Thursday, 28 September 2017

Antisemitism and the Left: Confronting the Invisible Racism

By Sina Arnold & Blair Taylor 
For many on the left, the topic of antisemitism seems a bit strange or esoteric. Activists often proclaim that this is a rather obvious and straightforward matter leftists oppose all forms of oppression based on ethnicity and/or religion, and therefore by definition are against antisemitism. Especially in the United States, many also assume that antisemitism is simply not a contemporary problem particularly in comparison to anti-black and anti-Arab racism and thus there is no need for the left to target this particular racist ideology. And finally, one often hears leftists claim that addressing antisemitism amounts to defending Israel, and that those who do are inevitably anti-Arab, Zionists, and therefore right-wingers. 

We seek to challenge these common left assumptions. We will show that the left has a long and complicated history regarding antisemitism, including periods where it not only went unchallenged, but was actively embraced and reproduced. We suggest that this historical legacy the way the left currently does, or rather does not, discuss antisemitism. The text focuses primarily on context of the left in the United States; the history and present of European antisemitism is another complicated issue entirely, but one many Americans often remain ignorant of or believe has been relegated to the distant past. By contrast, we will argue that an analysis of antisemitism is an important component of any left politics, yet one which is today conspicuous by its absence from the ever-growing list of “isms” opposed by the left. Thus it is our aim to shine a light on what remains a curiously invisible form of racism. It is our belief that left social movements will only become stronger by addressing antisemitism, resulting in sharper and more nuanced analyses of capitalism, global politics generally and the Middle East conflict in particular, as well as contemporary right-wing movements such as neo-Nazism and Islamism. 

What is Antisemitism? 

One common reason why leftists overlook antisemitism is that they do not understand its specificity; they assume it is the same as any other form of racism and thus miss what makes it distinct. Although it can and does take the form of simple racial prejudice or discrimination against Jews, historically antisemitism been one part of a broader anti-modern ideology closely linked to the rise of bourgeois society capitalism, cosmopolitanism, and the modern nation-state. Of course, antisemitism has many elements in common with other forms of racism: Jews as a group are essentialized; they are assigned negative attributes and discriminated against in various areas of life features shared by all racisms. There are, however, also important differences between antisemitism and other forms of racism just as there are differences in the specific forms of racism towards Blacks, Asians, Arabs and other groups. In general terms, what might be called “colonial” forms of racism (colonized people, Indigenous groups, African slaves) constructs “the other” as inferior, uncivilized, and sub- human. This “other” symbolizes nature and uncontrollable sexuality, and is associated with the body and emotion in contrast to mind and reason. This in turn leads to characterizations as less intelligent, criminal, and lazy. Presented as inferior, it is therefore assumed that this other” must be suppressed, exploited, and excluded. 

By contrast, “the Jewis not associated with nature but with modernity and society. Instead, Jews are over-civilized,suspiciously intelligent and physically weak, rootless cosmopolitans lacking loyalty to community or country. They are depicted as overly individualistic (yet at the same time cliquishly tribal), money-grubbing materialists, grown powerful and wealthy through dishonesty and trickery. In short, they are the personification of all the negative aspects of modern bourgeois society. As the Jews are perceived as either openly running the world or conspiring internationally in secret to do so, antisemitism ultimately does not seek to merely keep “the other” down, but rather to destroy their perceived hegemonic power taken to its logical conclusion in Nazi eliminationism.1It is precisely this posture of critiquing power and capitalism which has made the left more susceptible to antisemitism than other forms of racism; it is no accident that August Bebel called it the “socialism of fools.” 

Thus, although antisemitism includes prejudice and discrimination based on racialized group categories, on a more fundamental level it is a more expansive anti-modern worldview offered as a critique of bourgeois society. Antisemitism targets central features of modern society abstractness, universality, mobility, cosmopolitanism and also capitalism, however wrongly understood all of which become identified with and personified as “the Jew.”Understanding that antisemitism is an ideology means that subject position is no protection against it: Jews can also hold this worldview, as can Jewish and non-Jewish leftists. Therefore leftists are not immune to reproducing antisemitic stereotypesa fact considered obvious when discussing other forms of racism, where inner-left soul-searching and call-out culture have become the norm, and where questioning such allegations is perceived as defending racism. Viewed in this context, the left’s double standard when it comes to accusations of antisemitism is all the more obvious. 

Antisemitism and the Left: A Historical Perspective 

A variety of historical examples make it clear that leftists have not been immune to antisemitic thinking. The Populists of the late 19th century were among the first mass movements to engage in antisemitism, associating Jews with banks and economic exploitation, making “the Jew a symbol of capitalism and urbanism, concepts in themselves too abstract to be satisfactory objects of animosity.2The Old Left, and especially the Communist Party, was ambivalent regarding antisemitism, but generally aligned with Stalin’s positions, such as ignoring or endorsing antisemitic show trials which portrayed Jewish party members as disloyal traitors in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. The Polish incarnation of the Prague Spring in 1968 blamed Jews for the crimes of Stalinism, fueling an antisemitic pogrom where 20,000 Polish Jews were forced to leave the country. Factory workers across Poland were forced to publicly denounce Zionism in carefully-staged public displays of support for the purges. 

The political legacy of the New Left is of particular relevance. After 1967 antizionism became an increasingly central component of New Left politics, at times becoming explicitly antisemitic. This generally took the form of equating Jews with Israel, and holding them collectively responsible for Israeli actions. Abundant examples can be found in the New Left radical press, as when the Socialist Worker’s Party paper claimed: Jews contributed men, money and influence to make Israel a reality and to perpetuate the crimes committed against Palestinians. The people of the Book...changed roles from oppressed to oppressor.” A communiqué from The New World Liberation Front, an urban guerrilla group active in the 1970s,is more extreme: 

These Zionist ruling class pigs will not butcher poor people fighting for a just life without suffering drastic repercussions. The Jewish-American ruling class cannot protect themselves well enough for a sufficient amount of time. They should consider this carefully! We will show the Jewish-American ruling class how extremely vulnerable they are, here in the belly of the beast. Their lives will be in grave jeopardy if mad-dog Rabin imposes this massacre on the Palestinian people... We call on all comrades to move directly against all Jewish-American ruling class bloodsuckers if Rabin moves to massacre freedom fighters! These ruling class dogs are influential both here and in Israel and are extremely vulnerable.
Here, American Jews are directly threatened with violence for the crimes of Israel and global capitalism, combined and embodied in the conspiratorial figure of the “Jewish- American ruling class,” depicted as parasitic “bloodsuckers” and “dogs” which must be put down. The article was accompanied by a racist cartoon featuring stereotypical images of plotting, hooked-nosed Jews. During Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid, this representative of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party used the racist slur “hymies” to refer to Jews in an interview. Yet many leftists defended or tried to downplay Jackson’s racist comment. It goes without saying that no leftist would ever defend a white politician, progressive or conservative, who used similar racial slurs for blacks. These examples of tolerance and apologetics for open antisemitism, to say nothing of more subtle coded varieties, contrast glaringly with the left’s usual sensitivity to racism. By contrast, current progressive presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came under intense criticism not for overtly racist statements, but rather for not giving racial issues enough prominence in his platform. Echoing the discourse of the New World Liberation Front, this allegation was combined with another in a YouTube video titled: “Bernie Sanders (Zionist and White Supremacist) Shut Down By #BlackLivesMatter Seattle.”
Antisemitism and the Contemporary American Left
Antisemitism is not a thing of the past but persists as a world-wide threat today. According to a  2014 poll, 26% of all respondents in 101 countries agreed to at least 6 out of 11 anti-Jewish statements. The United States was no exception; while antisemitic attitudes were less pronounced there, 19 percent still judged the statement “Jews have too much influence/control on Wall Street” as “true” or “probably true,” while 14 percent agreed to the statement “Jews today have too much influence in the US.With the end of World War II and the atrocity of the Holocaust entered public consciousness, antisemitism became less accepted and less visible in the U.S. But it did not disappear completely. Every Israel Day parade in New York City features a counter demonstration where Islamists hold banners equating Jews with cockroaches and proclaiming “Final Solution to the Middle East = Nuke Tel Aviv” – standing alongside left antizionist protestors. Explicitly antisemitic murders have taken place in the United States at least twice in the last ten years. In 2006 Naveed Afzal Haq began a shooting spree at the Seattle Jewish Federation by screaming,"I'm a Muslim American; I'm angry at Israel!" In a subsequent 9-11 call, he declared his actions were politically motivated by George W. Bush, Islamophobia, and the Iraq War—standard left issues of the 2000s. Coincidentally, this attack took place the same day actor Mel Gibson was arrested for drunk driving, causing him to launch into an antisemitic rant during which he shouted “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!4 On the eve of Passover in 2014, long-time white supremacist Glenn Frazier went on a murderous rampage targeting a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish retirement home in Kansas City, killing three. What makes these instances of antisemitism notable is that mainstream left media said almost nothing about them. In sharp contrast to other outbursts of racist violence, they did not lead to calls for greater reflection, workshops, or campaigns to confront antisemitism as a deadly form of racism that the left must combat.

Let us now turn to how the contemporary US Left addresses antisemitism.There are some, although relatively few, examples of open antisemitism in left circles. It could be found in the margins of the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS). A man repeatedly appeared at the Zuccotti Park encampment in NYC holding signs saying “Google: Jewish Bankers.A handful of others confronted him with counter signs which stated his views did not represent theirs or those of the movement generally. However, a visibly Jewish man was later attacked at the same location. Antisemitic conspiracy theories appeared with some frequency in Occupy online forums. A Facebook page titled “Occupy Wall Street” that had no connection to the main activist group prominently featured antisemitic images; this “fake” page ultimately attracted far more likes than the official Occupy Facebook page.5Although unsolicited, the Occupy movement attracted a variety of right wing sympathizers with different agendas. In a video entitled “Occupy Zionist Wall Street,” former Ku Klux Klan leader and Holocaust denier David Duke praised those who attack the international banks supposedly holding America hostage. In similar fashion the American Nazi party offered its support for OWS, lauding its potential for making “the Natives” aware of the influence of Jewish “Wall Street bankers” and stating that “this issue is TAYLOR MADE [sic] for National Socialists.” Several Nazi groups attempted to infiltrate Occupy encampments but were mostly turned away (Lyons 2011). At the same time, less explicitly right-wing actors like the conspiracy theorist David Icke were welcomed within some Occupy camps (Sunshine 2011). This praise from the right shows the potential for antisemitism posed by populist and personalistic critiques of capitalist society.

The anti-war movement of the Bush era at times also featured antisemitic imagery (US EXAMPLE); in 2015 an “anti-war” rally in Paris attacked synagogues while chanting “Jews to the gas!”6Images of hooked-nosed Jews clutching the world in their hands are not uncommon on posters and banners at protests against Israel.7 The magazine Counterpunch is long-running political journal considered to be left-wing, despite the fact that it has repeatedly given space to anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, and white nationalists such as Alison Weir, Israel Shamir, Ernst Zundel, Paul Craig Roberts, Eric Walburg, and Gilad Atzmon. If it peddled any other form of racism, such a track record would almost certainly disqualify it from the ranks of “the left.” 

As the self-perception of the left has always been that it opposes all forms of discrimination and fosters equality, what is called “primary antisemitism” –overt prejudice and discrimination against Jews is rarely seen on an individual level and is often vocally opposed. However, as is readily accepted when discussing other forms of racism, this does not stop it from existing on a more subtle basis in other ways. This can include interactions on the everyday level, such as the perception of Jews as loud-mouthed, pushy, or cliquish. Far more common, however, are various patterns which do not explicitly express antisemitism but instead reproduce dynamics which make it impossible to talk about. We identify three main reoccurring dynamics that are commonplace when trying to discuss the topic of antisemitism and the left: downplaying and denying antisemitism, derailing the conversation, and monolithic critiques of Israel. We will examine each of these dynamics in turn.

Denying and Downplaying Antisemitism 

On a standard list of “isms” targeted by the left capitalism, racism, sexism, and so on antisemitism usually doesn’t make the cut. This stands in stark contrast to how the left deals with many other forms of domination and oppression. To take a recent example, Occupy engaged in lively debates about white privilege and racism within the movement, and also debated how to address the sexual assaults and male dominance that occurred in some encampments. But despite several instances of open antisemitism and the widespread participation of right wing activists, antisemitism was not a similar topic of discussion. Although there were no reported instances of overt anti-black racism, this didn’t stop it from becoming a key theme for the movement. Understanding themselves as members of a structurally racist and patriarchal society, activists often show a high degree of sensitivity and self-criticism regarding such issues. Yet not only is antisemitism not recognized as a problem worth discussing, attempts to bring it up generally fail; they are often met with denial, defensiveness, and hostility. Indeed, merely mentioning the term antisemitism is often immediately dismissed by leftists through the term “hasbara,” a euphemism for Israeli propaganda. Jewish feminist Irena Klepfisz has called this refusal to engage with the topic “antisemitism by omission” (1989, p. 52).

Another clear example of this dynamic of downplaying and denial is the book The Politics of Anti-Semitism (Cockburn and St. Clair 2002).Found widely in left bookstores, where it is often the only book on the subject, it clearly announces its intention from the very first page: “I think we should almost never take antisemitism seriously,” and adding, “...maybe we should have some fun with it.” Such mockery is accompanied by trivialization, as when Neumann writes: “Undoubtedly there is genuine antisemitism in the Arab world: the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the myths about stealing the blood of gentile babies. This is utterly inexcusable. So was your failure to answer Aunt Bee’s last letter” (ibid.: 7). Thus the seriousness posed by the murderous racism that led to the Holocaust and which still haunts Europe today is equated with not answering the letter of a family member. Ten out of the eighteen articles address not antisemitism, but its “misuse” by groups who falsely accuse pro-Palestinian activists of it. Not one contribution deals with the historical background of antisemitism in general, or the Left in particular. Instead it assumes antisemitism is an irrelevant issue worldwide, especially in contrast to Islamophobia. Not a single article attempts to articulate the difference between antisemitism and a critique of Israel, but rather mirrors the right by collapsing them together. Unsurprisingly, the book is published by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair of Counterpunch, a magazine that gives space to white nationalists and open antisemites. What is more surprising is that left authors would agree to be appear in a volume which exists solely to downplay and deny the existence of antisemitism, that a left-wing anarchist publisher like AK Press would co- sponsor it, or that such a project would betolerated in left bookstores. 

A more recent example of denial and downplaying can be found in the left reaction to the recent attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamists in Paris. The left’s central concern was not the 12 left-wing journalists murdered by right wing terrorists, but rather the magazine’s alleged Islamophobia (an allegation which, upon closer analysis, revealed a profound Anglo-American ignorance of French language, context, and political tradition8), leading many to refuse to show solidarity with this “racist” publication.9Yet in its zeal to confront the (purported) symbolic racism of cartoons and the potential anti-Muslim backlash, the left completely ignored the deadly real world act of racism that had already occurred the murder of four Jews in a nearby kosher supermarket carried out by an associate of the attackers. This reveals a highly selective antiracism, wherein one form of violent racism, restricted neither to the page nor a possible future scenario, is excluded from left discourse entirely.

Derailing Antisemitism 

The dynamic of derailing has become a familiar one in left discourse. It describes a situation where a discussion about a particular issue is redirected to a different topic, not only changing the subject, but typically reframing it in a manner which justifies or whatever is being confronted. To give a recent example, opponents of Black Lives Matter movement frequently tried to shift the conversation from the particularity of racist policing by asserting that “all lives matter.” Although left activists are generally sensitive towards this dynamic, it happens with great regularity with the topic of antisemitism. Instead of discussing antisemitism, activists often immediately redirect to talk instead about its cynical use and abuse to silence justify Israeli policy and silence its critics. In research interviews with left activists, conversations were repeatedly redirected from discussing antisemitism to accusations of antisemitism, and its alleged abuse. Again, this double standard becomes all the more obvious as the contemporary left is not generally prone to doubting accusations of racism. If one was discussing Islamophobia and someone repeatedly redirected to talkonly about ISIS, in effect changing the conversation from racism to terrorism, this would be denounced as “derailing the conversation,” and rightfully so. 

Yet examples of derailing discussions of antisemitism are abundant. A recent example involved the Occupy Wall Street spinoff group Occupy Judaism. The group posted a series of articles which claimed rising levels of antisemitism in Europe were either false or had been greatly exaggerated, suggesting this was manipulation on the part of Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular to encourage European Jews to emigrate. This was a vivid example of simultaneously denying the existence of antisemitism, in this case its recent empirically documented rise throughout Europe, and changing the conversation to focus instead on who makes such claims and their sinister political motivations. Inevitably, such derailments always redirect to the state of Israel. As a result, antisemitism can never be addressed by the left as an independent social phenomenon on its own it can only be discussed in relation to Israel. Once again, the double standard is clear; the left would never bracket discussing Islamophobia only after first also discussing the important problem posed by Islamic terrorism or Iranian state policy. In these cases, it would be obvious that these are distinct subjects not to be conflated, and that racism is by definition an irrational ideology that doesn’t requires “reasons.Thus antisemitism has the dubious honor of being the only form of racism where the left is quick to suggest such reasons. This, of course, is the very definition of rationalization. 

Monolithic critiques of Israel

Attempts to discuss antisemitism on the left almost always turn into discussions of Israel. We have already provided several reasons why mixing these two distinct issues is problematic. Yet this very conflation, along with the great prominence this particular conflict is given within left discourse, requires careful attention to the specific patterns and forms criticism of Israel takes. To state the obvious, criticism of Israel in itself is not antisemitic. We take it as given that there are many legitimate reasons to criticize Israeli policy, just like any other nation. Yet as with any form of racism, antisemitism is not only or even primarily expressed as explicit racial hatred, but rather often assumes the form of a heightened emphasis or double standard. For this reason, distinguishing between antisemitism, antizionism, and critiques of Israel is not nearly as simple as the left pretends. This is even more important as antizionism has become an increasingly standard response from leftists when confronted with accusations of antisemitism, countering by insisting on the difference between racist antisemitism and “safe” antizionism. Unfortunately, a simple change in terminology is no guarantee that it is free from the taint of racism. According to the normal standards of antiracist practice, this should be an uncontroversial fact the left readily accepts that as open racism has become less acceptable in contemporary America, it takes the form of coded language – “thugs,” “welfare queens,” etc... Indeed, there are a variety of instances where antizionism is motivated by antisemitism, or is indistinguishable from it. As a result, antiracists can’t simply take words at face value, but must rather closely scrutinize the context and content of political statements. The same holds true for antisemitism, which can be coded as critiques of the Jewish state. In fact, this is precisely the case for the most explicit antisemites today Neo- Nazis, white supremacists, and Islamists who increasingly speak of “Zionists” rather than “Jews.Although antizionism isn’t inherently antisemitic, such examples show that it certainly can be. Therefore antizionism is not a magic word which settles the debate whether something is antisemitic. 

For this reason it is necessary to articulate a consistent set of criteria for distinguishing legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. One approach is the “three D test.The three Ds stand for Delegitimization, Demonization, and Double standards. Note that none on their own is a clear indication of antisemitism; depending on the context, each can simply reflect political priority and emphasis. However, they provide a useful diagnostic framework by which to assess antisemitism, especially when several of these dynamics appear at once. All three are common within the contemporary U.S. left. 

Delegitimization. Although Israel was established in accordance with international law as established by the United Nations, its right to exist has been challenged, both militarily and politically, since its inception. This delegitimization continues to the present, making it almost unique among contemporary nation-states. This desire for a world where Israel no longer exists can be heard in the common pro-Palestine chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Shall be Free.It is this often unstated political goal which has led fervent Palestinian activist Norman Finkelstein to reject the BDS movement in his estimation they see the very existence of Israel as illegitimate, whereas he seeks to change its policies, however radically. 

Demonization. Although political propaganda aims to incite, Israel is the target of especially virulent forms of demonization. It is routinely characterized by the left as a uniquely bloodthirsty, evil, and powerful state all of which mirror the historical tropes of antisemitism. Israel is commonly depicted as a brutally racist dictatorship, including historically inaccurate comparisons to South African Apartheid and highly insensitive analogies to Nazism.10 At a time when Russia is violently annexing the Crimea, Somalia stones adulterers to death, and Iran executes gays, and the United States builds a wall along its southern border, the left concentrates more attention on Israel than almost any other oppressive regime. Although right next door the Syrian government and the Islamic State have been documented using chemical weapons, it is only Israelis who are labeled as People Who Kill Children,as the title of an article in the left magazine Jacobin declared. 

Increasingly, this demonization does not stop with the Israeli government, but extends to all Israelis, anywhere and anytime. The Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) movement holds all Israelis everywhere accountable for the crimes of their government. As a result, any event featuring Israelis anywhere in the world today, regardless of political commitments or sponsorship, is likely to be targeted for protest and boycott. Even more troubling, this demonization has expanded to also include non-Israeli Jews, as in the recent case of Jewish- American musician Matisyahu being barred from playing a Spanish music festival without first stating his position on the Israel/Palestine conflict. No other left movement holds an entire nation, its individual citizens, or members of a religious faith directly accountable for the crimes of their government indeed, attempts to do so with Iranians, Russians, Cubans, or Muslims is rightly rejected as racist. Such demonization is often accompanied by ideological generalization which assumes that particular political groups or tendencies within Israel –Likud represent or are characteristic of the entire population. This stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of Hamas by leftists, who often claim they don’t speak for or represent all Palestinians despite their broad electoral support and legitimacy. Such demonization is so pervasive and all-encompassing that even progressive aspects within Israeli society, such as gay rights or ecology, are interpreted as mere cover for brutal policies. This translates into a situation where liberal and left activists inside Israel must also confront organized campaigns which fight against their alleged “pinkwashing” and “homo-nationalism.” 

This brings us to the last of the three “D”s, double standards. As these examples show, a variety of double standards are applied to Israel but not other nations. We identify five of the most common forms, which deal with questions of: salience, state foundation, state formation, self-understanding, self-determination. The double standard of salience translates into a political context where the left assigns vastly more attention and importance to the issue of Israel/Palestine than any other conflict in the world today. Israel is one of the few issues that unites the left globally; this one conflict is so central to the left’s self-understanding that that it is often a visible element even in demonstrations for completely unrelated topics like climate change or police brutality. This ideological omnipresence suggests that the left views Israel as both a unifying factor as well as a political lynchpin which various other forms of oppression rest upon. Yet at the same time, various other occupations, civil wars, and violent conflicts China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey being only the most obvious receive little or no attention from the left. The selective focus on the “settler colonialism” of one nation half a world away when North American activists are much more direct material beneficiaries of occupation and expulsion shows an astounding lack of perspective. This is even more glaring given North Americans lack any historical ties to the land, unlike the Jews living in Israel which they target. 

The double standard of state foundation marks the foundation of Israel as artificial and violent, in contrast to the presumably peaceful and “organic” process of establishing other states. Because it goes beyond denouncing only the Occupation to questioning the very existence of Israel, Anti-Zionism poses as the obvious radical” position on the left. Yet its “radicalism” rests on deeply liberal and ahistorical presumptions about how states are founded it assumes Israel is a uniquely violent exception when in fact it is the rule. Anti-Zionism selectively ignores that every state in existence today is equally “artificial,” and that all have been accompanied by violence, dispossession, and exclusion. Rather than a radical left critique, this is a liberal exceptionalist narrative which can only rest on a historical double standard. 

While the violence which accompanied the foundation of Israel is not unique, the late historical moment (as well as political context) of its establishment is. This brings us to the related double standard of state formation, which sees Israel as anachronistic, a colonial and imperial regime engaged in an outmoded form of expansionism. Once again, this situation is not unique. Borders have been redrawn throughout history to create new states 34 since 1990 alone many of which were the result of civil war and lacked any legal legitimacy, as in the ongoing cases of South Sudan and the Western Sahara. Likewise, many existing states are currently engaged in violent territorial expansion and the suppression of local populations Russia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Turkey, and of course the Islamic State. It should go without saying that none of these examples serve as justification for Israeli or any other occupation; rather they serve to illustrate a profound double standard operating within left political discourse. 

The double standard of self-understanding results in criticizing Israel as a specifically ethno- religious state. It can exist, but not as a specifically Jewish state. Yet this position ignores that this also holds true for several other states today, and for most in history. Leftists do not criticize the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for their specifically Muslim character. Treating Israel as exception in this regard overlooks that almost every nation at one point in time was linked to a state religion, and that all nations enforce restrictive ethno-racial immigration policies. Most countries, the United States and Germany being only two examples, continue this practice today. But it is only the Jewish state which is criticized by the left for its specifically religious character and demographic manipulation. 

Lastly, the double standard of self-determination results in acknowledging this right only for Palestinians. A wide variety of movements and ideologies of Palestinian self-determination are championed by the left, regardless of political content, while Zionism is denounced as synonymous with racism and violence, equally oblivious to specificities of historical form or political content. This holds true more generally for left’s view of the Israel-Palestine conflict as a whole; although this history is long and complicated, the double standard of self- determination results in an extremely one-sided and simplistic account. Palestinian dispossession and repression is all too real, and as the stronger force Israel has the greater power and responsibility to resolve this conflict. But the left selectively ignores a variety of important historical facts on the other side: that Jews have historical ties to the region having been run out by imperialists long ago; the long subsequent history of persecution, exclusion, oppression, and expulsion, culminating in the Holocaust; that these historical circumstances meant that Zionism as a national liberation movement and state-building project was forced to started late in the game, under historical conditions not of its choosing; the attacks on Israel since its inception which have continued until the present.

Despite this history, only Palestinian suffering, fear, and rage are seen as legitimate. This can also translate into support for groups like Hamas whose politics are diametrically opposed to the left’s own. For example, Judith Butler has suggested that Hamas and Hezbollah should be considered part of the global left, despite their explicitly right-wing ideology of hostility to Jews, queers, and women. By contrast, feelings of fear, insecurity, and historical persecution among Israeli citizens are not taken into account. The left portrays the rise of right-wing Palestinian political actors like Hamas as a regrettable but understandable reaction to violence, while the rise of Likud and Israel's shift to right are never interpreted in a similar way. Although both groups are irredentists, the left only attributes this to Israel while refusing to recognize that some on the other side will never accept the existence of “the Zionist entity” and won’t be satisfied until it is wiped off the map.

To review, while antizionism and antisemitism are not the same thing, simply using this political language is no guarantee that they do not overlap a brief glance at contemporary politics, not only Nazis but those who have been kicked out of the BDS movement shows this to be true. We have offered the “three D” test as one possible criterion to distinguish legitimate critiques of Israel from antisemitism, by asking if they rely upon delegitimization, demonization, and double standards. As there are many legitimate grounds to criticize Israeli policy, identifying these double standards is an especially useful analytical tool. To this end we have identified five common double standards the left applies to Israel but no other nation or movement in the world: salience, state foundation, state formation, self-understanding, self-determination. The fact that a variety of other human rights abusing states Russia, Iran, China, or Saudi Arabia or settler-colonial societies the United States, Canada, and Australia are not held to the same standard of critique mark them as clear double standards.

Making Sense of the Present: The Importance of Historical Context and Left Theory 

Fully explaining the reasons for these positions towards antisemitism and Israel on the United States left is beyond the scope of this article, so we can only briefly touch upon them here. However, it is important to stress that, in our analysis, these political patterns on the left do not stem from conscious and open antisemitism. We are not saying these dynamics are motivated by antisemitic hatred, but are rather the result of unexamined assumptions, myopic political analysis, and importantly, a genuine but inconsistent concern for the suffering of others. Nevertheless, the result is that an anti-Israel or antizionist position has become part of the price of admission one must pay to belong to the left today, resulting in a form of lazy group think where checking boxes on an ideological list replaces politically and logically consistent positions. 

The first factor is the relatively low level of open antisemitism in the United States today. Given this fact, it is understandable that left activists prioritize the far more visible and common forms of anti-black and anti-Arab racism. Yet whereas leftists are aware of how these forms of racism have structured American history up to the present, they often remain ignorant of the history of antisemitism which has included residential segregation, employment discrimination, and even lynching. In 1654 Peter Stuyvesant, general director of the Dutch New Amsterdam colony which later became New York City, urged that “the deceitful race” of Jews should not be “allowed to further infect and trouble this new colonywith their “customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians.”11 Almost 200 years later, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt could still state matter-of-factly, this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”12 Although less visible today, antisemitism has shaped American history. 

The second important factor is the relationship of direct financial and military support that exists between the U.S. and Israel, a bond which is bipartisan but associated especially with the political right. This governmental alliance also aligns with relatively positive attitudes towards Israel within the general population. This generally positive governmental orientation towards Israel results in an oppositional position by the left which seeks to challenge these political norms and make the Palestinian plight more visible, intervening in a conflict supported by their tax dollars. However, this specific relationship can blind the left to the broader context. It easily misses that strong anti-Israel sentiment in many other places in the world, such as Germany and many Middle Eastern countries, is often fueled by antisemitism. It also often translates into a distorted view of U.S. support which ignores the power and roles played by other international players and geopolitical interests. 

The third factor concerns the political actors who address antisemitism in the United States. Generally, the only groups which focus on antisemitism are conservative and right-wing Zionist organizations. And these organizations often do automatically respond to any criticism of Israel with accusations of antisemitism. Yet even groups like the Anti-Defamation League, a human rights organization which “fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry” and monitors hate groups, is considered right-wing solely on account of their support for Israel, despite their role in advocating hate crime legislation. As a result of this political context, many left activists don’t take claims of antisemitism seriously, or see it as an inherently right- wing issue. 

The prominence and visibility of Holocaust commemoration in the United States, long institutionalized in monuments, text books, and popular culture, is yet another factor. As Shoah commemoration, with its depiction of Americans as heroic liberators, enjoys broad mainstream support, leftists frequently treat it as a political concern that is irrelevant or even counterproductive. This can lead to a “victimhood competitionwhich falsely imagines that one form of historical commemoration necessarily diminishes the remembrance of forms of other historical oppression like the extermination of Native Americans or African slavery. This particular history is often trivialized, or alleged to be manipulated for cynical political purposes. This is the basic argument of a book popular in left circles, Norman Finkelstein’s “The Holocaust Industry.” 

The final factor which can blind the American left to antisemitism is the existence of a thriving Jewish community. Jews in the United States can take for granted a relatively safe and stable political environment which does not exist in many other places. Thus debates which take place within the Jewish community around the meaning of Israel, social justice, and Jewish identity play out differently in other political contexts which do not necessarily share the same basic assumptions or face the same threats, including within Israel. The intensity, closeness, and emotional connection to questions of antisemitism and Israel can have very different meanings within Jewish communities which can unintentionally overshadow or obscure important differences when those debates take place in other contexts or locations.

These historical and geo-political factors are exacerbated by trends in contemporary left theory. One is the rise of Critical Race Theory and Critical Whiteness as the dominant theories for addressing racism. The central frame of white privilege provides no political vocabulary to talk about the oppression of Jews, who can only be understood as privileged white people, erasing their specific history of domination, their “whiteification” (which also obscures that not all Jews are actually white or European), as well as their experience of racism in the present. Another factor is the prominence, especially since 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, of an anti-imperialist political frame within many parts of the left. This perspective focuses primarily on the power and crimes of the United States and Israel understood as the heart of global imperialism. Becoming dominant during the late Sixties, this ideology was predicated on the impossibility of social change within the United States, viewing both the working and ruling class as bought off by the spoils of racism and Empire. Instead, much of the left pinned their hopes on a global struggle of the rest against the West, as embodied in various third world liberation struggles like North Vietnam, Cuba, and Angola. Thus the role of radicals was to fight on behalf of those external movements from within the belly of the beast. This result was not only an inherited political defeatism, but a Manichean worldview which dramatically simplifies a wide variety of oppressive power relations. Not only is the anti-imperialist perspective oblivious to the growing power and crimes of other global or regional hegemons like Russia, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but it also inevitably subordinates local and domestic forms of domination to the larger evil of imperialism, forever symbolized by the United States and Israel. This binary worldview is also a disguised variety of Orientalism, as it only sees “the rest” in relationship to “the west,” denying all other political actors any real agency and casting them only in the role of eternal victim. 

This variety of crass anti-imperialist politics has become more popular since the attacks of 9/11, and is especially apparent in left discourse around the Middle East. Political action by Israel is almost always depicted by the left as coldly-calculated, motivated by racist and murderous intent, whereas Palestinian action is presented as an automatic or natural reaction rather than conscious political choice, regardless if this takes the form of suicide bombing civilians or the explicit antisemitism of Hamas. While the left claims that anti-Arab racism constitutes the very essence of Zionism and Israel, it refuses to acknowledge that antisemitic ideology is one of many factors influencing the current situation in the Middle East, leading to an ignorance of the political content of key groups involved. Anti-imperialism’s logic of “my enemy's enemy is my friend” has also resulted in some very strange political bedfellows right-wing isolationists and Marxist Leninists, Islamic fundamentalists with queer activists, anarchists and reactionary nationalists. As a result, leftists have often tolerated antisemitic positions, or even openly support right-wing political groups. Historically, groups predominantly defined by an anti-imperialist lens have a consistent track record of aligning with reactionary political groups as well as singling out Jews via association with the Jewish state. Thus it is no accident that during World War II Nazism found considerable support in North Africa and the Middle East by its combination of anti-imperialism targeting France and Britain with antisemitism targeting Jews. 

Certain modes of criticizing capitalism can offer another theoretical opening to antisemitism. Populist and conspiratorial critiques of capitalism attack only one aspect of capitalism finance, interest, greed as if these were independent of or even possible without the allegedly goodside of capitalism and ignore exploitation, competition, and private control of the means of life. Such critiques often personalize capitalism by targeting bankers or individual firms. This treats the problems of capitalism as moral rather than systemic, ignoring the structural forces which compel ruthless competition among capitalists as well as workers. Rather than social critique, these ideologies offer nostalgia for a mythical kinder, gentler form of capitalism. Focusing on corruption, greed, and other personal failings suggests that the solution is simply eliminating the few “bad apples” which spoil the bunch. Historically, it has often been Jews that are identified as the bad apples, seen as the embodiment of greed and finance. It was for this reason that August Bebel called antisemitism the “socialism of fools.” Occupy Wall Street’s vague populist frame of the 99% versus the 1%, or “Main Street” versus “Wall Street,allowed for mass identification with the movement, but it also left it open to exactly such political interpretations; this partially explains the significant right-wing support the movement received.13 

While the various historical, political, and theoretical factors described above attempt to contextualize and explain the particularities of left discourse on antisemitism in the United States, at the same time it is important to note they neither excuse nor rationalize them. The patterns, dynamics, subtle double standards, and not-so-subtle violent outbursts of antisemitism are all too real, as is the left’s documented reluctance to address it as a problem. This makes it a challenge the left must confront. 

The Political Consequences of Ignoring and Challenging Antisemitism on the Left

Before concluding, let us first avoid some persistent confusions by reiterating what we are not saying: that antisemitism is the worst or most pressing form of oppression today; that any and all criticism of Israel is antisemitic and should stop; that the left is a hotbed of rabid antisemites. Instead, we are saying antisemitism is an “invisible prejudice” for the contemporary left. We suggest this is due to two main reasons; first, when it does occasionally surface, its articulation is not generally open and coherent but rather takes coded and fragmented forms. Second, it is a form of racism which cannot be addressed the left lacks the interest, analytical tools, and political will to do so. As noted before, we believe this is not the result of antisemitic intent but rather unexamined assumptions, flawed political analysis, and “ticket thinking.The various political blind spots, peculiar bedfellows, and double standards we have addressed stand out by the uncommon prominence, tolerance, and emotional weight the left has given them.

These dynamics have real political consequences. In many instances, it becomes impossible for Jews and allies to talk about antisemitism without being accused of apologetics for Zionism. In many cases Jews feel they are allowed into the Left only if they publicly embrace anti-Zionism, therefore being ethnically singled out for a political loyalty test. The magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party, “Revolution,” provides one example when they suggest that “Jewish people who resent being resented for Israel's crimes... need to loudly and unequivocally speak out against Israel's crimes.14 The author draws a direct connection between Jewish Americans and Israeli state policy. Moreover, he engages in victim-blaming by suggesting that anti-semitism is their fault, implying that unless Jews take action against Israel and they deserve racist attitudes. Of course it goes without saying that no one on the left would suggest that Arabs and Muslims should be similarly singled out for symbolic statements of loyalty; this is commonly advocated by the right and is rightly condemned as racist. Unfortunately, this same logic is also found on the left, only applied to a different racialized group Jews.

We also suggest that these attitudes reflect the profound weakness of the contemporary left. Moishe Postone, in an article from 2006 called “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism,” argues that the current radical left delegitimized, powerless, and lacking a viable revolutionary agent akin to the working class has abandoned its utopian aspirations and embraced a politics of resentment reduced to passively cheering for or against other states or movements, projecting their values onto actors that do not share them, or even endorsing reactionary political aims.15 With the possibility of progressive social change seemingly off the table, many leftists have proven willing to embrace any form of “resistance” to the U.S. and Israel, regardless of their politics. This political impotence results in a purely symbolic politics of resentment and revenge fantasies not so dissimilar to those of the radical right. Today, anti-Zionism is more than a specific position taken towards the Middle East conflict, the rejection of Israel has become a distinctive marker of belonging to the radical left. More than a political position, it has become a form of subcultural badge which declares one is on the right side of history, rejecting imperialism, colonialism, racism, and nationalism, which are collectively represented by Zionism and embodied in the state of Israel.16 Not only does this fixation on the Jewish state as the locus of power and evil in the world reproduce one of the key tropes of antisemitism, it also leads to a severely distorted and stunted left politics. Justice and peace in the Middle East are absolutely necessary, as in many other places in the world today, but this requires a more emancipatory political vision than simply calling for the elimination of Israel and uncritical support for reactionary movements like Hamas and Hezbollah.

This makes confronting antisemitism an important task for rebuilding an emancipatory left. What, concretely, does this task require? First, deeper forms of analysis of capitalism, racism, global politics, and the Middle East which accurately understand the complexities of the contemporary social world, and which can offer a liberatory political vision that distinguishes our critiques from those of conspiracists, nationalists, theocrats, and antisemites. It means we need to revise our analysis of racism and acknowledge that the discourse of white privilege leaves no space to address antisemitism. It means being aware of our immediate political context and its historical specificities, but also keeping in mind the different context and histories found elsewhere including current political developments like rising antisemitism in Europe and the Arab world. Lastly, it requires making antisemitism a topic the left takes seriously. Leaving it to the right ensures a racist and rationalizing discourse around antisemitism, one which blinds the left to the dangers it poses. As with any other form of racism, this requires educational work such as workshops, fora, and discussion in print. This also means initiating left campaigns which confront antisemitism, an increased awareness of contemporary antisemitic violence and discourse, and solidarity with its victims. As with past struggles to confront racism within the left (and in society at large), it will be a difficult process that involves challenging basic assumptions and disrupting received political categories. But ultimately this process is a rewarding and necessary one. Any left worth the name must demonstrate its commitment to uprooting all forms of racism and domination; confronting the current invisibility of antisemitism can only make it stronger.


1 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s book the Dialectic of Enlightenment views antisemitism as a pathological expression of capitalism's tendency to abolish the possibility of a radically different world. It describes how the experience of the domination inherent to a capitalist society based not the unending drive for profit rather than human needs can easily become hatred towards Jews: “No matter what the Jews themselves may be like, their image, as that of the defeated people, has the features to which totalitarian domination must be completely hostile: happiness without power, wages without work, a home without frontiers, religion without myth.

2 B’nai B’rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership.(SUNY Albany Press: 1981), p. 103
Moore, Deborah Dash. 



5 Arnold 2012.

6Anti-Defamation League 2010.

7 Wistrich 2012: 472. 

8 For an analysis of the context and content of Hebdo cartoons, including documentation of the proportion of covers devoted to Islam out of 538, 483focused on politics, economics, and sport, while of the 38 focusing on religious themes, 21 targeted Christianity and 7 Islam.

9 Richard Seymour’s Jacobin article “On Charlie Hebdo” provides the best example: 

10 The “Apartheid” label overlooks inconvenient facts; to take one example, the Israeli Knesset currently has proportionally more Arab-Israeli members (13%) than African American representatives in the U.S. Congress (8%). The Nazism analogy similarly ignores that rather than pursue the calculated extermination of Palestinians, which Israel’s far more powerful military could easily do, it instead unilaterally withdrew from both Gaza and Sinai – a strange course if their goal is “genocide.” 

11 Peter Stuyvesant, “Petition to Expel the Jews from New Amsterdam,” September 22, 1654. 

12Quoted in Pike, Fredrick B. FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy: Sixty Years of Generally Gentle Chaos. (University of Texas Press, 1995) p. 67. 

13 The praise given to Occupy Wall Street by former leading Ku Klux Klan member and Holocaust denier David Duke illustrates this danger drastically: In a video entitled “Occupy Zionist Wall Street” Duke congratulates all those who attack the international banks supposedly holding America hostage. In a similar fashion the American Nazi party offered its support to OWS, openly praising its potential for making “the Natives” aware of the influence of Jewish “Wall Street bankers” and stating that “this issue is TAYLOR MADE [sic] for National Socialists.” Several Nazi groups attempted to infiltrate Occupy encampments, but were mostly turned away (Lyons 2011). However, their praise shows the antisemitic potential that can accompany foreshortened and personalistic critiques of capitalism. And less explicitly right-wing actors like the conspiracy theorist David Icke were welcomed with open arms in some Occupy camps (Sunshine 2011). 

14Goodman, 2010 

15Postone, Moishe. “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary
Forms of Anticapitalism.
Public Culture 18:1 (Durham: Duke University Press) 2006. One example of this naïve coalition-building, in 2010 Iran President Ahmadinejad met in NYC with over 100 activists from the peace movement - including Code Pink, religious groups, independent media organizations, and Palestinian groups in New York under the banner of creating peace between the people of the US and Iran. None of these left groups in attendance bothered to criticize Iran's human rights violations or his open antisemitism, baffling and enraging many Iranian left groups.

16Volkov 2000: 84