Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn

Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn



A DETERMINED offensive is underway. Its target is in the Middle East, and it is an old target: the legitimacy of Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas are not the protagonists, the contested terrains are not the Galilee and southern Lebanon or southern Israel and Gaza. The means are not military. The offensive comes from within parts of the liberal and left intelligentsia in the United States and Europe. It has nothing to do with this or that negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, and it has nothing to do with any particular Israeli policy. After all, this or that Israeli policy may be chastised, rightly or wrongly, without denying the legitimacy of the Jewish state, just as you can criticize an Israeli policy—again, rightly or wrongly—without being an anti-Semite. You can oppose all Israeli settlements in the occupied territories (as I do) and you can also recognize that Benjamin Netanyahu, not just Yasir Arafat, was responsible for undermining the Oslo peace process without being an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist. You don’t have to be an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist to think that some American Jewish organizations pander to American or Israeli right-wingers.

The assault today is another matter. It is shaped largely by political attitudes and arguments that recall the worst of the twentieth-century left. It is time to get beyond them. But let me be clear: I am “left.” I still have no problem when someone describes me with the “s” word—socialist—although I don’t much care if you call me a social democrat, left-liberal, or some other proximate term. My “leftism” comes from a commitment to—and an ethos of—democratic humanism and social egalitarianism.

What I care about is the reinvention of the best values of the historical left—legacies of British Labour, of the Swedish Social Democrats, of Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum in France, of Eduard Bernstein and Willy Brandt in Germany, of what has always been the relatively small (alas!) tribe in the U.S. associated with names like Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington, and Irving Howe. It’s not so much a matter of political programs, let alone labels, as it is of political sensibility. I care about finding a new basis for that old amalgam of liberty, equality, and solidarity, a basis that makes sense for our “globalizing age.” But I also want a left that draws real, not gestural, conclusions from the catastrophes done in the name of the left in the 20th century.

There is a left that learns and there is a left that doesn’t learn. I want the left that learns to inform our Western societies (a difficult task in George W. Bush’s America) and to help find ideas that actually address poverty in what used to be called the third world—rather than romanticizing it.

After 1989, the left that doesn’t learn was in retreat. It was hushed up by the end of all those wretched communist regimes, by images broadcast worldwide of millions in the streets demanding liberation from dictatorships that legitimized themselves in left-wing terms. You know who I mean by the left that never learns: those folks who twist and turn until they can explain or ‘understand’ almost anything in order to keep their own presuppositions—or intellectual needs—intact. Once some of them were actual Leninist; now they more regularly share some of Leninism’s worst mental features—often in postmodern, postcolonial, or even militantly liberal guise. Sometimes they move about on the political spectrum, denouncing their former selves (while patting their moral backs). You can usually recognize them without too much difficulty: same voice, that of a prosecuting commissar, even if their tune sounds different. It’s a voice you can often hear as well in ex-communists turned neoconservative.

Their explanations, their “understandings,” often rewrite history or re-imagine what is in front of their eyes to suit their own starting point. Since their thinking usually moves along a mental closed circuit, it is also the end point. Sometimes it is an idea, sometimes a belief system (which they refuse to recognize in themselves), sometimes really a prejudice, and sometimes just ambition. Goblins were often part of the story for the older left that never learned, and so too is the case today. If things don’t work out as you know they must, some nefarious force must lurk. After all, the problem couldn’t possibly be your way of thinking, or your inability to see the world afresh, or that you got something very wrong in the past. No, it is much easier to announce that you, unlike anyone who could disagree with you, engage in ‘critical’ thinking. And if your critical thinking is criticized in any way, denounce your foe immediately for “McCarthyism.” Pretend that your denunciation is an argument about the original subject of dispute. That’s easier than answering any of the criticism.

Consider the collateral damage done by such cries of “McCarthyism” from professors with lifetime job security: their students will never understand the evils of McCarthyism. Consider how an understanding of the evils of McCarthyism is subverted when its characteristic techniques—innuendo, for example—are used by opinionated journalists in magazines with wide circulations. Take, for instance, the case of Adam Shatz, once literary editor of the Nation and now with the London Review of Books. He published an article half a year before the beginning of the Iraq war suggesting that people around Dissent were busy hunting for a “new enemy” following the end of the cold war, and that they found it in a combination of militant Arab nationalism and Saddam Hussein.

“Though rarely cited explicitly,” Shatz also explained, “Israel shapes and even defines the foreign policy views of a small but influential group of American liberals” (the Nation, September 23, 2002). In other words, these liberals composed the Israel lobby within the left, and they sought the American war in Iraq for the sake of the Jewish state. True, Shatz didn’t hold up a file and say, “I have a list of names of liberals who are really dual loyalists.” Instead he pointed to Paul Berman “and like-minded social democrats,” even though the overwhelming majority of Dissent’s editorial board including co-editor Michael Walzer was opposed to the war.

Shatz didn’t deign to engage any of Berman’s actual points. And those Berman advanced in the actual run-up to the Iraq invasion did not focus on Israel, but on liberalism, democracy, and totalitarianism. Arguments made by the author of the words you now read, who was a left hawk (and is now an unhappy one), likewise had nothing to do with Israel and were different—significantly so—from those made by Berman. Nothing that appeared in Dissent before or after Shatz’s article lends credence to his innuendos.


HISTORY MAY not progress but sometimes it regurgitates. Over the last decade, a lot of the old junk has come back. The space for it opened for many reasons. They range from the sad failures of the social-democratic imagination in the era of globalization to the postmodern and postcolonial influence in universities to George W. Bush’s ascendancy with its many, many miserable consequences (not only in Iraq). The left that never learns often became the superego of the twentieth century’s left. Its attempt to play that same role in the twenty-first century needs to be frustrated.

Nothing exemplifies the return of old junk more than the ‘new’ anti-Semitism and the bad faith that often finds expression in the statement: “I am anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic.” The fixation on Israel/Palestine within parts of the left, often to the exclusion of all other suffering on the globe, ought to leave any balanced observer wondering: What is going on here? This fixation needs demystification.

In theoretical terms, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are pretty easy to distinguish. Anti-Semitism is a form of race or national prejudice that crystallized in the nineteenth century. In part, it displaced or reinvented anti-Jewish religious prejudice (although centuries of religious prejudice easily wafted into racial and national bigotry). Its target was clearly Jews, not simply “Semites.” It also, for some, mixed matters up further by identifying Jews with capitalism. Sadly, this became a steady feature within parts of the left that would later, habitually, conflate Jews, capitalism, and Zionism. Oddly enough, that is also what Jewish neoconservatives have tried to do in recent decades.

Anti-Zionism means, theoretically, opposition to the project of a Jewish state in response to the rise of anti-Semitism. Let’s be blunt: there have been anti-Zionists who are not anti-Semites, just as there have been foes of affirmative action who are not racists. But the crucial question is prejudicial overlap, not intellectual niceties.

Remember the bad old days, when parts of the left provided theoretical justifications of things like “democratic dictatorship.” In fact, if you understood—especially if you bought into—all sorts of assumptions and especially Leninist definitions, the justification works. Any professor of political theory can construct it for you and it will make perfect theoretical sense. But if you lived in a “democratic dictatorship,” it was intellectual poison. It was also poison if you were committed to the best values of the left.

They are again at stake when we ask: To what extent does much anti-Zionism replicate the mental patterns of anti-Semitism? And to what extent do demagogic articulations of anti-Zionism enhance anti-Semitism? There is a curious thing about anti-Semitism, and it was captured in a remark by British novelist Iain Pears that ought to be quoted and re-quoted these days: “anti-Semitism is like alcoholism. You can go for 25 years without a drink, but if things go bad and you find yourself with a vodka in your hand, you can’t get rid of it.” (International Herald Tribune, August 11, 2003).

Much may be gleaned from the fact that the recent campaign by some British academic unions to boycott Israel was thwarted because it was found to violate anti-discrimination laws.

LAST YEAR, Denis MacShane, British Labour Parliament Member, chaired a committee of parliamentarians and ex-ministers that investigated rising anti-Semitism in Britain and beyond. “Hatred of Jews has reached new heights in Europe and many points south and east of the old continent,” he wrote recently in a very brave article in the Washington Post (September 4, 2007). He describes a wide array of incidents. “Militant anti-Jewish students fueled by Islamist or far-left hate” seek on campuses “to prevent Jewish students from expressing their opinions.” There is “an anti-Jewish discourse, a mood and tone whenever Jews are discussed, whether in the media, at universities, among the liberal media elite or at dinner parties of modish London. To express any support for Israel or any feeling for the right of a Jewish state to exist produces denunciation, even contempt.”

MacShane points out that this sort of behavior is distinct from specific disputes about this or that Israeli politician. Criticism, the investigatory committee “made clear,” was “not off-limits.” Rightly so; the same should be true with the policies and office- holders of every government on the globe. But MacSchane also warns that something else has been going on, that old demons are reawakening and that “the old anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have morphed into something more dangerous.” The threat, he says eloquently, doesn’t only concern Jews or Israel, but “everything democrats have long fought for: the truth without fear, no matter one’s religion or political beliefs.”
What is “truth without fear” when we speak of the relation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism? Is it to be found in Tony Judt’s declaration to the New York Times that “the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is newly created”? (January 31, 2007). How a historian—or anyone else—could assert this is astonishing. Consider what it airbrushes out of the twentieth century—the anti-Semitic binge of Stalin’s later years, just for starters.

And surely Judt, who is based at New York University and is now taking what has turned into obsessive anti-Zionist campaigning to the École Normale Supérieure in ParisNYU’s Remarque Center, which defines its goal as “the study and discussion of Europe, and to encourage and facilitate communication between Americans and Europeans” is opening a center there and Judt, its director, will, according to its website, inaugurate it not with an address European or French politics or transatlantic relations but rather: “Is Israel Still Good for the Jews?” recalls the arrests and assassinations of the leading Jewish cultural figures of Soviet Russia on the grounds that they were “Zionist agents of American imperialism.” Surely a historian of Europe like Judt—who was once a hard leftist but then rose to intellectual celebrity in the United States in the 1980s (that is, during the Reagan era) by attacking all French Marxists for not facing up to Stalinism—recalls the charges of “Zionist conspiracy” against Jewish communists who were victimized in the Czech purge trials in the early 1950s.

If he doesn’t recall them when he speaks to the New York Times, he might check them out in his own book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. There he cites Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, urging Czech Communists to investigate the “Zionist plot” among their comrades. Surely a historian of Europe, especially one who now refers to himself as an “old leftist,” recalls the campaign in 1967 and 1968 to cleanse Poland of “Zionist” fifth columnists (I suppose they were the Israel Lobby of the Polish Communist Party). If Judt doesn’t recall it when he talks to the New York Times, he might again look at his own book which cites Polish Communist chief Wladyslaw Gomulka’s conflation of his Jewish critics with Zionists. Since he is a historian of Europe and not the Middle East, perhaps Judt hasn’t noticed how “anti-Zionism” in broad swaths of the Muslim and Arab media has been suffused by anti-Jewish rhetoric for decades—rhetoric against “al-Yahud” not Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak.

Remember how air-brushing was done in the bad old days? Trotsky (or someone else) would suddenly disappear from a photo. Lenin or Stalin and the cheering crowds would still be there. The resulting picture is not entirely false. Does all this make Judt an anti-Semite? The answer is simple: no. It does make his grasp of the history of anti-Semitism tendentious. And tendentious history can be put to all sorts of pernicious use.

Judt’s political judgment complements his historical perceptions, especially when it comes to a declared concern about Palestinian suffering. Recall his article in the New York Review of Books (October 23, 2003) advocating a binational state to replace Israel. A Jewish state, he explained, is an anachronism. But since then, Hamas, a political movement of religious fanatics, won the Palestinian elections, and later seized power—by force—in Gaza. Israel, in the meantime, had withdrawn entirely from Gaza and torn down all Jewish settlements there in summer 2005. Yet if you follow Judt’s logic, Israel should not have withdrawn but instead integrated Gaza into itself. Obviously this would have enabled a new, better life for Palestinians, perhaps even have prevented them from turning to Hamas. And it would have taken a first happy step toward saving Israel from its anachronistic status by affording Israelis, together with Palestinians, a domestic future of perpetual ethnic civil war—a feature of modern politics that farsighted historians, but perhaps not policymakers, who have to worry about real lives, will imagine is also an anachronism. Likewise, I suppose India can save itself from being an unfortunate anachronism by a reintegration with Pakistan.

A FEW YEARS ago I sought to outline commonalities between anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist discourses in a scholarly journal. It is worth reproducing. Here are major motifs that inform classical anti-Semitism:

1) Insinuations: Jews do not and cannot fit properly into our society. There is something foreign, not to mention sinister about them.

2) Complaints: They are so particularistic, those Jews, so preoccupied with their “own.” Why are they so clannish and anachronistic when we need a world of solidarity and love? Really, they make themselves into a “problem.” If the so-called “Jewish problem” is singular in some way, it is their own doing and usually covered up by special pleading.

3) Remonstrations: Those Jews, they always carp that they are victims. In fact, they have vast power, especially financial power. Their power is everywhere, even if it is not very visible. They exercise it manipulatively, behind the scenes. (But look, there are even a few of them, guilty-hearted perhaps, who will admit it all this to you).

4) Recriminations: Look at their misdeeds, all done while they cry that they are victims. These ranged through the ages from the murder of God to the ritual slaughter of children to selling military secrets to the enemy to war-profiteering, to being capitalists or middlemen or landlords or moneylenders exploiting the poor. And they always, oh-so-cleverly, mislead you.

Alter a few phrases, a word here and there, and we find motifs of anti-Zionism that are popular these days in parts of the left and parts of the Muslim and Arab worlds:

1) Insinuations: The Zionists are alien implants in the Mideast. They can never fit there. Western imperialism created the Zionist state.

2) Complaints: A Jewish state can never be democratic. Zionism is exclusivist. The very idea of a Jewish state is an anachronism.

3) Remonstrations: The Zionists carp that they are victims but in reality they have enormous power, especially financial. Their power is everywhere, but they make sure not to let it be too visible. They exercise it manipulatively, behind people’s backs, behind the scenes – why, just look at Zionist influence in Washington. Or rather, dominance of Washington. (And look, there are even a few Jews, guilty-hearted perhaps, who admit it).

4) Recriminations: Zionists are responsible for astonishing, endless dastardly deeds. And they cover them up with deceptions. These range from the imperialist aggression of 1967 to Ehud Barak’s claim that he offered a compromise to Palestinians back in 2000 to the Jenin “massacre” during the second Intifidah.These sketches of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, with just some variation, were originally in Mitchell Cohen, “Auto-Emancipation and Anti-Semitism: Homage to Bernard-Lazare,” Jewish Social Studies (Fall 2003).

No, anti-Zionism is not in principle anti-Semitism but it is time for thoughtful minds—especially on the left—to be disturbed by how much anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism share, how much the dominant species of anti-Zionism encourages anti-Semitism.

And so:
If you judge a Jewish state by standards that you apply to no one else; if your neck veins bulge when you denounce Zionists but you’ve done no more than cluck “well, yes, very bad about Darfur”;

if there is nothing Hamas can do that you won’t blame ‘in the final analysis’ on Israelis;

if your sneer at the Zionists doesn’t sound a whole lot different from American neoconservative sneers at leftists;

then you should not be surprised if you are criticized, fiercely so, by people who are serious about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and who won’t let you get away with a self-exonerating formula—“I am anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic”—to prevent scrutiny. If you are anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, then don’t use the categories, allusions, and smug hiss that are all too familiar to any student of prejudice.

It is time for the left that learns, that grows, that reflects, that has historical not rhetorical perspective, and that wants a future based on its own best values to say loudly to the left that never learns: You hijacked “left” in the last century, but you won’t get away with it again whatever guise you don.


Mitchell Cohen is co-editor of Dissent and professor of political science at Baruch College–CUNY. He recently wrote on French politics and the ‘new’ Atheism.