Labour’s Racism Trap
There is ample reason to be critical of Israeli policies, as well as of US governments that blindly support them. But criticism is one thing; the view that the US and Israel amount to the most malevolent threats to mankind is another – and is leading the UK Labour Party down a blind alley.
NEW YORK – When the right accuses the left of anti-Semitism, there must be something curious going on. After all, Jew-hatred historically has been a right-wing pathology. But in Britain, Conservative politicians and right-wing papers like the Daily Telegraph are now in high dudgeon about the alleged anti-Semitism of some Labour MPs. Conservatives themselves are not immune to xenophobia, especially when it comes to Muslims or even fellow Europeans. But there is a reason for this hypocrisy, which has everything to do with perceptions of Israel.
Anti-Semitism on the left is often a form of excessive zeal in opposing Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. When critics of the Israeli government speak of “the Zionists” instead of Israelis, you can be reasonably sure that they are zealots. The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is a case in point. His assertion that Hitler was a kind of proto-Zionist is less a failed attempt to make a provocative historical point than a deliberate slur to discredit the very existence of Israel.
When the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, himself a fierce anti-Zionist, fails to see much wrong with a mural in London depicting evil, hook-nosed plutocrats playing Monopoly over the naked backs of suffering workers, one might be forgiven for seeing a link between Corbyn’s praise of Hamas and a more old-fashioned type of anti-Semitism.
Perhaps this is unfair. It may be that Corbyn was just being obtuse. But there is no doubt that zealous anti-capitalism has sometimes veered into anti-Semitism on the left. This was true in late-nineteenth-century France, when Georges Sorel and the revolutionary Syndicalists saw Jews in the same terms as the muralist in London. It is still true of those who regard George Soros as the most villainous enemy of the toiling masses today.
When speaking of the left, one has to make distinctions. In the United States, any Democrat who believes that the government should help the worst off is often called a leftist. But in Europe and elsewhere, not much remains of the class-based ideology that was once associated with socialism. There is little difference any longer between moderate social democrats and mainstream conservatives. What Corbyn and Livingstone represent is a sectarian hard left, driven largely by a fierce hostility to what they perceive as Western imperialism (or “neo-colonialism”), and racism against non-white people.
The two countries that most clearly represent the evils of neo-colonialism and racism in the eyes of the sectarian left are Israel and the US. Indeed, because of America’s staunch support of Israel, especially now that President Donald Trump has given Binyamin Netanyahu’s government license to do anything it likes, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is seen as a common US-Israeli enterprise. Washington and Jerusalem are seen as the twin capitals of Zionism. (Some might include New York and Hollywood, because of “Jewish money.”)
There is ample reason to be critical of Israeli policies, and of US governments that blindly support them. It is no secret that many Israelis, including prominent members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, hold views on the Arabs that could fairly be described as racist. (Considering his recent remarks on the Holocaust, the same might be said about Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader.) And Trump’s perception of non-white people is not exactly friendly, either.
But criticism is one thing. To view the US and Israel as the single most malevolent threats to mankind is another. For some zealots on the left, Zionism and US imperialism are so wicked that their avowed enemies must be the left’s friends. This is why some are happy to make excuses for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions, and even to take his propaganda at face value.
What Livingstone and others may not realize is how close their image of the American-Zionist evil comes to the right-wing anti-Semitic tropes of the early twentieth century. Then, too, the US, and to some extent Britain, was associated with “Jewish money.” Then, too, people assumed that “Jewish power” was wielded from Washington and New York. The name Rothschild was used in the same way that Soros is now.
The leadership of the Labour Party by the sectarian left is a recent phenomenon. Corbyn was always a marginal figure, an eccentric whose name was rarely heard outside his North London constituency. His ascent to party leader seemed almost as zany as Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. And yet it makes a certain ideological sense.
The Labour Party, like its left-wing counterparts elsewhere, once represented the interests of what was known as the working class. It supported strong trade unions and favored state ownership of key national institutions such as the railways and the postal system. Nationalized health care and public education were vital concerns. Many leftists were internationalists, too. In Israel’s early decades, when the left was still in power there, much of the Labour Party was in sympathy with Zionism.
This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. Not only had Israel become an occupying power ruling Palestinian territories conquered in two wars, but left-wing ideology in the West had begun to shift from class-based concerns to battling imperialism and racism. Because many leftists identified themselves as warriors against racism, they could not possibly see themselves as anti-Semitic, no matter how zealous their opposition to “the Zionists.” Indeed, their views on Zionism confirmed their identity as anti-racists.
Meanwhile, a parallel shift happened on the right, in Israel, Europe, and the US. As Israeli governments became more militantly nationalist, xenophobes and chauvinists in the West became ardent supporters of Israel. And that is why British Tories, who once might have held less than friendly views of the Jewish people, can now in good conscience condemn Labour politicians as anti-Semites. After all, they love Israel, perhaps a little too much.