A Long Way From Cable Street
Robert Wistrich’s new study of anti-Semitism brilliantly elucidates how the Left has betrayed the Israel for which it once campaigned
Professor Robert Wistrich is the world’s foremost scholar on the ideological pathology of anti-Semitism. A former leftist, he has drifted to the Right in recent decades and in doing so has noted the growing clamour by some on the Left to reboot long-standing reactionary prejudices against Jews as “criticism” of the state of Israel and the policies of its government. This ideology, which has been variously branded “new anti-Semitism” and “Israelophobia”, is at work in campaigns to delegitimise Israel through economic and cultural boycotts, political isolation, lawfare, and the common cause forged between the radical Left and the Islamist Right to demonise and eventually dismantle the Jewish state. What is striking about this movement is its replication of the rhetoric, symbology, and tropes of classical anti-Semitism in a left-liberal milieu that prides itself on tolerance and “anti-racism”.
There is an emerging genre that examines this phenomenon, including the popular (Alan Dershowitz’s The Case against Israel’s Enemies) and the semi-academic (Paul Iganski and Barry Kosmin’s A New Antisemitism?). Professor Wistrich’s latest effort joins the more scholarly offerings of Samuel Ettinger’s authoritative Antisemitism in the Soviet Union, William Korey’s incisive Glasnost and Soviet Antisemitism, and his own The Left against Zion. From Ambivalence to Betrayal explores the historical evolution of left-wing anti-Semitism from attacks on “rootless cosmopolitans” to denunciations of “Zionist land-grabbers”.
Left-liberal conventional wisdom runs something like this: the Left was a long-time champion of Zionism as a form of collective justice for the Jewish people. Progressives fought anti-Semitism and supported the creation of the state of Israel after the horrors of the Holocaust, the ultimate symbol of reactionary politics. But Israel turned hubristic, attacking its Arab neighbours in the Six-Day War, occupying Palestinian land in violation of international law, and acting as a regional strongman of American imperialism. The Left switched its support to the “indigenous” people of Palestine who were being oppressed by a brutal state that increasingly exposed itself as a racist regime practising apartheid comparable to that of pre-1994 South Africa and ethnic cleansing which echoed the Warsaw Ghetto and even Auschwitz.
Wistrich not only explodes this mythology, but shows that left-wing anti-Semitism is of an older pedigree, tracing it to radical and populist movements of the nineteenth century that associated Jews with the industrial, financial, and cultural elites. Marx, the grandson of a rabbi, repudiated his family heritage at every opportunity, most notoriously in his essay “On The Jewish Question”, in which he labelled Judaism “huckstering” and concluded, floridly, that “the social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism”. Less well known is the role of anti-Semitism in “the rationalist, anti-clerical, and socialist traditions” of the French revolution and Wistrich explores the contempt expressed by intellectuals from Voltaire to Proudhon towards what the latter called “this race which poisons everything”.
The early Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin damned Jews as “an exploiting sect, a bloodsucking people, a unique devouring parasite”, a bigotry that would gain currency in the Soviet Union after the rise of Stalin. Where Lenin had raged against “accursed Tsarism which tortured and persecuted the Jews”, by the time of the Slansky show trial in 1952 Czechoslovakia, a key phase in Stalin’s campaign to purge Jews from senior positions in the party, anti-Semitism had become for Wistrich “a quasi-official state doctrine”. While party officials denied animus towards Jews, Soviet newspapers in the 1960s and ’70s seethed with a anti-Semitism reminicent of the Völkischer Beobachter and Der Stürmer.
The Six-Day War, therefore, was not a genesis but a turning point that “freed certain ‘critics’ of the Jewish State from the unwritten taboo on openly anti-Jewish aspersions following the revelation of the Nazi death camps”. Israel became the collective Jew and the recipient of all the old hatreds and myths rebranded as “resistance”. Thus the Jewish plan for world domination became the “Israel lobby”, the blood libel the “deliberate targeting” of Palestinian children, and the thieving Jew the Israeli land-grabber. Student protestors could fetishise Israeli human rights abuses, real and imagined, while ignoring far greater crimes perpetuated by the regimes in Khartoum, Tehran, Pyongyang, and indeed Ramallah and Gaza. Wistrich locates in this a new fusionist politics that “offers a bridge between the Christian churches and the fundamentalist mosques, between left-wing radicals and conservative nationalists, between the ‘chattering classes’ in Western Europe and the more militant protestors on the streets who scream ‘Death to Israel!'”
There is a strong British flavour to the book-Wistrich studied at Cambridge and London-and the penultimate chapter takes the UK as a case study. Readers of Standpoint will be familiar with the greatest hits of British Israelophobia, many of which get an outing in Wistrich’s book: the Independent‘s noxious cartoon depicting Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby, the New Statesman‘s revolting “Kosher conspiracy” cover, and the undisguised Jew-hatred displayed on the Guardian‘s Comment is Free website. The British Left recounts fondly the “Battle of Cable Street” in 1936, when Communists, socialists and trade unionists stood in solidarity with the Jews of London’s East End. Today, impeccably left-wing politicians such as Paul Flynn, Jenny Tonge and Tam Dalyell issue vicious denunciations of Jews and Israel. Tom Paulin, the Oxford academic and BBC favourite, has gone so far as to support the killing of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria. “They should be shot dead,” he told an Egyptian newspaper. “I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.” We are a long way from Cable Street.
Israel is the repudiation of the discredited doctrines of the radical Left, or, as Wistrich puts it, “one massive slap in the face for the entire Marxist tradition of theorising on the ‘Jewish Question'” and a rebuke to the “failed Marxist prognoses” of the wider socialist critique. Israel has flourished at a time when the nation-state is supposed to be in retreat. It has balanced its Jewish character with religious pluralism and legal equality for the 20 per cent of its citizens who are Arab. It has taken a desert land and turned it into an economic powerhouse and technological miracle-worker. It has endured-one might say, as if by providence-against the most fearsome enemies. The Left may have betrayed Israel but Israel has exposed the fallacies and failures of leftism like no other country since the United States.
Professor Wistrich has now written some 30 scholarly books on Jewish history and philosophy, but his work has been dominated by the subject of anti-Semitism. This book is his finest and most comprehensive on the subject, surpassing even the masterful Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred. It is lengthy and intensive and assumes a knowledge of Jewish history and philosophy probably not available to the general reader. But anyone willing to give this book the time it needs to be fully appreciated will be rewarded. From Ambivalence to Betrayal is a warning we can no longer afford to ignore. Anti-Semitism, driven underground by Kristallnacht and Auschwitz, has returned to the mainstream of Western politics. Our generation will be judged by the speed and mettle of our response, just as our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations were damned by their failure to act until after the gas chambers had done their worst.