Finally, a radical left voice about Israel that is worth listening to

A new book by a Jewish socialist confronts the left’s attitudes, and in doing so offers lessons for our community’s response

September 24, 2021 13:03

Daniel Randall is a Jewish socialist activist in London who has written extensively on left antisemitism and often provides a rare voice of reason online — particularly on Twitter. His book, Confronting Antisemitism On The Left — Arguments For Socialists, is out this week.

Much like his online insights, the book is nuanced, thoughtful, academic and challenging. His aim isn’t to confirm and champion anyone’s pre-existing beliefs but to challenge perceptions entirely.

He offers a radical left perspective that acknowledges and dissects left wing antisemitism, providing a detailed historical, theoretical, and intellectual analysis as well as proposed solutions.

As he reflects how things have gone wrong and how the left can do better, I reflected on the same for our community.

The book is aimed at socialist activists first and foremost, but its insights are invaluable to anyone who discusses antisemitism, Israel and Palestine.

As a community, thinking about how we engage with the left and how we continue to address antisemitism across the political spectrum are vital. Regardless of how you vote, surely we don’t want to live in a world where an entire political faction is written off as “bad for the Jews”? We can’t just accept the left as an enemy, for it is in our interests to have less anti-Jewish racism in our society.

While Randall poses detailed critiques of the left’s flaws, he often pauses to remind us that not every flaw is an indication of antisemitism. As a community that’s become accustomed to fighting things that are left-wing by nature, these distinctions are helpful. There are too many discussions that water down the essence of Palestinian freedom and of Israeli society. We have a tendency to be reactionary — sometimes with good reason — to certain phrases or ideas. Particularly when it comes to Israel.

Randall provides nuanced context on the often missing ‘why’. For example, we already know that Ken Livingstone is terrible; it doesn’t need to be said. Rather than just stating he’s wrong, Randall explains where his thinking has come from, and why it’s flawed. People prefer to engage in discussion rather than be told that what they think isn’t right. It’s an attempt to improve the left rather than simply attack it, from the perspective that it’s a movement that must gain momentum in order to create the change it desires locally, nationally and globally.

If the left continues to define itself by a desire to struggle, rather than a desire to be victorious, then it will continue to lose, and the people it claims to fight for will continue to lose too. Win an argument, lose an election.

Similarly, the fight against Labour antisemitism was a moment in time, but we as a community mustn’t be defined by it. There’s more to be done and we must participate in the process of change in a meaningful way.

Randall makes a valiant attempt at tackling Israel/Palestine with the same thoughtful nuance he applies to everything else. Refusing to apply double standards — he is critical of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, using language some may find harsh — but is equally critical of oppressive states like China and Russia.

His point is not that Israel is as bad as those states. That’s irrelevant. There’s no comfortable scale of oppression or war crimes. All forms of oppression and imperialism need to be identified and challenged by an effective global left.

You might not like what he has to say about Israel but he cannot simply be labelled as anti-Israel, and his ideas ought to be engaged with.

He opposes blanket boycotts, and encourages engagement with progressive movements. There’s no attempt to ‘fix’ Israel-Palestine, but rather to tackle binary approaches to the matter.

Key to his thinking is working with socialist and labour movements in the region. The West, including the left, is too often inward looking in its thinking — and forgets about the people on the ground and the work they’re doing. Randall believes that the global left has a key role to play in Israel/Palestine. But European thinking on Israel Palestine frequently feels rather condescending, if not entirely the product of a white saviour complex. It’s not for the Labour left — or the Conservative right — to tell us what our future should look like.

Still, the international community has a role. It’s already involved. Our community needs to accept that too. To simply dismiss the UN or the ICC as anti-Israel or antisemitic makes us seem reactive and incapable of sensible discussion on Israel Palestine. We need to re-shaping the conversation, taking into account and allowing for both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, histories and narratives.

The Israel/Palestine debate is inseparable from the left antisemitism debate. There needs to be a deep understanding of the human element of Labour’s antisemitism crisis. Three years of antisemitism being in daily headlines had a profound impact on our community. For the left to understand antisemitism, beyond the academic and intellectual, this human and psychological impact needs to be explored. Our community was being redefined, in a sense. We were the topic of mainstream discussion by politicians, journalists and society as a whole. All this was while the global far-right was growing, creating different complexities for diaspora communities.

The impact of the Corbyn years won’t go away overnight, and the burden of Jews becoming a political pawn in the public sphere mustn’t be underestimated.

Bad ideas need to be fought with good debate. Difficult discussions need to allow for the free flowing of ideas — but also need to be managed in a way that avoids uncomfortable power dynamics. The same debate needs to be had in our communal spaces, because we’ve reached a particularly unhealthy dynamic on the issues discussed. Organisations that criticise occupation are labelled as radical traitors, and too many in the community are quick to reject left-wing and progressive Jews.

Much of Randall’s book makes for uncomfortable reading, but discomfort can be a good thing. Randall speaks the language of the radical left, and he does so with great intellect. If we accept that it’s in our collective best interest to have a healthier, solutions based approach to Israel/Palestine, as it is addressing anti-Jewish hate wherever it appears, then we also must be willing to look inwards.

Regardless of what you make of Randall’s world view, he is not someone to be dismissed. If you allow yourself, as I did, he’ll probably make you think twice about the way you view the world — and isn’t it wonderful to be able to change your mind?

Danielle Bett is director of communications, Yachad

Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists is available here

September 24, 2021 13:03

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