How the ‘progressive’ left became a global wellspring of Israelophobia

In the second of three weekly extracts from his new book, JC editor Jake Wallis Simons digs into its ideological origins


One of the political tragedies of our times is that in recent decades, antisemitism has found a home on the political left. That is not its only home, of course, but a particularly extensive and accommodating one.

From Jeremy Corbyn’s infamous remark that British “Zionists” don’t understand “English irony” — one of the most consequential stories I’ve broken as a journalist — to US congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s claim that Israel had “hypnotised” the world not to see its “evildoings”, the bigotry often bears the fingerprints of “progressives”.

So extreme has it become that it sometimes overlaps with the far-right; at the height of the Labour antisemitism controversy, the former British National Party leader Nick Griffin backed Jeremy Corbyn.

This phenomenon can be partly traced to the influx of American racial ideology into the anglosphere via progressive circles. And the story of how the identity politics of the United States became infected with antisemitism is a tragedy all of its own.

At the beginning of the civil rights movement, the Jewish community stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Martin Luther King. As a result, synagogues were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday’s iconic protest song about a lynching in Indiana, was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher.

In Britain, the British Jewish tennis player Angela Buxton partnered with the African-American star Althea Gibson in 1956 to face down racism and win the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon.

This affinity also had a Zionist dimension. Golda Meir, Israel’s first female leader, pointed out in her memoir that “we Jews share with the African peoples a memory of centuries-long suffering”.

She recalled that many years before, Herzl himself had vowed: “Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

The solidarity was reciprocal. In 1966, Martin Luther King demanded justice for persecuted Jews behind the Iron Curtain.

“The absence of opportunity to associate as Jews in the enjoyment of Jewish culture and religious experience becomes a severe limitation upon the individual,” he said. “Negros can well understand and sympathise with this problem.”

In typically uncompromising style, he added that Jewish history and culture were “part of everyone’s heritage, whether he be Jewish, Christian or Muslim”.

He concluded: “We cannot sit complacently by the wayside while our Jewish brothers in the Soviet Union face the possible extinction of their cultural and spiritual life. Those that sit at rest, while others take pains, are tender turtles, and buy their quiet with disgrace.”

Once the militant Malcolm X replaced Martin Luther King as the dominant figure in the black liberation movement, however, this solidarity became strained. Malcolm X tended to associate the Jews with power and often veered into antisemitism.

Throughout his life, he attacked what he called “Zionist-Dollarism”, deplored Israel and cast Jews as a race of white oppressors.

In his autobiography — which contains examples of the crudest bigotry — he poured scorn on the bond between Jews and the civil rights movement. “So many Jews actually were hypocrites in their claim to be friends of the American black man,” he wrote.

“I gave the Jew credit for being among all other whites the most active, and the most vocal, financial, ‘leader’ and ‘liberal’ in the Negro civil rights movement.

"But at the same time, I knew that the Jew played these roles for a very careful strategic reason: the more prejudice in America could be focused upon the Negro, then the more the white Gentiles’ prejudice would keep diverted off the Jew.”

Fast-forward to the present, and the radical racial ideas of 1960s and 1970s America have evolved into an all-consuming political ideology that has spread across the West.

Critical Race Theory, the philosophy behind the social justice movement, holds that “racism equals prejudice plus power” — a notion introduced in 1970 by the American psychologist Patricia Bidol-Padva — and concludes that whites cannot experience racism.

A hierarchy of grievance has sprung up with blacks at the pinnacle. Non-black minorities like Armenians, Roma or Jews are explicitly barred from victimhood, even when they are targeted more than blacks.

And with centuries of ingrained antisemitism latching onto Israel, devotees of identity politics are unable to help themselves shoehorning Jewish people, who within living memory were murdered in their millions because of their race, into the category of white oppressor.

Whoopi Goldberg pursued that logic to its absurd conclusion in 2022 when she found herself arguing on television that the Holocaust was “not about race”, as it involved “two groups of white people”, even though Nazi ideology explicitly defined Jews as racially inferior.

Similarly, in April 2023, the British MP Diane Abbott was suspended from the Labour Party after writing to the Observer newspaper claiming that Jews could not face racism, as they were only “white people with points of difference, such as redheads”.

It is comforting that she was censured so quickly. But the ease with which she ignored two millennia of antisemitism, appearing to forget even the Holocaust, and the lack of hesitation on the part of the left-wing Observer in publishing these claims, demonstrates how ideology often feels like reality on the left.

It also demonstrates how pervasive American identity politics has become in Britain and across the Western world.

It is telling that the people who seethe most against the Middle East’s only democracy tend to harbour sympathies for the autocracies of Russia, Iran and the murderous regime in Damascus, all of which have brought far more death and destruction to the world.

Abbott’s longtime political ally Jeremy Corbyn has been repeatedly branded Putin’s “useful idiot” for taking a soft stance on Russian assassination attempts, opposing Nato and speaking at a Russian propaganda event in New York while Putin’s troops attacked Ukraine.

He has attended celebrations to mark the brutal Iranian revolution, lamented the theocracy’s “demonisation” and appeared frequently on Iranian state television. In Syria, the 2011 civil war killed up to 600,000 people, of whom 307,000 were civilians, according to figures released in March 2023; the US-led invasion of Iraq caused 601,000 violent deaths between 2003 and 2006 alone.

By comparison, statistics from 2021 showed that in the entire 75 years of Israel’s history, the sum total of Arabs killed in conflict amounted to about 86,000.

Yet the outrage of Corbyn and his fellow travellers in the United States and across the West has been largely directed at the Jewish state. It has even become commonplace for the sole democracy in the Middle East, which has a notable absence of death camps, to be compared to Hitler’s Third Reich.

This is just one of the egregious slurs directed by many on the left at the Jewish state. It is transparently false.

There is much injustice and conflict in Israel’s story, to be sure, but the Palestinian population has grown from under a million in 1948 to more than five million today.

Any Israeli attempt at a genocide would have been pretty inept. Those who make the allegation are strangely oblivious to the insult to the victims of Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Cambodia — and, of course, the Holocaust. In a crowded field, accusing Jews of committing the very crimes they have suffered is one of the least savoury habits of Israelophobia. But the strategic value of the comparison is obvious.

That Nazism was an evil is one of the last things that almost everybody in the West agrees upon, with the Holocaust presenting one of very few crimes that all branches of politics condemn.

Not only does lumping Israel into the same category as the Third Reich imply that the two regimes deserve the same fate, but it offers a frisson of poetic justice in the idea that the Jews have morphed into their oppressors.

Cartoons abound in which Israelis are gleefully depicted as Nazis. Some Israelophobes, intoxicated by their own rhetoric, even manage to downplay or deny the Holocaust while accusing the Jews of perpetrating it upon the Arabs.

The claims can become even more unhinged than that. Guests on BBC programmes have stated that the Jewish state has no culture of its own apart from what it “takes from the original peoples”.

Mossad has been accused of infiltrating a shark into the Red Sea that ate a German grandmother. During the late Queen’s jubilee, a council in Nelson, Lancashire — an old mill town with a population of 29,000, more than 3,000 miles from Jerusalem — flew the Palestinian flag instead of the Union Jack. No other democracy is targeted in this way. And no dictatorship either.

Despite all this, Israel’s left-wing detractors often claim that accusations of antisemitism are only used to silence pro- Palestinian dissent.

Some argue that Corbyn — who wrote a glowing foreword to a book that argued that European finance was controlled by “men of a single and peculiar race” — was the victim of a smear campaign because he dared to speak up for the underdog.

As the novelist Howard Jacobson retorted: “Those who say we shouldn’t conflate anti-Zionism and antisemitism should give up employing the language of medieval Jew-hatred to vilify Israel.”

History shows that Israel does not conform to the paradigm of the Caucasian imperialist oppressor that is so hated by progressive activists.

It is true that its founding fathers lived at a time when colonialism was accepted, and many shared certain paternalistic attitudes with British and European empire builders, but the similarities only go so far. Britain had no ancestral claim on India, for example.

The British were not a persecuted diaspora people who had been rounded up, worked to death, shot, gassed and subjected to pseudo-medical experiments in the worst genocide the world had seen.

Britons had not been languishing in foreign lands for 2,000 years, preserving their culture and longing for a return to their homeland. British empire builders did not intend to share the land with its other inhabitants, as the Zionists did, but to rule them.

And British colonial crimes, both in scale and in vindictiveness, put even the worst behaviour of the rag-tag Jewish pioneers in the shade.

Indeed, Jewish militia who were fighting British mandate troops in Palestine saw themselves as an indigenous people trying to drive out colonial occupiers.

It wasn’t just the Jews who viewed it that way. In 1946, when a member of the Jewish underground was whipped by the British army — a demeaning colonial punishment — his comrades kidnapped two British officers and subjected them to the same ordeal.

This was seen as a source of morale for people living under the yoke of the British Empire all over the world. “We received congratulations from Irishmen, from Americans, Canadians, Russians, Frenchmen,” Israeli premier Menachem Begin wrote in an account of his time as a militia chief.

“Our brother-Jews throughout the world straightened their backs. After generations of humiliation by whipping, they had witnessed an episode which restored their dignity and self respect.

"The coloured African and the Chinese coolie, long acquainted with the whip, also raised their heads in joyous acknowledgement.”

A French newspaper printed a cartoon of a nervous British soldier holding his helmet over his buttocks.

These days, however, the pickings are thin for a progressive activist in need of a cause. Western empires have collapsed; homosexual relationships are widely accepted in the West; the main battles for sexual and racial equality have been won.

Campaigning against microaggressions, misgendering or the particular use of toilets does not make you Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi or Emmeline Pankhurst.

However, squint one eye and demonise Isra el as a white supremacist, apartheid colonial power, mix in age-old assumptions about Jewish financiers and the Zionist lobby, and you have yourself a cause worth fighting.

Coded antisemitism has always appealed to the left, which seeks to overturn oppressive power structures. In the world of identity politics, however, Jews are not easily placed in the pantheon of race and victimhood.

Jewishness, which is passed down through families, has a strong racial component (that much can be established by genetics), but its boundaries are porous, as anybody may join through religious conversion.

Are Jews white? At least 20 per cent of them, and about half of those in Israel, are Middle Eastern or north African, and even the ones with Caucasian appearance were seen by the Nazis as the antithesis of Aryan.

Are Jews privileged? On the one hand, they suffered one of the world’s worst genocides, especially the European Jews who could pass as white; the establishment of Israel led to more Jewish refugees than Palestinian ones; and even in modern Britain, Home Office figures showed that Jews are five times more likely to be targeted by hate crimes than any other group.

On the other, Jews in the diaspora – like the Chinese and Indian communities – are often middle class, with a strong family structure and emphasis on education. This leads to relatively greater levels of affluence.

Moreover, the antisemitic stereotype of rich, powerful Jews controlling international affairs found a new foothold when Israel went from plucky underdog to regional superpower.

All the above puts race activists into a tailspin, as they cannot pigeonhole Jews as either white or non-white, privileged or oppressed. So they blur their vision and plump for white and privileged.

In fact, these days, when whiteness carries negative associations, Jews are often positioned as even whiter than white people, once again giving them a special category of their own.

In 2018, Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Black Movement Center, a not-for-profit black community group in Crown Heights, New York, suggested that Jewishness was “a form of almost hyper-whiteness”.

Following the two-step mechanism in which demonisation validates destruction, Griffiths added that hyper-whiteness, rather than antisemitism, explained why Jews were being attacked on the streets of Brooklyn.

During the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, attempts to cast Jews among the forces of white oppression by spreading the #Jewishprivilege Twitter hashtag were subverted by Jewish people posting accounts of the persecution suffered by their families. But that didn’t stop several BLM rallies from descending into rampant Israelophobia and Jew-hatred.

As early as 2014, during the unrest that followed the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrators chanted “from Ferguson to Palestine, occupation is a crime”, and held placards stating, “Ferguson is Palestine”.

In 2020, after the killing of George Floyd, Jewish shops were destroyed, synagogues were sprayed with “free Palestine” and “fuck Israel” graffiti, a statue of a Swedish diplomat who had saved Hungarian Jews from the Nazis was defaced with antisemitic slogans, and dark conspiracy theories sprouted about Israelis training the racist American police.

In France, a Black Lives Matter rally descended into cries of “dirty Jews”, echoing the antisemitic chants that filled the same streets during the Dreyfus affair a century before.

In short, whether Jews count as non-white, white or hyper-white, privileged or oppressed, colonisers or indigenous has become a matter of Schrodinger’s Jew: the label shifts on the basis of the agenda. And when it comes to the social justice movement, that agenda is invariably hostile to their nation-state.

In their time, the Soviets outlawed traditional antisemitism while allowing hatred to run riot in the form of “anti-Zionism”. Similarly, the final tricksiness of the social justice movement is that it wraps bigotry in political justification, allowing activists to disavow antisemitism while being animated by it.

It may be taboo to say Jews should be wiped out, but to demand Palestinian freedom “from the river to the sea” carries an aura of fashionable virtue. Language matters.

In his 1945 essay Antisemitism in Britain, Orwell recalled a “young intellectual, communist or near-communist” remarking: “No, I do not like Jews. I’ve never made any secret of that. I can’t stick them. Mind you, I’m not antisemitic, of course.” Nearly 80 years later, it is striking how little has changed.

Israelophobia: The Newest Version of the Oldest Hatred and What to Do about It by Jake Wallis Simons (Constable, £11.95) is available to pre-order on Amazon now.

Rob Rinder will interview Jake Wallis Simons about Israelophobia at JW3 on September 12. Tickets cost £15. Visit:

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