europe, these antisemitic themes and ruses are once again respectable; respectable not just down there with the thugs, but pervasively also within polite society, within the perimeters of a self-flattering liberal and left opinion.

Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus of government at the University of Manchester. He blogs at Normblog

Last updated: 12:01pm, August 21 2012