Does the Left have a problem with Jews? This question arose in the wake of Ken Livingstone’s remarks about Hitler and Zionism. For all the fury of the ensuring media storm, the issue seemed to leave the public cold. For my two pennies’ worth, I don’t think the Labour Party per se has a massive problem with anti-semitism. From 2010 to 2015, it had a Jewish leader, which does not suggest a party with an inveterate anti-Semitic bias.
But this is not about the Labour Party and to what extent it has an issue with Jews. The ballyhoo Livingstone’s remarks generated missed a broader issue. The Left does have a problem with Jews – Israelis ones, namely. But the source of this problem is not anti-semitism but a certain type of modish ideology.
Before we come to that, let me make myself plain. It is not anti-Semitic – by definition – to criticise Israel. Just like it is not Islamophobic – by definition- to criticise Islam. Therefore, those who tar all of Israel’s critics with the brush of anti-semitism are wrong. Likewise, those who tar all critics of Islam with the brush of Islamophobia are wrong.
So, to get back on topic: what do I mean when I say the ‘Left’? I mean, the ‘hard’ Labour Left, movements associated with it, like Momentum, fringe movements like the Socialist Workers’ Party and its front organisations like the Stop the War Coalition. I am speaking of the Anglo-American Left and not the Left globally though I suspect much of what I say below will apply to the Left worldwide. It’s true that criticism of Israel is not just confined to this Left, so defined, but they are the most vocal and prominent critics.
I think the basis of their criticism is, pace the Tory Party and the Daily Telegraph, rooted mostly in perceptions Israel’s behaviour. But that is not the end of the argument. It’s not so much what they say as what they don’t say. The Left – good at pointing everyone else’s shortcomings and double-standards – has a quite a few blind spots of its own.
When it comes to the comparable crimes committed by Israel’s opponents, it maintains a circumspect silence. Nowhere has this been more striking than in the case of Syria since the outbreak of that country’s civil war 2011. Israel’s Gaza incursions in 2008/09 and 2012 attracted copious commentary and criticism but Bashar Al-Assad armed forces’ two-year blockade and bombardment of a Palestinian refugee camp in his own capital city attracted little excitement, either in the ‘Arab Street’ or among Israel’s usual critics on the Left. Indeed, everything Israel has done to Gaza over the last 10 years, Assad has done to his own people since 2011 (although Israel, unlike Syria, has not bombed its own cities, one aspect in which comparison between the two is not apt).
This blind-spot is nothing new. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, bombarded Beirut and killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians. In that same year, while the world’s attention was fixed on Beirut, Bashar’s father and uncle were flattening one of their own cities, Hama. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of civilians perished. The brainchild behind Israel’s 1982 was Ariel Sharon, Israel’s then defence minister. Sharon was a hate figure on the left. Given his record, this is hardly a surprise. But his record was no worse than the Assads – only Sharon was a Jew. It’s the lopsided nature of the Left’s condemnation that arouses the suspicion among Israel’s defenders of darker motivations of Israel’s critics.
Of course, it is far easier to report from the frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts than in places like Syria. That was true in 1982 and remains true today. Israel is (within its 1967 borders) an open society, with a rule of law, free press and a civil society that tolerates criticism from within. There is no equivalent to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem anywhere in any of Israel’s neighbours, including ‘moderate’ states like Jordan – let alone Syria.
For these reasons, Syrian crimes are not documented to the same detail as Israeli ones. But this is not the explanation for the Left’s silence on Syria. Unlike Hama in 1982, we know a lot more about what is happening in Syria because of developments in communication technology, even if we still know less about Syria than we do about Israel-Palestine. One thing is for sure, the evidence for Assad’s crimes is in the public realm and Israel’s critics on the Left – many drawn from the educated classes – can scarcely fail to be aware of it, or not know where to look.
Assad claims that Syria is fighting terrorists, sponsored and raised from overseas. His claim mirrors Bush’s claim about Iraqi insurgents in the early years of the US occupation of that country. Of course, some ‘Iraqi’ insurgents were foreigners and some ‘Syrian’ rebels are foreigners. But the bulk of Iraqi insurgents were born in Iraq and the bulk of Syrian rebels were born in Syria. Iraqi insurgents and Syrian rebels have committed numerous crimes. The designation ‘terrorist’ is not without truth, in both cases. But in Iraq’s, the Left described Iraqi insurgents as the resistance, but in Syria, they are terrorists. We know what Assad and Bush are doing when they deny the indigenous origins of the people they are fighting. It is a self-serving rationale, designed to obscure their responsibility for the mayhem they helped to create. Whether the Left accepts this rationale in any given case depends less on what the actual facts of the situation are than on the person making it.
The selectivity is not on account of anti-semitism. It’s a world view that considers that the only sources of evil are from the West. Evil, injustice and oppression are only things that white westerners do. Israel ticks the right boxes. Zionism, a ‘project’ conceived and implemented by westernised Jewish intellectuals, is an outpost of the West. This ideology explains the paroxysm of rage Stop the War worked itself up over Britain’s decision to bomb IS in November 2015, while saying nothing about Russia’s contemporaneous decision to do the same. Putin of course used the same sort of justification as Assad has used and Israel has used and indeed Cameron has used – fighting terrorists. It’s an acceptable explanation in Assad’s case but not Israel’s.
Sure, Assad is killing his own people but that is actually our fault – the original sin lies with the West, such as the Sykes-Picot agreement or its support of Israel, the invasion of Iraq, to name just a few examples. The assumption is that we are the catalysts – everyone else is just the reaction. Only white people have agency in the sense of being the oppressor. Everyone else is the victim. When it comes to Israel, then it is on the wrong side of the oppressor/victim ledger. That is the Left’s problem with Israel.
Having said all that, the taint of anti-semitism cannot be ruled out. It cannot be proved or disproved. On the other hand, anti-semitism cannot explain the partiality the Left shows in holding countries like the US and the UK to higher standards than their opponents – like Iraqi suicide bombers. For that reason, I think that other possible motivations have to be considered. For that reason, I think it is more to do with a worldview based on political ideology rather than straightforward anti-semitism.