Jewishness and the broken link with the Left
Daniel Johnson: Our subject is the Left and the Jews. A famous phrase from the 19th century—I think it came from the German social democrat August Bebel—was that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools”. If that was true then, there are still plenty of these fools around today. Just as in the 19th century, when leading figures of the Left such as Karl Marx set a bad example in their writings about the Jewish people, so today we have a problem on the Left. Where does this come from? Why does it exist? For so many years, the Left, if we define it as beginning with the French Revolution, was seen as the friend of the Jewish people, of emancipation, toleration and equality.
But the problem, I think, stems from something which Isaac Deutscher, a great icon of the Left, called the “non-Jewish Jew”. The price to be exacted in return for emancipation and full equality was that Jews should give up everything that was distinctive and specifically Jewish. For years, most on the Left did not believe this, but some did. Karl Marx, above all, began the trend towards anti-Semitism on the Left. These leftist thinkers saw thousands of years of Jewish tradition, religion and ritual as in some sense a burden to be sloughed off.
In today’s world that attitude still exists, but it has been hugely exacerbated by the unholy alliance that we have found among elements of the Left-not, by any means, among everyone-and the forces of Islamism. A whole new dimension has been created. We began to see this most visibly in the 1960s after the Six-Day War, when anti-Zionism morphed into the “new anti-Semitism”, as it has often been called. In this country today, and indeed across the West, anti-Semitism is no longer the preserve of the extreme Right. It has become embedded even in the respectable salons and newspaper offices of the Left.
Nick Cohen: This discussion is like wading into a minefield. Because what do you mean by Left? As Daniel suggested, there are all kinds of shades of opinions on the Left, on this as any other issue. It is like saying, “The Right and the Jews”. You can’t debate without generalisations—you can’t write without generalisations—so it is certainly true that there are anti-Semites on the Left. But it is equally true that left-wing thought can lead to conspiracy theorising. The late 20th century saw the collapse of socialism. From the 1880s through to the 1980s, you would have none of my problems of definition about talking to the Left. If you were left-wing, you were a socialist of some sort. Socialism died before the Berlin Wall came down. All over the world, people were giving up on socialism, not least Communists, especially in China and Russia.
You then have a problem with people who are raging, often with very good reason, against injustice in their society, who call themselves left-wing. What do you do next? How do you explain defeat? One way to explain defeat is a kind of conspiracy theorising. You see this in Britain a lot: people opine on the reasons elections are lost, because of Rupert Murdoch and the Tory press brainwashing the electorate. Lots of people on the Right, for instance, keep saying that the reasons the Tories keep losing elections (and they still haven’t won one, incidentally, not even against Gordon Brown. I would have thought that if you missed that goal you might as well give up football completely) is because of the BBC and the liberal media.
It is quite easy to get into conspiratorial ways of thinking. As soon as you start thinking like this, Jews come along, particularly when confronted by an injustice like that suffered by the Palestinians. It is very easy to go from explaining defeat and injustice to saying that there is a Jewish conspiracy which controls British and American foreign policy and runs secret levers of power.
There is one point I would pick out—as I am from the Left—and that I want to emphasise, and I want to do this strongly: you cannot say that it is anti-Semitic to be utterly opposed to the building of settlements on the West Bank, for instance, or to otherwise criticise Israel.
My book You Can’t Read This Book* deals with censorship, but the greatest fear in Europe for writers and artists ever since Salman Rushdie has been radical Islam. I’m not saying radical Islam has been the only violent force in Europe, but it is the only one which targets writers and artists. I have to take on the notion of Islamophobia, but I can’t say it doesn’t exist, as there are people who hate Muslims because they are Muslims. There are good reasons for people opposing Islamophobia, but you simply cannot say that publishing a book or writing, or making a work of art, or engaging in legitimate criticism about things like the theocratic regime in Iran is a kind of racism. It’s not: it is normal political criticism, and not racist.
Equally with anti-Semitism. You just can’t say that people who are appalled by what the Likud government has done are simply racists. You must do a bit better than that. In a funny way, you let real racists off the hook because you let them hide themselves among the crowd.
DJ: Anthony, is there a problem of the Left and the Jews? How does that fit into the history you tell in your book on anti-Semitism in England?
Anthony Julius: Let me return to something that Nick said. He said, since there isn’t a Left, there is only a historical memory of the Left. What form does that historical memory take? There’s no doubt that until the 1980s socialism spoke principally for a positive project. It was a reconstruction of society, with a certain optimism, and values we associate mainly with the Enlightenment, anti-clerical hostility towards institutions that were thought to be oppressive and benighted.
AJ: It was a positive project to be a socialist. It was to be committed to something that was about construction, building, substituting something delinquent and infirm with something more elevated, and improving morally and materially the conditions of most people. It would allow most of them to realise themselves, in ways that could only previously have been dreamt of. And that collapsed, in an awfully oppressive sense that there was no alternative to existing arrangements. There was no fundamental alternative to the market economy or mixed economy, no alternative to representative democracy—even though democracy leads to large sections of society being alienated from the political process. We live in an imperfect world. That really cannot be overstated.
There was a disaster in the thinking of the Left, and progressive people in general. The question was, what to do with that disaster? A number of different positions were taken, with a number of different solutions to that problem. First, simple withdrawal into private life—depart from the political field and commit oneself to novel writing or gardening. Plenty of people did that. One comes across people of a certain age—like some us sitting here today—who were firebrands in their twenties. Now they are lawyers or journalists or columnists of one kind or another. Essentially they lead a private life. It is one perfectly honourable solution, albeit a rather depressing one.
There is another option, which is to commit oneself to a form of liberal politics: a new emphasis on human rights, an advocacy of political reform through law reform, championing principles like free speech or free assembly. In other words, they take liberalism and rights seriously, as a very well-known liberal American jurist once said: giving substance to liberalism’s promise.
So that’s another option. For me, that is the best of the options. There is a third option, which is to associate oneself with local campaigns or objectives, to give up trying to reconstruct society and instead to commit oneself to causes. Green politics, feminism, prisoners’ rights, for instance. Not as part of the second project (which is taking liberalism seriously) but rather as a sort of subversive challenge to existing arrangements, leading to who-knows-where. The most important theorist of that kind of post-leftist politics was a Frenchman, Michel Foucault.
And then there’s a fourth position, the one which is most problematical for those of us who are Jews or who make common cause with Jews in the fight against anti-Semitism. It is a kind of impure nihilism, a kind of destructive fury or a perpetuation of the antagonisms of the pre-1989 Left, but without any balancing constructive project, so one continues in one’s war against America as if the Cold War still existed and the Soviet system still existed. But because there is no real alternative, one is led into more and more extreme gestures of anger and hatred and violence.
I think of the four responses I have identified, the fourth is most difficult for Jews: the searching for enemies-the pursuit of the enemy for its own sake. Jews have comprised the major enemy—certainly the major internal enemy—in the imagination of the West for perhaps 1,500 years. Of course, when that then becomes part of a larger political project, anti-Semitism is not terribly far away.
So in my general overview, of the four options following the collapse of the Left, the fourth is the one I would most identify as problematical. I would say, perhaps, in response to Nick, and building on what he said rather than dissenting from it, a more precise title for the problem we are addressing now is not so much the Jews and the Left but the Jews and the post-Left.
NC: Yes. Here’s something else, Anthony. You talk about nihilism and people who have all the fervour of revolutionaries without any particular project, which I think is quite right. Here’s what’s interesting, then—and I mention this in my book, What’s Left?, in the context of us not having a word to describe this. Ideas that appear to be confined to the far-Left can, in moments of crisis, sweep into the liberal mainstream.
People say to me that I stopped being left-wing because of 9/11. I didn’t. I stopped being left-wing in a conventional sense because of the protests against the Iraq war. Tony Blair lost loads of support because of his decision in 2003—but he got me! He’d probably settle for keeping his old supporters but losing me. You saw all these fine people from the liberal Left in Britain march at the head of a demonstration led by George Galloway, a man who even then had saluted Saddam Hussein (the nearest thing you are likely to see in your lifetime to a classic genocidal national socialist tyrant), and the Socialist Workers Party, who supported the Muslim Brotherhood, who are now in power in Egypt and are changing that country. No one said a word about these things. People on the Left, whom Anthony is referring to as supporting the new liberalism, have adopted pernicious slogans about Jews.
There is a borderless Left, on the margins of British politics. You cannot be a Conservative and cut a deal with the BNP. You can’t form an alliance like this. If it was found that a Conservative Cabinet member had even been in the BNP in his youth, all hell would break loose: I guarantee it. There is a border, a border you can’t cross. There is no border between the far-Left and the mainstream. Paul Berman, a wonderful American writer, wrote a book about the strange way the 1968 generation has gone. He has a lovely description about old, almost certainly Jewish, garment workers’ union members going to warn radicals, who were starting the 1960s movement, that these comrades should have nothing to with Communism. And of course these young students would cry, what do all these all old men and women know? We should start blacklisting people like McCarthy has been doing, and start saying no to Communism? Of course they weren’t going to start doing that. These were New York socialists.
The older socialists knew one thing. Let a bit of lightning flash across society, and all these reasonable, sensible people would go off and out-Stalin Stalin. That can happen on the Left, and that can happen in Europe. I get this all the time, with people saying, Nick, surely you are tired of talking about George Galloway or the SWP. I say, if I were, I wouldn’t bother.
There are some who, by acquiescing, go along with Islamists who want to kill homosexuals, kill Jews, and kill any Muslim who wants to change their religion or abandon religion, or set up a dictatorial, inquisitorial state. Going along with people like that used to be called being “clerical fascists”, to use very old-fashioned left-wing jargon, that was applied to regimes like Franco’s in Spain.
For this kind of toleration to then infect the mainstream: that is what worries me most now, when it happens. It doesn’t happen so much now—maybe a bit of infection has happened in the US, with the Tea Party—but not in Britain. It is the ability of extremists to zoom into the mainstream, and then when the crisis passes, they will appear mainstream and respectable. We must stop this.
AJ: It is true that there is not the same problem on the Right at the moment. One of the slight anxieties I have about the case of David Irving, whom I acted against, was that it came at the time when really everyone should have been waking up to the problem on the Left or post-Left. Irving represented a gigantic distraction from that, so it was possible to represent a really clapped-out Nazi as a major threat to Anglo-Jewry—when in fact he lived a kind of vampire existence as a spokesman for a defunct regime and a long-dead dictator. I felt somewhat concerned when, in the aftermath, I saw the kind of people who were beginning to be problematical, using the Irving case and the larger phenomenon of Holocaust denial as a means of excusing their own positions and distancing themselves from anti-Semitism in general, saying, “Of course we are very much against Holocaust denial and David Irving.” They presented anti-Semitism as a state-sponsored genocidal right-wing phenomenon, and said it was limited to that.
It is as if anti-Semitism in the imagination of the Left were fixed in 1945, and subsists only thereafter in the form of memory of the Holocaust. This is a problem. However, I don’t quite go as far as Nick in saying that it is hard to imagine, or even impossible, to imagine the Right making common cause with anti-Semites. After all, David Cameron may not entertain a member of the BNP but we know relatively recently there was an issue about alliances in Europe that the Conservative party had formed with far-Right parties.
I cut my teeth in libel acting for the Board of Deputies in the 1983 election, when the board was sued by a man called Tom Finnegan, an ex-National Front member, who was standing in the Conservative interest in that election. And there was no difficulty at all, certainly as far as the local and I think the national party were concerned, about him standing until his past became public and then there was a certain scurrying for cover.
DJ: Anthony, you mentioned human rights, and rights more generally, as one of the substitute causes for some elements of the Left. How is it that this concept of human rights has now come, in many cases, to be turned against Israel and the Jewish people? I’m thinking for example of the attempts to ban circumcision and kosher slaughter, which are sweeping across the Continent, and indeed, more widely across the Western world, and which are invariably justified on the basis of science, or animal rights, but it’s all a continuum, it’s all the same ideology.
NC: Let’s take it from the top. First of all, if you criticise the Israeli Right’s policy of piling settlements into the West Bank, if you criticise Netanyahu, if you criticise Likud, that is not you being anti-Semitic, that is you taking a political stance. Daniel, you quoted-beautifully, I thought-the wonderful phrase of August Bebel that “anti-Semitisim is the socialism of fools”. Sometimes unquestioning Zionism can be the conservatism of fools.
Second, you can’t just say that concern for human rights is used against Israel. Take attempts to ban kosher meat. Well, that’s on really rather good animal cruelty grounds. There are also attempts to ban halal meat. Is it both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic at the same time? You talk about attempts to ban circumcision—well, I wish! Shockingly, in this country, we have a law against female circumcision, which has never once been enforced, which has never once been prosecuted. Thousands upon thousands of young British girls are being mutilated. But, again, if the Crown Prosecution Service and the police refuse to enforce that law, if so-called liberal medical professionals refuse to enforce that law because they say we must be culturally sensitive, I would quite like to hear a stronger argument in defence of the human rights of those girls. On circumcision of boys, well, there is a case to be made that you should wait until they’re 16, until they’re old enough to be asked for an opinion.
DJ: But that makes Judaism impossible!
NC: No it doesn’t.
DJ: Yes it does.
NC: It’s not necessarily an anti-Semitic campaign, or using human rights against Jews, to say that there is at least an argument reasonable people can have that nobody should be circumcised without their consent.
DJ: But there is a long history of this, and it was part-and still, I would argue, is part—of a wider anti-Semitic agenda. I think it’s naive to think that that is all that is going on—you know, it’s simply nice innocent humanitarian people in Germany and such.
NC: But lots of Muslim cultures also circumcise boys.
DJ: That’s true, although the rules are very different. Islam does not insist on boys being circumcised right at the beginning of their lives, so there is much more flexibility there. This is actually being used against Jews. That’s what this is about, it’s not really about Muslims. But Anthony-this was really directed at you, because you brought in the whole subject of human rights.
AJ: Nick has said that criticism of the settlement policies isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic—I’m not actually aware of anyone saying that it was. Of course, there’s certain language that can be used-for instance in criticism of Netanyahu—that’s anti-Semitic. We saw the Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian, with Hague and Blair as his glove-puppets. Clearly that plays to a conception of the puppet-master Jew, which has a very strong anti-Semitic resonance.
Although it is commonly said of supporters of Israel that at least a number among them take the position that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, when one challenges that claim—say by asking, “Name one such supporter of Israel who takes that position”—no convincing answer can be given, no single person who takes that view can be identified and named. I don’t think anybody takes that view. On the contrary. Now, the idea that Israel could so recklessly squander such small goodwill as it has acquired, in consequence of stopping the campaign in Gaza when it did, and arriving through the massively overplayed Morsi intervention, and some kind of semi-stable ceasefire—the idea that it could recklessly throw that away by a gratuitous announcement of a further enlargement of settlements, is almost incomprehensible to me, and deeply, deeply dispiriting. But there it is.
On the subject of circumcision and animal slaughter, there is something in Maimonides where he says, just as the ritual sacrifices in the Temple were God’s way of weaning Jews from pagan practices, and therefore represented only a kind of intermediate step towards the summit of devotion, which is represented in prayer, so there is a proposition buried somewhere in the Talmud that kashrut is simply a staging post towards vegetarianism. Speaking as someone who has vegetarian tendencies, I’m not altogether unsympathetic to that as a principle, and it certainly does put the campaign against shechita in a certain light. As far as vegetarianism is concerned, or rather, the campaign against meat-eating, it seems to me that a campaign against animal slaughter in principle could not be, in itself, anti-Semitic, but a campaign against shechita is deeply problematical, because it’s predicated on an absolute distinction between two forms of slaughter, which actually is scientifically unsustainable. And where you have bad reasoning associated with a campaign which is targeted against Jews, anti-Semitism rushes in. However, I think Daniel is right, that there is something so fundamental to the making of a covenant with God in the very first days of birth that would make a campaign against circumcision necessarily a campaign against Judaism. And the idea that it’s not a campaign against Judaism is a kind of self-deception which is, in itself, quite troubling, because it shows a certain lack of interest in the implications and consequences of the position that one takes.
NC: Can I just take Anthony up on his point, on what he’s talking about when he says no one thinks criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
AJ: You’re going to name names?
NC: Well, no. Here’s the difficulty: I’m a Sunday newspaper journalist, which is a very odd thing. I mean, journalists are almost a dying breed, I’m probably the last you’ll see. Sunday paper journalists are not reporting the main news during the week, because obviously that’s in all the daily papers, it’s on the BBC. So you’re constantly looking for stories that have been missed. And one thing I train myself to do is always look at what’s not been said.
So, for instance, if you were at a typical London left-wing meeting, I would be giving you hell at the moment. You say you’re politically correct. You say you’re right-thinking, left-leaning liberals, look at all these people you’re going along with. Look at what you’re not saying. We were just talking about female genital mutilation. Or girls — so when a white schoolgirl runs off to France with her schoolteacher, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, it’s front-page news. Day in, day out, Pakistani girls are ripped from their classes, sent off to the subcontinent, into forced marriages, that is, they are kidnapped and then raped. And you never hear anything—or rarely hear anything, certainly not front-page news—in Britain. And the more liberal or left-wing the paper, the less likely it is to be news.
On the point Anthony raised about the people on the Left being anti-Semitic, there’s quite a danger of throat-clearing. They’ll say, “Of course I’m not anti-Semitic”. They’re probably not, in the sense that they have a visceral loathing of Jews, in the classical sense of anti-Semitism. But they will never take a stand about persecution of the Jews. They don’t take anti-Semitism seriously. They don’t ever put themselves out to fight against anti-Semitism. On the other side, which is why I said that unthinking support of Zionism is a form of folly, it’s quite easy to say, “Of course I don’t approve of everything that Likud does.” But unless you’re actually putting that in every statement, unless that is part of the burden of proof you offer to the jury, unless you try to campaign with liberal Palestinians who want a two-state solution, the prospect of which now seems to be collapsing, then people are entitled to ask questions of you.
There’s a further point about this. I was torn between boredom and despair during the recent war in Gaza. How quickly everyone took set positions, and how little room there was for compromise about them. Everyone ran down railroad tracks, and you only had to know the person’s name to know their destination. And more on the Left than on the Right in Britain there’s a kind of frivolity about this all, which I think in Britain and America comes from the fact that we were never invaded by the Nazis, we never had Communism, our politics have always been in their own way quite stable. Overwhelmingly, our politics is moderate, and rather boring.
But one of the consequences of that is that people can play with ideas. In France, say, people would know very well that if you start talking about Jews in this way, you’re taking that position, or if you talk in that way, you’re part of a Communist tradition. In Britain, in academia, in the media, in publishing, or on parts of the Left, people play with ideas and don’t really take them very seriously. Because historically, we don’t know how badly these things can turn out, from our own experience. So that’s why Britain as a country is often quite moderate in government, but extreme in ideas. For me, it always brings to mind George Orwell’s famous contemptuous dismissal of people around him in the 1930s, that there’s a type of left-wing intellectual who plays with fire without knowing fire’s hot. And that is why in Britain, you get this movement we don’t have a word for, that goes from the far-Left into liberalism, just suddenly casually throwing out Jewish conspiracy ideas, which in the past you would have recognised as coming from the Fascists, and not really knowing what they’re doing and not really caring about what they’re doing.
AJ: Having my own criticisms of Israel shouldn’t be a precondition for taking a position on the anti-Semitism of some views of Israel. Because it feels to me that it’s entirely possible to say this or that is anti-Semitic while, so to speak, keeping one’s own counsel about one’s own views on it.
NC: It depends on the context, really. If the argument is about Israel.
AJ: I think that Netanyahu has been a disaster for Israel. I think the settlement policy is a disaster for the future of that bit of the Middle East. I don’t really feel I need to say that in order to then go on to say, I think that a very significant amount of what passes for anti-Zionism is a rewriting of received anti-Semitic language in ostensibly anti-Zionist terms. It feels to me that one can say the one, one can say the other—what’s important is that it should be possible for Jews and others to say, without that kind of precondition, “This is wrong, stop it”—without, so to speak, having to produce their own credentials. I think that’s where I was dissenting.
Apart from that, I’m in embarrassing agreement with Nick on pretty much everything that he said—save that, because I don’t really consider myself on the Left in the way Nick does, because I’m just a lawyer, and I don’t have to take public political positions in the same way that a columnist does, I don’t feel the need to rage so furiously against the Left.
My inclination is to see vice all around me, not just to my left. I think that there are issues with the Right, and with the far-Right, which have not altogether gone away. And if we think beyond our own island, and if we look to Continental Europe, if we look to the East in Europe, I think we see a strongly nationalist, old-style pre-Second World War anti-Semitic politics emerging of an extremely worrying character. Given that Jewish communities have re-emerged from the very, very long winter of the Soviet empire, I think these new movements represent a significant threat to our people, which we disregard at our—and more particularly at their—peril.
DJ: There are quite a number of countries now, even in western Europe, but certainly in eastern and central Europe, where a significant percentage of the electorate are willing to vote for anti-Semitic parties, at the sort of levels that they were voting for them before the First World War and in the 1920s, so not that long before Hitler.
NC: You have these neo-Nazis, you know where their ancestors come from when you look at Jobbik in Hungary. You know that there’s something wrong with Fidesz, the mainstream party that is now in power in Hungary, when it doesn’t disassociate itself from this, when it plays on fears of Jews, and fears of gypsies, and starts dreaming of irredentist Hungary and regaining the borders it lost after the First World War. You know where all that’s coming from. British Conservatives are not taking a stand against this, any more than they’re taking a stand against Putin’s Russia in the Council of Europe.
Because the European Union is all they can think of, they look at these parties who are quite anti-EU, and whose slogans are nationalist, albeit national socialist, and they’re not taking them on, because it’s of secondary importance in their politics to the fight against the EU.
[* You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship In An Age Of Freedom, by Nick Cohen. Published 2012 Fourth Estate, 12.99, 224pp.
Daniel Johnson is a founding editor of Standpoint. His latest book is White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
Anthony Julius is a lawyer and chairman of the board of Jewish Chronicle. His latest book is Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, Oxford University Press 2010