Israel, Antisemitism and the Left

January 1, 2000
Richard Kuper

Brian Klug, Red Pepper, Special issue on Israel-Palestine, Final Revision: 24 November 2005

In November 2005 an all-party inquiry into antisemitism was set up at Westminster. John Mann, labour MP for Bassetlaw, said that antisemitism is no longer “solely a problem of the far right.” He added pointedly, “The liberal and progressive left is not immune.” An article in the November issue of Progress went further, claiming that “parts of the left peddle a particular version” of antisemitism.

Here is an example of what leads some people to make this allegation. In Davos, Switzerland, January 2003, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, a group of anti-globalization protestors engaging in street theatre were captured on camera. Two masked figures in monkey costumes represented Donald Rumsfeld and Ariel Sharon. Pinned to ‘Rumsfeld’s’ chest was a yellow six-pointed badge that looked like the yellow Star of David that Jews had to wear under the Nazis, except that it was inscribed sheriff rather than Jude. On ‘Rumsfeld’s’ shoulders was a yoke supporting a massive golden calf. Standing to one side and slightly behind him, arm upraised as if goading him on, ‘Sharon’ brandished a club.

For some, this is the face of the ‘new’ antisemitism: hostility to Israel and Zionism. Others claim that partisans of the Jewish state call their opponents antisemitic in order to silence them. And some of them do. But this does not mean their accusations are always false. If we sincerely want to know the truth of the matter, we need to stop engaging in polemics and to start thinking clearly about what antisemitism is – and what it isn’t.

Let’s start with Mann’s remark that the left is “not immune” to antisemitism. Some find this hard to swallow. After all, antisemitism is racism against Jews, racism is a form of oppression, and fighting oppression is precisely what the left is all about. So, how could there be such a thing as left-wing antisemitism? The very idea seems absurd. Yet human beings are not beyond being absurd. Voltaire, the ‘man of reason’ who represents the Enlightenment, was not exactly rational about Jews. In his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) he writes: “It is with regret that I discuss the Jews: this nation is, in many respects, the most detestable ever to have sullied the earth.” This outburst is in his article on ‘Tolerance’: absurd but true.

The case of Voltaire illustrates how powerful a deeply-embedded cultural prejudice can be; and antisemitism has run deep in Christian Europe for centuries. So, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that antisemitism was never ‘solely a problem of the far right’. There has always been a vein on the European left. Take Proudhon, the utopian socialist who coined the phrase ‘Property is theft’. He wrote: “The Jew is the enemy of humankind. The race must either be sent back to Asia or exterminated.” For Bakunin, the celebrated anarchist, “the whole Jewish world” is “one exploiting sect, one people of leeches, one single devouring parasite”. Crossing national and political boundaries, it “stands in large part at the disposal of Marx on the one hand, and of Rothschild on the other.” Marx himself (baptized into Christianity as a young child) spoke of “the practical dominion of Judaism over the Christian world” and averred: “Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may endure”. His words conjure up the golden calf of Davos.

Marx’s ultimate target, of course, was not Judaism: it was money and commerce as the basis of bourgeois society. The fact remains that he equated this with Jews – when in reality the vast majority were (like my own family) chronically poor. True, he supported Jewish emancipation. But his perception of Jews was itself unemancipated. In general, seminal figures on the left were radical thinkers whose general political thought was liberating. But this does no mean that they were altogether liberated themselves. Their example is salutary: people on the left today cannot assume immunity from bigotry – including antisemitism.

But what is antisemitism? Though the word only goes back to 1879, the prejudice is much older. Antisemitism is an ingrained European fantasy about Jews as Jews. Whether they are seen as a race, religion, nation or ethnic group, and whether antisemitism comes from the right or the left, the image of ‘the Jew’ is much the same. To an antisemite, Jews are a people set apart, not merely by their customs but by their collective character. They are arrogant, secretive, cunning, always looking to turn a profit. Loyal only to their own, wherever they go they form a state within a state, preying upon the societies in whose midst they dwell. Mysteriously powerful, their hidden hand controls the banks and the media. They will even drag governments into war if this suits their purposes. Such is the figure of ‘the Jew’, transmitted from generation to generation.

Where this fantasy is projected on to Israel because it is a Jewish state, or Zionism because it is a Jewish movement, or Jews in association with either Israel or Zionism: there you have antisemitism. But Israel’s occupation beyond the green line is no fantasy. Nor is the spread of Jewish settlements, the destruction of Palestinian homes and olive groves, the building of a barrier that slices through Palestinian land, the roadblocks and curfews, and so on. These are realities. So is the institutionalized discrimination against Israeli Palestinian citizens. Hostility to Israel or Zionism on the basis of these realities is not antisemitism.

But, it is said, anti-Zionism can be a mask concealing antisemitism that lies behind it. True, it can be. An infamous example from the left comes to mind: the so-called anti-Zionist purges carried out by the Polish communist government in 1968. But let’s think this through. If anti-Zionism can function as a mask this implies that, in and of itself, it is not anti-Semitic; a mask that looks like what it is masking is no mask. (That would be like a wolf in wolf’s clothing.) On the other hand, if what is hidden is antisemitism, then the image of ‘the Jew’ is a subtext; and there are ways of bringing subtexts to light by taking in evidence from other sources. So, for example, we can examine other literature produced by an anti-Zionist group, or look at their political connections.

Some people say that singling out Israel for criticism is evidence of antisemitism; similarly when criticism of the Jewish state is unfair or defamatory. But there are many good reasons for focussing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or indeed on Israel as such. And if, for example, someone is outraged by the ‘sound bombs’ over Gaza, they might well exaggerate the facts or use intemperate language. Whatever else we might call this, it is not antisemitism.

Nor is it necessarily antisemitic to question Zionism as a project or the very idea of a Jewish state. No state is sacrosanct. The legitimacy of every state is open to challenge, as are the constitutional arrangements for the inhabitants of any area of the globe. Where once there was a single Czechoslovak state, there are now two separate countries. Two German republics have joined into one. Perhaps more states have come into being and gone out of existence in the last hundred years than at any other time in history. Israel itself is an example. Moreover, there were Jews (even some Zionists) who opposed the creation of a Jewish state and antisemites who were in favour.

A familiar argument goes like this: “How can people on the left support Palestinian nationalism and yet oppose Jewish nationalism? They must be antisemites.” This brings us to an issue that lies at the heart of so much misunderstanding about Zionism: its profound ambiguity.

Zionism belongs to two opposite histories at one and the same time. On the one side, it saw itself as a movement for self-determination by (or on behalf of) the Jews, the ‘inside outsiders’ of Europe, a people with a long history of persecution. On the other side, it was itself part of a European expansion into non-European territory. This is because, unlike the case of other self-styled national liberation movements, there was no existing national territory under occupation; the project was to gather in the exiles and populate a land rather than expel an invader. From the beginning, starting with Herzl’s address to the first Zionist congress in 1897, Zionism spoke the language of colonization – but for the sake of emancipation, not empire. Seen from this side, Zionism historically was a flight from Europe, not an extension of the European homeland. But seen from the other side, the Jews who came as settlers were Europeans by any other name. And they were. They were both. They were Jewish as distinct from European, and European as distinct from Arab.

Yes, antisemitic prejudice does motivate some of the hostility to Israel. But by and large this antagonism is directed against one face – the European colonizing face – of Zionism. This is the face that the Palestinians have overwhelmingly experienced. It has loomed larger since the war of 1967 and the growth of Israeli Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories; even larger since the collapse of peace talks in 2000; and larger still since Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank in April 2002. It is, naturally, the face that catches the eye of the left in general.

Nonetheless, something is wrong with a left that forgets one people’s oppression because it is struck by another’s. Zionism, after all, was a reaction to antisemitism – not the only Jewish reaction, but that’s what it was. Because of antisemitism, Jews in Europe were marginalized, excluded and finally subjected to the catastrophic ‘final solution’. When people on the left seem oblivious to this history, when they simply fold the Jewish story into a larger narrative of Western imperialism, Jews, whether Zionist or not, are liable to feel marginalized and excluded all over again. It is understandable that this feels like antisemitism, even when it isn’t.

Sometimes there is reason to suspect that it is; we have to examine the evidence. Which brings me back to Davos. It is hard to know what to say in this case. It turns out that several other world leaders were impersonated and most of them, like ‘Sharon’, carried clubs. Moreover, in another photo ‘Sharon’ stands apart from the golden calf ensemble, no longer looking dominant. Still, the badge worn by ‘Rumsfeld’ is deeply disturbing. One member of the group said that it had not occurred to any of them that the color and design recalled the Jewish star. If true, this bespeaks a degree of naivety that is not only astonishing but reprehensible. For if you engage in political activism you are accountable for the predictable consequences of your political action.

In his “anti-racist analysis of left anti-semitism”, the Jewish socialist Steve Cohen writes: “Any group which claims to be against anti-semitism should be ultra-vigilant in the imagery it evokes”. The left, in short, must take responsibility for the rhetoric of its statements. Equally, for the rhetoric of its silence: the failure to speak out clearly against anti-Jewish sentiment when this finds expression in the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. No quarter must be given on the left to such sentiment – any more than it is given to racism against other groups. This is a matter of basic humanity. It is also good politics: rubbing salt into the open wounds that gave rise to Zionism in the first place does not advance the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East. Nor does it promote anti-racism at home.

What about the claim that parts of the left ‘peddle’ a version of antisemitism? The word ‘peddle’ seems more calculated to attack the left than engage it in self-examination. Nevertheless, there is a real question here: Does the antisemitic figure of ‘the Jew’ ever find its way into, or gain credence from, left-wing opposition to Israel and Zionism? If you care, then look at the evidence – and you be the judge.

Brian Klug

St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford

Founder member, Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights

email:,13319,5337_833247,00.html (viewed 20 November 2005). See also Guardian, 17 November 2005, p. 14. Mann is chair of the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism.

Jane Ashworth and David Hirsh, ‘The state they’re in’, Progress, November/December 2005, available at (viewed 15 November 2005). The authors are co-founders of Engage, “an organisation dedicated to combating anti-semitism on the left” (ibid.).

The World Economic Forum annual meeting was held from January 23 to 27, 2003. The image (by Fabrice Coffrini) is available at (viewed August 31, 2005).

Quoted in Adam Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 233.

Quoted in David Vital, A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe 1789-1939, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 203.

Quoted in Edmund Silbener, ‘Two Studies on Modern Anti-Semitism’, Historia Judaica, vol. 14, part 2, October 1952, p. 101.

In On the Jewish Question, extracts in Paul Mendes-Flohr & Jehuda Reinharz, The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 326.

Vital, p. 302.

Theodor Herzl, ‘First Congress Address’ (1897), in Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader, Philadephia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1997, pp. 226-230.

The point I am making is not quite the same as the one made by Tony Klug in his writings on the Middle East, beginning with A Tale of Two Peoples (London: Fabian Society, 1973), but it is inspired by his approach. (viewed September 3, 2005).

‘Image talk:Davos Switzerland G8 Summit.jpg’ [sic], available at (viewed August 31, 2005).

Steve Cohen, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic: An Anti-Racist Analysis of Left Anti-Semitism, Leeds: Beyond the Pale Collective, 1984, p. 86.

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