Book Review – The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism

By Mark Elf who blogs at Jews sans frontieres

I suspect the book is timed to cash in on Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the UK Labour Party as Corbyn seems something of an afterthought for its author, Dave Rich.  Dave is a committed Zionist so no doubt he also wanted to play his part in undermining a left Labour leader who has a high profile in the Palestine solidarity movement.

The book has lots of Zionist staples like the Jewish right to national self-determination. There are lots of stretches of people’s meaning and out of context quotes to portray Israel’s opponents and even victims as being antisemitic.  The holocaust is instrumentalised to justify Israel’s existence without the author realising that this undermines the idea of Jews being a standard case for national self-determination which is supposed to accrue to communities with territorial contiguity and raises the idea that, instead, Jews are a special case.

Dave avoids analysis or even definitions of terms.  He avoids analysis of what Zionism means to its victims.  He avoids saying what it means to or for its Jewish beneficiaries except to say that this ideological choice is an integral part of their identity.  He avoids details around implementation of the Zionist project and he mostly avoids the various imperial supports the project has received and without which Israel couldn’t exist.

Remarkably for a book supposedly about antisemitism, Dave fails even to define that. He doesn’t mention, for example, the so-called EUMC working definition which his employers at the Community Security Trust learned to love.  He certainly uses parts of the definition.  For example, when Israel is compared to the Nazis, this is offered by Dave as an example of antisemitism.  His failure to analyse Zionism or Nazism or refer to the racism essential and common to both enables this given.

Dave’s only mention of Israel’s founding war on the Arabs is plain wrong. Dave claims “five Arab armies had invaded their new Jewish neighbour”.  Arab armies have never invaded Israel. The Zionist movement had already ethnically cleansed 300,000 Palestinians by the time Arab armies mobilised against an already expanding Israel.

He fails to consider the Eurocentrism that would allow for the Labour Party to propose in 1944 the “transfer”, i.e. the ethnic cleansing, of all of Palestine’s Arabs.  For Dave, the labour movement was all cloth caps, trade unions and Poale Zion (now calling itself the Jewish Labour Movement, JLM).  And somewhere between the old days and the rise of the new left, the youth wing of the Liberal Party, the Young Liberals, decided to call Israel out as a state not significantly different from the apartheid regime of the Republic of South Africa.  Without analysing either Zionism or liberalism, Dave doesn’t have to consider the glaringly illiberal tenets of the former to see how repugnant they are to the young activists of the latter.

And so to the new left whose ideas and genealogy get mangled by Dave.  Where he quotes work, he doesn’t seem to understand it.  Abram Leon for example, is chastised by Dave, of all people, for mostly ignoring Palestine.  But Leon was explaining the Jewish identity, hostility to Jews and the ahistorical nationalism of the Zionist movement. So why mention Leon? Because his book is called The Jewish Question and an idiot called Gerry Downing claims that global affairs are run by what he calls “the Jewish question”. If Downing claims inspiration from Leon then, like Dave, he hasn’t understood him.  Contrary to Dave’s claim, we do not have to read Leon to understand Downing. But the spurious linkage is made because Downing was suspended from the Labour Party during Corbyn’s time as leader even though he survived Kinnock, Blair, Brown and Miliband. Continue reading “Book Review – The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism”

Polemical intervention – or analytical contribution?

Review of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism  David Rich, London: Biteback Publishing 2016, £12.99 paperback

This review first appeared in Labour Briefing

The Left's Jewish Problem cover 6.inddThe Left’s Jewish Problem is an ideological tract and an intervention in the current battle in the Labour Party. It is designed to show “a sickness at the heart of left wing British politics… silently spreading, becoming ever more malignant” (cover blurb). That sickness is the sickness of antisemitism.

Of course there are antisemitic ideas around in Britain and it would be nonsense to assume that the left was immune. But Rich is on a mission to show antisemitism as widespread, systematic, hegemonic on the left.
As Rich is aware, there isn’t much Jew-hatred of a traditional kind around on the left, There is, rather, he believes, a different kind of antisemitism, expressed as an anti-Zionism of the left, in which movements and thinkers have come to view Israel and Zionism as “a product of western colonialism rather than a liberation movement against it”.

That large sections of “the left” fell out of love with Israel and came to rally around support for Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state is relatively uncontested. But why the change? For Rich, this shift couldn’t be a response to events, analysis, or improved understanding. It was, rather, an ideological hijacking by the “New Left”.

Rich’s New Left, with Corbyn as its embodiment, is a curious construct. “As New Left superseded Old,” he writes, “so identity politics replaced class politics as its primary mobilising idea… [This New Left represents] a new social class, rooted in intellectual and cultural professions, populated by public sector workers whose political agenda would come to be dominated by identity and iconoclasm.”

So the movement behind Corbyn is somehow viewed as a break with all tradition, rather than a popular, deeply-rooted, left trade-union and social movement, trying to incorporate class and identity issues, in a desire to restore something of older Labour concerns: equality, social ownership, trade-union rights, anti-imperialism and more.

Rich operates with free-floating, unchanging essences. So Zionism is, was and always will be nothing but self-determination/national liberation. Who could possibly criticise that? So by definition describing Israel as a colonial-settler or apartheid society can’t have any truth in it. It can only be an emotional attempt to demonise Israel. For Rich, such concepts are products of a New Left mind set: the apartheid analogy was “hardwired into left wing anti-Israel politics in Britain during its formative [anti-apartheid] years in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But what if these concepts are gaining ground precisely because they make increasing sense of an emergent reality? Events have played crucial role in shifting ideas on the left in relation to Israel-Palestine – from the 1956 Suez invasion to the televised spectacle of phosphorus bombs falling on Gaza and bodies of children in the rubble.

Whatever Zionism might or might not have been originally, what has it become? Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank continues unabated. Green-line Israel’s discrimination against its increasingly second-class Palestinian citizens, and their physical displacement in the Negev, rolls on. What Israel is now needs to be judged by what it is doing, not by its ideological self-image. Israel’s actions are what are delegitimising it, not any antisemitism of the left.

It is clearly wrong to argue that all claims of antisemitism are simply made in order to silence criticism of Israel. Allegations of antisemitism should be taken seriously and investigated swiftly. But making an allegation is not the same thing as establishing a fact. Rich is entirely oblivious to (or simply ignores) the context in which recent accusations emerged – why, for example, emotionally charged posts and tweets from the 2014 Gaza war should only be dredged up in 2016, under Corbyn’s leadership. It does not take much to see the timing as contrived, rather than an innocent desire to unmask antisemitism.

Clearly, insofar as some remarks are antisemitic they need to be confronted. Conspiracy theories, e.g. that Israel founded Isis or that Jews escaped 9/11, should be dismissed out of hand. Individuals who make them should be dealt with appropriately. But appropriately means appropriately. It doesn’t mean suspensions without charge, condemnation without a hearing, or leaking stories to the Jewish Chronicle or Daily Telegraph – in short, the weaponisation of antisemitism and the complete absence of due process we have witnessed in recent months. On all this Rich has nothing to say.

If Rich’s book encourages us to be more precise in our language, to temper how we express our emotional outrage at the things Israel does with impunity, to be more strategic in how we build support for Palestinian rights, it may (inadvertently!) achieve something useful. But in its own terms, it must be treated as a polemical intervention rather than a serious analytical contribution to our understanding of antisemitism (or the left) today.

Richard Kuper

Richard Kuper is a co-founder and past Chair of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and a member of Holborn & St Pancras Constituency Labour Party

Miriam David’s review