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Is the left to blame for antisemitism ?

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Issue 2501
huge protests in August 2014 in Britain showed the level of anger against Israeli apartheid
Huge protests in August 2014 in Britain showed the level of anger against Israeli apartheid (Pic: Socialist Wroker)
Right wing Labour MP Chris Bryant

Right wing Labour MP Chris Bryant (Pic: Simon Cliff)

There are few things more sickening, or more infuriating, than watching racists and Islamophobes line up to denounce the left as antisemitic.

NUS president-elect Malia Bouattia

NUS president-elect Malia Bouattia

A slew of accusations of antisemitism aimed at discrediting Jeremy Corbyn, and the left more generally, reached a low point last week.

The National Union of Students has just elected its first black, Muslim, woman president—Malia Bouattia. Immediately the right wing press and some Labour MPs went into overdrive to attack her as antisemitic.

These accusations were based on her opposition to Israel and her support for Palestinian resistance.

Labour MPs, such as Wes Streeting, see no problem with pandering to Islamophobia and the scapegoating of migrants. They were only too happy to join in with the attacks on Malia.

They have no shame in playing on people’s real fears about antisemitism for their own purposes. In doing so they trivialise what is a real and dangerous problem facing Jewish people across Europe.

Right wing antisemitic parties have grown in a number of European countries. These include the Law and Justice party in Poland, the Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece and Svoboda in Ukraine.

In Hungary, where the fascist Jobbik party is one of the main opposition parties in parliament, a poll this week found that 35 percent of adults are antisemitic.

The growth of such parties goes hand in hand with racism against Muslims and migrants.

In Britain open antisemitism is less prevalent—but it still exists.

But the right, including many racists and Islamophobes, are increasingly using accusations of antisemitism to attack the left—and anyone else who wants to fight racism and war, or defend migrants.

In particular, they like to insinuate that anyone who takes action against Israel—or criticises its underlying Zionist ideology—is antisemitic.

A similar argument is that supporters of the Palestinians single out Israel, or hold it to double standards, because it is a Jewish state.

In fact, a new government definition of antisemitism, introduced by Tory Eric Pickles, includes criticism of Israel for precisely that reason.

Pickles isn’t the only one. Writing in The Times newspaper last month, Labour MP Chris Bryant argued, “Too many people on the left in British politics are allowing their concern for the Palestinians to become an all-out attack on Israelis.

“Questioning the very existence of the state of Israel is a not-too-subtle form of antisemitism.”

But anti-Zionism and antisemitisim are not the same thing. Zionism isn’t simply the idea that Jewish people have the right to self-determination or their own state.

It’s the belief that Israel should be an exclusively Jewish state—and that Palestinians should be excluded from any form of independent political control. Racism towards Palestinians is at its very core.

Zionism justified the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their home when Israel was established in 1948. It is used to justify the occupation of Palestine today.




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Israel is a deeply racist society. It systematically discriminates not just against Palestinians living inside its borders, but also African Jews who have migrated there. Zionist ideology is at the root of this.

Anti-imperialists focus on Israel because it acts as the defender of US imperialism in the Middle East.

So anti-Zionism is an anti-racist position, and many Jewish people are anti-Zionist.

Despite this, defenders of Israel often deliberately conflate Judaism and Zionism.

Perversely, this can end up shutting down the debates that are needed to challenge the idea that all Jewish people are to blame for Israel’s actions.

Accusations of antisemitism against supporters of Palestine has ramped up in the past few years as revulsion at Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians spreads.

The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which targets companies associated with the Israeli occupation, is particularly singled out as being antisemitic.

But Islamophobes have also seized upon opposition to Israel to feed attacks on Muslims.

Many Muslims in Britain identify strongly with the Palestinians and people in other Middle Eastern countries targeted by Western imperialism such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Racists use Muslim support for Palestinians to paint them as antisemitic.


This is helped by the idea that the conflict in Palestine is about a clash between Muslims and Jews —or between reactionary Muslims and Israel’s “liberal democracy”.

In the same way racists also use Muslim opposition to Britain’s wars in the Middle East to paint them as supporters of reactionary groups such as Isis.

Accusations of antisemitism are part of a broader Islamophobic narrative that characterises Islam as a backward religion.

It’s not just the right who argue this. Some of the most forceful Islamophobic arguments come from liberal racists who argue that tackling “reactionary” Islam should be a task for the left.

This is nothing new. It goes at least as far back as 2003 when Islamophobes attacked the left for linking up with Muslims to campaign against the Iraq war.

In particular the writer Nick Cohen, who still sees himself as on the left, accused anti-war socialists of lining up with Muslims on the “far right”.

In an especially noxious article in 2005 Cohen wrote that antisemitism is “everywhere from Malaysia to Morocco, and it has arrived here”.

His argument was—and is— that the left’s “obsession” with Israel and anti-imperialism had found common cause with the inherently antisemitic and backward Islam.

Cohen has made a career out of writing such tripe. But recently opponents of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have started using similar arguments to attack him—along with the rest of the left.

Earlier this year the co-chair of Oxford University’s Labour club resigned in protest at the club’s support for Israel Apartheid Week. He claimed many of the club’s members “have some kind of problem with Jews”.

The resignation gained national news coverage and prompted an internal Labour investigation into antisemitism.


The accusation is rarely that Corbyn is an antisemite. It’s that his opposition to war and support for Palestinian rights have given tacit encouragement to antisemites on the left.

The suggestion is that the left’s focus on imperialism and Islamophobia means that it has a blind spot for antisemitism.

This attack can be effective because it steals the mantel of anti-racism from the anti-racists and turns it against them.

But it’s really effective because it’s aimed at undermining two staples of left wing activity, anti-racism and anti-imperialism. Tragically, this has the side effect of kicking away the basis for a united campaign against all forms of racism.

Anti-racists in Britain are right to focus on fighting Islamophobia and defending migrants.

Attacks on Muslims and migrants are the cutting edge of racism in Britain today.

If these forms of racism are allowed to flourish, others will fall in behind them.

The racist right elsewhere in Europe have always been antisemitic—but they built off the back of racist scapegoating of Muslims and migrants.

The same can be said for the Nazi British National Party (BNP) in Britain—a party of Holocaust deniers that used hostility to Muslims and migrants to gain support.

So there is no opposition between fighting Islamophobia and confronting antisemitism.

The left has the best track record of fighting all forms of racism. The BNP and the racist English Defence League were both smashed by broad based campaigns led by Muslims and the left.

The left wing Stand up to Ukip campaign branded Ukip a racist party while many Labour MPs stayed away for fear of losing votes.

We should take no lectures from people who have played no role in anti-racist campaigning, and have no problem pandering to racism.

Fighting racism means building a broad movement against it. Anyone who would undermine the basis of such a movement is no anti-racist.

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