These books about hate are already out of date

David Herman finds much of interest in two timely essay collections about antisemitism — but why is there so little emphasis on Iran or immigration?


Protesters hold placards during a demonstration to protest against antisemitism, in central London on November 26, 2023 (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Rebirth of Antisemitism in the 21st Century

Edited by David Hirsh

Routledge, £24.99

Mapping the New Left Antisemitism: The Fathom Essays

Edited by Alan Johnson

Routledge, £35.99

Reviewed by David Herman

These two books of essays about the rise of antisemitism in the 21st century could not be more timely. They coincide with the explosion of antisemitic demonstrations and violence on both sides of the Atlantic that have followed the conflict in Gaza since October 7. It is has never been more important to understand the recent history of antisemitism since 2001, the year of the UN Conference against Racism in Durban and 9/11, and 2002, which saw the beginning of the campaign to exclude Israeli academics from universities, journals and conferences around the world.

The Rebirth of Antisemitism in the 21st Century is a book of essays edited by David Hirsh, a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and academic director of the London Centre for the Study of Antisemitism. He is a leading figure in the debates over contemporary antisemitism in Britain.

The dozen essays gathered together explore different aspects of antisemitism in recent years: How has Soviet anti-Zionism had such an influence on contemporary left-wing antisemitism; how the British radical left from Corbyn to The Guardian abandoned Jews; the story of the Durban conference and why it had such an impact on international antisemitism; the relationship between feminism and antisemitism; antisemitism in British universities; Caryl Churchill’s notorious 2009 play Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court in London, and an eloquent piece by Anthony Julius on being a liberal Zionist in difficult times.

Much of this is fascinating, perhaps especially the history and influence of Soviet anti-Zionism and the story of the Durban conference in 2001, from which Israel withdrew in objection to a draft proposal that equated Zionism with racism, and which is so resonant in the context of the recent attempt by South Africa, seemingly supported by Iran, to accuse Israel of genocide.

But there are a number of curious absences, perhaps especially in the context of the current conflicts in the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are barely mentioned, though Hamas looms large. This is also true of the UN and its agencies in recent years, especially UNWRA. The pernicious role of the British media, perhaps especially The Guardian and the TV and radio news coverage of Israel, hardly features. The disturbing remains of Corbynism in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the British trade union movement are surely worth more attention. The role of British universities and the NUS, is unexamined except for a chapter on two minor law cases.

The book also feels too parochial. There is surprisingly little on antisemitism in America, whether violent attacks on Jews in cities or the debate about antisemitism on university campuses and also too little on the significance of Muslim immigration in Europe. By comparison, the law case involving the Jewish academic Ronnie Fraser, Caryl Churchill’s play at The Royal Court and the arguments of social theorists such as Bauman and Lyotard seem small beer.

Hirsh’s book is one of the first titles in a new series, Studies in Contemporary Antisemitism, along with another book of essays, Mapping the New Left Antisemitism, edited by Alan Johnson, who also edits Fathom, which since it was founded in 2012 has established itself as one of the most interesting journals addressing antisemitism today.

What is immediately striking about Mapping the New Left is the impressive list of contributors: Johnson himself, Dave Rich, author of The Left’s Jewish Problem (2016 and 2018) and Everyday Hate (2023); the late Norman Geras, and leading American academics such as Michael Walzer and Jeffrey Herf. The range of essays is impressive: from the number addressing the nature of left antisemitism today, the Soviet roots of contemporary left antisemitism, and the left antisemitism in academia, in Europe and the US and the IHRA. They address many of the issues missing from Hirsh’s volume.

Alan Johnson’s introduction is particularly stimulating. What are the relations between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? According to Johnson, “that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is”. Israel is now widely seen as an “apartheid” state, “a settler-colonial” state, a key part of white power hated by post-colonial countries across the world. Second, how did the discussion of Israel become so toxic, “uniquely malevolent full of blood lust, all-controlling, … always acting in bad faith”? Already in 2003 a European poll found that “an extraordinarily high proportion of Europeans believe that Israel is a threat to peace in the region and to world peace”. Third, how did antisemitism become such a feature of the contemporary left, part of an irrational coalition of anti-racism, student movements, literary theory and anti-war movements?

However, there are a number of problems with this book too. It consists of almost 30 articles and interviews published in Fathom between 2013-21 as well as four new pieces. Inevitably, this means that the essays too often feel out of date and don’t address the particular features of the current crisis facing Jews today. As with Hirsh’s book too often it smacks of the seminar room.

General readers won’t care about essays on “Jean Amery’s Critique of Anti-Zionism”, “the emerging Crisis in Academic Publishing in Israel’ or Judith Butler’s reading of Eichmann in Jerusalem. As for the real world, two references to the UN, none to UNWRA, South Africa or, astonishingly, to Iran? No proper engagement with the crisis of immigration or multiculturalism across Europe or a generation of angry young Muslims from the East End to Paris and Brussels? Has this not got anything to do with the rise of anti-Zionism?

Finally, the three essays on “Left Antisemitism and Academia”, on David Miller at Bristol, academic publishing in Israel and Oren Ben-Dor and academic antisemitism, seem almost wilfully irrelevant. What has happened to universities recently on both sides of the Atlantic, from Harvard to SOAS, which has made them centres of antisemitic and anti-Israel abuse? Why has this not been dealt with by governments or university authorities? How has free speech been used to defend antisemitic hatred? Why have so many young white people in Britain and America embraced Muslim antisemitism?

Both these books have many virtues. They are thoughtful, temperate and engaged. But the essays were written too long ago to properly engage with the Gaza conflict today and they feel a world away from the powerful polemics of some of our best journalists and public intellectuals.

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