I meet David Hirsh on Baker Street, a stone’s throw from where he worked as a taxi driver in his mid-twenties.
It’s perhaps not the background you would expect from the sociologist who is now one of the country’s foremost experts on modern antisemitism, but little about the Goldsmiths, University of London, academic’s journey has been straightforward.
Hirsh, whose new book Contemporary Left Antisemitism offers a critique of the current Labour leadership’s approach to Jew-hate, started out in the same ideological space as many of the party’s now leading lights.
Having grown up in Highgate with an East End Jewish father and Holocaust refugee mother — both of whom became staunch Thatcherites — Hirsh went to Sheffield to study physics, only to fall into the left-wing activism that dominated campuses in the 1980s.
“It was very exciting — it was just after the miners’ strike, there were people in 10 different organisations in a coffee shop all day and that’s how we learnt,” he recalls.
He dropped out, spending three years receiving a “Trotskyist political education” with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Looking back, he describes it as a “sect”, but at the time he loved it. “A lot of the critique of what’s wrong with left politics I learnt there.”
Eventually he became fed up, spending the next few years driving a taxi and doing jobs including removing old telephone equipment in the City, as well as a spell on kibbutz. When he decided to return to university — at City University, then an MA at Warwick and a PhD on Crimes Against Humanity and International Law — his parents were delighted.
“I’m lucky because I got a second chance, I was a middle-class boy and my parents were very excited.”
As a father-of-two, with two stepchildren, he now understands why, although at the time he hated relying on his parents financially.
Back then, he was full of optimism about the position of Jews — his feeling was that these were historical questions, that the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be settled through the peace process, and that old battles around “Zionism is racism” had been won.
But after 9/11, after the intifada, and after the first world anti-racism conference in Durban in 2001, things changed.
In 2005, in his dream job at Goldsmiths, Hirsh decided to challenge the University and College Union’s (UCU) plans to boycott Israeli academics, both within the union and more publicly, in the media and on the blog he founded, Engage.
He was feted by some, especially in America, but it took him into battle with many of his former comrades. “These guys hate the Jews who can speak good Marxism,” he says.
What transpired was years of the former left-wing activist being painted as a defender of racism. “The moment you’re seen as someone defending Zionism you’re seen as part of the conspiracy, somebody put up by the Jews.”
It was a difficult period, during which he saw his first marriage collapse and lost much of his academic self-confidence. The reaction from colleagues he respected was particularly tough.
“I used to sit in departmental meetings going, ‘wow, I’m one of them’. Then at a certain point I got defined not as one of them but as a Zionist sociologist who sells his soul for a foreign racist power,” he says. “This identity was thrust upon my work.”
Mostly, this hostility played itself out quietly, “in a very English way”, but he recounts one local UCU vote in 2007, when “a good half” of his department — some of them friends — turned up to vote down his motion which argued that a boycott was unhelpful to the two-state solution. An email had gone round organising opposition to him; a number of Jewish staff members and those sympathetic to Hirsh’s position had not been copied in. “It was appalling.”
At times, he wanted to give it up. “You begin to lose your self-belief. Nobody wants to spend their whole life doing this except the people for whom anti-Zionism is a really important way for them to signify their own identity.”
But at the same time, it was both good and bad for his career. “At a certain point it became what I was good at,” he says ruefully.
Now, Hirsh is in a better place personally; ironically this has coincided with “this stuff coming into the mainstream”. He is profoundly pessimistic about the future, worried in the context of Donald Trump, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn that democratic values like the rule of law, reason and equality are under attack.
“Fascism is a critique of democracy, communism is a critique of democracy, Brexit in some ways is a critique of democratic post-war European settlement, Trump is a critique of the idea of free trade and equality, and Corbyn is a critique of neoliberalism,” he suggests.
Ideas that were once fringe, from antisemitism to “the idea that foreigners are to blame for everything” are no longer, both here, in the US and in Israel.
Hirsh made a submission to Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party. He has been fulsome in his condemnation of how Labour has handled things, but is no more comfortable on the right, considering himself politically homeless.
He worries about the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, not just because of what he sees as the obvious implications such as Britain backing the boycott of Israel or possible hostility to faith schools, but because, as with Brexit, it would take Britain into unstable territory.
“You can easily imagine a big recession and unemployment — the things we know are dangerous,” he says. “People are going to get blamed when Corbyn collapses, when his movement doesn’t deliver, when Brexit doesn’t deliver, there’s going to be a lot of anger at the ‘cosmopolitan elite’.”
Hirsh’s book, a mix of sociological analysis and memoir, expands on what he coined as “the Livingstone Formulation”, “whereby the person who raises the issue of antisemitism is the suspect and it’s said the person who raises it is doing so from a place of power to silence the oppressed”.
This, he says, has become a key feature of debate, not just on the left but with right-wing commentators who see accusations about Trump and antisemitism as concocted “just to smear him”.
“It’s the idea that the white working-class is expressing its revolt by having a go at foreigners and the ‘cosmopolitan elite’ is trying to silence it, so anti-racism becomes a discourse of power and racism becomes a discourse against this global elite.”
Although the book focuses on the left, Hirsh thinks more introspection on both sides of the spectrum is needed.
“The left is able to spot antisemitism on the right and the right is able to spot it on the left,” he says, pointing out that both use allegations of this to attack the other, fighting a kind of “proxy war using the language of Israel and Palestine”.
As Hirsh says, “there’s a long history of people defining their identity over the body of the Jews”. In places like Northern Ireland and South Africa, he says, it’s become almost “a story that everyone knows and around which they can position their identity”.
A copy of the book has been bought for every JSoc; Hirsh hopes that it will equip students with a way of confidently fighting back within democratic terrain.
More generally, he wants to take the fight to the anti-Zionists.
“I want the left to have a discussion amongst itself about antisemitism, which it didn’t do with the Chakrabati report. If people say all this talk of antisemitism is a smear designed to silence the Palestinians, they need to relate to my argument, not to the right.”
Hirsh, who grew up Reform and is now a member of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, says while his Jewish identity has always been strong, his work on antisemitism has brought him much closer to the Jewish community.
Certainly, for better or for worse, Hirsh is now closely associated with Anglo-Jewry and the fight against antisemitism. “It’s a kind of stubbornness,” he sighs. “I’m the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, I’m the one saying look, look, he’s not wearing any clothes.”
Short of playing for Arsenal, Hirsh is unsure what he’d be working on if antisemitism hadn’t reared its head.
“I don’t just want to be a specialist in antisemitism, but I do want to be writing about what I think is important.”
He started the book a decade ago, but events intervened; now is a better moment for it anyway.
“Things have been getting slowly and progressively worse, there’s no falling off a cliff, it’s not 1933, but things have been getting worse step-by-step,” he says.
Yet he is still shocked by events. “Things keep happening which would have been impossible two years ago,” he says. “I’m still surprised, every time my predictions come true.”
‘Contemporary Left Antisemitism’ by David Hirsh, is published by Routledge at £16.99