Robert Fine and Philip Spencer on left antisemitism
From the introduction to Antisemitism and the left (Manchester University Press, 2017) by Fine & Spencer:To the pure, everything is pure
(in Hebrew ‘la tehorim kol tahor’).Above: Ephraim Moses Lilien, Ex Libris in E.M. Lilien, Sein Werk, mit einer Einleitung von Stefan Zweig, Berlin and Leipzig: Schuster & Löffler, 1903.Left antisemitism
Antisemitism has again become an issue in our time. In recent years we have observed its re-emergence in a number of distinct political sites, including left antisemitism, Islamist antisemitism, Christian antisemitism, nationalist antisemitism and liberal antisemitism. Our focus in this book is on the contested origins of left antisemitism.
Historically, there has been no shortage either of antisemitism or of opposition to antisemitism within the left tradition. For example, the revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote approvingly that ‘in all countries the people detest the Jews … so much that every popular revolution is accompanied by a massacre of Jews’. He maintained that this was a ‘natural consequence’ of the fact that ‘this whole Jewish world … constitutes a single exploitative sect, a sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organised in itself, not only across the frontiers of states but even across all the differences of political opinion’. He went on to claim that ‘this world is presently, at least in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and the Rothschilds on the other’.5 Bakunin was right only in one respect, that Marx was his antagonist. Marx’s close collaborator Friedrich Engels also pointed to oppositions within the left when he criticised his fellow socialist, Eugen Dühring, for his anti-Judaic prejudice: ‘That same philosopher of reality who has a sovereign contempt for all prejudices and superstitions is himself so deeply imbued with personal crotchets that he calls the popular prejudice against the Jews, inherited from the bigotry of the Middle Ages, a “natural judgment” based on “natural grounds”, and he rises to the pyramidal heights of the assertion that “socialism is the only power which can oppose population conditions with a strong Jewish admixture” ’.6
These two instances indicate how split the modern left tradition has been over the Jewish question: it has played a role both in representing ‘the Jews’ as the enemy of humanity and in combating the prejudices of those who see Jews through this lens. We should be wary of any generalisation to the effect that either ‘the left is fundamentally antisemitic’ or that there is no such thing as ‘left antisemitism’. It remains important for us to recognise that Marx, Engels and many of those they inspired contributed far more than is usually recognised to supporting Jewish emancipation and resisting the terms of the Jewish question. In spite of the dusty clouds of interpretation that surround his work, Marx’s actual writings reinforce our conviction that while there is a long tradition of left antisemitism, there is also on the left a strong critique of antisemitism and of the barbarism it represents. Marx’s famous essays ‘On the Jewish Question’ were in substance a critique of the very idea of the Jewish question.
We, the authors of this book, both come from a Marxist-socialist background, whose legacy has shaped our understanding of and responses to the various distorted forms of modernity that have preoccupied us: racism, antisemitism, genocide, crimes against humanity, apartheid, ethnic nationalism, totalitarianism, etc. We recognise of course that much has gone wrong, dramatically wrong, in the name of ‘Marxism’ and ‘the left’, so much so that these names have reached the threshold of total devaluation, and that the question of antisemitism is not the least of these problems. We take it as axiomatic that those who locate themselves within this tradition ought, as a matter of basic principle, to combat antisemitism whenever it raises its face, but we know this is not always the case. We ought to pay attention to the experiences of those who suffer or are exposed to antisemitism and we ought not treat the self-justifications of those they challenge as a sufficient guide as to the truth of the matter. We ought to acknowledge that not all antisemites wear their conviction on their sleeve, that sometimes people may not be aware of their own antisemitic temptations, and that antisemitism can be political and cultural as well as personal. We ought to do the work of learning what antisemitism is and what shapes and forms it takes. In these respects our relation to antisemitism ought to be no different from our relation to other forms of racism: both should be open to the liberating power of education, research, engagement, criticism and self-reflection. It should not be controversial to say that the critique of antisemitism should now be part of any emancipatory movement that seeks to understand what has gone wrong in the development of modern capitalist society rather than simply blame it on secret conspiracies or particular scapegoats.
None of this should be controversial but it has become so. We hear on the left a different refrain: notably, that antisemitism no longer matters compared with other racisms; that antisemitism was once a problem in the past but is no longer in the present; that antisemitism was a European malady that had no presence in the Islamic world; that antisemitism is understandable today given the ways Zionists behave; that the charge of antisemitism is mainly put forward for dishonest and self-seeking reasons; that people cry ‘antisemitism’ in order to deflect criticism of Israel; that the stigmatising of individuals and groups as antisemitic is more damaging than antisemitism itself; that the Jewish state and its supporters are the main source of racism in the modern world. It is said, for instance, that those who ‘cry antisemitism’ do so in order to shut down debate on Israel. This may be true in particular cases but the reverse is more plausible: that there are many who cry ‘Israel’ in order to shut down debate on antisemitism. When the critique of antisemitism is viewed as a problem, the problem may lie with the viewer.
Political actors with very different political agendas can and do coalesce around such rhetorics to construct a discourse with its own semblance of internal unity, its own self-justifications, its own stereotypes of external enemies and its own defence mechanisms. As this book goes to press, the British Labour Party has been struggling to come to terms with the fact that one of its leading figures, Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London, long-term ally of its elected leader and a standard bearer of the party’s left-wing, thinks that Hitler was sympathetic with Zionism before he ‘went mad’. One of its newly elected MPs, Naz Shah, posted a suggestion that the simple solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was for the Jews in Israel to be relocated to the United States. Both have been accused of antisemitism and suspended from the Labour Party. In the first case, Ken Livingstone is refusing to apologise, which is consistent with the fact that for decades he has promoted the view that Nazism and Zionism are umbilically linked. By contrast, Shah has publicly acknowledged the damage such statements can make and has undertaken to reflect on the prejudice that underwrote her quip about the transportation of Jews. As we write, the Labour Party is undertaking a review of how widespread antisemitism has become in its ranks and what might be done about it. There is now more extensive public debate, of which this book is part, concerning how far ignorance and tolerance of antisemitism have affected thinking and practice within the left, most of whose members rightly pride themselves on their antiracism, and what kinds of resistance they mount collectively to rectify this situation.A note on methodology
Misrecognition of antisemitism is both underpinned and compounded by troubling methodological assumptions that have crept into the political culture of the left and into the work of radical scholars.
The first set of assumptions we draw attention to concerns what we call the ‘methodological separatism’ that obscures connections between antisemitism and other forms of racism.7 The language of antisemitism is different in important respects from that of anti-Black racism or Islamophobia and it may not be helpful to reduce them all to a generic concept like ‘prejudice’, partly because every form of prejudice has its own distinctive characteristics and partly because the idea of ‘prejudice’ does not capture all that is involved in these phenomena. To say, however, that they are not the same does not mean that they are not connected or best understood in relation to one another. A sense of the connectedness of racism and antisemitism was once viewed as the common sense of the antiracist imagination. For example, Frantz Fanon famously described Blacks and Jews as ‘brothers in misery’ on the grounds that racism and antisemitism both reveal ‘the same collapse, the same bankruptcy of man’.8 He cited the words of his philosophy professor: ‘Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you’, and Fanon commented that his professor was right in the sense that ‘an anti-Semite is inevitably anti-Negro’.9 W.E.B. Du Bois remarked that it had never occurred to him that ‘race prejudice could be anything but colour prejudice’ until his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto gave him ‘a more complete understanding of the Negro problem’ as a form of ‘human hate … capable of reaching all sorts of people’.10 He commented that ‘The ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge from a certain social provincialism into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination, and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilisation was going to triumph and broaden in the world’.11 The disconnection of racism and antisemitism today is suggested by the alacrity with which some antiracists respond to racism and Islamophobia but not to antisemitism, or conversely by the suspicion they show to ‘charges’ of antisemitism that they do not show to other forms of racism. Such responses seem to us to indicate that something has gone seriously wrong with the universalism of the antiracist imagination.
A second set of assumptions we wish to draw attention to concerns what we call the ‘methodological historicism’ that positions antisemitism exclusively as a phenomenon of the past. A justified refusal to treat antisemitism as a natural and permanent feature of relations between Jews and non-Jews has given way to another problematic tendency: that of situating antisemitism emphatically in the past. We may look back in horror to the period of history in which genocidal antisemitism was written into the very texture of social and political life, but console ourselves with the thought that antisemitism has, since that time, been empirically marginalised and normatively discredited. It may appear that the Holocaust has served as a learning experience concerning the dangers of antisemitism, that few in mainstream society still claim adherence to antisemitic ideologies, and that some ultra-nationalist movements are reluctant to embrace antisemitism. Liberals have paid tribute to the success of the new Europe in transcending ethnic nationalism and recognising rights of difference. Radicals have affirmed that many forms of racism still prevail in Europe but insist that antisemitism is no longer one of them. The positioning of antisemitism as a creature of the past – for instance, of a now superseded age of nationalism, late modernisation or organised modernity – serves to close our eyes to new forms it may assume in the present.
A third set of assumptions concerns the development of what we call the ‘methodological dualism’ that restricts our view of racism and antisemitism within a bifurcated world of ‘them’ and ‘us’. It addresses vital distinctions – between oppressor and oppressed, power and resistance, executioner and victim, enemy and friend, imperialism and anti-imperialism, etc. – but grants them a master status that overrides all other ethical considerations. It does not treat anti-imperialism as one element within a constellation of democratic principles but turns it into an absolute truth that prevails over all other democratic principles. It is the absolutising of anti-imperialism that allows some leftist intellectuals, like Judith Butler, to declare that Hamas or Hezbollah belong to the camp of anti-imperialism and should be supported regardless of other democratic deficiencies including antisemitism.12 The temptation on the left is simply not to see racism, antisemitism or sexism in those states and movements deemed to be in the camp of anti-imperialism, perhaps for no other reason than that they are opposed to America and Israel, and at the same time to withdraw solidarity from victims of racism, antisemitism and sexism within the camp of ‘anti-imperialism’. If we label this tendency the ‘anti-imperialism of fools’, following in the footsteps of the Second International’s labeling of antisemitism as the ‘socialism of fools’, this is not to indicate that anti-imperialism is foolish but rather that it is a foolish form of anti-imperialism that divorces it from wider democratic concerns.13 The problem of methodological separatism is reinforced when racism and antisemitism are situated in opposing camps: that is, when racism is condemned as the exercise of oppressive power while antisemitism is excused as a mislabelled or misguided form of resistance. Following what David Hirsh has called a ‘politics of position’,14 the same Marxist writers who deny the possibility of far-left antisemitism have been tempted to situate those who do raise concerns about antisemitism only and emphatically on the side of oppressive power and Western imperialism.15
The final set of assumptions we need to mention here concerns the question of ‘methodological nationalism’ or rather the development of a cosmopolitan critique of methodological nationalism that re-instates precisely what it criticises when it singles out one form of nationalism, in this case Jewish nationalism, as the bearer of all the defects of nationalism in general. Cosmopolitans emphasise that racism and antisemitism are not only a problem for their immediate victims but also for humanity in general and correspondingly that the responsibility to combat racism and antisemitism is a universal human responsibility.16 They seek to resist the mimetic temptation to blame, say, ‘the Germans’ in the way antisemites blame ‘the Jews’. It may appear ‘natural’ that if we are attacked as Blacks, Muslims or Jews, we fight back as Blacks, Muslims or Jews, and this semblance of the natural is confirmed by the well-established leftist credo that represents the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ as the natural and rational way of responding to the racism of the oppressors. The cosmopolitan consciousness is one that does not simply negate but seeks positively to supersede this reactive standpoint. What we find today, however, is the replacement of the cosmopolitan critique of methodological nationalism by a simulacrum of cosmopolitanism that projects onto one particular instance of nationalism the defects of nationalism in toto. Zionism becomes here the universal equivalent of the deficiencies of all nationalism. Such singling out of Jewish nationalism for special opprobrium threatens both to reconfigure old stereotypes about the ‘tribalism’ of the Jews and to erode from within the universalistic critique of methodological nationalism.
This is not of course an exhaustive list of methodological difficulties we face in studying the elements of contemporary antisemitism that concern us here, but they hopefully suffice to indicate the difficult nature of the task. They highlight the need to reconnect racism and antisemitism as twin expressions of the same human bankruptcy, to reconnect past and present in ways that recognise the emergence of new forms of antisemitism, to reconnect domination and resistance in ways that allow for a relational understanding of the complexities of power, and to reconnect nationalist responses to antisemitism with other nationalist responses to racism. The sensitising idea that guides our work is that of reconnection. All forms of modern political life are relative to one another and universalism itself should not be thought of in emphatically absolutist terms. The little suffix ‘–ism’ can do a lot of damage when it transforms what is relative and valid into what is absolute and invalid. As Theodor Adorno phrased it, the threat posed by universalism is to ‘compress the particular like a torture instrument’.17
Jewish assimilationism and nationalism have both been subjective responses to the contradictions of living in an antisemitic society. One makes an ‘ism’ of assimilating to the norms of society as the only means of neutralising an otherwise understandable antisemitism; the other makes an ‘ism’ of the nation as the only means of escaping an otherwise ineluctable antisemitism. Both bear witness to the immense contradiction under these conditions between recognising our unity with others and our separate existence. Cosmopolitanism offers itself as an attractive third way for Jews living in an antisemitic world, but this ‘ism’ contains its own pitfalls: not only that of aloofness as a cosmopolitan world citizen from one’s particular existence as a Jew but also that of accommodating to a reified cosmopolitanism that is set against the alleged particularism of Jews. We owe a debt of gratitude to cosmopolitan social scientists for putting universalism back on the agenda but to those who say that the ‘humanist’ universalism that once homogenised populations and repressed difference has now given way to a cosmopolitan post-universalism that respects heterogeneity and plurality, we should respond that the battle for the spirit of universalism has not so readily been resolved.18 It is as much the illusion of progress to lock the past in the past as if it contained no alternative voices, as it is to celebrate the present in the present as if we have definitively overcome our prejudices and learned the lessons of our catastrophic history.