By Camila Bassi (at Anaemic on a Bike)
Much of the British Left comprehends antisemitism as the exclusive property of the Right: either as a phenomenon of the far Right (fascists) against Jewish people, or as a false accusation by the Israeli Right and its allies against the Left to silence political criticism of Israel, or as an ironic bedfellow of the Israeli Right to justify its existence as an expansionist and racist nation-state.
In this blog post I endeavour to demystify left-wing antisemitism. Moreover, I define anti-Semitism, including historical and contemporary left-wing antisemitism, as anti-Jewish racism. Specifically, I present: a general history of racism and anti-Jewish racism; an overview of what has been defined as the antisemitic anti-Zionism of the Stalinist Left and New Left of the 1960s and 1970s; the consequences of a colonial model of racism, as developed in US and British academia since the 1960s, for enquiry into anti-Jewish racism and the framing of Zionism; and, contra to an absolute colonial model of racism, an understanding of the interrelationship between the capitalist mode of production, the nation-state, and racism. Within this context, I conclude by expounding the contemporary nature of left-wing anti-Jewish racism. I draw on a range of sources, but primarily upon the work of the sociologist and Marxist scholar Professor Robert Miles.
I. Racism and anti-Jewish racism: origins and evolving nature
“The specific content of racism should be expected to change temporally and contextually. A discourse ‘inherited’ from the past is likely to be reconstituted if it is to be used to make sense of the world in a new context, while new circumstances can be expected to stimulate the formation of new representations.” (Miles 1989: 133)
In the history of racism, a key transformation occurred with the epistemological shift from religion to science as the standard criterion to measure and evaluate the apparent nature of the social and material world (Miles, 1989). Miles (1989: 13-18) explains the early origins and evolution of (European) racism:
“prior to the fifteenth century, the geographical region that is now Europe had been subject to a variety of invasions from Asia (Baudet 1976: 4) and the ‘old continuous nations’ of Europe were haltingly emergent rather than extant (Seton-Watson 1977: 21-87). The notion of Europe as an entity began to emerge only in the eighth century (Lewis 1982: 18) and, until at least the twelfth century, it was subordinate to the economic and politico-military power of the Islamic world, its populations being in practice colonised (Kaye 1985: 61). Indeed, it was because the Islamic world constituted a dominant force, motivated and legitimated by a view of history by which ‘the Muslims were the bearers of God’s truth with the sacred duty of bringing it to the rest of mankind’ (Lewis 1982: 39), that a representation of Europe as a distinct entity expressed by the common religion of Christianity was to emerge. […] Before the interests of the feudal monarchies and merchant capital of Western Europe combined in order to colonise the Americas from the fifteenth century onwards, the main focus of external interest (and concern) was the Middle East, North Africa and India, collectively known as the Orient.”
As Edward Said (1995: 59-60) notes in Orientalism:
“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the seventeenth century the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life.”
Miles (1989: 20-24) continues:
“By the fifteenth century, the centre of economic and political power in Europe had consolidated in the emergent nation states of the north and west of the continent (Kiernan 1972: 12-13, Wallerstein 1974). Trade, travel, and exploration were interdependent elements in an attempt by the feudal ruling classes to resolve a major economic crisis (Fox-Genovese and Genovese 1983: 10) and together, they widened the European contact with populations elsewhere in the world. This resulted in a major change in the structural context within which representations of the Other were generated and reproduced. Up to this point, the non-Islamic Other was beyond and outside the European arena. Moreover, in the case of the discourse about the Islamic Other, it was for a long time a representation generated in the context of European subordination to a greater economic and military power. But once the emergent European city and nation states began to expand their material and political boundaries to incorporate other parts of the world within a system of international trade (Braudel 1984: 89-174), a system which was subsequently linked with colonial settlement, the populations they confronted in this exercise were within the arena of Europe in an economic and political sense, even though not spatially. And when colonisation became an objective, a class of Europeans began a new era of contact and interrelationship with indigenous populations, a contact that was increasingly structured by competition for land, the introduction of private property rights, the demand for labour force, and the perceived obligation of conversion to Christianity. Collectively, these were all embodied in the discourse of ‘civilisation’. […] The complexity of European representations was hierarchically ordered around the view that Europeans were superior by virtue of their ‘civilisation’ and achievements (of which world travel and trade were but one sign): the condition of the Other was represented as proof of that interpretation.”
From the late eighteenth century, with the secularisation of culture and the rising hegemony of science, a transformation in European representations of the Other took place, namely, “the emergence of the idea of ‘race’” – “an idea that was taken up by scientific enquiry and increasingly attributed with a narrow and precise meaning”:
“As a result, the sense of difference embodied in European representations of the Other became interpreted as a difference of ‘race’, that is, as a primarily biological and natural difference which was inherent and unalterable. Moreover, the supposed difference was presented as scientific (that is, objective) fact. This discourse of ‘race’, although the product of ‘scientific’ activity, came to be widely reproduced throughout Europe, North America and the European colonies in the nineteenth century, becoming, inter alia, a component part of common-sense discourse at all levels of the class structure and a basic component of imperialist ideologies (for example, Biddiss 1979b, MacKenzie 1984).” (Miles 1989: 30-31)
This scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not simply replace earlier representations of the Other, rather earlier ideas of “savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it” (Miles 1989: 33). While the end of the Second World War marked an era in which the scientific establishment largely discredited the determining biological category of ‘race’, the idea of ‘race’ survives and continues to evolve as an everyday common-sense discourse, id est, as an ideological framework for making sense of the world and its social and material relations.
Vis-à-vis anti-Jewish racism, the historical shift from Christian anti-Semitism (which was religious-based) to racial anti-Semitism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries effectively fused religion with the idea of ‘race’ born from ‘racial’ science. Miles (1989: 36) observes that within Europe:
“representations of the Other as an inferior ‘race’ focused, amongst others, on the Irish (Curtis 1968, 1971) and Jews (Mosse 1978). This was sustained partly by claiming a biological superiority for the Nordic ‘race’.”
In The Passing of the Great Race (1916), Madison Grant describes the superiority of the Nordic ‘race’:
“Homo europaeus, the white man par excellence. It is everywhere characterized by certain unique specializations, namely, wavy brown or blond hair and blue, gray or light brown eyes, fair skin, high, narrow and straight nose, which are associated with great stature, and a long skull, as well as with abundant head and body hair. […] The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats in sharp contrast to the essentially peasant character of the Alpines. Chivalry and knighthood, and their still surviving but greatly impaired counterparts, are peculiarly Nordic traits, and feudalism, class distinctions, and race pride among Europeans are traceable for the most part to the north.”
Grant argues for a eugenics programme – improving the population ‘stock’ via controlled breeding of advantageous ‘racial’ characteristics – to enable the survival of the Nordic ‘race’.
Campaigns for immigration controls in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century focused on Jewish refugees from eastern Europe:
“the notions of ‘immigrant’ and ‘alien’ became synonymous in everyday life with that of Jew […] Moreover, Jewishness was increasingly interpreted as a quality determined by blood, and therefore as hereditary and ineradicable. References to the existence of a Jewish ‘race’ became common. This ‘race’ was signified as an alien presence that had the potential to destroy civilised society through the promotion of an international conspiracy: consequently, the Jews became the racialised ‘enemy within’” (Miles 1993: 135-136)
Demands for immigration controls to the United States in the early twentieth century included pro-Nordic and anti-Jewish ‘racial’ components:
“In comparison with people of British, German and Scandinavian ‘stock’, Italian, Polish, Russian and Jewish immigrants were said to have naturally inferior intelligence and their increasing presence in the United States was considered to lower the average level of intelligence.” (Miles 1989: 58)
Within a wider economic and political crisis, it was in Nazi Germany “that the idea of the Jews as a degenerate, unproductive and criminal ‘race’, as simultaneously a ‘race’ of exploiters and revolutionaries (Mosse 1978: 178, 219)”, evolved into a state policy and practice of genocide (Miles 1989: 59).
II. Stalinism, the New Left, and anti-Semitic anti-Zionism
In the USSR the period between 1949 and 1953 was marked by an officially-endorsed anti-Zionism that was anti-Semitic. This period concluded in a series of show trials, including the Slansky trial, which demonised the alleged collaborators of Zionism as bourgeois, cosmopolitan, Trotskyist, and conspiratorial enemies of the state (Crooke 2002; Rapoport 1990; Rodinson 1983; Vaksberg 1994; Wistrich 1979). Although the 1953 Doctors’ Plot, a planned show trial of five Jewish doctors accused of attempting to poison Stalin and his aides whilst ‘under the influence of Zionism’, was cancelled after Stalin’s death, by the end of this period Zionism was popularly depicted as the stalking horse of US and Western imperialism. Post-1967, another official anti-Zionism campaign began in the USSR and Eastern Europe (Ciolkosz 1979; Crooke 2002; Oschlies 1979). Oschlies (1979: 161) illustrates its anti-Semitism by referencing a letter published in June 1968 in the Prague evening newspaper Vecerni praha:
“During the last few years a tacit, but persistent, anti-semitism has informed official attitudes, and it will take a long time before it can be eradicated… In this context the word Zionism is invariably used. Please take your notebook and interview people; I am sure they will tell you what they always tell me: that (a) Jews are out to destroy the socialist countries; (b) Jews aspire to world domination; (c) They want to revenge themselves for the victims of the gas chambers.”
With anti-Semitic anti-Zionism becoming common currency in Stalinist Communist Parties worldwide, it is argued that the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s (pioneered by a number of ex-Communist Party members) inherited this tendency as part of a general leftist, anti-imperialist, third worldist, and ultimately dual campist outlook (Cohen 2004; Frei 1979; Forster 1979; Hearst 1979; Krämer-Badoni 1979). This New Left represented an orientation away from class-centred politics towards activism linked to broader protest movements and mass politics, with its proponents ideologically drawing from, notably, Debray, Fanon, Guevara, and Mao (Buhle 1991; Cohen 2004; Scruton 1998) and motivated by the national liberation struggle of the Viet Cong in North Vietnam and the national revolutions of Cuba and Algeria (Cohen 2004).
After the formation of the nation-state of Israel in 1948, general public opinion in the West, including on the Left, regarded Israel as a civilised country amid backward, barbaric masses who desired its annihilation (Rodinson 1968, 1983). As this opinion feared Israel’s destruction in the escalation to the Arab-Israeli Six-day war of June 1967, pro-Israeli demonstrations took place in, for example, London, New York, and Paris (Rodinson 1968, 1983). For Edward Said for example, these demonstrations were pivotal: “1967 in New York, was probably the most shattering experience in my life, because I was surrounded on all sides by people who identified with the Israeli victors” (Said, cited in Katz and Smith, 2003: 645). Indeed, the portrayal of Arabs in the media during this time spurred Said’s writing of Orientalism (Katz and Smith 2003). The turning point, in terms of general leftist opinion, came with outcome of the 1967 war. Post-1967, Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state was called into question by a new generation of Maoists, Trotskyists, and New Leftists (Bassi 2012; Cohen 2004; Crooke 2002; Wistrich 1979):
“the Israeli victory in the 1967 war and subsequent settlement of occupied Arab territories […] brought the younger generation of Western Marxists, the Trotskyist or Maoist ‘new left’, to an extreme anti-Israeli position. Israel, which from 1967 also developed close relations with the US, was condemned as racist, the oppressor of the Palestinians and the main progenitor of imperialism and colonialism in the Middle East (Halbrook, 1974; Ram, 1999; Rubinstein, 1982; Said, 1980; Turner, 1984).” (Golan 2001: 129)
The “militant anti-imperialism” of the 1968 Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Charter, including its call for a democratic secular Palestinian state in all of former British Mandate Palestine, situated the Palestinian cause “at the forefront” of the New Left’s broad revolutionary politics (Hassan 2002: 64).
For this New Left, Frei (1979: 260) concludes, “Israel is a colonial fact, a ‘spearhead’ created in the back of the Arab peoples to prevent their emancipation from imperialism; she is expansionist by nature, her ideology (Zionism) is racist and her politics fascist.”
III. Colonial model of racism and its consequences
Miles (1989: 67; 1993) is astutely critical of “much of the British and North American theorising about capitalism and racism since the 1960s”. Although such theorising acknowledges the immorality of racism which culminated in the Holocaust, it nonetheless:
“utilises a colonial model which has little scope to explain much of the European racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly not that form of racism which others label anti-semitism (for example, Cox 1970: 393-4); it does, however, have a relevance to the controversial debate about whether or not Zionism can be defined as an instance of racism (see Kayyali 1979). Consequently, we are offered definitions and theories of racism which are so specific to the history of overseas colonisation (that is, specific to the domination of ‘white’ over ‘black’ as so many writers express it) that they are of little value in explaining any other (non-colonial) context.” (Miles 1989: 67-68)
He offers a specific caution to the work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS):
“often implicit in their writing is the assumption that the only contemporary form of racism in Britain is that which has people of Caribbean and South Asian origin as its object. Even if this were the case during the 1970s (and I doubt that it was), it is not true for the late 1980s, a period which has witnessed the growth of an increasingly explicit racism against Jews […] The expression of anti-Irish racism is even more consistently ignored.” (Miles 1993: 85)
Miles insists that a theorisation and analysis of racism grounded solely in colonial history and which subsequently elevates the somatic characteristic of skin colour – such that racism is exclusively understood as a ‘white ideology’ created to dominate ‘black people’ – has “a specific and limited explanatory power” (Miles 1993: 148). Vis-à-vis the history of anti-Jewish (and anti-gypsy) racism in Europe, he explains:
“These instances demonstrate that, contrary to those who argue that ‘being black’ makes ‘black’ people especially vulnerable to racism in a ‘white society’, it is because visibility is always the outcome of a process of signification in a historical context that one can conclude that those who cannot be seen by virtue of their really existing phenotypical features are equally vulnerable to being racialized: their ‘non-visibility’ can be constructed by the racist imagination as the proof of their ‘real’ and ‘essential’ (but ‘concealed’) difference, which is then signified by a socially imposed mark (as in the example of the Nazi requirement that Jews wear a yellow Star of David: Burleigh and Wipperman 1991: 93-6).” (Miles 1993: 13-14)
Miles (1993: 14) continues:
“Otherness can also be constructed by means of a racism which signifies a wholly imaginary presence as real […] The very fact that there are so few living Jews can become socially accepted as proof of either the real extent of ‘Jewish power’ or of the continued success of Jews in assimilating themselves, of ‘hiding’ in order to continue their ‘destructive’ work. […] The racist imagination can be made to do its work not only with a real population as its subject (but transmuted through signification into an Other), but also with an absent, wholly imagined, subject (transmuted through signification into a ‘really existing’ Other).”
“Many physical characteristics (both real and imagined) have been and continue to be signified as a mark of nature and of ‘race’ (cf. Guillaumin 1988). Moreover, cultural characteristics have also been, and continue to be, signified to the same end. The reification of skin colour therefore mistakenly privileges one specific instance of signification and ignores the historical and contemporary evidence which shows that other populations (Jews, Irish people, etc.) have been signified as distinct and inferior ‘races’ without reference to skin colour (Miles 1982, 1991b). Moreover, it restricts analysis of the nature and determinants of racism to a debate about the effects of colonial exploitation. […] The economic and social positons of Jews in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe cannot be understood as a situation, or a product, of colonialism.” (Miles 1993: 87-88)
Vis-à-vis anti-Jewish racism, the colonial model of racism, as prevalent in US and British academia (and indeed on the wider political Left), is not able to explain the combination of events, circumstances, and social relations in which certain populations have been racialised and excluded without being colonised; furthermore, this model offers intellectual credibility to the ahistorical notion of ‘Zionist racism’: of rich, colonial, white Jews oppressing poor, anti-colonial, brown Arabs.
IV. Capitalism, the nation-state, and racism
Contra the colonial model of racism, Miles (1993: 21) advances a theorisation and analysis of racism that focuses on:
“the articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism, because […] this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects. Colonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, but racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism […].”
Miles (1993: 61-62) recognises the distinct natures of nationalism and racism (including their potential overlap) and their developments amid European internal and external reorganisation of political economy:
“For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. This was not only because there was little agreement about the boundaries between the supposed ‘races’, but also because scientific racism did not posit a single, coherent political object. The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation became more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. The increasing profusion of physiological and cultural variation, as recognised in western Europe, became the object of intellectual curiosity and, thereby, of the theoretical practice of scientists and philosophers. But it also became the focus of political attention and action as populations within and beyond Europe were nationalised and racialised by the state […].”
At the most extreme end of ‘racial’ science:
“‘race’ determined both cultural capacity and historical development, and it therefore followed that each ‘nation’ was the expression of a particular biological capacity. This was an articulation in which ‘race’ was ‘nation’.” (Miles 1989: 89)
“Because ‘nations’ were identified as naturally occurring groups identifiable by cultural differentiae, it was logically possible to assert that these symbols of ‘nation’ were themselves grounded in ‘race’, that ‘blood or race is the basis of nationality […]’.” (Miles 1993: 62)
This was not, however, an articulation that happened in all historical instances – “there is no necessary reason why any particular ‘nation’ should be naturalised and identified by ‘race’” (Miles 1989; 1993: 64).
V. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism
“An emphasis upon racism solely as a ‘false doctrine’ fails to appreciate that one of the conditions of existence of ideologies (which by definition constitute in their totality a false explanation, but which may nevertheless also incorporate elements of truth) is that they can successfully ‘make sense’ of the world, at least for those who articulate and use them.” (Miles 1989: 80)
I contend that operating in and through a mainstream current of leftist understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a particular ideological form of anti-Jewish racism which works to both ‘fix’ and ‘make sense’ of this conflict. This anti-Jewish racism has roots in the Stalinist Left and New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the more general history of racism. What’s more, this anti-Jewish racism is compounded by the legacy of US and British academia’s colonial model of racism, which, one, provides limited to no recognition of racism beyond what ‘white people’ do to ‘black/brown people’ (and, within the recent discourse of Islamophobia, of what ‘white people’ do to ‘black/brown Muslims’) and, two, intellectually endorses an ahistorical notion of Zionism as an instance of racism. Leftists in this current argue that it is necessary for individual Jews to break from ‘them’ and assimilate to ‘us’ by becoming anti-Zionists who vocally denounce the existence of Israel. Indeed, the Left’s promotion of certain individual Jews who have done just this – for example, Ilan Pappé, Norman Finkelstein, Gilad Atzmon, and Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein) – is held up as proof of the Left’s tolerance and acceptance of Jews. And yet it is with critical qualification. Indeed, the evolving nature of racism has led to many instances in which its discourse accommodates the Other through a deemed necessary process of assimilation; take, for example, the Conservative Party general election poster from 1983: “Labour says he’s black, Tories say he’s British”. Perhaps the Left’s version could be stated as: “Israel says he’s a Zionist Jew, we say he’s a liberated anti-Zionist”.
With racism in general, real and imagined somatic and/or cultural characteristics have historically been and continue to be signified as an innate mark of ‘race’. Indeed, there are historical instances in which representations of the Other have been based exclusively on cultural characteristics, notably, “European representations of the Islamic world”, which “extensively utilised images of barbarism and sexuality in the context of a Christian/heathen dichotomy” (Miles 1989: 40). Similar to all other manifestations of racism, with contemporary left anti-Jewish racism it is not difference per se that matters but the identification of this difference as significant (Miles 1989). Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism involves a process of signification that defines the Other by real and imagined cultural features – id est, it marks out a group of people in relation to Israeli/Zionist Jewishness – and assigns this categorised group of bodies with negative characteristics and as giving rise to negative consequences. This Jewish Other is generalised with a singular and static understanding of Israel and Zionism: that this Jewish collective has uniquely world domineering and tyrannical power.
The leftist demand (often implicit) that the Israeli Jewish nation-state must be undone because it is uniquely despotic (comparable only to fascist Germany and/or apartheid South Africa) – a judgement and a demand not made of any other nation-state worldwide now or in history – is racist. It is racist because real and imagined cultural characteristics have been and are signified as an innate mark of the nature of Israel and Zionism (and of the cultural ‘race’ of Jews associated with Israel and Zionism), which are deemed especially deplorable and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Furthermore, the logic underpinning the leftist demand to boycott Israeli academia is an unprecedented denial and writing-off of any progressive role for the Israeli-Jewish working class now or in the future. This is racist since this working class is singled out and solidified like none other and is generalised as a cultural ‘race’ (of the collective Zionist Jews) that is especially wretched and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Miles (1993: 49) does well to remind us that:
“In so far as Marxism asserts that all social relationships are socially constructed and reproduced in specific historical circumstances, and that those relationships are therefore in principle alterable by human agency, then it should not have space for an ideological notion that implies, and often explicitly asserts, the opposite.”
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